- The Writing of Circumstance: Novelization, Modernism, and Generic Distress
||Pages and wagesIt is hard not to while away the time.It is hard to remember what it is.With them they accord in the circumstances.—Gertrude Stein, Absolutely Bob Brown, or Bobbed Brown (1930)1
In 1912, the Edison Company arranged a promotional strategy for one of their new films, the details of which were noteworthy at the time but soon came to exemplify the complex intermedial conditions linking film and literature in the silent period. The film was called What Happened to Mary—by most accounts the first experiment in serial filmmaking. Each of the twelve single-reel episodes was released in monthly installments and timed in conjunction with installments of prose fiction published in the Ladies’ World magazine a week after each film was made available to exhibitors. These printed fictionalizations were designed as cross-market advertisements (encouraging viewers to subscribe to the Ladies’ World, while also directing the magazine’s sought-after middlebrow female readers into the theater).2 It was to be, as a promotional notice boasted, “one of the most remarkable series of releases ever made since the invention of the Kinetoscope,” for “in addition to appearing upon the screen, ‘Mary’ will also have her story told in the Ladies’ World.”3 This instrumental multiplication of the narrative, the episodic reduplication of its events across a number of media and formats, was calculated to encourage repeatable forms of attention, investment and involvement on the part of a cinema [End Page 791] audience more used to fleeting entertainment. The melodramatic spectacle of What Happened to Mary, with its many scenes of dramatic last-minute escapes, theatrical glamour, and foiled robbery, might be thus accompanied by the more impalpable thrills of intermedial variation and narrative repetition. Yet this coordinated narrative repetition is no less problematic for sidestepping the rubrics of adaptation or formal remediation. In an overlapping seriality of linked but inequivalent representational forms and contexts of address, we encounter a scene of vexed narrativity paradoxically afflicted by its very claim to expanded continuity.
The promotional arrangement undergirding the release of What Happened to Mary may have been remarkable enough for both the Ladies’ World and the Edison Company to boast about, but it was not in itself anomalous. By July 1912—when the first episode of What Happened to Mary was released—cinematic tie-in fiction had been prominent for at least a year and a half. The previous year, J. Stuart Blackton had launched the Motion Picture Story Magazine, a monthly publication that specialized entirely in “short stories lavishly illustrated with photographs from . . . the photoplay upon which the story is based.”4 More publications (such as Photoplay, the Movie Pictorial, and Moving Picture Stories) followed suit, alongside the publication of “film stories” as syndicated features running in popular papers (such as the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Examiner). The wide scale of these developments has led Ben Singer to identify the silent era as a period of “intense direct intertextuality,” in which film and fiction “were bound together as two halves of what might be described as a larger, multi-media, textual unit.”5
In this respect, What Happened to Mary is representative of the emergent publicity culture that would soon exemplify the cinema as a mass media institution. Yet in other ways, its release constitutes a rather baroque example of the broadly “paratextual” promotional constellations that its success helped usher into prominence.6 For the short story versions of the film’s episodes were accompanied by further splintered textual adumbrations: from the monthly entries in the competition for the Ladies’ World—in which readers were invited to write in with their own imagined synopses of what might “happen” to Mary next (for a prize of $100)—to a music-hall song, a “vanishing puzzle” game, a theatrical dramatization by Owen Davis, and finally a novelization written by the pulp modernist savant Bob Brown.7 Such a wildly commodified fragmentation of narrative unity presents a distinct critical challenge, for it exhibits a complexity of address that seems to have little to do with traditional ideas of form. As Shelley Stamp...