Monday, September 12, 2016

Cross Currents of THE ADAPTATION INDUSTRY (2012) - A Return to Simone Murray

In 2011-12 I had cause to review Simone Murray’s important work of adaptation studies The Adaptation Industry that adopted a materialist perspective by suggesting that industry concerns often played far more significance in the way source-texts were transformed into target texts in the major media.[i]  While authors, directors, and other creative workers had their parts to play, their concerns seemed less significant than the desire for effective marketing and publicity.  I reviewed the book twice, once in a short note for, which was largely positive,[ii] and slightly less favorably in a review now available on where I suggested that Murray needed to be less essentialist in her approach and acknowledge the vital contributions to the adaptive act of all individuals, both in front of and behind the camera.[iii]

It’s remarkable how one’s views can change over time.  Two nights ago I settled down to watch Two Tickets to Broadway, an anodyne Howard Hughes musical from 1951 designed to showcase the studio’s nascent talents, including singer Tony Martin, actors Janet Leigh and Gloria DeHaven, and dancer Ann Miller.  The film was essentially story-less, being nothing more than a series of specialty turns performing in front of the camera, including Bob Crosby (Bing’s lesser-known sibling) with a cardboard cutout of his brother.[iv]

Nonetheless director James V. Kern had created something of a framework for the film, as the three college kids (Leigh, DeHaven, and Miller) traveled from their small town in Middle America by Greyhound for the bright lights of New York, firmly convinced in their own minds that they had the talent to succeed in the bigtime.  The plot, endlessly recycled in Hollywood movies since the days of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, suggests that individual talent will always win out despite the odds; if you have the drive and the energy to succeed.

Once they arrived in the Big Apple, however, they found their dreams thwarted at every opportunity by a series of card-sharping agents, executives and other media types, who wanted them simply to conform to particular stereotypes that they knew would work with audiences.  Hence Miller could not show off her dancing skills, but rather try to combine classical with modern dance in an awkward manner.  The other two women were reduced to chorus members trying to pretend they were enjoying themselves performing in front of the microphone, when really they wanted to branch out on their own.

None of this might seem especially noteworthy, but it made me stop and reflect critically on what I had previously thought about Murray’s work.  Although a firm believer in the potential of individual talent to change the world around us, as well as ourselves, perhaps we are constrained in many ways by the pressures of capitalism and success.  I had recently encountered an article in the Guardian Weekly about the banking industry since the Lehman Brothers collapse, and was shocked to find how much of a culture of fear persists wherein “employment […] is a purely transactional affair.”  One worker was quoted as saying: “When you can be out of the door in five minutes, your horizon becomes five minutes.”[v]  Times might be very different now as opposed to sixty-five years ago, but the sense of precariousness remains; unless individuals are prepared to conform to dominant industrial norms, irrespective of their vocation, their futures are shaky.  It’s called the Logic of the Market.

Yet I still retain a naïve belief in the power of individuals to negotiate that system – not by “subverting” or “changing” it, but by finding ways to cope with it.  Two Tickets to Broadway retains a certain charm, as it shows how female bonding manages to charm the hearts of even the most hard-hearted Broadway types and managing to achieve success against the odds.  The film suggests the importance of looking into oneself and realizing that there is an emotional core of one’s being that no one can touch, so long as you can try to find it.  This is not just “self-belief” in the entrepreneurial sense, but has a lot to do with discovering an ontological core at one’s center.  This is what really gives us the potential to adapt ourselves to different situations.

In theoretical terms, what we have here are two cross-currents working in totally opposite directions.  As members of capitalist societies, we have to respect the up-and-down trajectory of business, with “success” at the top and “failure” at the bottom; when we fall, we are thrown on the emotional and professional scrapheap.  Yet if we look into ourselves and find that joy (there is no other word for it) that can keep us going, we might discover that life can be endlessly fulfilling, with myriad possibilities for continual adaptation running side-to-side in all directions, impossible to control.

The cross-currents involving these two modes of life lies at the heart of any adaptive act, I believe.  Working through them is an endless source of intellectual as well as emotional fascination. 

[i] Simone Murray, The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation.  London: Routledge, 2012.
[iii] “Industry and Individual Talent” (2012).  Web. 12 Sep. 2016.
[iv] Two Tickets to Broadway.  Dir. James V. Kern.  Perf. Tony Martin, Ann Miller, Janet Leigh.  RKO, 1951.  Film
[v] Joris Luyendijk, “It’s Business as Usual in Our Banking System.”  Guardian Weekly, 23 Oct. 2015, 28. 

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