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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

“The most narrow and provincial area of film theory…”

Posted by Laura Carroll on 07/26/05 at 10:58 PM

Twenty-one years ago, Dudley Andrew bestowed that accolade upon the study of literary adaptation.  Though Andrew was careful then to also point out that adaptation is potentially a rich study - “its distinctive feature, the matching of the cinematic sign system to prior achievements in some other system, can be shown to be distinctive of all representational cinema” - it’s his first judgment that has, unhappily, prevailed.  It’s strange and ironic that a field of study with a foot in two separate (but importantly and meaningfully connected) disciplines hasn’t yet managed to do anything terribly impressive with its inheritance, so to speak; a cynic’s view would be that the “discipline” thus replicates the pattern of parasitic decline so many commentators identify in the mechanism of film adaptation itself.  Those commentators might like to consider getting a life, however: or at least seeing a wider variety of adaptations.  There are some good ones out there, once you get past Masterpiece Theatre. 

Anyway, I’m probably biassed, but I can’t think of another sub-discipline of either literary or film studies which is so widely taught, studied and discussed, at all educational levels and in all types of fora and publications, yet remains so undersupplied with concepts and vocabularies purpose-built for talking about the things (texts? or processes?) under investigation.  Since Andrew’s essay, film studies has had its anti-theoretical turn, and grand schematics of all kinds are out of style.  Mostly this is a good thing; but in the absence of substantial, shared, non-contentious working assumptions about matters like intertextuality, influence, technique and form and medium, authorship, and reception, basically all that remains is....description, comparison, and evaluation, and that’s not enough to constitute a disciplined scholarly discourse, let alone sustain one.  In the absence of theory we have a handful of disablingly “narrow and provincial” truisms about adaptation.  Only second-rate novels make first-rate movies; translation = treason; faithful adaptation is ethically suspect and technically impossible; movies must pander to the lowest common denominator in ways that books need not; and so on. 

When Robert Ray wonders “why has this topic, obviously central to humanities-based film education, prompted so little distinguished work?” he is asking, reasonably, what gives with the seemingly unstaunchable flow of essays about “Director X’s Movie of Writer Y’s Novel” and tiresome books devoted to Canonical Author Z On Screen (or And Cinema or At The Movies).  One reason for the oversupply of this kind of work is institutional, no doubt - these things are fast to write and relatively easy to publish, and fit the profile of books libraries can be counted on to purchase.  But there must be a stronger, peculiar-to-the-subject reason.  I am beginning to think it’s perhaps a manifestation or symptom of adaptation presenting itself to us for consideration: a (naive) response to the way adapted movies irresistibly invite comparison with their sources, openly or furtively. 


I wrote an ABC paper for Ray’s class on Three Comrades. In my youthful enthusiasm, I decided I would read the novel. That plan did not survive contact with the enemy. It was serialized in Good Housekeeping, however.

By Jonathan on 07/27/05 at 02:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What is an ABC paper, please?

By on 07/27/05 at 02:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You write a paragraph or so on a given topic that starts with each letter of the alphabet. Barthes is the main source.

By Jonathan on 07/27/05 at 02:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Although I know next to nothing about this field of study, the following url might perhaps be interesting:

By on 07/27/05 at 07:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment


You are right that more substantial work in studying literary adaptation is needed. My advisor, Tim Corrigan, edited a book on film and literature (called surprisingly enough, Film and Literature) which isn’t a bad place to start and I think James Naremore has a decent book on adaptations out there. But there isn’t much.

I think the dearth of these studies is for a number of reasons: a) the emphasis on the director as the creative force rather than screenwriter, b) the desire for film studies to stand on its own and not remain a bastard cousin to literary studies, c) a general notion that the source material for a screenplay is not of primary importance; i.e., what ends up on the screen is what matters---remember Fritz Lang’s comments in Godard’s Contempt?

I do, however, think you overstate the “anti-theoretical” turn in film studies. Personally, I am a big follower of Bordwell and Carroll, but I think their “camp,” so to speak, is certainly still a minority position in the overall field--though thankfully the tide does seem to be turning. Bordwell is high-profile and prolific (not to mention really brilliant) but still a minority stance in the larger realm of Lacanians, Marxists and would-be sociologists writing on film.

By on 07/27/05 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting point. I’ve increasingly been looking at the shift in prestige literary adaptations in Hollywood from the 1930s to the postwar years, but have primarily been approaching the issue through a combination of industrial history, sociology of taste, and reception study. So I’m interested to hear how you think film studies is failing in the field of adaptation. Is it merely lack of attention, or is there some methodology you think is being ignored?

Like James, I think you may be overstating the theoretical turn in film studies. There’s definitely a pluralism right now, but within that scholarship is proceding based on nodes of shared assumptions of textuality. One case related to adaptation may be Linda Williams’ and Rick Altman’s exploration of the relation between Hollywood and 19th century melodrama (theatre). Similarly, a new emphasis on industrial research has given fresh examinations of the production process: I’m thinking of Janet Bergstrom on Fritz Lang, for instance.

Since adaptation seems to be your larger project, I’m wondering: do these new directions speak to your concerns at all? If not, what are you foreseeing as the necessary adjustment in film or literary studies?

By Chris Cagle on 07/27/05 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Following up on Chris, even though I am more of an aesthetics/narrative guy myself, I do think that studying literary adaptations from an industry history or reception studies methodology is probably a more fruitful endeavor than, say, looking at the formal mechanics of crafting a screenplay based on a novel or comparing novel to film, etc.

(btw, Chris, your project sounds very interesting. Good luck with it.)

By on 07/27/05 at 01:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think most films adapt novels in ways that don’t lead us to ‘theory’ per se. I’m especially not interested in prestige adaptations, especially these days, since they seem to be so “Oscar” oriented. Chris Cagle, if you’re still reading, I would be curious to hear more about what you’re doing with them.

Films that do something radical or unpredictable with their source material, on the other hand, give us something to work with. To put it quite crudely, the less literal the adaptation, the more room there is for theory.

“Adaptation” might be a good example.

As might “Prospero’s Books” (though most people I talk to these days are a little sour on Greenaway). Or the “Titus Andronicus” that came out a few years ago.

I’m also fond of an Indian adaptation of Macbeth that came out a couple of years ago, called Maqbool.

Lots of Shakespeare…

By Amardeep on 07/27/05 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

James, I agree that both the books you mention are exceptions to the general mediocrity of scholarship on adaptation.  I was thinking more of all the collections of essays that compare a number of movies based on some famous novelist’s work with the source novels.  Mostly these books just make me sad.  I don’t think they emerge out of any real interest in adaptation: typically they don’t distinguish between competent, intelligent movies and real garbage, as long as both kinds are based on books by author X. 

What interests me about that genre of adaptation criticism is its bizarre persistence in the face of countless demonstrations (Naremore’s book being one) that it’s worth very little indeed.  Perhaps its continued existence can be taken as meaning that after all we cannot do away with some form of comparative criticism. 
I think that the most interesting adapted movies invite and anticipate the spectator’s comparisons with the source, actually.  It’s like with parody: there is a skilfulness and ingenuity and creativity which remains invisible unless the audience knows about how things are with the original work. 
I consider myself fairly well hardened to adaptation, but I’ll still come out of the cinema after seeing some movie based on a book I don’t care about at all - anything from First Blood to The Hours and I still have an immediate need to list and enumerate and express the recognitions and surprises I experienced in the movie.  (Obviously this only makes sense if the spectator has read the book already.  I have no problem with assuming that at least some of the audience is in this category.)

To me the persistence and centralness of this kind of response says that however we choose to approach literary adaptation, it’s got to have a comparative element of some kind at the centre. 

I am amused that you see David Bordwell as holding a minority position on the question of grand Theory.  I’d have argued exactly the opposite, indeed, I think there is no English language film scholar with more influence on methodological topics.

By on 07/27/05 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep - my interest in prestige literary adaptations sprang obliquely from my dissertation on the postwar social problem film. In the diss, I was interested in why the Oscar oriented films of the late 1940s all of a sudden weren’t the ones with the most lavish budgets or clearly identifiable middlebrow prestige credentials of literary or historical source material. (Short answer: middlebrow taste shifted in mid-century, as the white-collar classes began to mimic the highbrows and make claims of cultural legitimacy for the cinema as a “mature” medium.) Which made me curious about the difference between 30s and 40s adaptations themselves. For example, Dodsworth is typical in its use of canonical literature merely for source material; it suppresses the class analysis and profusion of class markers in the novel, even though these would have lent themselves to a middlebrow product. A 40s film like I Remember Mama, on the other hand, highlights both its class markers and Literature’s place in the cultural hierachy. It didn’t do it out of any maverick self-consciousness (Sirk style) but because the implied middle-class audience began to place a premium on the “literary” and of quality cinema.

Laura- I share James’ assessment about the Bordwellian anti-Theoretical camp. Bordwell is clearly a prominent scholar in the field, and has had some influence in setting out a neoformalist vocabulary in analyzing the cinema. Classical Hollywood Cinema is widely read and key to several debates. But he and his followers haven’t been able to topple Theory per se; cognitive psychology has failed to provide an alternative model to psychoanalysis and semiotics.

Of course my impressions of the state of film studies in the US and UK may well be colored by the fairly theoretical bent of my program at Brown. But look at the papers at SCMS or Screen conferences, or the books that Minnesota or California or Columbia UP are putting out, and you’ll see a pluralism of methodologies still largely reliant on ideological-semiotic reading or cultural studies-subcultural models. Even other strands like the industrial historians or the Deleuzians seem to be parallel to, not part of, Bordwell’s polemic against Grand Theory. I’m probably happier with that situation than James is, but I’d agree with him in the diagnosis.

I’m not sure what comparative criticism is: perhaps I’ll have to read up on the Corrigan or Narremore books, or an example you find worthwhile. An open question, though: what do you think of the difference between studying film adaptation and film adaptations? My sociology of taste focus makes me interested in the latter, but admittedly I don’t have much to say about the process of adaptation.

By Chris Cagle on 07/28/05 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I’m amused that you are amused! :) Bordwell’s position on grand Theory is, of course, widely known but how many other scholars follow his call for historical poetics, cognitive studies, and middle-level research? I’ve presented at the CCSMI conference and I’d say there were a good 50 of us tops!

I’m saying that more scholars writing on film continue in a theory approach or a cultural studies approach and not in the methodologies espoused by Bordwell. If you don’t believe me, take it from the horse’s mouth:

“...I don’t find any evidence that [historical poetics] has anything like the “broad currency” of multicultural studies, postcolonial studies, gender studies, or the like. I have yet to hear of any department deciding, “Well, we really must hire someone in historical poetics.” If anything, I have good evidence of the reverse: that anyone interested in pursuing these questions will not have an easy time finding a job in academic film studies. [...] What leads him to think that our “project and method” are “widely visible”? Maybe it’s just that we publish a lot.”

Yes, everyone knows and respects Bordwell. That’s not to say they agree with him.

By on 07/28/05 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cross-post with Chris!

Chris, I agree with your assessment though I’m surely less sanguine about the situation than you! The only point I’d nit-pick a bit is your claim that “cognitive psychology has failed to provide an alternative model to psychoanalysis and semiotics.”

Cognitive studies certainly has provided an alternate model, it’s just that many (most?) scholars choose to either ignore it or genuinely aren’t impressed with the results. Perhaps you meant something more akin to this anyway....

By on 07/28/05 at 10:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

James, I didn’t mean to be so loaded in my phrasing: cognitive studies has “failed” in gaining currency in the academic marketplace for film studies, but the responsibility may well lie with those in the discipline, not cognitive studies itself.

If I may nit-pick with your statement: middle-level research has gained popularity in film studies. Increasingly, scholars are doing empirical research, whether industrial, social-historical, or reception-based. This may have to do more with reasons besides Bordwell, who after all formulated the idea in relation to existing trends in research. And undoubtedly he would still disagree with some of the scholars’ assumptions. But the Douglas Gomerys and Lea Jacobs are no longer minority voices, but are central to new research in the discipline.

By Chris Cagle on 07/28/05 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"middle-level research has gained popularity in film studies”

Chris, you are absolutely correct. In film studies proper. However, we both know that much film scholarship still comes from literary and/or cultural studies folks. They are less inclined to do “middle-level” research. But you are correct when it comes to more-or-less full-time film scholars. I think this is a good thing!

By on 07/28/05 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m late to the party, but the questions you’ve raised about adaptation are important ones.  There doesn’t seem to be a specific vocabulary for adaptation theory, but instead we get repeated readings of various adaptations.

The “industrial history” approach implied in your discussion of social problems films might be a good starting point.  How do adaptations evolve given the shifting expectations and practices of film audiences, and I wonder if, for example, contemporary audiences feel the need to cultivate the cultural literacy associated with the white-collar 1940s audiences.  Or how a shift towards home theater audiences might affect how adaptations are made, if they are made (why the Austen fetish in the 1990s, for example?).

Perhaps what I’m implying here is that the comparative approach may reach a limit that a larger theoretical vocabulary about adaptation can overcome.  In terms of the Bordwell vs. Theory Death Match, I think it’s probably an “institutional” issue.  Certainly SCMS always has a diversity of approaches (both “Bordwellian” and “Lacanian-ideological"), but individual departments or journals, as Chris implies, may have specific affiliations.

By Chuck on 07/28/05 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m even later to the party than you, Chuck; terribly bad form.  I have to blame it on inconvenient time zoning issues. 

Likely my take on Bordwell et al is coloured by the way film studies are pursued in my region.  I do maintain that the particular combination of interests and approaches he espouses - Russian Formalist-influenced narratology, distaste for Althusserian apparatus theory, ongoing research into industrial and genre topics, and attention to new global popular film industries (cf Planet Hong Kong) - do correspond to the research and teaching profiles of the majority of Australian Film Studies departments.  Maybe all that means is that with our smaller population we can’t afford to specialise much, particularly where teaching is concerned.  Agreed, the cognitive thing hasn’t made much of a dent in the psychoanalytic paradigm; but then again I think current psychoanalytic approaches to film bear next to no resemblance to the hardcore Lacan/Metz stuff that was all the rage in the 1970s and that people like Noel Carroll are entirely justified in trying to eradicate. 

To cut a long, boring story short, thanks Chris and James for correcting my probably wrong assumptions about the state of play vis a vis film studies and theory in North America.

By on 07/28/05 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So back to adaptation.

Chris raised the question of studying adaptation (as class or genre, or process?) vs studying adaptationS (as individual texts, or text pairings): what works for me (as reader and as researcher) is to begin from a specific adaptation or group thereof, and work outward and upward to the general.  Both dimensions need to be “always historicised” if the pitfalls of triviality and essentialism are to be avoided.  An assumption I find useful is that in any given situation there will be technical, social, and artistic norms controlling and defining the possibilities for cross-media transformation of texts.  Those norms are historically constituted but that doesn’t make them any less binding. 

A shining example IMO of what can be achieved with historically informed and theoretically openminded research into adaptation is an essay by Richard Maltby called “‘To Prevent the Prevalent Type of Book’: Censorship and Adaptation in Hollywood, 1924-1934.” I’m guessing you know this article Chris.  Looking at the saga of Paramount’s mauling of An American Tragedy, Maltby shows how adaptation takes a certain form here *not* because of philistinism, ineptitude, or incommensurability of forms, but rather it is a coherent ideological project aimed at, well, at isolating the infection of decadent and corrupt Modernism.  If you look at the Hays Code - a manifesto if ever there was - there is a section explaining why material that’s acceptable when presented in book form must not be represented in movies; the standard arguments about the “proper” provinces of the two media follow, only here they are not presented as immutable, transcendent laws of Art, but as nakedly ideological constructions - and ones with real & binding force at that.

The Maltby essay is a terrific example of what can be done in one direction; I think the next step is to incorporate a better sense of the (inter)textuality of the films and books concerned into the flow of the argument, or account; I think this is really important with adaptation study because the very act of adaptation involves a re-working of inherited material and the refitting of existing (genetic) material for a new environment.  So at least part of what pushes norms to change and evolve comes from within individual adaptations.  (Andre Bazin is really good on this theme.)

For the integrtion of formalist, comparative criticism with sociological research to occur, as a conversation within the discipline, it would really help to have a basic, agreed-on vocabulary which could be used to describe recurrent or key situations; just so we can get past this eternal restating of first principles.

By on 07/28/05 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A completely unrelated question from a completely narrow and provincial mind: are there valuable writers on the narrative uses of music in film?  Now that I’ve written that, it sounds like a ridiculously big and vague question.  Chalk it up to ignorance.  Are there, though, people who have to be consulted on this kind of thing, or whose work is especially good?  Just wondering, and thanks for any tips.

By on 07/29/05 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you wondering for any special reason, Sean?  I’m curious. 

It is a big question, so all I can do is suggest some names that come up a lot.  I think all these guys have a lot of useful stuff to say, for whatever that’s worth.

On the narrative uses of film music in the widest possible definition - big orchestral scores, compiled soundtracks, musicals, diegetic and non-diegetic song with words:

Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones
Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies

the latter is especially good on the idea that a successful score is one the audience doesn’t notice.

Rick Altman has written many good books about film sound, The American Film Musical is a key work on the cinema of singing and dancing.  Though it’s getting a bit old perhaps.

On the narratological uses of the human voice in movies, including singing, I think Michel Chion is indispensable, as well as exciting to read.  Audio-Vision is general, The Voice in Cinema is more narrowly focused (and less about music.)

Melbourne hosts a yearly international conference, called Cinesonic, on film sound and film music ; there are collections published for the years 1999-2002 I think.  These would be a good place to look for recent work.  The editor is Philip Brophy.

What there isn’t an especially good study of, as far as I know, which isn’t very far, is the rise of the pop music compilation soundtrack and what kinds of influence it’s had on cinematic storytelling.  There’s plenty of scattered material on people like Martin Scorsese, however.

By on 07/29/05 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a sort of parallel discussion going on in my blog, but I’ll add here that the Maltby example is a good one, especially given its treatment of the Hays Code as a means of navigating adaptation.

I’ll second the recommendations of Rick Altman and Michel Chion.  Chion is indeed a good read.

By Chuck Tryon on 07/29/05 at 09:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Chris, your dissertation sounds fascinating. Is it available online?

Laura and Chuck, you already know this, but the wider audience might be interested: When enforcement of the paper Production Code passed to the energetically flesh-and-blood Production Code Administration, censorship became more politically slanted than could perhaps be justified by the letter of the Code.

Laura, as a critic (rather than a scholar), I’ve commented before in the Valve on the often overlooked opportunities offered by comparison with literary source material, and have deployed the option myself. And yet I agree with your main points.

What makes these books-and-essays junk is not that they compare, but that they do so by rote and learn nothing from the exercise. They’re excuses not to research or think critically. The gut-level compare-and-contrast conversations which (as you say) involuntarily kick in after we’ve seen an adaptation relies on our already existing memory of the original. I hear it much more often when emerging from movies which use TV shows as source material (now that that’s become so common) than from movies which remake movies from 1980 or earlier, or from American rip-offs of non-English movies, or from movies based on literary source material.

As that indicates, though, it seems doubtful that any useful generalization could be made about literary adaptation across film history that couldn’t also be made about any other disclosed origin points—except for my rather trivial practical points that a book tends to be easier to find than early story pitches and screenplay drafts, tends to offer more extended contrasts, and tends to be more interesting in itself. But, as with other story sources (including scenarios sketched by writers/directors themselves), sometimes films clearly get made with the original kept in mind throughout, even if antagonistically, some mix opportunistic scavenging with shameless betrayal (Lonelyhearts and The Small Back Room are two personally scarring horrors, but most people here are probably familiar with the two versions of The Vanishing), and some take just a few suggestions for character names or possible settings.

(On the other hand, Chris’s historicizing approach, looking at changes in the explicit relevancy of different sorts of source material across time—“From the best-selling novel by...” to “From the makers of...”—now that might pay off!)

In other words, the problem as I understand it is not lack of a vocabulary for literary adaptations specifically, but lack of a vocabulary for highly collaborative art in general: a hard job which the easy hook of compare-and-contrast (like the easy hook of auteur theory, the easy hook of Adorno-esque sociopolitical pigeonholes, and the earlier easy hook of screenplay fetishism) helps us to postpone.

By Ray Davis on 07/29/05 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Laura!

By on 07/29/05 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For other reasons, I was looking at Tristan & Isolde links, and began to wonder: has anyone compared the use of literary sources in movies with the use of literary sources in its precursor as costly spectacular collaborative art-form, the opera?

By Ray Davis on 07/29/05 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know, Ray.  Film is a popular industrial art and opera isn’t; a comparative study got to grips with that could be worth reading.  Many people have written about adapting plays vs adapting novels.

A bit earlier on, you said:

the problem as I understand it is not lack of a vocabulary for literary adaptations specifically, but lack of a vocabulary for highly collaborative art in general

Fundamentally, yes; double-yes, if with “highly collaborative art in general” you include collaborations between living authors and long dead ones who cannot talk back.  “A Map of Misreading” is a crazy book, but it at least attempts to establish some sort of connection between historical pastterns of influence, interpersonal affects, and formal mechanisms of repetition-with-a-difference.  If you add in the issues of migration across media and the related permutations of cultural capital, that is a pretty good summary of the things adaptation theory needs to account for. 

It makes me feel ill just thinking about it.

By on 07/29/05 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Laura, for the further thoughts.

Fundamentally, yes; double-yes, if with “highly collaborative art in general” you include collaborations between living authors and long dead ones who cannot talk back.

I do, & I guess it’s true there are a few alleys to explore in that neighborhood of “cultural capital”: the likely heightened reverency (& period costumes); the ability to openly plagiarize without payment or permission. (Which, I hasten to add, is, I think, a good thing.) But again I’m not sure how far the distinction can be pushed. It’s always been the classic complaint among Hollywood writers that their influence extends at most to the credits, & that lands us squarely back at the massively-collaborative-&-commercial difficulty of relating credits to artifact in any meaningful way. Patricia Highsmith & Alan Moore didn’t seem to control their adaptations much more than William Shakespeare or Jane Austen.

It’s beautifully hard ground you’re working, that’s for sure.

By Ray Davis on 07/30/05 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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