As a product of postmodern culture, I lay no claim to originality. Indeed, I have always been thoroughly unoriginal, and, occasional anxieties of influence notwithstanding, often gleefully so. As a child, I ripped off comics, tore apart magazines and took whatever images were available to create collages and parodies. Using an audio tape recorder, I appropriated television programs by inserting my voice into mass-marketed narratives, transforming a saccharine anime like Heidi (1974) into a subversive adolescent fantasy.
No evidence of my early experiments is extant today; but adaptation became an enduring fascination and a field of study. As a student, I wrote essays on adaptations of Frankenstein and on Brecht’s revisitations of Galileo Galilei – Leben des Galilei (1938/39 and 1955), as well as Galileo (1947). I produced an MA thesis on translation (“Meister Remastered”) and a PhD dissertation on the relationship between stage, screen, print and radio (“Etherized Victorians”). The latter I recycled as Immaterial Culture, published in 2013.
Now a lecturer in art history, I have repurposed some of the above and pieced together a Frankenstein’s creature of an undergraduate module I call Adaptation: Versions, Revisions and Cultural Renewal. In a series of lectures and seminars, the course (at Aberystwyth University) investigates the processes involved in translative practices that range from the reworking of a literary classic into a graphic novel to drawing a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa. It explores relationships between form and content, genre and mode, integrity and hybridity, durability and transience, culture and commerce, as well as art and the environment.
As I state in the syllabus, many products of culture endure by shifting shape: stories are turned into sculptures, plays are reimagined as dramatic canvases and mass-produced ephemera are recycled for art. What survives such transformations? What is lost or gained in translation? What are the connections between – and interdependencies of – so-called originals and the works that keep coming after them?
Given the monstrous scope of the course, another question emerges: Just what is not an adaptation? It is a question that becomes more complex if tackled by anyone who, like me, regards originality as a myth.
Much of what is published on the subject is limited to matters of narrative, of what happens when telling becomes showing, or vice versa. Linda Hutcheon’s study A Theory of Adaptation opens promisingly – if somewhat patronizingly – with the following statement: “If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and films alone, you’re wrong. The Victorians had a habit of adapting just about everything…. We postmoderns have clearly inherited this same habit….”
Hutcheon does not quite deliver on her promise of inclusivity. Unable or unwilling to break the “habit” of adaptation scholars who came before her, Hutcheon’s study also concentrates on “novels and films,” the word “film” appearing on 229 pages, compared to, say, “painting” on 17 pages, including index and bibliography. There is no mention at all of collage or assemblage. Left out are the projects of Dada, Neo-Dada and Pop, as well as the debates about Kitsch, Camp and Pastiche that were central to Postmodernism.
Hutcheon’s definition of “adaptation” is at once too broad and too narrow. Her brief statements on “What Is Not an Adaptation?” are welcome yet imprecise and contradictory. What is worse, her definition is at times arbitrary. She states, for instance, that “fan fiction” is not a form of adaptation, offering no explanation for its exclusion.
I agree with Hutcheon that adaptations need to be readable as a version, an acknowledged take on or taking of something we perceive as same yet different. Adaptations are not copies, and, as spurious as they may sometimes strike us, they are not fakes, either.
Hutcheon distinguishes between parody and adaptation, claiming that the former does not need to be acknowledged. If unacknowledged, parodies – or any other form of adaptation – cannot operate qua adaptation. They are like irony in that respect. You just can’t be ironic all by yourself. Any dance of the index fingers needs an audience.
As I see it, adaptations, be they parodies or pastiche, anarchic or reverent, have to exist as concrete products – rather than ideas or themes – that are distinct from yet related to other products with which they engage or from which they openly borrow in more or less creative acts of transformation.
Hutcheon, who does not insist on a change in medium as a criterion for adaptation, cites a source that identifies as a “new entertainment norm” the “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” The resulting products are not meant to exist independently but serve as a deliberate fragmentation for the sake of maximizing market potential and profits by increasing the potential audience. Is this still adaptation? Perhaps, if the audience rejects to buy the lot.
Buying the lot is something I rarely do. I pick and choose, take apart and transform according to my own desires and limitations. And pick apart I must when I read Hutcheon’s comments on radio drama as a form of “showing” like “all performance media,” at which point her study recommends itself for recycling as pulp. Anyone who appreciates the hybridity of radio plays would balk at such simplifications.
Trying to make a case for elevating their cultural status, Hutcheon asks: “If adaptations are … such inferior and secondary creations why then are they so omnipresent in our culture and, indeed increasing steadily in number?” Well, junk food is “omnipresent” – and so are feebly argued studies – which does not make either any less “inferior.” Besides, the question is not whether adaptations are good, bad or indifferent. The question is: what are and what ain’t they?