Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Adaptation, Acting and Emotional Transformation

I’ve read a thoroughly generous review of the book I co-wrote with Tony Gurr, Adaptation and Learning: New Frontiers (2013) by Dennis Cutchins, published in the latest issue of Literature/ Film Quarterly.  Describing it as “as different from any other book on adaptation studies you have ever read,” he describes how we adopted a broad conception of adaptation as “a time-honored survival and educational strategy […] a kind of master narrative for some of the most important human activities.”  On the other hand, he believes that we should have spent more time developing the connection between adaptation as a media process/product and adaptation as psychological development (or “survival skill,” as he calls it).  I’d love to have known more about why he felt that his first impression of the book “was not positive” (Literature/ Film Quarterly 43.3 (2015): 233-5).

Cutchins’s comments set me thinking; how could that connection between the two constructions of adaptation be reinforced?  We could argue that the media/process product known as adaptation represents the result of creative endeavors by several artists – actors, directors, producers, screenwriters – all of whom have exercised the power to adapt as a survival skill (if they didn’t, then they would lose their jobs).  Hence the finished product comprises a palimpsest of several adaptations, each one produced by an individual artist and all of them reshaped into a coherent whole.

Yet perhaps there is another way of addressing this issue.  I’ve just finished Edward Dwight Easty’s primer on Method Acting.  Published as long ago as 1989, it is a primer designed to introduce learners to the theory and practice of an art inspired by Konstantin Stanislavsky, and disseminated throughout American theater culture by Lee Strasberg.  Some actors positively recoiled at its theories – especially Britons brought up in a more pragmatic construction of training – but the Method has inspired many performers, notably Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey and (for older readers) Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Reading through the book, I was struck by the way in which Easty insists on actors being totally involved psychologically in the creation of a role.  Until they have learned to inhabit it, and understand the characters’ motivations, then they will never give convincing characterizations.  Actors have to become sensitive to the world around them; to understand the behavior of people they encounter, both on and off the stage, as well as their own reactions, and use that experience as the raw material for their performances.  As they act, either on stage or in front of the movie camera, their performances change all the time in response to external stimuli – the other actors’ reactions, the placement of props – as well as their innermost feelings.  Hence no two performances can ever be the same.

While watching a Method actor at work on screen – for example, Brando – we can see a controlling intelligence at work.  He inhabits his characters; every moment he occupies the screen assumes significance as a means of understanding how he feels and reacts.  In a sense his performance resembles a musical score, with the “notes” suggested both by the way he speaks and moves.  In other words, we watch him adapt to different situations, in order to survive and/or negotiate them.

This experience might offer a way to answer Cutchins’s query.  Watching a finished adaptation (a media product, if you like) is seldom a dispassionate experience.  Brando, Dean or Spacey’s performances engage us at a subliminal as well as a rational level (otherwise, why should so many fans have wanted to reproduce their mannerisms off screen?).  They offer us examples of how to adapt to different situations that we can use to determine our future lives outside the theater.  The intensity of the actors’ characterizations offer us examples of adaptation in action, as well as showing how texts are transformed through use of paralinguistic as well as sonic abilities.

This experience should remind us that the art of screen adaptation is only partially to do with textual transformation.  We have to bear in mind that there are other aspects of an adaptation to consider, especially in terms of the actors’ performances.  I engaged with this issue in a recent piece on David Rabe’s Hurlyburly (1999), published in American Drama on Screen (2014), but overlooked the psychological consequences of the performances.  We can only understand precisely what processes were involved in adapting Rabe’s text to the screen, and how they were developed by the cast (including Spacey and Sean Penn), if we understand the ways in which human beings adapt to experiences.  The actor rehearses the kind of processes we engage in every day.  To sum up my argument in a phrase, we learn more about what is involved in adaptation as a psychological by watching actors adapt in a mediatic adaptation.

I realize that I might be playing with semantics here, but this kind of approach is precisely what is being employed – to great advantage, it must be said – by our colleagues in Fan Studies.  Perhaps we ought to propose future collaborations in order to share our mutual insights.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Deconstructing the Adaptation Studies Critic

I’ve just read Thomas Leitch’s very generous review of Patrick Cattrysse’s DESCRIPTIVE ADAPTATION STUDIES published in the latest issue of ADAPTATION, where he accuses the author of being prescriptive, as well as being in favor of a “science-based discipline,” suggesting, perhaps, that there might be some conclusions to which everyone, regardless of context and culture, could subscribe.  Leitch himself prefers to describe adaptation as “endlessly debatable, revisitable, [full of] adaptable questions, insights, and leaps of faith,” even though he describes Cattrysse’s work as indispensable as well as infuriating.  The review can be accessed at

I don’t want to comment on Cattrysse’s work anymore (I reviewed it for Literature/Film Quarterly and referred to it frequently in subsequent blog-posts and essays; but what does warrant further comment is his assertion that any discipline can be “science-based.”  I wonder what that term actively signifies: does it mean that it consists of a series of indisputable precepts beyond negotiation?  Or can adaptation studies be reconfigured as a series of experiments designed to prove a particular theorem?  Will we be able to divide further essays for Adaptation or Literature/Film Quarterly into sections in a fashion similar to those used in pedagogical studies, with particular sections devoted to “problem,” “literature review,” “application,” or conclusion”?

Or is the entire notion of “science-based” disciplines the invention of critics desirous to prove that what they are doing represents an important contribution to their specific discipline?  I grew up with the work of F. R. Leavis, a controversial figure of mid-twentieth century British literary criticism, who insisted on critical objectivity; any poem, or other text, could be analyzed with scientific precision, producing a series of indisputable conclusions on content and form.  This is how I learned to “do” practical criticism; by dividing my textual analyses into content and form, I could understand in minute detail precisely what the writer was trying to communicate, with a depth of knowledge denied to ordinary readers.

I’ve just finished reading Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s satirical novel The Time Regulation Institute.  Originally published in 1961 under the Turkish title Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü, it is a wildly funny satire of bureaucracies, where legions of people spend most of their time doing nothing.  One of Tanpınar’s major concerns lies in emphasizing the difficulties of separating truth from fiction: people believe what they want to with little concern for veracity.  The hero of the novel is an illiterate with little or no self-reliance; catapulted into prominence in the Time Regulation Institute, he has a whole past invented on his behalf that transforms him into an ideal husband, Stakhanovite worker and intellectual visionary.  No one bothers to question him, even when the Institute collapses.

Tanpınar’s satire encourages us to consider precisely how and why certain discourses are perceived as authoritative in preference to others.  In the case of the novel’s hero, it is his status at the centre of the company that renders him an authoritative figure.  The fact he is manifestly unqualified for the task doesn’t really matter; in fact, it proves a positive advantage based on the principle that ignorance is bliss.  I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but it seems to me that the reason why Leavis’s (or Cattrysse’s) assertions are given credence is for a similar reason; it’s not what they are saying that’s important, but the status of the speakers themselves.  If we accept what they are saying, then perhaps we might share their status in the future.

What has this discussion got to do with adaptation studies?  Theoretically speaking, not much.  But what Cattrysse’s comment does reveal is the presence of a battleground, where critics and theorists of different disciplines are competing for recognition of the kind Leavis enjoyed half a century ago.  The stereotypical image of scholars beavering away in their ivory towers developing ideas is nothing but a myth; adaptation studies specialists – myself included – are as publicity-conscious as anyone writing in the public sphere.

But perhaps this is no bad thing.  The more scholars contribute interventions, the more possibilities emerge for theoretically informed debate – not closed debate over “scientific” principles, as Cattrysse might assume, but debate between colleagues from various disciplinary origins as to how the discipline might advance as a self-contained unit, or how adaptation studies might be used to advance other disciplines.  We need authors like Tanpınar to skewer our pretensions, and thereby understand how scholarly positions are constructed and reconstructed across cultures.  I value Cattrysse’s comment, if only to show how the critic-as-authoritative-figure is an ideological construct that needs to be debunked.