Sunday, September 18, 2016

Complex Histories and Adaptations

Talk given at the 11th Association of Adaptation Studies conference, Oxford, 27-28 September 2016.

In 2013 Defne Ersin Tutan, a colleague of mine at Başkent University, and myself edited Adapting History: Essays on Ways of Telling the Past, a series of position-papers looking at the ways in which “history,” as an abstract concept had been used for ideological as well as political purposes over time and space.  Drawing on notions first advanced as long ago as 1961 by E. H. Carr, we looked at the ways in which the binaries between “fact” and “fiction” were invariably determined by writers wanting to advance certain specific points of view, and that “objectivity” was one of those movable conceptual feasts that could mean precisely anything a speaker wanted it to mean.[1]  The anthology prompted us to think of history and adaptation in a different way – not as a means to “report” the past, but as another form of story-telling, a means by which we would understand ourselves and our relationships to the cultures we inhabit.  Using the psychological work of Jerome Bruner, we suggested that all of us possess the capacity to make narratives that we either tell to ourselves or to others; and that such narratives perpetually change over time and space throughout our lives.  Historical narratives are but one manifestation of this tendency, as witnessed not only in the personal histories – in the form of autobiographies or oral testimonies – but in public histories such as films adapted from historical sources.  It is the adaptation scholar’s responsibility to penetrate through the foliage of textual analysis to appreciate the core purpose behind the adaptation.[2]


Over recent months, however, my belief in this form of historical adaptation has been challenged somewhat by the criticisms leveled at Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World? (2016), a typically pugnacious polemic designed to awaken readers to the realities of US power in the post 9/11 era.[3]  Readers know what to expect from him, of course, and would be disappointed if he did not deliver the intellectual goods; but I was particularly struck by the comments of one prominent rightwing historian who chided Chomsky for daring to venture into intellectual areas beyond his capacity.  He was not a “proper” historian, as he had committed the crime of allowing emotion to cloud his judgement.  The result could be catastrophic for readers; denied the chance to make up their own minds, they might end up with a warped view of their cultures.  The only way to “remove” that threat was to silence him.
Such comments, of course, have a wearily familiar ring to them, especially when expressed by members of the Right against the Left.  But they set me off thinking in a lateral direction into the subject of adaptation studies.  Ever since its inception the subject of genre has been essential to its theoretical basis – not only as a means of identifying different bodies of work, but also in understanding how studios and other industrial concerns treat the product as a commercial as well as an artistic enterprise.  Timothy Corrigan’s introduction to Film and Literature (2012) offers an admirable survey.[4]  Yet I have to admit to some anxieties with such frameworks: while genre is ultimately significant as a means of delineating one body of adaptations from another, perhaps its ideological significances have not been sufficiently explored.  Can the concept be used as prescriptively as that used by so-called “professional” historians to berate their supposedly less qualified colleagues?  Does the adaptation studies critic appropriate the notion of genre as a means of trying to dictate the future agenda of the discipline?
I am not going to try to answer that question here.  What I want to do instead is to think a little more discursively about the concept of adapting history, not in terms of looking at the ways in which texts are transformed, remediated, or reworked, but to concentrate instead on the fluidity of the concept across time and space.  I want to suggest that our psychology plays a significant part in the way we think about adapting history, with such thought-processes ranging through time and space in ways that we can never anticipate.  We are imaginative creatures; and that imaginative capacity gives us the freedom to range across texts in ways that can prove both enriching and challenging.  Put straightforwardly, we are active participants in any act of adapting history.
My faith in the power of genre as a means to shape adaptation history was challenged initially by an article I read in the Guardian Weekly about contemporary Chinese cultures and their view of art.  Surveying recent products in film, television, and other media, Ian Johnson believed that “efforts to communicate the past are often misleading or so fragmentary as to be meaningless,” in a culture where history is past, present and future all blended together.  The distinctions between tradition and modernity did not exist; the people and their rulers over time had been unified by a belief in “rule by virtue” rather than hereditary role.  This is a complex concept, with its origins in the divinity as an ultimate force guaranteeing the country’s future.[5]  I do not know sufficient about Chinese history to comment on these claims, but I was struck by the ways in which the cultural distinctions so fundamental to western conceptions of history have little or no currency elsewhere.  Why do we make so much of “the past” in our television adaptations?  Why do the BBC and ITV trumpet their historical recreations of particular points of time in their recent adaptations of Poldark and Victoria?[6]  Is it due to commercial fetishism, or appealing to some kind of public longing for a better world?  I really don’t know.  Yet Johnson’s article prompted me to reflect on myself on moments in my life when past, present and future coalesced in similar fashion, offering insights that I had never previously considered.
In 1979 I left my public (i.e. private) school, Dulwich College to take a year out before going to university.  I had some spare time one afternoon, so I visited the Curzon Cinema in London’s Mayfair to watch James Ivory’s version of Henry James’s The Europeans.  I did not know anything about James, but I had heard Ivory’s name mentioned on television.  As I watched the action unfold in its slow, unhurried way, with the camera focusing intently on the protagonists’ faces, I felt I was not just watching an adaptation; I was witnessing my life unfold on screen.  For nine years I had been brought up to believe in the necessity of suppressing my emotions, so as to maintain a façade of masculinity in a gender-divided world; now I was seeing precisely what that kind of behavior did to Robert Acton (Robin Ellis) and the ingénue Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn).[7]  The film obviously had an effect on my psyche, as I eventually decided to write about it twenty-seven years later in my book on Adapting Henry James.[8] Nowadays the film still impacts on my imagination, but in a very different way: whereas in 1979 I might have viewed it as a humbling experience, now I think of it as an insight into different behavioral modes – neither good, nor bad, but necessary.  In Brunerian terms, the film not only told a cinematic narrative, but told me personal narratives that I understand very differently thirty-seven years later.
The experience makes me realize that watching historical narratives is not simply an exposure to the past, but involves me in profound reflection on my life as lived now as well as in my country of origin.  What sort of a person was I, and what have I become, and what connections exist between them (if any?).  The same experience also applies to the time when I saw David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for the first time in the Republic of Turkey.  Banned until 1991, it made a grand reappearance in a now-disused cinema in the center of Ankara and attracted a full house of students and critics.  I remember being quite apprehensive; did people realize just how sadistic Jose Ferrer was in his treatment of Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) during the torture sequence?[9]  My fears proved ungrounded.  The audience relished the entire film and cheered at the end.  Some of my learners at the time had been to see it, and we discussed the film in detail in class, making me feel that at least I had some more instinctive understanding of how they reacted in a country that had undergone profound socio-economic development since the early Sixties.  Watching the film was a learning experience – it not only told me about contemporary Turco-British relations, but gave me the confidence to become more creative in my pedagogy.  Looking back, I now see that the experience of viewing it in the cinema was an incredibly complex one comprised of so many different narrative layers, each representing an agglutinative experience of past, present, and future.  The source-text is a factionalized account of the Arab Struggle by T. E. Lawrence designed to foreground his efforts as a military strategist.  Michael Wilson’s screenplay has been revised by Robert Bolt; while Lean’s casting-decisions have obviously had a profound impact on the way we see the film.  Watching it in a Turkish context had an integral affect on my experience; and now I look back at that experience a quarter of a century later, I see that it was fundamental to my development in cross-cultural and/or personal awareness.  That makes a total of six different narrative layers, all of which immediately come to mind if and whenever I watch the film once more.  
The complexities of perception and how they relate to more general issues of movie fandom have been investigated in groundbreaking volumes such as Annette Kuhn’s Little Madnesses (2013), that looks at movie-going experiences in terms of psychologist D. W. Winnicott’s framework of primary and secondary transitional objects – imaginative as well as tangible means by which we acquire awareness of the world.[10]  I believe that such forms of perception have a profound influence over the way in which we view history in terms of adaptation, whether in films, television, or any other texts.  The experience is not dissimilar to that of reading any text – whether fictional or otherwise – which according to Rachel Hadas is not about “authors or even about books.”  It’s about people – ourselves and our communities; and once we understand this, we realize how preposterous it is to build impenetrable binarist walls between films, audiences, authors, and our lives.  Since we live our lives amid a dense weave of personal relationships, it follows that like it or not, when an author tells a story, even if set in some fantasy world, it will be assumed that he is talking about us, as well as the societies they inhabit.[11]
I realize that by making such claims, I could be accused of precisely the same kind of woolly thinking as Chomsky.  How can I claim to be a scholar interested in adaptation and history if I cannot distinguish that discipline from others, especially novels?  To answer this question, we might reflect once more on why interest in history remains undimmed.  It’s not necessarily because of a fascination with the past (however much costume and set designers might have us believe), but rather due to its concern with our own lives – families, love, work, and the like.  Watching historical adaptations involves a complex interplay between reading, reflection and feeling - that inexpressible quality producing flashes of illumination across time, space and culture.  Such are the associations that color our experiences and furnish the metaphors we live by.[12]
I notice from the conference program that my talk has been placed in the transnational section.  I think this is a perfectly justifiable move, in view of the fact that I have been talking about Turcocentric as well as western issues.  Sometimes we do need forms of demarcation so as to be able to impose structure on apparently disparate material.  On the other hand, I would suggest that every text of adapted history, whether produced in a monocultural context, or planned transnationally, or rransmedially, or through different media platforms, or even produced by one group of fans for their friends, is “transcultural” in the sense that it places demands on every viewer to evaluate the watching experience in terms of their understanding of past, present, and future – understood in this sense as a living continuum with lifelong implications for their lives.  Watching Poldark and Victoria is difficult at the best of times – we not only bring our knowledge of the stars to the experience, but (for this viewer at least), I draw on memories of different Queen Victorias on screen (Anna Neagle, Annette Crosbie), as well as fond childhood memories of the BBCs rip-roaring 1975 version with Robin Ellis that dominated Sunday night schedules.  And then what about present implications: last week I wondered whether the latest Poldark wasn’t taking a swipe at British insularity and class-consciousness in the wake of Brexit.  
Please don’t let anyone think that by concentrating on personal responses (the mesearch angle, if you like), that I am not minimizing the importance of industrial and commercial concerns in planning any historical adaptation.  As Simone Murray and others have reminded us, they have a profound effect on the look as well as the style of an adaptation.[13]  Nonetheless I believe that for adaptation studies to evolve, especially in the subject-area of historical transformation, we have to view the process as one of interacting yet quite different trajectories that not only involves those behind the camera but (more importantly) all of us as well.  The psychological aspects of the cinematic and televisual experience and their implications for all of us need further elaboration. 
I recently started watching Victoria and Poldark quite by chance, as I had spare afternoons to pass and a spare IPlayer and/or ITV Player.  I have to admit that against all odds, and despite my long-harbored skepticism about heritage films, I am hooked on both of them as means of self-negotiation.  Bring on more episodes!!





[1] Laurence Raw and Defne Ersin Tutan, Adapting History: Essays on Ways of Telling the Past (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013); E. H. Carr, What is History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961).
[2] Jerome Bruner, Making Stories:  Law, Literature, Life (Cambrdge, MA: Harvard UP., 2002)
[3] Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World? (New York: Metropolitan, 2016).
[4] Timothy Corrigan, Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader.  2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2012).
[5] Ian Johnson, “Ghosts of Chinese History are Never Quiet.” Guardian Weekly, 24 Jun. 2016: 27-9.
[6] Poldark.  Dir. Edward Bazalgette et. al.  Perf. Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson, Heida Reed.  Mammoth Screen, 2015-17.  Television; Victoria.  Dir. Oliver Blackburn et. al.  Perf. Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Catherine H. Flemming, Mammoth Screen, 2016.  Television.
[7] The Europeans.  Dir. James Ivory.  Perf. Lee Remick, Robin Ellis, Wesley Addy.  Merchant-Ivory, 1979.  Film.
[8] Laurence Raw, Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction, and Film (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006): 127-41.
[9] Lawrence of Arabia.  Dir. David Lean.  Perf. Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Jack Hawkins.  Horizon, 1962.  Film.
[10] Little Madnesses: Winnicott, Transitional Phemonena and Cultural Experience. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.  E-book.
[11] Rachel Hadas, “Novel-Gazing.”  TLS 8 Jul. 2016, 14.
[12] David Winters, “Kiss the Book.”  TLS 20 Mar. 2015, 8. Cf. Katharine Mansfield: “so the roaring, constructing power of the intellect and imagination fills the space with another reality … making cities and worlds of the places we have left”  (qtd. in Gerri Kimber, “Homesick Blues,” TLS 5 Feb. 2016, 5).
[13] See “Bake Off Shows how TVs Indies have Learned the Art of the Deal.”  The Guardian, 17 Sep. 2016.  Web. 18 Sep. 2016.

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