Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Thoughts on Adaptation, Cultural Relevance, and Critical Reading

Our students are already engaging with adaptations, are already reading what we assign to them through an adaptive lens. Before we have assigned the texts, our students have encountered A Christmas Carol, Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, and Dracula (to name but a few) via their adaptations. They have already formed an idea of the text before they even open the book. But rather than frantically insisting on the primacy of the originary text, it may well be worthwhile to consider how and why these texts are adapted in particular ways at particular times for particular audiences and via particular media. And these are questions that will take students to the very heart of the originary texts as they also think about why it us that we continue to read texts written a century—or more—ago.
I read and study and teach adaptations because adaptations read and interpret and keep in circulation the literature that seems to speak most profoundly to the human condition or to issues that naggingly remain with us across time and cultural boundaries. Adaptations remind us that culture matters: literature and art help us to understand ourselves and our world. “Classic” texts aren’t dated and dusty: their adaptability proves their continued relevance. And there’s something, too, to be said for our cultural hunger for those texts: why is it that every generation reinvents Frankenstein or Romeo and Juliet (as, for example, a zombie tale in the recent film Warm Bodies)?

Adaptations say something about how readers—in a given historical moment and in a particular cultural context—read literary texts but also why those texts might be relevant to different generations of readers, not simply because they contain “timeless” truths but because they (can) address—perhaps with some interpretive effort or representational acrobatics—timely issues, matters of the (to)day. Learning to approach adaptations critically encourages us to read and understand ourselves and our world critically, as thinking beings who can reflect upon and understand the things that we encounter as we move through life. And that seems to me, in the final analysis, to be the unchanging, essential point of it all: life is richer when we know how to comprehend and interpret and communicate, and adaptations are really useful tools for sharpening those skills. 

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