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.


  1. As regards the fidelity versus fertility debate, contemporary theorist and critics, contrary to old-style adaptation studies, argue that, by drifting away from fidelity, one does not necessarily undervalue the source text but take into consideration the intertextuality of the newly developed work. Thus, this approach not only helps to maintain the position and the survival of the source text in different historical contexts, but also creates new discourses that are valid in times of their consumption.
    It is possible to say that adaptation is a continuum of flow in the same riverbed and similar to this idea, Robert Mayer argues that adaptation is a way of “alteration or adjustment in order to make something fit its new context or environment without, however, changing that something into something else – one ‘adapts,’ that is, one does not ‘transform’ or ‘metamorphose.’” This kind of an approach to adaptation then, in terms of textuality, makes possible the “survival of the fittest” in its environment.
    If we need to come back to the idea of "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," I believe, we should again look at the idea of survival. In terms of evolution, perception and use of mind are the most important skills of human kind, in addition to advanced motor movements. Thus, by adapting (text or ourselves) we change our perception, our focus, and our mind according to the habitat we live/survive in.

  2. I think there is a problem of semantics here. I really don't know the difference between "metamorphosis" and "adaptation"; the terms are culture- and writer-specific. I am really not preoccupied with "fidelity" here (I wish that term could be expunged from adaptation discourse forever), but with the rather snobbish veneration of "the original," that prevents many of our colleagues from undrstanding how fundamental adaptation might be to the survival of the human race. Put more basically, I wish adaptation studies would release itself from the tyranny of the text, especially the literary text.

  3. It seems to me that what you're objecting to, as much as anything, is the dominance of evaluation in some adaptation studies. What you call "the snobbish veneration of 'the original'" could also be described as the attitude that the "source" is always better. Studies that center such an evaluative approach tend to beg their own questions--in the end, they function more as Rorschach tests than criticism (as you say, they tell us more about the person making the comparison than the texts themselves). Centering evaluation as an organizing principle pulls focus from the potential cultural work/drives/production of adaptation. You know, the juicy stuff. Somehow, these fidelity/originality corners of the field have become the last academic shadows where New Critics can thrive. It's frustrating, because part of the field is seeking to push on the cutting edge and part of it is pulling back into the past.

  4. To use a metaphor Seda and I chose to use to talk about some adaptations, we should probably be talking about the "confluence" of sources, not about the original sources, if any, at all... We need new language if we are to get rid of the old ones, don't we?

    And to elaborate on this river metaphor again, it is our common assumption that each river has a source when the "source" is only one of the spots where the fluid material surfaces in the course of its endless flow and circulation from the bowels of the earth to the outer boundaries of the atmosphere. It has no source!

  5. The river keeps picking up (and sometimes losing) material along the way, both from the rock bottom and from the outer surface, and sometimes flows together with another river to make a new river, not by completely merging with it but in "confluence." We will further elaborate on this metaphor in London this September at the AAS 2015 conference and hope to start a new conversation along this strand!

  6. Sadly, the illusion of an original text is not confined to literary studies but can be found in today's museums and archives, where conservators and archivists apply concepts such as fixity to works that are much more variable than they suppose. Fetishizing an original is especially misguided for digital media, which behave more like a sequence of events than a fixed artifact. In this context, I like Sinan's suggestion to substitute "confluence" for "original" to describe sources for an artwork.

    For more on adaptation as a form of "proliferative preservation," as well as the establishment forces aligned to fight it, see the chapter on "Unreliable Archivists" in Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014)

  7. Thanks for your comments, Jon. I think the whole concept of "originality" is an ideological construct designed to sustain social and literary hierarchies.