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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Adaptive Traits

Posted by John Holbo on 05/29/05 at 12:20 PM

Terry Teachout posts about film adaptations. "Ought a critic to be responsible for examining the source material of the films he reviews?" What do you think?

These sorts of questions interest me and I've posted in the conceptual vicinity before. In that old post I mention the sad and ironic case of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Sad because the film is so lame. Ironic because the original graphic novel is itself nothing but an exercise in aggressive adaptation (so you can't consistently fault the film for being unduly untrue to its source, while praising the source.) It turns out there's an interesting story about how Moore has divorced himself from adaptations of his work: "I'd have nothing to do with films anymore. If I owned the sole copyright, like with 'Voice Of The Fire,' there would not be a film. Anything else, where others owned copyrights, I'd insist on taking my name off future films. All of the money due to me would go to the artists involved. I'd divorce myself from the film process, the film industry and any adaptations. And I felt a sense of moral satisfaction." Apparently a lawsuit was the straw that broke the back. Question: how can an original author, or work, be harmed by a bad or untrue adaptation? Answer: by being named co-defendent in a suit against the adaptation, alleging it plagiarizes someone else's story about Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray, even though the original graphic novel patently does not.

In somehow related news, a Jim Henley post about "issues of continuity and user discretion." (Gary Farber provides the Moore link, and inspires Henley's post.)


Is this related to the question of whether scholars should familiarize themselves with previous scholarship on a given text before writing about it? That sounds like an easy question, until you consider that the volume of secondary material in many cases is far beyond any person’s capability to read. What then counts as familiarization? For many works, there are always things deemed potentially relevant that you’re not going to be able to read.

Some folks have claimed that this problem is insoluble, and the solution is to give up on outdated notions of “coverage” or “expertise.”

I feel this does pertain, in some small way, to the original question. My feeling is that very few film reviewers will actually read a book that a film is based on, and you can imagine some theoretical justifications for this failure to do so.

Let me make something clear: I’m merely describing positions people have taken about this. I don’t personally advocate any of them.

By Jonathan on 05/29/05 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Film reviewers won’t usually be able to read the books, for practical reasons. Unless they are insomniacs. But—and tell me if I am off base, film critics—I would think anyone writing anything more substantive on a film would have to look at the text. Sure, one can’t always read all of the secondary material, but the primary material?

Those of us who are book-oriented usually try to read the book first, before seeing the film, right? So the film doesn’t colour (or “color,” for my American friends) our reading? Any film critics out there? Is the common wisdom just the opposite for you?

By Miriam Jones on 05/29/05 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are we distinguishing between adaptations of “literary” novelists like Proust, James, Melville, Austen, and adaptations of novels perceived to be less significant in their own right?  Does that make any difference?  Movie critics also might have greater responsibility than mere “reviewers.”

By Jonathan Mayhew on 05/29/05 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, take the question how you will. But here are possible ways: you might think that answering ‘no’ expresses a sort of twist on the intentional fallacy notion that whatever doesn’t make it into the work doesn’t matter to the work. Teachout ends up about there, but roundabout, by means of his talk about aesthetic heroes. I think he’s wrong that the desire for aesthetic heroes makes us inclined to ignore source material (lest our view of the purity of our heroes be blurred). Because those inclined to this sort of purism are likely to be upset by desecrations of the purity of the original works; hence are likely to demand that the critic police this area for criminal activity.

We might put it this way: while researching Charlie Kaufmann movies like “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine” I’ve been reading early drafts of the screenplays, which are happily available on the web. This is all very interesting, I find. But no one would think it was strictly obligatory for a reviewer to consider such stuff. And even ‘critics’ might legitimately ignore it for most purposes, I think most of us would agree. Obviously it depends on what the critic is doing, so the question may be nonsense in the abstract. Put it this way. Is there any reason to pay MORE attention to novels as sources than first draft screenplays as sources? Presumably the difference would be: we regard novels, but not screenplays as vaguely sacred objects that should not be marred and messed with with impunity.

Just my hasty responses.

By John Holbo on 05/29/05 at 09:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sometimes we can expect that the lecteur moyen sensible will connect a new work to an existing work—Exorcist II, for example, or Batman.  The daily reviewer ought to take this into account, because his job is to help that lecteur decide whether to go to the movie.  For criticism more broadly understood, the possibilities are broader; still, if reception and audience expectation matter to the argument, then the public precedent of the prior work is quite relevant.  (The draft screenplay is a precedent in the same formal sense, but not public.)

By Vance Maverick on 05/30/05 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a post on this subject. Well, maybe a closely related subject.

So far, most of the commenters have been speaking about reviews of contemporary movies. And yes, the audience for film reviews has enough overlap with the audience for bestsellers and canonical masterpieces that some knowledge is sometimes demonstrated.

But what’s struck me is how rarely supposedly more serious film critics and scholars ever bother to pick up one of the easiest bits of background on what they’re writing about—its source material.

This has nothing to do with complaining about how “they didn’t follow the orginal story.” But before one goes blathering off about the filmmakers’ assumptions and choices, why not get some idea of what those might’ve been? Few treatments of In a Lonely Place, which concerns a screenwriter who doesn’t follow the original story, mention the enormous changes made to the original story of In a Lonely Place and what their effects were. (It, like The Third Man, is a movie adaptation more complex and more subtle—more “literary”—than its literary source.) Examination of the evidence works both against idiot hero-worshipping auteurism and idiot ascriptions of agency to “capitalism” or “the age”.

I usually find the effort worthwhile. I gain insight into the film and the workings of the system; sometimes I even gain enjoyable reading I’d otherwise had missed. The Small Back Room is a far more ambitious and interesting novel than one might suspect from the Powell & Pressburger version.

Nothing more sadly emphasizes the primacy of movies in twentieth century narrative art than watching a tenured “scholar” ignore a once successful and critically acclaimed book—one they’d never admit to not reading, if they’d been around at the time—just because it didn’t happen to be among the handful of works canonized before they went to college. The process of forgetting happens shockingly quickly, too. (Well, at least it shocks me, since I care about writers and writing.) The other day I saw a supposed professional—not a film studies gut-chewer, a bona fide English professor, I think—casually refer to a thematic aspect of “the Robert Redford movie, A River Runs Through It“. In the late ‘70s, I remember Norman Maclean’s collection seemed likely to become required reading across schools nationwide.

By Ray Davis on 05/30/05 at 09:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(I slipped and hit “Submit” instead of “Preview”. Oh, well, [unintentionally] bad grammar stays and you get a second part.)

Early screenplay drafts can be useful, particularly for complicating the assignation of credit. But they’re not always available, and, perhaps due to their explicit status as working drafts, I haven’t gained quite as much critical insight from them. (Something that Valve readers may not realize is the extent to which older Hollywood scripts survive due to studio negotiations with the Production Code office. That correspondence may be the major source of data on the production processes of classic American films—look at how often it’s mentioned in the AFI catalogs, for example.)

After I finished my Barry Lyndon piece, I found what claimed to be a draft of Kubrick’s screenplay on the web. (And only today have I found, more ego-bruisingly, Walter Coppedge’s excellent paper on the subject.) I enjoyed seeing that Kubrick started by keeping Thackeray’s first-person narrator, and enjoyed speculating about when he decided to make the shift. Was it while running through it himself that he realized the problems? Was it while listening to actors run through it? Was it during actual filming? But I finally decided that answers to these questions would add nothing to what I’d originally written based on the original source novel and the final filmed product.

(Why didn’t I link to the screenplay? Because The Valve software refuses to format this correctly: <a href="http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/BarryLyndon.html">draft</a>. Oh, pMachine, you scamp!)

I’m very enthusiastic, though, about the slow move of film studies towards a richer, more realistic and genealogical approach—something that would really justify a title like “film studies”. Some of the latest big Hitchcock books, some of the BFI publications, and a wonderful volume called Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios have all demonstated what wealth can be gained by tracking down a wider range of source materials and participants. But that’s much harder work than just spouting dogma and making assumptions. Certainly, I’d rarely be able to afford to do it.

By Ray Davis on 05/30/05 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is there a reason that there has to be *one* answer to this question?  I think that this sort of issue is precisely why having multiple film critics write on a film is necessary: some can treat an adaptation in relation to its source material, some can focus on what the experience of the film is like irrespective of its fidelity to its source, etc.

By on 05/31/05 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My dissertation is about film adaptation.  I’ve looked at a dumptruck full of adaptations and their originals: from Random Harvest to Shaft to Family Plot to Pola X to The Tenant to the Saragossa Manuscript to Fahrenheit 451 to Empire of the Sun to....etc. 

The initial question John offered was “Ought a critic to be responsible for examining the source material of the films he reviews?”

I think if a critic is simply reviewing the movie for say the arts pages, then no: not unless the movie is explicitly offered to the audience as an adaptation (Gone With The Wind, The Age of Innocence, Bridget Jones’s Diary.) Adaptation, at that level, means as much or as little as any other scheme of generic partitioning.  We don’t automatically expect movie critics to have thought through how the movie under discussion relates to other films in that genre, or by the same director, or featuring the same actor.

But, any discussant of an adapted movie who goes much beyond a straightforward critical review, takes a very considerable chance by *not* looking at the source, at some stage.  The fact is, you can’t tell in advance how much the movie calls on, and burrows back into, its source.  Some movies simply take what they need and never look back; others really do undertake the fullest kind of critical dialogue with the books they’re based on, and with those it’s really not possible to diagnose all of what the movie’s up to, lacking that essential information.
Sorry for the rant.

By Laura on 06/03/05 at 07:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As a film studies person, I can’t speak for film critics, per se. I agree mostly with Laura that popular press critics will justifiably vary their consideration depending on how the film is marketed and received as an adaptation.

But I’ll disagree with Laura (I think) by asserting that film is its own medium and that I’m fine treating scholarship on literary adaptation as a sub-field (much like work on national cinema). I don’t see why a serious examination of cinema should have to deal with literary (or nonfiction) source material. For instance, I find the essays on Sirk’s Imitation of Life that get bogged down in the changes between novel and adaptations to be far less interesting than the ones (like Paul Willemen’s) that treat the film as a self-contained work. That’s not always the case, of course, as there’s a lot of good work that does look at source material. And in any case, a film scholar worth his or her salt should be aware 1) of film’s place in a cultural hierarchy that markets some literary source material and downplays other; and 2) of the narrational differences between film and literature. Both of those probably mean taking a serious look at adaptation at some point. Just not at every point.

By Chris Cagle on 06/09/05 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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