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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't know why you removed your comment about the river metaphor, Sinan, because I entirely agree with it