- Screen Adaptations and the Politics of Childhood: Transforming Children’s Literature into Film by Robyn McCallum
As Robyn McCallum demonstrates in Screen Adaptations and the Politics of Childhood, cinematic adaptations of children’s texts raise complex questions concerning the transmission and transformation of cultural ideologies. In today’s explosive media landscape, examples of this politics abound. For instance, when Disney promised to release a live-action version of its 1998 animated feature Mulan by 2020, critics of all stripes, from the professional to the amateur, quickly launched into speculation. Would the new film be a powerful and all-too-rare opportunity to see Asian actors starring in a major Hollywood film, or would it be a reinscription of what many have characterized as the original animation’s Orientalist misrepresentation of a traditional Chinese story? Where does one draw the line—if, indeed, there can be a clear line—between racial representation and cultural appropriation? These are just a few of the problematics that McCallum exposes in her excellent analysis of the ways in which screen adaptations have sustained and reshaped the cultural capital of children’s literature.
McCallum argues that children’s literature and cinema share a “radical intertextuality,” with both forms steeped in histories of retelling and re-mixing (7). While children’s literature often draws from myths, fairy tales, folktales, legends, and other archetypal narratives, cinema often draws from literary texts—with children’s literature providing one of its favorite sources. This tendency has roots that can be traced back to the medium’s very inception at the fin de siècle. In 1903, Cecil Hepworth produced a silent film based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; since then, Lewis [End Page 122] Carroll’s Victorian classic has been adapted over fifty times for television and the big screen. Moreover, not only are children’s literature and cinema similarly hybrid and heteroglossal, but they also serve as sites where culture wars are waged.
Through these popular forms, political factions debate what future generations ought to read and view. For these reasons, McCallum counters “fidelity criticism” that too narrowly focuses on an adaptation’s faithfulness to its source material and suggests that adaptation should instead be understood as “a dialogical and intertextual process rather than as hierarchy of types” (20). Borrowing from the work of Linda Hutcheon, McCallum adopts the metaphor of the palimpsest to describe this dynamic: adaptations layer new significations upon their sources, while still evincing traces of significations that came before.
The scope of McCallum’s project is vast, encompassing books and films from across disparate temporal and geographical locations, a range that enables her to track how stories have been reimagined across cultural contexts. Forms and genres that she considers include fantasy, adventure, magical realism, the Gothic, the experimental, the Disney family feature, and Japanese anime. Likewise, she explores how adaptations rework some of Western culture’s most prominent childhood archetypes: the romantic child of C. S. Lewis, the imperial child of Robert Louis Stevenson, the dream child of Lewis Carroll, and the wild child of Maurice Sendak. To make sense of this extensive archive, McCallum compares the ideologies of source texts with those of their multiple adaptations. She brings together, for instance, three adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Jonathan Miller’s 1960s version, featuring a soundtrack by Ravi Shankar; Jan Švankmajer’s 1980s version, produced in the context of Communist Czechoslovakia; and Tim Burton’s twenty-first-century version, with its absurdist take on the dominant Hollywood style. She finds that each, in its own way, recasts elements of political subversion that it locates in Carroll’s carnivalesque world. Through this comparative method, McCallum discovers that many adaptations do more than merely replicate or reinterpret their sources. Rather, adaptations tend to respond to textual ambiguities or contradictions, playing upon the multilayered meanings to be found within the seeming simplicity of children’s books.
By calling attention to the surprisingly intimate relationship between children’s literature and cinema, McCallum highlights fresh possibilities for new work in children...