Film Adaptation and Its Discontents was published in 2007 during a move in adaptation studies from the limiting approach of fidelity discourse (a discourse concerning an adaptation's fidelity to the orignial source) to newer approaches that attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the prevailing approach of the field. Leitch's work provides a much needed model during this time of change in film adaptation studies that broadens one's understanding of film adaptation as well as our understanding of literature or textual studies.
Leitch's model uses critical theorists and many film examples to provide a coherent yet broad model that reflects the complexities of how adaptations actually behave and how they interact with other adaptations or other texts in general.
With this balanced approach exhibiting an in-depth knowledge of the work that came before him, and the model he presents which most closely fits adaptation as it is experienced and produced, Leitch's argument is overall strong and convincing.
The one criticism one may have of his approach as a whole, is that it can leave the definition of “adaptation” gray, ambiguous, and difficult to hold onto. This is exactly what Thomas Leitch desires an understanding of adaptation to be: a process that is too connected with academic, literary, and film traditions of many sorts to be limited and categorized as a simple attempt to faithfully transpose a narrative from one medium to another, and as a process that is a constant rewriting of what came before it. Adaptation theory has no reason to assume any progenitor text to be more “original” or or better than another simply because it came first as fidelity discourse tends to perpetuate. This understanding of adaptation leaves the field open for discussions about the adaptation's merit and purpose aside from fidelity to what came before and opens the discussions to deeper contextualized interpretations of works as they add to our understanding of a progenitor text, the text in and of itself, as well as the social context in which it is created.
Leitch's work provides an historical and theoretical look at film adaptation which combats the limiting view of adaptation as fidelity to an “original” text. Leitch especially questions the concept of “original” texts arguing that all texts are intertextual, including the “original” works that tend to be privileged over the works that follow them.
Film Adaptation is an intertextual process effected by many economic and practical factors instead of ideals of fidelity, and has been that way from the start. There is a constant rewriting observed in the propagation of adaptations suggesting that we focus on a discipline of textual studies instead of reducing adaptation studies to single "originals." Leitch argues in the first chapter that this approach has important pedagogical implications because it encourages students to be more critical and hold a more complete and contextualized view of literature and film instead of propping up the canonical works simply because they are canonical.
One of the more interesting suggestions from Leitch's presentation of adaptation as an institutional revision or rewriting process is the concept of adaptation as a higher or possibly stronger degree of allusion. Chapter 5, “Between Adaptation and Illusion'” breaks this concept down into 10 categories (that are laid out in the chapter summaries below) with examples of films that employ the strategies described. Leitch is careful to remind his reader that these categories may be conceived of as existing on a continuum between adaptation and allusion, but they are not exclusionary and in fact are found to exist together within the same work.
Leitch uses many examples in film to support the intertextual understanding of film adaptations as something that is not imposed on the process of adaptation, but as something that simply reflects the reality of the process of continual revision and allusion that we consider to be adaptation.
|Chapter 1 Literature versus Literacy|
|We privilege the text over its various adaptations because we evaluate based on fidelity neglecting the fact that all text is intertext . Giving such privilege to canonized works is also detrimental to literacy; Literacy here meaning analysis and critical thought. Adaptation studies encourage this kind of literacy requiring analysis and creativity. This is "a new discipline of textual studies less ideologically driven" unlike literary or cultural studies. This book will focus on the problems that arise in this field.|
|Chapter 2 One-Reel Epics|
|Early adaptations were the attempt of film makers to draw an audience to a spectacle. If they knew the work before hand, the exposition was not necessary and therefore left time for the spectacle of the outdoors, emotional moments, or explosions. Adaptation was also about "feeling" literary and deep concerning social or human issues instead of being concerned with fidelity. From the beginning, film focused on portraying stories on an epic scale with a limited number of frames at their disposal. Adaptations were a bit of a shortcut, and gave them the ability to focus their ideas or criticism.|
|Chapter 3 The Word Made Film|
|Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson stirred up controversy, more so than any other adaptation because of the violence and contradictory claims Gibson made about the fidelity of the film to the Gospels. This is a complex issue, adapting scripture, because its claim as absolute and inerrant truth demands fidelity. But adaptations of scripture tend to understand that they must pick and choose from the various narratives in the Gospels and other authoritative supplementary texts and choose for entertainment value. Gibson claims absolute fidelity, but he was actually most faithful to a medieval ascetic text instead of the Bible.|
|Chapter 4 Entry-Level Dickens|
|Dickens' A Christmas Carol in its various forms as an adaptation is considered a necessary introduction to culture, great literature, morality, and to Dickens; but the adaptations depend mostly on an audience already familiar with the tale. For the children watching the adaptations, they learn a certain KIND of story that may or may not be Dickensian. The well-known adaptations displace Dickens' authority with their own franchise (Mickey Mouse), and "graft the Dickens franchise onto another commercial franchise and make a running joke of the whole project of adaptation" (Muppets). The adaptations use the cultural weight of Dickens for their own ends. They serve as an introduction to Dickens, not a replacement.|
|Chapter 5 Between Adaptation and Allusion|
Previous categorizations break down the closer you get to discussing allusion vs adaptation. Essentially, Leitch goes through various categories and strategies as a survey of various approaches only to prove that such categories are not exclusive and are too limited to cover the scope between adaptation and allusion. It is almost like a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being adaptation and 10 being allusion:
|Chapter 6 Exceptional Fidelity|
|Instead of asking why some adaptations are not faithful to their sources, we should instead be asking why adaptations strive to make faithful adaptations because fidelity is rare. Leitch looks at The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and Gone with the Wind (GWTW) because they both claim fidelity but in their budgetary and rhetorical deliberations, they change things. Those changes depend on the producers, the director, and the audience. They strive for fidelity to appease the audience. They also change dialogue, setting, and events to appease the audience. Claiming fidelity brings an audience waiting to give you money. It creates hype.|
|Chapter 7 Traditions of Quality|
|Francois Truffaunt describes an important observation of an approach to adaptation as "Tradition of Quality" were the fidelity is not to the book so much as a romantic or exotic idea of the work or sets of works or cinematic values. In this chapter he examines 3 traditions of quality. Hollywood's tradition of quality is tied to the brand name and the fetishization of the notion of author and literature as with GWTW. BBC adaptations present Edenic images or fantasies of English history and literature creating its own style to be faithful to. James Ivory films are also focused on a stylistic and thematic consistency which was for him a focus on cultural conflicts.|
|Chapter 8 Streaming Pictures|
|It is inaccurate to say there is an absolute distinction between verbal and visual media because "all media are mixed media." One example would be illustrations that were frequently published with Victorian novels. Think of Thackeray or Alice in Wonderland . This fact effects adaptation decisions to the point that the illustrations have more weight than the plot. Movies, picture books, and comics mix media in that they are visual and verbal but may not lend themselves to adaptation well due to style differences. Fidelity to all of it does not ensure popularity anyway. Film may be considered "streaming pictures" but it is really a combination of quickly moving images, color, pacing, sound effects, words, voices, music and much more such that the medium of film makes it difficult to adapt only pictures.|
|Chapter 9 The Hero with a Hundred Faces|
|Sherlock Holmes may not have as many actors playing him as Dracula, but the franchise and universe of Holmes is massive. The fan base willing to pretend he is real, the resurrection from apparent death of Holmes as written by Doyle, the works of Doyle's son, other people's additions with tales following their land lady, and the various movies and BBC series that have taken their material from the various and contradictory progenitor texts. Holmes is a character so iconic that the specifics can change and parody each other without destroying the franchise.|
|Chapter 10 The Adapter as Auteur|
|There is a difference between author and auteur. An Auteur is the person most recognizable as creator, even if they are not. Hitchcock , Kubrick , and Disney may have been adapters but they were not simply metteuer-en-scene (merely putting scenes together) they were auteurs in that they created a brand name and persona that stood out from the adaptations, that was bigger than the adaptations. Disney and Hitchcock did it by choosing little known works to adopt. Disney and Kubrick did it by suggesting or saying they were solitary artists by controlling the public image of the work and featuring their names prominently.|
|Chapter 11 Postliterary Adaptation|
|Postliterary or non-narrative adaptations are not trying to give a religious experience, but entertainment with references specific audiences enjoy seeing in a new environment such as video or card games. This filling or deflating of narrative is not antithetical to novel adaptations and neither is commercialism. Literary adaptations were playing on the audiences recognition of texts and the prestige they assumed came with those novels. Postliterary is just a change in interest and audience...it goes where the money is. As Leitch concludes, "business as usual- with the emphasis, as usual, on business."|
|Chapter 12 Based on a True Story|
|"Based on a true story "is a label that popped up in the 90's but film has been trying to adapt "reality" to the screen since 1912 it seems. “Based" is ambiguous and "story" is already fictionalized reality, so this claim can raise suspicion or skepticism (as it should), but it gives the film an authority higher than other texts, or initially seems to. It gives the film value for the audience. This view of films "based on true stories" may blur the line between adaptation and intertextuality, but adaptation studies need to move away from thinking in terms of single texts toward the process of adaptation. All texts take part of the "work in progress of institutional practice of rewriting." This is a foundational understanding that leads to an approach to allegedly original texts and literacy.|
Film Adaptation and Its Discontents contributes an exciting and almost natural approach to understanding what a film adaptation is in its multifaceted existence as well as the whole process of adaptation spanning centuries (late 1800's to present day) and mediums (from novels to videogames).
It is not enough to only prove fidelity discourse to be narrow and inaccurate, but any work that attempts to add to the discussion around adaptation theory must present a practical and legitimate alternative vocabulary and model to base the discussion on. Leitch has provided such a model and it is the most expansive and inclusive model most closely following the actual process of adapting various texts to various mediums, but especially film adaptations.
This in-depth view and discussion of adaptation as the continuation of the institutional practice of rewriting (institution here referring to systems creating film, books, plays, and especially the institution of academia) provides tools for analysis that expand, rather than limit, our understanding and possible interpretations of adaptations in all of their complexities in and of themselves and with other texts to which they are related in any degree.
Leitch uses critical theorists and adaptation theorists such as Foucault, Bakhtin, and Bazin to support his application of “intertextuality” to adaptation studies. With this being said, he also brings in opinions of great thinkers that he disagrees with such as E.D. Hirsch's notion of cultural literacy. Leitch's inclusion of the opposing opinions concerning the importance of Dickens, for example, does not weaken his own argument, but is instead used as a diving board to delve further into the importance of viewing adaptation studies as a part of textual studies which is necessarily intertextual.
Who should be interested?
If you are someone who enjoys watching and reading narratives that are constantly revising or alluding to the works that came before them, then this text will give you the vocabulary and mental construct/model with-which to more deeply understand those relations.
Film Adaptation and Its Discontents also discusses how various “universes” such as Sherlock Holmes or even Batman come about or behave. This text, or even specific chapters, may expand your understanding of such franchises.
The combination of the adaptation and theory and critical theory may be able to expand your understanding of particular theorists and what an application of theory may look like. Leitch's work will be helpful for students interested in these areas of literary studies.
If you are a teacher of Literature or Film Studies, you may find this work to be helpful, especially Chapter 1 and Chapter 12, because it addresses pedagogical approaches to understanding literature and film as institutions and mediums with interconnected histories and processes.
Thomas M. Leitch is a professor of English and Film studies at the University of Delaware. He specializes in popular films, and literature and cultural theory (“UD Department of English: Bio Page”).
Leitch, Thomas M. Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Print.
“UD Department of English: Bio Page.” Web. 2 Mar. 2014. http://www.english.udel.edu/people/Pages/bio.aspx?i=72
Reviewed by Alexis Stephenson -Teaching Assistant at the University of Arkansas