An Introduction to Adaptation Studies

A first look into the wonderfully exciting (and sometimes vexing) world of adaptation studies.

Once upon a time, there was a field of study. It wasn’t a particularly big field of study, nor was it really popular. In fact, it was sort of the black sheep of the family. See, many of the other fields didn’t look favorably at this newer, stranger, weirder field because it wasn’t purely literature studies or film studies. It was its own thing, and that meant that it was different. And we all know that “different” never means anything good to those who’ve come before it who’re set in their ways and their beliefs.

Its Origins

Once referred to as the “bastard offspring” of literature studies and film studies, adaptation studies is a relatively new field, only really coming into being in the 1950s (Murray 4). It has faced harsh criticism on both sides of the spectrum and continues to be viewed as less than. And yet despite all of that, it continues to grow and flourish, branching out from the correlation between literature, films, and the fidelity argument—its original focus—to a field that looks at the relationship of adaptations in novels, films, television, graphic novels, etc. and what these adaptations are doing and saying rather than how faithful are they being that the potential for depth and exploration within the field seems almost limitless.

Originally, adaptation studies started out in what most people probably first think of when it comes to this field: a look at book to movie adaptations. Its earliest days focused on what’s known as the fidelity critique or, in laymen’s terms, a criticism of how faithful an adaptation is to its original source (Hutcheon xiv). As people can expect, the argument being made almost always ended with the same one people still use today: the book is better than the movie. To give an idea of how elevated literature was compared to films, here’s a quote from Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, two film critics who participated in the field’s early days: “All the directorial Scheherazades of the world cannot add up to one Dostoevsky” (qtd in Hutcheon). Not only is this a backhanded compliment of sorts to the character of Scheherazade—the main protagonist of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian fairy tales and folklore—but it highlights just how much scholars and critics put literature on a pedestal and how lowly these adaptations were viewed.

Nowadays though, adaptation studies is so much more. Eventually the scholars in the field started to realize that there more things going on with these adaptations than they’d originally thought. They realized that the people creating these adaptations weren’t creating them to be 100% faithful to the original source. There were other factors involved in these adaptations. Money, audience, goals…these different factors are all involved in creating adaptations, and with that realization, scholars started to look beyond the fidelity critique (Hutcheon xv).

What It Does

In the simplest terms, adaptation studies asks questions. It questions, it challenges, it seeks, and it explores.

To expand on this, adaptation studies looks at how adaptations are these creative works that acknowledge the “transposition of a recognizable other work or works” (Hutcheon 8). It acknowledges the fact that these adaptations are, in and of themselves, creative endeavors, and it doesn’t try to demote them as something lesser than solely because of that (Sanders 18, Wetmore 627).  Because of these acknowledgments, scholars tend to ask questions such as what is this particular adaptation trying to tell us and why did someone make this particular adaptation at this specific time.

Essentially, adaptation studies is finding ways to critically engage with both these adaptations—which is far more prominent than most would think, really—and the original sources without claiming one as superior to the other. It’s moved beyond the stuffy scholars like Thomas Cartelli who think that Shakespeare must be told with his original language, not the “lowest (and laziest)” form of English we speak today, which completely ignores the fact that Shakespeare himself wrote for the common people and that adaptations that don’t adhere to his use of language are simply doing what he did some 400 years ago (32). It finds value and meaning in both versions and encourages scholars and people in general to think about these works in different manners than they might otherwise normally think of them, which is that notion of faithfulness and which version’s the better one.

What Gets Adapted

Short answer: Everything.

Every aspect, every facet of a story one can think of is fair game for adaptations. Themes, characters, plots, worlds—nothing is off limits with adaptations. Some mediums find certain aspects easier or more important to adapt than others.

Sometimes limitations are a factor in deciding what to focus on adapting. It’s why when books are made into movies, sometimes we see two or more smaller characters from the book combined and written as one character in the movie. A movie is limited to two hours, maybe two and a half hours, where they have to tell a rich and complex story as succinctly and clearly as possible whereas a book can take hundreds of pages and allow for far more exploration and depth of these various characters. Thus, movies tend to take certain liberties with what they choose to focus on adapting, which is okay because every aspect of a story is fair game when it comes to what can be adapted.

What Counts as an Adaptation

This is a tricky question to answer. Considering the fact that just about any aspect or facet of a story can be adapted, one could easily try and argue that everything that has ever been created is, in some ways, an adaptation. It’s problematic and very frustrating to think about when you’re barely getting into this field. Hell, even now, roughly two and a half years after I was first introduced to this field and found myself willingly immersing myself in it, I still find it problematic and difficult to delineate what is and what isn’t an adaptation. Some people, like Hutcheon, don’t consider sequels and prequels adaptations. Most people don’t consider something like fanfiction to be adaptations. Others, like Kevin Wetmore, consider reboots and spinoffs to be adaptations while others dispute these claims (627). With so many conflicting views, it’s hard for most people to say what counts as an adaptation.

Over the years, I’ve found myself butting heads with some of these major players in the field. While I respect these scholars who’ve come before me, I don’t agree with them on everything because a lot of them still have very narrow fields of vision when it comes to adaptations. I do think, under the right circumstances, things like fanfiction and sequels and prequels can be considered adaptations. I think reboots, if handled properly, can be considered adaptations, too.

So what counts as an adaptation? In short, an adaptation is an adaptation if it acknowledges itself as such. That doesn’t mean that the author or creator has to outright say “Yes, this is an adaptation of so and so”. (A lot of creators, writers in particular, might not be too fond to call their works adaptations even if that’s what they are, so don’t expect to see everyone calling their works adaptations.) It means that there has to be a clear connection between the adaptation and the original source. But that’s not all there is to it. An adaptation has to make some form of transposition, which can be a change in form or genre, or could be told from a different perspective.

Basically, an adaptation is an adaptation if there’s an acknowledgment between the adaptation and the original source(s) and there’s been some sort of change that results in a different telling or interpretation of a story.

Of course, that’s just my take on this. I encourage you to come up with your own thoughts and ideas on the matter so that you find a place that you’re comfortable with.

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