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Film Adaptation and Its Discontents

From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ

Thomas Leitch

Publication Year: 2007

Most books on film adaptation—the relation between films and their literary sources—focus on a series of close one-to-one comparisons between specific films and canonical novels. This volume identifies and investigates a far wider array of problems posed by the process of adaptation. Beginning with an examination of why adaptation study has so often supported the institution of literature rather than fostering the practice of literacy, Thomas Leitch considers how the creators of short silent films attempted to give them the weight of literature, what sorts of fidelity are possible in an adaptation of sacred scripture, what it means for an adaptation to pose as an introduction to, rather than a transcription of, a literary classic, and why and how some films have sought impossibly close fidelity to their sources. After examining the surprisingly divergent fidelity claims made by three different kinds of canonical adaptations, Leitch's analysis moves beyond literary sources to consider why a small number of adapters have risen to the status of auteurs and how illustrated books, comic strips, video games, and true stories have been adapted to the screen. The range of films studied, from silent Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes to The Lord of the Rings, is as broad as the problems that come under review.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

Like so many film teachers of my generation, I was trained in literary studies and drifted into film studies through a mixture of infatuation and happen-stance. Given my background and interests, film adaptation would have seemed a logical focus for my work. But I was slow to come to the study of adaptation. I was convinced that George Bluestone had said everything necessary...

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1. Literature versus Literacy

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pp. 1-21

Adaptation theory, the systematic study of films based on literary sources, is one of the oldest areas in film studies. Its fifty-year-old founding text, George Bluestone’s Novels into Film, predates the rise of French-inspired poststructuralism and American academic study of film, and its prehistory goes back even further.1 Yet adaptation studies have had little influence on either film...

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2. One-Reel Epics

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pp. 22-46

Although it may come as news to modern viewers who consider early film primitive at least partly because of its innocence of literary inspiration, cinematic adaptation is as old as cinema itself. John Tibbetts, surveying Kemp R. Niver’s catalogue Motion Pictures from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection, 1894–1912, reports that “of the thousands of titles listed and described,...

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3. The Word Made Film

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pp. 47-66

Long before its release on Ash Wednesday 2004, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s story of the final days of Jesus Christ, had already generated the kind of publicity most filmmakers can only dream about. “Inadvertently,” Gibson told Peter J. Boyer in the New Yorker, “ all the problems and the conflicts and...

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4. Entry-Level Dickens

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pp. 67-92

Whether or not it deserves the distinction of having been “adapted by the mass media more than any other work in the history of English literature,”Charles Dickens’s 1843 tale A Christmas Carol has been adapted so often that many of its wilder or lamer incarnations are more likely to provoke apology than analysis.1 When Dickens’s classic tale has been reimagined as an antiwar allegory...

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5. Between Adaptation and Allusion

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pp. 93-126

Not all adaptations are created equal.Geoffrey Wagner,writing in 1975, found it useful to distinguish three types of “transition of fiction into film”: transposition, “in which a novel is given directly on the screen, with a minimum of apparent interference”; commentary (alternatively “re-emphasis or restructure”), “in which an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in...

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6. Exceptional Fidelity

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pp. 127-150

Despite innumerable exceptions to the rule, adaptation theorists have persisted in treating fidelity to the source material as a norm from which unfaithful adaptations depart at their peril. Yet it should be clear by now that fidelity itself, even as a goal, is the exception to the norm of variously unfaithful adaptations. Instead of constantly seeking answers to the question, “Why are so...

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7. Traditions of Quality

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pp. 151-178

Though it seems an unlikely companion to Gone with the Wind and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example of transmedia synergy, the 1995 BBC television miniseries Pride and Prejudice has been greeted just as rapturously, and in much the same terms, by respondents to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). Apart from a few curmudgeons who express reservations...

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8. Streaming Pictures

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pp. 179-206

Of all the canards that have bedeviled adaptation studies,the most persistent is the belief that film adaptations involve a transfer from words to images.This assumption, passed off as an observation,takes many different forms. Noting that novels and films are united in their quest “to make you see,”George Bluestone begins his study of adaptation by emphasizing the difference between...

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9. The Hero with a Hundred Faces

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pp. 207-235

Sherlock Holmes is not the fictional character who has been played by the largest number of performers in film adaptations. That honor goes to Count Dracula, played to date by 121 actors, followed by Tarzan at 108, and Frankenstein’s monster at 102. Holmes lags comparatively far behind. The Internet Movie Database lists seventy-six movie Holmeses, though it omits such early...

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10. The Adapter as Auteur

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pp. 236-256

It is ironic that François Truffaut’s seminal essay “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” bequeathed the term auteur to critical discourse, since the central subject of Truffaut’s withering survey was the metteur-en-scène, the mere scene-setter who functioned as the auteur’s opposite. Unlike Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson, ,,,

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11. Postliterary Adaptation

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pp. 257-279

Recent Hollywood adaptations have strayed far from what observers seem to have assumed are their God-given roots in classic and contemporary novels. Superman (1978), Batman (1989), The Phantom (1996), X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and Hulk (2003) are all based on comic books. Die Another Day (2003), like the last several James Bond adventures the Academy of Motion Pictures...

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12. Based on a True Story

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pp. 280-304

This survey of problems in adaptation has considered a wide variety of films,from silent shorts aiming at epic weight to heritage adaptations of canonical English novels to adaptations that choose video games or theme-park attractions as their source texts. It might seem that postliterary adaptations mark a vanishing point in adaptation studies. But one last kind of adaptation is still...


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pp. 304-324


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pp. 325-338


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pp. 339-354

E-ISBN-13: 9780801891878
E-ISBN-10: 0801891876
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801892714
Print-ISBN-10: 0801892716

Page Count: 372
Publication Year: 2007