Friday, October 21, 2011


In about a week, I will be in Arkansas again.  While my beloved wife is going with me, and we are going to be staying with her father again, this trip is not so much one of pleasure as one of business.  For we are both going to be chairing panels at the 2011 South Central Modern Language Association conference, which will take place in Hot Springs.

Lovely town, really.

As part of my work in putting together panels, I solicit copies of my panelists' papers ahead of time so that I can read through them and have what I hope are good, thought-provoking questions for them that will stimulate discussion not just among the panelists, but among the (too often too few) members of the audience, as well.  One of those papers from this year's panel of mine--which I have read and formulated several questions about--makes reference to an article in Criticism 45.2 (Spring 2003), "Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory," by Thomas Leitch.  Although the article primarily concerns the conversion of novels to film, I have found it an interesting read thus far and one which may well prove illuminating in my own (decidedly non-film-based) research.

I agree with most, if not all, of what Leitch puts across in the article, which centers around the idea (as should be obvious from the title) that the way in which adaptations are approached, often by adaptors and commonly by critics of film and literature, is wrong.  For instance, the privileging of the novel over the movie is based on error.  For instance, Letich remarks that "theater critics have always condescended to the canned nature of cinema, which freezes a single performance text forever instead of allowing retakes every night" (155); surely, the process of editing and revising a novel or poem has the same effect.  Indeed, variant versions of texts are pointed out as problematic; an example ready to mind for me is the divergence between the editions of Malory in the tradition of Caxton and that of the Winchester manuscript.  There is little doubt as to the canonicity and literary merit of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (believe me, I know), just as there is little condemnation for the quest towards a single "authentic" version of a great many literary and non-literary texts (I am minded of "authorized" and "author's preferred" editions of some of the books I own).  To bring in another art entirely, musical albums are finely crafted, highly edited works, and yet the fact of their being presented as a single "real" version occasions little or no comment (of which I am aware).  Why, then, should film suffer under such an onus?

For another example, Leitch points out that "movies remain notoriously a mass medium that seeks as broad an audience as possible" (155).  Yet cannot the same be said for most of the novels that are so prized?  And is there not the principle articulated by Alexander Nehamas to consider, that it is often in the very fact of wide dispersal that works (in whatever medium) come to be taken up as elite cultural products?  There is something of this in criticism of medieval texts, in which it is often precisely because there are a great many manuscript copies of a work that it is perceived as having been important and therefore worth taking under study.

Similarly consonant with medieval textual practice is Leitch's rejection of the supposed value of originality in the novel.  Leitch goes to the Bard as his example (163).  I can point out a great many bits of Arthurian legend, particularly Malory's own lynchpin text, which are themselves reliant upon understandings of, and borrowings (at varying degrees of explicitness) from, earlier works.  Beowulf, the singular masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon poetry and Germanic heroic epic, makes free use of prior historical materials for a great many of its allusions and embedded tales, and there is less doubt about its canonicity (in several languages, no less) than there is for Malory.  So to assume that film adaptation is to be decried because it is in measure derivative is, as Leitch points out, fallacious.

There is more, of course, but even so few examples provide much that is good to think upon.

Works Cited
~Leitch, Thomas M. "Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory." Criticism 45.2 (Spring 2003): 149-71. Project Muse. Web. 21 October 2011.
~Nehamas, Alexander.  "Plato's Pop Culture Problem, and Ours." New York Times, 29 August 2010. Web. 14 September 2011.

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