Let’s Cast Literature and Film onto the Adaptational Bonfire (at Least Temporarily)
I am writing this piece from my hotel room close to St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where I am attending the eleventh Association of Adaptation Studies conference. I have been energized by the papers I’ve heard so far, and pay tribute to the speakers for their diligence in writing.
On the other hand, while reflecting on the event last night, I was reminded of Noël Coward’s mischievous wartime song “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.” A satirical song condemning British appeasers during the lead-up to the outbreak of the conflict, it was a good example of Coward being thoroughly mischievous. Following his lead, I wondered whether I might not take the opportunity to be a little mischievous myself and call for a temporary moratorium on literature and film studies within the adaptation studies umbrella. I realize that this suggestion might cause consternation among some colleagues (my late lamented friend James Welsh would have reacted apoplectically), but there might be some potential advantages.
First, we might escape from what might be termed the tyranny of the text. Pieces might focus less on detailed analyses of similarities and/or differences between source and target texts and concentrate on more suggestive issues – for example, how texts are reworked and reinvented across time and space. Second, we would escape – at least temporarily – from those old chestnuts of fidelity and suitability – i.e. what renders a text ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Such values are a movable feast at the best of times.
Thirdly, a turning away from lit-and-film might pave the way for approaches drawn from other disciplines, thereby transforming adaptation studies into a genuinely transdisciplinary form. I have written several times in previous blogs about the value of accommodating the work of cognitive psychologists such as Jerome Bruner, D. W. Winnicott and Jean Piaget, and do not propose to rehearse old arguments, except to point out that our capacity for narrative-making is a highly suggestive concept, especially while responding to cinematic and televisual narratives.
Some work has already been done on ethnographic approaches to audience behaviour within adaptation studies, and more so within fan studies, where the work of Matt Hills tells us a lot about the way we consume fan texts. Perhaps our focus could expand somewhat into the work of neurologists such as Jeffrey M. Zacks, whose recent book on cinema audience behaviour offers some penetrating views on how our brains respond to film, especially in terms of adaptation. Zacks’s all-accommodating view of the brain contrasts with that of John R. Searle, whose theory of perception, published last year by Oxford, offers a rather pessimistic view of our adaptational capacities, especially among those who spend ‘too long’ watching films (a fascinating claim).
Working on the relationship between history and adaptation offers further possibilities for considering the potential of narrative construction. We can not only go back to some of the great historiographers such as Jacob Burckhardt and (more recently) E. H. Carr, but we can also engage with contemporary debates as to the value of ‘history’ and whether it differs in any way, shape or form from others forms of narrative such as ‘fiction.’ This mode of analysis meshes in with anthropology insofar as we can try to understand how we make sense of narratives, and whether our brains are conditioned to accept past information or whether we process it into the formation of new and suggestive narratives.
There is also the form of analysis called mesearch. This is a particularly self-centred form of practice, concentrating specifically on the relationship between the personal and other forms of narrative construction. Critics might dismiss this approach as potentially narcissistic, but it allows writers to take a major engagement in the production of their material. Storytelling becomes a major form of academic discourse, while the boundaries between the ‘personal’ and the ‘academic’ no longer seem to have any real validity. Mesearch can have a therapeutic function, even though some colleagues might not want to disclose so much about their lives. This is fine; I am only offering it as a potential academic path for adaptation.
I realize that there might be constraints placed on colleagues – for example, the need to publish articles in prestigious journals that might not welcome such approaches – but I do believe that, with perseverance, we can expand our fields of inquiry. So, I call for a temporary moratorium on literature and film, while being aware that it will not happen.
27 Sep. 2016