A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Fortunately, editor Betty Kaklamanidou’s collection sifts through these multimodal weeds and offers some new models for interpretation.”
If you play a quick game of word association and ask someone what comes to mind when they hear about a film “adaptation,” you’ll likely get something like “book.” But a source need not necessarily be a novel, play, comic, or any other type of written artifact. Consider the number of films based on video games, toys, or even phone apps. And it doesn’t stop there. What are we to make, for example, of a television series based on a film adaptation of a novel inspired by true events (Bates Motel, 2013-2017)? Or a remake of a filmed version of a Broadway musical inspired by Shakespeare (Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, 2021)? Such intertextuality can make your head spin; fortunately, editor Betty Kaklamanidou’s New Approaches to Contemporary Adaptation (Wayne State University Press) sifts through these multimodal weeds and offers some new models for interpretation.
In her introduction, Kaklamanidou proposes that rather than embodying a lack of creativity or imagination, adaptations in fact play a role in the preservation of “stories and myths that can still resonate decades or even centuries later” (11). Implicit to the abovementioned negative view of this trend is the assumption that adaptations are a predominantly American phenomenon, but many of the collection’s entries challenge this notion. Thomas Leitch’s opening essay, for instance, outlines various strategies other countries implement when modifying American stories for their own audiences. Of course, one may see this trend as proof positive of globalization’s insidious effect on international art, but Leitch points out how some “[f]oreign adaptations can use their culturally marginal positions to contest First World cultural hegemony by talking back to America in the name of a transcultural commons” (28). It’s an interesting notion: remake as Trojan Horse for cultural criticism.
Ursula-Helen Kassaveti taps into this subgenre of sorts in her consideration of Giannis Dalianidis’ When the Wheels Are Dancing (1984) – a Greek reinterpretation of West Side Story – when she claims that “transnational adaptations may challenge the conventions and stereotypes of the ‘original’” (150). Thus, Leonard Bernstein’s sacrificial ending becomes “a grand reconciliatory finale for the audience” (149) in Dalianidis’ hands (As a side note, I’m curious to see what Kassaveti makes of Spielberg’s remake). Also intriguing is the author’s deep dive into the little-known world of (mostly) direct-to-video Greek remixes of American films like Love Story (1970, remade the following year as I Love You) or even Some Like It Hot (1959, remade as the delightfully-titled Others Like It Bald in 1986), as well as her concluding assertion that American cinema saturates the world market because it is intentionally “constructed to be adaptable to begin with” (151).
Three of the book’s ten chapters consider television adaptations and film franchises, particularly genre series like Bates Motel, Hannibal (2013-2015), Game of Thrones (2011-2019), and The Walking Dead (2010-2022). While this portion of the text flirts with redundancy (given the plethora of TV shows inspired by movies, novels, cartoons, and comics, it’s a bit disappointing to see so much focus given to the above titles), it offers plenty of insight. In “Television Adaptations: Character and World Expansion,” Christina Wilkins articulates what could easily function as the entire collection’s mission statement: “Despite the persistent focus on the particular binary between novel and film in adaptation studies, I find that the strongest discussions emerge in the moments that highlight the cultural use of and interaction with adaptations” (81).
Karin Boklund-Lagopoulou seems to echo this sentiment in “Visuality, Continuity, and Coherence in Contemporary Fantasy Storyworlds” when she considers how Peter Jackson went about visually portraying locations in The Lord of the Rings trilogy which Tolkien’s trilogy does not describe in much detail. Such portrayals are largely guided, she contends, by culturally-driven “visual isotopies” (127) like “cold versus warm, dark versus bright and colorful, plain versus luxurious” (127). Elsewhere, Simon Brown and Stacey Abbott examine how shows like Bates Motel – by boldly rewriting key moments from their sources – assert their own discrete identity in the media landscape (105).
New Approaches to Contemporary Adaptation’s closing essays are among its finest, the authors probing both the issues and boundaries of their case studies. In standout chapter “‘What’ll Become of Me?’” Nicole Pizarro interrogates 12 Years a Slave (2013) and The Birth of a Nation (2016), both of which include extended rape scenes not present in the original books. “Although adaptations have the space to deviate from their source text,” she acknowledges, “a deflection such as including a sexual assault scene…raises the question of the extent to which adaptations should be held accountable for perpetuating harmful representations of black women on film” (157). It’s a bold yet sensitive piece, one which asks the tough questions without condemning the films outright. The concluding chapter, “Experimental Music as a New Frontier of Adaptation Studies,” by Thomas Britt, is a fitting coda to the collection; its analysis of musical projects like William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops prompts readers to expand the boundaries of what constitutes an adaptation.
This is a lot of territory to cover for a text barely exceeding 200 pages. Indeed, some pieces are perhaps a bit too ambitious; Joakim Hermansson’s “Adaptations of Adulthood” attempts to triangulate no fewer than 10 films, their accompanying sources, and Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey within about 15 pages. Others – like Eurydice Da Silva’s fascinating yet rushed “The Impact of Censorship on Adaptations” – feel more like introductory chapters to separate books than they do pieces of a cohesive whole.
To be fair, this jigsaw structure may be less a shortcoming than it is an indication of the field’s inherent fluidity. As long as technology develops, the definitions for “sources” and “texts” will continue to expand, perhaps into territory we’re not even aware of yet. “Where can we go from here?” should be an exciting question, not a troubling one.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.