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Criticism 45.2 (2003) 149-171

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Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory

Thomas Leitch

WHAT COULD BE MORE AUDACIOUS than to argue that the study of moving images as adaptations of literary works, one of the very first shelters under which cinema studies originally entered the academy, has been neglected? Yet that is exactly what this essay will argue: that despite its venerable history, widespread practice, and apparent influence, adaptation theory has remained tangential to the thrust of film study because it has never been undertaken with conviction and theoretical rigor. By examining a dozen interlinked fallacies that have kept adaptation theory from fulfilling its analytical promise, I hope to claim for adaptation theory more of the power it deserves.

1. There is such a thing as contemporary adaptation theory. This is the founding fallacy of adaptation studies, and the most important reason they have been so largely ineffectual—because they have been practiced in a theoretical vacuum, without the benefit of what Robert B. Ray has called "a presiding poetics." 1 There is, as the preceding sentence acknowledges, such a thing as adaptation studies. It is pursued in dozens of books and hundreds of articles in Literature/Film Quarterly and in classrooms across the country, from high school to graduate school, in courses with names like "Dickens and Film" and "From Page to Screen." But this flood of study of individual adaptations proceeds on the whole without the support of any more general theoretical account of what actually happens, or what ought to happen, when a group of filmmakers set out to adapt a literary text. As Brian McFarlane has recently observed: "In view of the nearly sixty years of writing about the adaptation of novels into film . . . it is depressing to find at what a limited, tentative stage the discourse has remained." 2 Despite the appearance of more recent methodologies from the empiricism of Morris Beja to the neo-Aristotelianism of James Griffith, the most influential general account of cinema's relation to literature continues to be George Bluestone's tendentious Novels into Film, now nearly half a century old. Bluestone's categorical and essentialist treatment of the relations between movies and the books they are based on neglects or begs many [End Page 149] crucial questions, and more recent commentators, even when they are as sharp as McFarlane (who will therefore claim particularly close attention in this essay) in taking exception to Bluestone, have largely allowed him to frame the terms of the debate.

Hence several fundamental questions in adaptation theory remain unasked, let alone unanswered. Everyone knows, for example, that movies are a collaborative medium, but is adaptation similarly collaborative, or is it the work of a single agent—the screenwriter or director—with the cast and crew behaving the same way as if their film were based on an original screenplay? Since virtually all feature films work from a pre-existing written text, the screenplay, how is a film's relation to its literary source different from its relation to its screenplay? Why has the novel, rather than the stage play or the short story, come to serve as the paradigm for cinematic adaptations of every kind? Given the myriad differences, not only between literary and cinematic texts, but between successive cinematic adaptations of a given literary text, or for that matter between different versions of a given story in the same medium, what exactly is it that film adaptations adapt, or are supposed to adapt? Finally, how does the relation between an adaptation and the text it is explicitly adapting compare to its intertextual relationships with scores of other precursor texts?

The institutional matrix of adaptation study—the fact that movies are so often used in courses like "Shakespeare and Film" as heuristic intertexts, the spoonful of sugar that helps the Bard's own text go down; the fact that studies of particular literary texts and their cinematic adaptations greatly outnumber more general considerations of what is at stake in adapting a text from one medium to another; the fact that even most general studies of adaptation...


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