Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Adaptation and Nation Conference: Edinburgh, June 2017

I eagerly looked forward to this one-day conference held at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh on 22 June 2017.  I have been working on transnational audiences, and am currently researching into how the meaning of the disputed term fidelity has become contested in recent years with the move towards globalized approaches to adaptation.

Jeremy Strong (U. of West London)began the event with a lively presentation on French heritage cinema of the late twentieth century and its influence on the British media. The images of a prelapsarian world full of country lanes, with the people going home at sunset after a day on the farm were seductive – so seductive, in fact, that they formed the basis for well-known commercials such as that promoted by Stella Artois.  Strong also drew attention to the success of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which fueled the British public’s dream of getting away from it all in France.  The television version, while not a success, is a good example of spectacle television, designed to promote tourist images of the area.  Strong argued persuasively that this form of cinema was not realistic, but formed part of a psychogeography dedicated to attracting a large fan base.  This psychogeography was childlike as well as attractive, fulfilling dreams – perhaps nostalgic, perhaps aspirational.  Cultural specificities were not significant; these dreams were transnational including familiar conventions of sunsets, wistful music, countrified people and their animals.

Michael Lawrence’s (U. of Sussex)piece on the Bollywood version of Wuthering Heights took up the transnational theme.  Released in 1966 under the title Dil Diya Dard Liya, it starred Dilip Kumar, a mainstay of Bollywood, and ran for 169 minutes.  The film incorporates familiar melodramatic conventions of love, marriage, heroism and villainy, interspersed with frequent musical interludes.  The script was built round Kumar’s star image, with emotions worn on the sleeve.  The film was successfully exported to Russia and other areas but remained unknown to the majority of Western audiences.  The links between Bollywood and the local Turkish industry Yeşilçam are palpable: the recasting of Western classics according to local conventions; the use of music to enhance the films’ emotional effect; and the building of the action round a genuinely local star.

Chi Yun Shin’s (Sheffield Hallam U.)work on The Handmaiden (2016) the Korean reboot of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (2002), followed a similar methodological path.  The Korean reboot is much more explicit than the source-text, and transposes the action from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial rule.  I think the Korean film is more of a reboot than a remake, as director Park Chan-wook makes no attempt to rework the novel but provides his own particular riff on the material.  Local considerations take priority over global issues.  I’d like to have seen some discussion of Aisling Walsh’s television adaptation of the Waters novel (2005), especially the relationship of the neo-Victorian ambiance to Park’s use of settings, both of which differ significantly from the novel.  An article on this subject by Eda İpek Gündüz (Gaziantep U.) will appear in a forthcoming anthology on Value in Adaptation, forthcoming from McFarland.

Carol Poole’s (Edge Hill U.) paper on the various versions of War and Peace, including that of Bondarchuk (1966) and the recent BBC version by Tom Harper (1966).  Being pedantic, I’d I have liked a reference or two to the 1956 version by King Vidotr with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention the famous 1972 television scripted by Jack Pulman with Anthony Hopkins in the lead.  What was perhaps most evident from Poole’s piece was the elasticity of the source-test; it doesn’t really matter about fidelity issues as the screenwriters reshape the material according to culture-specific concerns.  I use the term “culture-specific” rather than “national”: as Poole persuasively averred, it’s time to approach adaptation from as post-national standpoint, taking into account the audiences’ inclinations.  We all have our favorite adaptations of the novel, shaped by our ages, background and relationships.  Michael Stewart (Queen Margaret U.) argued persuasively that Alice Munro’s short story “Silence” (2004), transformed into Almodóvar’s Julieta (2016), was in a sense unadaptable.  Following Jeremy Strong’s argument about the imaginative constructions of Provence, Stewart believed that Almodóvar enacted his own vision of Canada, a world of darkness and threat.  The source-text provides a source of inspiration for an idiosyncratic idea of nationhood that tells us more about the director’s imagination than Munro’s writing.  Historical issues – as constructed through the sets and costumes, for instance – assume a secondary role.  Stewart’s piece reminds us to approach each text on its own merits rather than applying a prearranged framework shaped by our previous knowledge of adaptation.  The same also applies to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013): Robert Munro (Queen Margaret U.) argued that the director emptied the Glasgow setting of any local significance, and thereby prompting us to reflect on humanity’s relationship to the environment – maybe even the ecosphere? Perhaps there is further opportunities for the exploration of the film from an eco-critical angle.

Another piece by Douglas McNaughton (U. of Brighton) concentrated on Scottish films.  McNaughton considered T2: Trainspotting (2017) as an updating of the first film, released in 1996.  The comparison reminded us of the effect of time on our perceptions: the later version of Trainspotting offered a sentimental view of the first film, with the once-young protagonists having to cope with the confines of middle age – a double-edged sword if there ever was one.  McNaughton’s piece also confirmed about how perceptions of adaptations change over time: I remember viewing the premiere of the first film, when some members of the audience visibly recoiled at some of the grislier sequences (especially those set in a urinal).  Now the roseate glow of nostalgia hangs over that material, as we look back to a pre-Brexit world whose inhabitants enjoyed a freedom of self-expression denied to them now.   

The conference also offered a series of reflections on the concept of value.  Picking up on Stewart’s piece, Sarah Artt (Edinburgh Napier U.)argued whether there had been any successful adaptations of Jean Rhys’ novels.  The answer is very much a matter of opinion – especially if radio adaptations and/or readings are taken into account – but Artt’s piece revealed the intrinsic role played by audiences in the adaptive act.  How they react to particular films tell us a lot about their aesthetic preoccupations, and what they expect from the idea of “nation” and “nationalism.”  They are in perpetual dialogue with the cinema and television producers and directors looking to make profits on their investments. Shelley Galpin’s (U. of York)piece on Far From the Madding Crowd (2015), which she freely admitted was her favorite adaptation of the novel.  Participants from a different generation begged to differ, preferring John Schlesinger’s 1967 version instead.  We could also bring Nicholas Renton’s 1988 television version into the discussion.  What is perhaps more instructive is that fidelity issues in this discussion are very much shaped by individual preferences, which are in turn shaped by social background, age and cinematic experience.  Adaptation is not simply focused on textual issues, but needs to take ethnographical issues into account.  The same also applied to Victoria Lowe’s (U. of Manchester) discussion of the British New Wave films of the late Fifties and Sixties.  The generic term “British New Wave” is contested; likewise our opinion of the films produced around that time and the impact they made on British film history.  As Lowe spoke, I kept thinking of the recent BBC Radio 4 season, also entitled the “British New Wave,” which overlooked the films’ theatrical origins altogether.  Yet I don’t think such differences are a matter for dispute – they simply indicate the ways in which perceptions depend on a variety of factors, personal, industrial as well as cultural.

What I found most enlightening about the whole seminar is the way in which apparently disparate cultural products are linked transhistorically as well as transnationally.  It is up to adaptation scholars to unpick those links that tell us a lot about the way people react to individual films as well as learning more about how and why such films are produced.  Strictly formal procedures, such as the relationship between source and target-texts, have been supplanted in the adaptation studies’ agenda by a concentration on conditions of production and reception and how they have changed over time and space.  There are far more opportunities for constructive dialogue between adaptation scholars with different research interests – dialogue that will tell us more about transnational flows.

This is an exciting time for adaptation studies; and it is a testament to the quality of the papers delivered at the Edinburgh event that this sense of excitement throughout the whole day. Thanks are due to the co-organizers of this event, Michael Stewart and Robert Munro, as well as the participants for a memorable event.

                                                                                                                                                Laurence Raw

28 Jun. 2017

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Spontaneous Speechmaking

As a veteran attendee of conferences over the last quarter century, I have become accustomed to a series of familiar rituals.  The speakers gather round a table on the podium or speaking area, and one by one they deliver their papers, invariably accompanied these days by PowerPoint presentations of variable quality.  Sometimes the slides bear very little relationship to the arguments presented; on other occasions presenters copy their entire paper on to the slides, forcing the audience to wonder why they are speaking at all.  We could readily discover what their topic might be through reading the slides.

Nine days ago I delivered a piece in Thessaloniki, Greece, on the audience’s role in adaptation.  I planned it roughly according to a paper I had recently completed on a similar topic.  I would begin with an explanation of the popular appeal of Yeşilçam films in Sixties and Seventies Turkey, concentrating in particular on the symbiotic relationship established between performers, producers, and their audiences.  I would then survey the changes in the Turkish film industry in the Nineties, when Yeşilçam died out and the television serial, or dizi, dominated the ratings on public service as well as private broadcasting.  I would finish with a survey of attitudes in various countries towards the diziler, which have proved both financially as well as popularly successful.  I had spent several hours putting together a PowerPoint presentation which I hoped would not fall into the kind of methodological traps I have previously described (

I was due to speak at 13.30.  I went to the morning sessions, secure in the knowledge that I had prepared my presentation and could answer questions on it.  As the session unfolded, however, it became increasingly clear that other presentations were focusing on subjects resembling mine.  A Portuguese colleague offered a fascinating insight into the early days of the local film   industry, where the combination of censorship and capitalism led to an idiosyncratic product very similar in terms of content and form to Yeşilçam.  Another presenter, this time from Greece, looked at the contemporary reception of Bill Haley’s film Rock Around the Clock (1956), and its potential for generating “moral panics” (as far as the media were concerned, that is).  Precisely the same thing had occurred in the Turkish film industry, especially when films dealt with family and marital issues.

I began to write furiously while the other presentations were delivered.  I decided to ditch much of what I had previously prepared and restructure my presentation around the relationship between industry, performers and audience.  Following Simone Murray’s arguments, I wanted to show how the form of a Yeşilçam drama did not depend so much on the screenwriter, nor on textual issues such as fidelity, but rather on what the audiences expected.  Hence the fondness for recycling familiar melodramatic plots centering on good and evil.  I followed that with the piece on audience reaction to the diziler outside Turkey, to show how audiences in different territories constructed different evaluations of the same material, both in informal conversations and online discussion groups.  I ended up by calling for more systematic studies of the role of audience, especially in a digitized world where local and global issues were often inseparable.

The only snag was that I had to present this spontaneously with the minimum of notes to work from.  The traditional props of the conference speaker – the PowerPoint presentation and the elaborately worded written lecture – were unavailable to me.  As my therapist once memorably said, I had to “fly by the seat of my pants.”

I underestimated the resilience of the human spirit in such situations.  I talked to the audience as if I was talking to friends in a teashop, keeping my tone conversational, and returning periodically to my main themes (adaptation and industry, audience studied) to aid comprehension.  Subconsciously I felt my head moving from right to left, trying to make sure I looked at every one of the audience, even though they seemed somewhat blurred (I was wearing my reading rather than my distance eyeglasses).  As I warmed to my theme, idea after idea came to my mind; I could readily quote the previous presenters’ work on Portuguese films to suggest transnationality).  Conclusions have always been my bugbear, but in this presentation the ending appeared perfectly logical: we need to expand our frame of reference in adaptation studies to include nonwestern cinemas and their histories.

I felt good at the end. For someone who experiences problems of self-esteem, especially with the deterioration in my voice, this was particularly gratifying.  Only the week before the BBC rang me to make a comment in one of their film programs, but decided not to use my owing to my croaky voice that was not suitable for the airwaves.  Even though the producer denied it fervently, I understood that he was not telling the truth.  No matter: in Thessaloniki I had dealt with my fears and spoken to the best of my ability.

There is no real moral to this story, other than to suggest that adaptation studies bears an intimate relationship to individual psychology.  Sometimes you need to adapt yourself to the exigencies of an unforeseen situation.  The experience can prove stressful, but the results highly beneficial.