As we prepare to discuss fidelity today in light of our first film (the 1951 A Christmas Carol), it seems important to remember that ultimate fidelity is impossible. Thomas Leitch writes that every adaptation must include something "un-Dickensian" simply due to the fact that a different medium requires addition of material. "[C]ontinuous performance" by an actor on screen, for example, requires adding material since Dickens doesn't describe each character's actions during each moment of the story (Leitch 74).
I was then reminded of Borges's Pierre Menard. The ultimate adapter, Menard sets out to write his own version of Don Quixote, which he thinks is best done by copying out the text itself, as written by Cervantes, word for word.
And yet, this is still an adaptation!
Borges's narrative, posing as a kind of fictional scholarly obituary, addresses the idea of adaptation and fidelity in a hilarious, comparative close reading:
"It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.
History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.
The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard—quite foreign, after all—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time."
So, despite its fidelity, Menard's adaptation is still quite different than the original, according to the critic-narrator.
As we discussed during our first class, each time we teach a text, we adapt it to our classroom. Each time we read a text, we are reading only one version. Fidelity is impossible because even the text itself shifts constantly under the changing lenses of time, culture, and context.
Read the entire Pierre Menard story here.