Friday, July 31, 2015

The Adaptation Scholar as Public Intellectual

Over 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the meaning and function of the intellectual in The American Scholar.  He put forth the idea of the “One Man,” by which he meant the complete person, or the person who embodies all dimensions of human potential and actuality – professor, scholar, statesperson, artist.   Emerson's intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action; to preserve great ideas of the past, communicate them, and creates new ideas.  He is the “world's eye,” communicating his ideas to the world – not just out of obligation to his society, but out of obligation to himself.  Public action is part of being the One Man, the whole person.

One such public intellectual in our contemporary world is the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has devoted his long career to discover the ways about how people think differently, and communicate his findings through a series of best-selling works such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985).  His recently-published autobiography On the Move – dramatized as a BBC Book of the Week and available on the IPlayer at the following link ( – offers an honest account of his life, proving beyond measure how his medical and psychological researches contributed significantly to his development as a person.  The title is ambiguous: Sacks was perpetually “on the move” throughout his life, as he emigrated from the United Kingdom to the United States, and indulged his passion for motor-cycling across the country.  Yet he was also mentally “on the move” through his professional researches, as well as his encounters with individual patients.  He learned how to learn – a process that is often difficult for anyone to acquire – and subsequently describe that learning process through his books.

In many ways Sacks’s books, including his autobiography, are classic works of adaptation studies, proving beyond doubt how our encounters with people (as well as texts, if we can call a patient a “test”) contribute significantly to our personality development.  We never remain the same personalities; each encounter changes us in some way.  The fact that someone like Sacks has been so ready to share that process of development through his works proves the truth of this.  Although a brilliant scholar in his own right, he has retained that humility separating the truly great from the ordinary; a desire to share his findings, as well as change his views according to the situation.  In Emersonian terms he has become “the world’s eye” through a combination of openness, resilience and empathy.

I believe that anyone involved in the practice as well as the theory of adaptation studies has the potential to emulate Sacks’s achievement.  It’s just a matter of emphasis; rather than simply concentrating on the minutiae of textual transformation, or restricting our focus to fan studies (or other aspects of the film studies umbrella), we should be prepared to acknowledge that the practice of adaptation is fundamental to our lives.  Even when we watch films, either in the cinema, on television, or online, we can develop the kind of empathy that helped someone like Sacks gain an insight into human personality.  If we can transfer that empathy into our day-to-day exchanges, in the classroom, in the office or elsewhere, then we are well on the way to learning something about how human minds work – especially our own.  Adaptation specialists should learn how to be, as well as to think; to be prepared to climb down from their scholarly ivory towers and learn how to learn through contact with everyone, not just fellow adaptation specialists.  Not only will they acquire a greater understanding of human behaviour, but they will learn how to adapt themselves to different situations; and hence rehearse what most adapters do when they are faced with the demands of adapting a text for cinematic or televisual purposes.

Many of these ideas are not new; I have referred to them in several previous blog-posts.  But I do think that we need to be able to widen our focus of attention away from the film-media-cinema nexus and learn from the examples of others in different professions.  Sacks understood this lesson well; his book Awakenings was later adapted into a successful film with Robert de Niro (1990).  If we could understand how his researches into neuroscience gave him a greater insight into the adaptive process, then perhaps we’d also acquire the breadth of knowledge that can transform us into public intellectuals as well.