Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Adaptation as Interpretation

We used to judge adaptations qualitatively, passing judgment on them on the basis of their “faithfulness” to the “original” (the movie almost inevitably losing out to the book, which was always deemed to be “better”). But this approach has become tired and uninteresting. Scholars also now see this “fidelity model” as naïve and critically unfair. Current approaches to adaptation studies might be described more broadly as intertextual investigation. Today’s scholars are becoming more attentive to the complex network of linguistic, generic, historic, and cultural exchanges that shape and inform any literary text and that determine how and why we read it. In challenging the idea that literary texts are stable, authoritative, and able to make meaning utterly independent of other texts or cultural contexts, scholars have destabilized the very concept of “originary text.” One result of this paradigm shift has been the rejection of traditional notions that direct fidelity to an original text is desirable or even possible. We can, for example, recognize Clueless as a recasting of Austen’s Emma and appreciate the ways in which the novel and film speak to one another. If we understand that You’ve Got Mail and Bridget Jones’s Diary reimagine, update, and variously make use of Pride and Prejudice, we get more than the simple pleasure of intertextual recognition (the delight that comes from smugly proclaiming the intertextual connection to our slower, less critically sophisticated friends); we obtain entrance to new interpretive avenues into both book and film and, moreover, are prompted to consider not only why Austen’s early nineteenth-century novel continues to speak to us in such compelling ways but also how her novel remains available for reinterpretation.  

Every critical reading of a text is an act of adaptation, as readers intervene to render the text coherent or to reshape it using theoretical tools. It is by adapting the novels that we read, refitting them to suit our modern perspectives and cultural needs, that we keep them alive and meaningful. In my own research, I adopt an approach that considers the act of reading as a complex negotiation among reader, text, and the cultural imagination. By focusing on the adaptations, I argue, we see a literary text in its fullest, as we consider how it adapts earlier texts to its own purposes and how imaginative reinvention keeps texts relevant to new audiences over time.

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