Friday, June 19, 2015

Who Really Cares About "Original" Texts?

Like many of their colleagues in related areas, some adaptation critics find it difficult to rid themselves of the kind of concepts that ultimately impede the discipline from moving into new and suggestive areas of research.  One such concept is “fidelity,” which I have discussed in a previous blog-post (; another is the concept of an “original text,” understood as the primary text providing the source for most adaptations.  Witness a recent review of The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen appearing in the Times Literary Supplement (5 June 2015): “that astringency […] essential to the novels – not all of the entire zombie-werewolf-dating-advice-listicle-slash-fiction tide can erode the force of the woman’s single, intelligently ferocious narrative voice” (p. 26).  Adaptors can reshape Austen’s novel as much as they wish, but they will never be able to recreate the force of the “original.”

Recently on BBC Four there appeared a documentary, first broadcast in 2008, called Artful Codgers, profiling the Greenhalgh family from Bolton in northwest England, who for many years systematically deceived the art world, including dealers, museum curators, private collectors and auction houses, with their cleverly produced fakes.  Shaun was the craftsperson behind the whole operation, producing brilliant works in his garden shed; while father George was the salesperson, expertly inventing stories that fooled everyone about the so-called provenance of the fakes.  Their crowning glory was the creation of the Amarna Princess, a statue of Tutankhamun’s sister purported to be over 3,000 years old, which they sold to their local museum for £440,000.  The documentary is available via YouTube on

The documentary teaches an important lesson; sometimes fakes can be so good that they can be mistaken for the “original.”  Shaun Greenhalgh was a brilliant craftsperson in his own right, consciously setting out to expose the pretensions influencing most of the London-based art world.  It did not matter to him that he was producing “fakes”; he tried to do the best that he could with limited resources.  The viewing experience of the documentary is an interesting one – far from censuring the Greenhalgh family, we admire them for their sheer audacity in managing to succeed for so long.

In light of this documentary, we should perhaps be careful with our value-judgements when considering any form of adaptation, whether consciously planned as a fake or simply responding to the themes and structure of any source-text.  They are neither “better” nor “worse” than the source-texts, but simply different; the product of different imaginations at different points in time and space.  Contrasting source with target texts tells us a lot about how individuals respond to one another; how they use the experience of reading a source-text to make sense of their own lives, and set down their discoveries in printed form, or rather talk about them orally.  It doesn’t really matter whether Jane Austen’s Fight Club – a memorable YouTube mash-up of Pride and Prejudice – recreates the author’s “single, intelligently ferocious narrative voice” (what is an “intelligently ferocious” voice, anyway?)  Rather we should look at the video as an early Noughties response to a classic novel, shaped by a mosaic of intertexts including Simon Langton’s unforgettable television version of the mid-Nineties involving Colin Firth and the wet dress-shirt.  To consider any adaptation as an “inferior” rendering of a great novel tells us more about the prejudices (myopia) of the person making that comparison, rather than the texts themselves.

Then why does this preoccupation with “originality” still survive?  Partly, I think, the reason lies in the continuing obsession with literature that dominates much adaptation studies criticism.  Even when writers are looking at new developments within the discipline from a transmedial or transcultural perspective, they are still preoccupied with how classics are “reinvented” in different contexts.  I believe that there needs to be a significant shift of focus away from “literature,” or even from texts per se, with greater attention paid to why people want to adapt, and why adaptation as a process is often fundamental to the act of learning about ourselves and the worlds we inhabit.  We should also be more critical of ourselves and admit to the fact that the privileging of literary texts – especially the “originals” – over other texts attests to the survival of Leavisite and/or New Critical values in our academic cultures.  It’s time they were consigned to the depths of history; in an era shaped by the insights of post-structuralist and cultural materialist work, we need to approach all texts, whether literary or otherwise, without prejudice, and look at how and why we recycle them in our particular socio-economic contexts.  In that way we might discover precisely why “adaptation studies,” is such an important discipline, not just an off-shoot of literary-film-media studies.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Reactionary Turn To Fidelity Criticism

I’ve just taken a look at some of the special articles now available on the Adaptation website.  For those not in the know, Adaptation, published by Oxford University Press, is one of the leading journals in adaptation studies publishing cutting-edge work in the field. Two articles in particular attracted my attention – one proposing a model of adaptation that accounts for the persistence of fidelity, as well as claiming that fidelity deserves ongoing academic attention; the other defending fidelity criticism as “an essential tool in the intertextual toolbox of adaptation studies.”  The articles can be accessed through the Adaptation website, with abstracts available on

As someone with an interest in translation studies, I was interested to compare these ideas with work in translation dating back to the late Sixties.  As early as 1969 Eugene Nida was proposing a more dynamic model of fidelity based not on textual equivalence but one that “evokes in a receptor essentially the same response as that displayed by the receptors of the original message.”  Ernst-August Gutt defined fidelity in terms of “resemblance in relevant respects,” with the term “relevance” depending very much on the purpose of the translated text.  William Frawley advocates the abandonment of the term altogether, as well as the notions of “good” or “bad” translations, replacing it with one of moderate vs. radical

I’ve always been flummoxed with the idea of fidelity, because I really do not know what the term signifies: “fidelity to what?” has always been my default question.  Historically speaking in adaptation studies the concept was always used as an intellectual stick by literary-minded scholars to beat film adaptations with, so that they could re-emphasize the superiority of the “original” text.  Alternatively the concept has been used by adapters to determine the quality of their work: in this sense “fidelity” is a guarantee of quality, encouraging viewers to want to watch the adaptation.  In both of these cases the term “fidelity” has a specifically ideological connotation, telling us more about those who invoke it, rather than the status of the texts they are referring to.

Such notions, I thought, were an accepted part of adaptation and translation theory and did not need to be discussed once more.  Personally I find the entire concept somewhat archaic, the product of a stereotyped way of thinking – in adaptation studies, it dates back to 1957 when Bluestone published his Novels into Film – that not only invokes binary oppositions but suggests a subaltern relationship between source and target texts.  Given that “adaptation” is a process common to all of us, I see little or no point in accepting that relationship: an adaptation is a creative work in its own right and needs to be treated on its own terms, not as a “version” of an “original,” the perennial bugbear of fidelity criticism.

Although I have no evidence to prove it, I think that the persistence of fidelity criticism in adaptation studies has three justifications: first, that the discipline to a large extent remains almost exclusively concerned with the literature-film-media paradigm.  Very few scholars, except perhaps those working in fan or audience studies, have approached adaptation in psychological terms.  By remaining within that paradigm, adaptation studies concerns itself principally with source and target texts; how a literary text is transformed into a film; how a film becomes a video-game; how a video-game becomes a film, and so on.  Hence fidelity criticism functions as a means by which scholars can introduce some form of value-judgement, as well as looking at what is “gained” and “lost” through the transformative process.

Second, the trust in fidelity criticism reveals adaptation studies’ almost obsessive preoccupation with textual issues.  There are some highly suggestive theoretical works within the discipline that try to introduce new perspectives drawn from translation studies (for example, Patrick Cattrysse’s Descriptive Adaptation Studies), but these interventions are few and far between.  There are aspects of Cattrysse’s arguments that I disagree with – for example, his use of binaries as a way of thinking – but I do believe he has a point when he advocates a movement away from text, even when they are looked at in relation to the adaptation industry.

Third, I believe that fidelity criticism provides a means by which adaptation studies tries to assert its individuality, its essential difference from translation studies.  In a recent issue of The Guardian, Heather Stewart argues that globalization is under attack at present, with many economies deciding instead to adopt more national, localized perspectives.  The same holds true for some branches of adaptation studies; rather than trying to search for transdisciplinary alliances with other subjects, the discipline has tried to set up its own intellectual fences, one being fidelity criticism.  This I believe is a fundamentally reactionary strategy; if adaptation studies wants to establish itself globally, and become a genuine participant in radical academic agendas, it has to adopt a more open, collaborative, and ultimately deconstructionist mentality; to use the insights from other disciplines to re-examine its own ideas, while developing its own ideas that encourage a similar process of re-examination in other disciplines. 

Perhaps we ought to consider why recent adaptation scholars are so concerned with fidelity, especially in an area of the humanities which likes to assume a left-liberal stance to contemporary politics and cultures.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Hegemony of Binary Oppositions

I've been attending a fascinating event this week at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi in Romania - "Going East: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Travel and Intercultural Communication.  More information about it can be found on the link  The term interdisciplinary can often conceal a multitude of seasons; sometimes it is used as a mode of convenience to bring together colleagues from different subject areas who spend little or no time trying to consult with one another but end up being confined within their own specific research interests.

This conference has been different.  Bringing together travel literature specialists, literature specialists, translation studies experts, geographers and energetic polymaths, it has made a special effort to address issues of travel, not only as a physical but an emotional act as well.  One's emotional travels inevitably involve a process of psychological adaptation to different environments.  Some colleagues think of travel literature as something distinct from 'fiction,' but this conference has suggested otherwise; reading about the travels of imaginary characters helps to stimulate readers' imaginations and thereby encourages them to make emotional travels of their own.  This is what we might describe as empathetic adaptation.

Yet still I fear that colleagues in various disciplines tend to adopt defensive positions, especially where interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and transculturality are concerned.  One thing I've noticed, running throughout many presentations at this event, is the presence of binary oppositions as a way of looking at the world.  People might want to question them, or even ponder their existence, but there seems a reluctance to look at things in different ways; to initiate new processes of thinking that go beyond the rather tired oppositions between west/east, self/other, translation/adaptation, north/south, text/ reader, and so on.

Readers might ask how one might go about thinking in different ways.  Let me illustrate with reference to a recent performance I attended, given by a French modern dance company.  What became increasingly tangible as the dance unfolded was that the choreographer had made a conscious effort to analyze the act of speaking in tongues in a different way, through a combination of movement, speech and music.  There was no specific 'theme' to the dance; we were invited to ponder the role of speech in society through visual metaphors, as portrayed through the dancers' bodies.  The acts of hearing and speaking were considered through movement, through an appeal to different senses.  This proved a highly suggestive means of addressing the topic; I felt that the choreographer had approached the performance rather like a piece of clay that needed to be reshaped in different ways so as to encourage us to think differently.

The metaphor of the piece of clay also works well as an alternative to binary oppositions.  In looking at how we respond to the world around us - in other words, adapt to it - why don't we reshape the oppositions in different ways, reconstruct them like potters might do on their wheel?  Why don't we take the clay that makes up our world and use it to reshape our perceptions?  Sometimes the shapes we form might seem formless - illogical, perhaps - but through that very illogicality we might learn how to adapt ourselves in different ways.

This is not an easy process, I admit.  Maybe we cannot achieve it at once.  Perhaps, as a start, we might think of another process of adaptation; rather than reinvoking the binary oppositions per se, why don't we find ways of working through them, around them, or across them?  This process should encourage us to reflect on why - or more importantly, whether - they exist, except in our own minds as defense mechanisms.  What does a binary opposition look like?  Can we touch it, feel it, or sense it?  Or do they prevent us from enjoying these sensory experiences?

My suggestions might seem rather abstract - idealistic perhaps.  But I believe they are perfectly achievable if we set aside our preconceptions and acknowledge the power we possess within ourselves to adapt to any and every given situation.  The human brain has an almost infinite capacity to accommodate different, contradictory ideas, rather than trying to distinguish between them.  Why don't we give it a chance, and banish the omnipotence of oppositions to the intellectual graveyard?  By such means we can help create new and highly suggestive models of transdisciplinarity or transculturality.