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.


  1. What is also fascinating is the reverse phenomenon, where the character inhabits the actor, creating not only an intertextual dynamic to be exploited, but a transformational lasting impact.

  2. What is also fascinating is the reverse phenomenon, where the character inhabits the actor, creating not only an intertextual dynamic to be exploited, but a transformational lasting impact.

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful response to what really is a sticky problem. As scholars we constantly strive to perceive the more or less permanent and essential structures in the things we study, but the truth is, our experiences with all texts, including adaptations, is always personal and mediated by--well mediated by us! And that is a wonderful thing. In a forthcoming article I cite Mikhail Bakhtin who wrote, "I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life” (Art and Answerability 1). This notion of answerability suggests interesting possible responses to the question of the connection between adaptation as a media process/product, and adaptation as a psychological/biological imperative.

  4. Laurence, Marlon Brando is one of my obsessions... I even published a chronic about it: The day Marlon Brando died []. Glad to know you appreciate his wonderful acting. He is an adaptation himself... Cheers!