Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dead Text Walking

This post is partly inspired by I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas, and partly inspired by my debilitating need to stop reading I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas, and do almost anything else.

This zombie story breathes life into Jacob Marley (or breathes in death-life... zombie biology is gravely unclear), who rips apart the people around him, and starts to make for Scrooge. The text immediately shows some wit, pointing out that Marley had been dead "for about three minutes,that is" (3). That's not dissimilar to how long his soul rests in Dickens' novel. It then becomes tiresome, unfunny, and graphically violent. So I'll readily admit to not finishing it, which is convenient since my title actually refers to the original text and not this bloody, "braaaaaaaaaaains"-less tripe.

My question is whether the classic novels like A Christmas Carol, the works that span decades through their spawn, are in a sense, dead. Does A Christmas Carol exist at all outside of its hideous/beautiful progenies? If the "culture-text," intriguingly introduced by Paul Davis, is the one that we "collectively remember," "the Carol as it has been intriguingly recreated in the last century and a half" (4), what space is there for the original text? Can it exist on its own shaky legs, or is this text only bolstered by its afterlife? 

I don't believe that the classics that have permeated our culture are dead, I think they are uniquely newly alive in how they can be devoured in so many different forms by so many. But I do think that recognizing and appreciation this new life that adaptation has breathed into these works is a crucial step towards (finally) moving away from fidelity complaints, from purist wringing, and from snobby eye-rolling at a text that may forcefully engage with pop culture as much as it engages with Dickens.

Keeping all that in mind... I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas is still awful. Please don't read it. And greeting from Dickens Camp in Santa Cruz!

- Lingerr Senghor


  1. Lingerr, I love the metaphor you've set up regarding the idea of dead texts being reanimated. Perhaps some of these delightful/awful pop versions of the Carol (no italics) are best thought of as zombies, hungry for braaaaaaaains (the cultural capital of the originary text!) and yet not fully able to form coherent thoughts on their own (Zombies no speak good).

    I agree with you that the "classics" are uniquely alive, not just because they are the object of zombie lust and therefore desired for the braaaains they provide, but also because Dickens is just good sometimes.

    I think we forget (especially if we are writing for the Huffington Post...) how great some of this literature is. It's funny and fresh and exciting. I loved reading about how Dickens was literally falling out of his chair giddily laughing as he wrote it (and now I'm calling to mind Alastair Sim at the end of ACC).

    If bad adaptations do anything, they let the adapter and the reader reengage with a pretty darn good story that can stand solidly on its own two legs. Is the text bolstered by its afterlife? I'm not sure. But I think adaptations exist because we love Dickens, not because everyone else does, but because he's hilarious and fun. Because a playwright loves Dickens, a filmmaker loves Dickens, an author loves Dickens, and illustrator loves Dickens, in order to spend more time with him, they adapt.

    Surely Adam Roberts is a Dickens fan who wanted nothing more than to read the text over and over and over and then write about braaaains.

  2. What does it mean for a text to be "alive" or "dead" or "undead"? There is something unnerving about the latter, a suggestion of a text that consumes its readers, perhaps one that infects every element of a culture: a viral volume that invades our consciousness without our permission.

    In the case of _ACC_, Paul Davis would say that the constellation of adaptations (even the ugly ones that make us groan) and cultural forms that recall _ACC_ don't just keep the text alive: they have played a key role in creating the text. We might say this of any text we consider a "classic." Indeed, a "classic" text is rendered "classic" only by being labelled as such, and it's a label that henceforth shapes our reading of that text. And one manifestation of this is the paradoxical drive to adapt it (the messages of GREAT LITERATURE being universal and all that) and the impulse to "protect" it from vandals who might alter or destroy it.

    One other thing about zombies: they seem only to recreate more of themselves; they replicate more or less exactly. Undead breed only more undead, and they seek only to make more exactly like themselves. But in the hands of thinking people (those with brains), literary texts can spawn a bewildering variety of artistic progeny, and that testifies to their living, evolving energies. A text is "dead" only when we stop talking about it and when it ceases to speak to us.

  3. Borrowing from the quite novel representation of zombies in the recent film _Warm Bodies_ (2013) that was mentioned in a seminar meeting last week--which, incidentally, is an adaptation of a 2010 novel, which in turn was an adaptation of an even earlier short story by the same author, which likewise was somewhat of an adaptation of Shakespeare's _Romeo and Juliet_ (as was mentioned in our seminar)--I would suggest that when adaptations feed on the originary brain of Dickens's _ACC_ they also experience the memories and essence of the original, and therefore try to express at least some elements of the originary in their respective adaptations. As a result, and as Linnerr, Alexa, and Marty point out above, this breathes new life into the original, or perhaps "reanimates" the original? But just because you eat someone's brains and experience some of their memory and essence, that doesn't mean that you truly know that person. You might be masticating a pretty fair chunk of them, but it's still only a chunk. So, even though I do agree that fidelity is an oftentimes unfair and unworthy factor used in judging adaptations, we still seem to value originality and therefore put a lot of stock into the Original in human culture. For that reason, I am skeptical that a text like _ACC_ that has stood the test of time for over 170 years is in danger of meeting its demise as a result of all of the multiple past, present, and future adaptations that have and will inevitably take a nibble from its originary brain. Humans, and even human children, are still interested in seeing the origins of these adaptations. People still buy the original Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. texts and even read them when these "classics" are adapted, no matter how modernized or even bastardized the current adaptations might be. So, I'm not too concerned that _ACC_ will become a zombified version of itself due to fragmentation as a result of some sort of adaptational zombie feeding frenzy on the originary text (and not that Lingerr or Alexa or Marty were necessarily arguing that point, either!). Yes, fidelity is a term that is thrown around too often when judging adaptations, but we still seem to find value in experiencing the original text as a point of reference. Or, at least I do. And I again submit that at least an attempt to do a shot-for-shot, dialogue for dialogue film adaptation of _ACC_ or _Frankenstein_ would be a novel undertaking. Granted, exact fidelity is an impossible ideal, but at least trying to do so would be just as unique as all of the adaptations that purposefully go in multiple different directions than the originary text. Just sayin...

    1. Your post raises some interesting questions. Can an originary text be replaced by its latter-day emanations? The _Warm Bodies_ adaptive sequence is a great case study, as it points out the possibility of forgetting one or more links in the adaptive chain and so losing sight of the point of origin. So often we assume that these chains stop at the feet of Shakespeare, whom we consider to be the originary genius. And yet, Shakespeare was himself borrowing and reworking earlier source materials:

      There is also the issue of whether or not it is possible to "get back to the original." I'm not so sure that we can. Our reading of any text is shaped by our knowledge of the critical discourses and adaptations that surround it. We can't access the "original" any more than we can return to the "real" nineteenth century. Even had we access to a time machine, we would arrive in 1843 fully loaded with a 2014 perspective and would see everything through a lens composed of a century and a half of information and ideas not available to Dickens and his initial readers (who would have more direct access to a lot that we don't know or have forgotten). You can't go home again. Adaptations--and this is one of the core points Davis makes--reframe their originary so that we read the originary with those particular visions and interpretations coloring our reading. And that's not something to bemoan or struggle vainly against but to be mindful of as we read.

  4. I want to push a bit on the idea of a "shot for shot" film adaptation as being even theoretically possible. The crucial point is that even the most straightforward move from text to film requires a set of decisions to be made, and those decisions are, by their very nature, interpretive. Take the opening of _ACC_. Are those first two paragraphs going to be read by a narrator? What does that narrator's voice sound like? Male? Female? High? Low? Accent (keeping in mind that British accents are very distinctly classed)? Will we see images during this narrated sequence? What will they be images of? Marley? Scrooge? Will Scrooge look like Marley to reinforce the similarity? Will we watch the signing of the register of Marley's death? Or just see the signed register? Or not see the register at all? Should the scene be just a black screen, to focus our attention on the speaking voice, and would that make it sound like the voice of God, speaking from the void, reinforcing the idea of authoritative authorship? What about the paragraph musing about the deadness of a door nail? Will we see the image of a door nail? A comparison chart of door vs coffin nails? More pictures of Marley dead? And what will those be? A corpse? A grave? A closed coffin? What does an unmourned body look like being laid to rest? In paragraph three we have the word "business," which is central to (at least some readings of) the text. Will the film highlight that word in some way? Visually link it to the counting house? Show Scrooge somehow neglecting his "business" with humanity as he engages in his business dealings? Or read it out without differentiation, so that viewers may or may not come to that particular reading of the whole. Try to render this text literally in any other medium--or any other language--and you find yourself with an endless string of decisions to be made, each of which will reflect an interpretive reading of the text.

    _Frankenstein_ is another great example. We have, in the center of that novel, words spoken by the Creature to Victor and retold to Walton, who writes them down (a text Victor is later given to edit before it is all sent to Walton's sister). How do you convey that series of narrative filters? One reading of the novel would ask us to take the Creature's narration at face value: these are his words, unaltered by the narrative frames that surround it. Other readings would urge us to consider Victor's role in shaping the Creature's utterance, or Walton's role in making Victor out to be the like-minded friend he's been looking for. Does the camera show us Walton listening to Victor recount the Creature's words? Or is the camera standing in for Walton's perspective, aligning the viewer with Walton via the camera's eye? Do we hear the voice of the Creature (and what does that voice sound like), or Victor's retelling Walton/us what the Creature said to him? There are valid critical reasons for choosing any one of these methods, but it would remain only one option among many, and any one choice would not only reflect but also reinforce or generate a particular reading of the originary text.

    When we adapt, we alter. As with translations from one language to another, there is no straightforward 1:1 equivalency that allows an unaltered replication across different media. And if we adapt within the same medium, unless we copy each word precisely (in every way, including font, page layout, etc), we are introducing changes that require interpretive choices and that lead to different ways of reading the text.

  5. As I briefly mentioned in our seminar meeting today, I'm having a very difficult time trying to figure out exactly where the above 2 comments are disagreeing with me. With that in mind, I decided to put on my best cyberbully/trolling cap and re-read them with a chip on my shoulder. However, even after my best efforts to be a jerk about it, I still don't feel like my opinions expressed in my first comment or in my current comment are in real conflict with anything in the above comments, though perhaps I need to clarify things more.

    I'm sorry that you went through the trouble of writing all that out above about "shot for shot" film adaptation, but I assure you that I had many of those thoughts in mind as well as many other difficulties and complications when I wrote above that "exact fidelity is an impossible ideal." Just as all of us, well-versed in the Postmodernist concept that there is no truth and really no definitive anything, there is no possible way that an "exact" shot-for-shot, dialogue-for-dialogue adaptation of the 2 texts that I chose--or any text for that matter--would even be possible. However--and this simultaneously makes my point and also undercuts it--either because it is indeed an impossible ideal, and/or because everyone that has managed to collaborate on an adaptation of those 2 texts and also managed to find the funding to shoot an adaptation of those 2 texts, consequently nobody has yet to even really TRY to make an adaptation that at least attempts to strive for such an ideal. (Sorry about that problematic sentence, but I move on...) That was my point. And again, that point was made not only with the admission that exact fidelity is impossible, but also with a significant level of intended facetiousness in relation to the ridiculous notion of ever being able to accomplish such an ideal. I love, respect, and enjoy many adaptations of _ACC_ and _Frankenstein_, whether they stray very far away or not from the "original" message of the originary source (again, whatever the hell that "original" message actually is would be impossible to sort out!), but it really seems like some Hollywood fanboy/fangirl bigwig could maybe someday throw their Tinseltown weight around and at least TRY to shoot an adaptation that at least uses the exact dialogue from the texts (meaning, that stuff in quotation marks that the characters actually speak), and that at least ATTEMPTS to adapt the themes, characters, tone, etc. from the written text to a film version without letting so much ego, artistic license, and budgetary issues get in the way. That, in itself, would be an original undertaking. Is this impossible from a creative and budgetary point of view? Not impossible, but not likely. Would it involve some "filling in of gaps" in dialogue and narrative by adapting it to a screenplay? Naturally. Would anyone ever take the time, effort, money, and humility to try to attempt to do something like this? Not likely. But as somewhat of a fanboy of these 2 particular texts myself, it chafes me at least a little bit that, in my opinion and despite my love for 2 particular adaptations, the best adaptation of _ACC_ involves a talking rat and other felt-covered creatures with human hands up their butts, and the best adaptation of _Frankenstein_ is a comedy that involves a see-saw gag and Cloris Leachman with a mole on her face! Yes, those are my subjective opinions, but objectivity is just as impossible as truth or fidelity. However, just because I can't do everything perfectly according to some ideal doesn't mean that I can't at least TRY.

    Well, again, I don't disagree with anything that has been said yet, so I am horrible at trying to be a cyberbully or troll, but that's fine with me. But maybe I AM a jerk, and maybe the issue is that I just need to write these screenplays myself, and then some other jerk can complain about how far they stray from his/her OWN subjective concept of _ACC_ and _Frankenstein_! It just never ends, does it?!