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2023 | Book

The Scandal of Adaptation


About this book

The essays in this volume seek to expose the scandals of adaptation. Some of them focus on specific adaptations that have been considered scandalous because they portray characters acting in ways that give scandal, because they are thought to betray the values enshrined in the texts they adapt, because their composition or reception raises scandalous possibilities those adapted texts had repressed, or because they challenge their audiences in ways those texts had never thought to do. Others consider more general questions arising from the proposition that all adaptation is a scandalous practice that confronts audiences with provocative questions about bowdlerizing, ethics, censorship, contagion, screenwriting, and history. The collection offers a challenge to the continued marginalization of adaptations and adaptation studies and an invitation to change their position by embracing rather than downplaying their ability to scandalize the institutions they affront.

Table of Contents

The introduction to this volume examines the many parallels between what Lawrence Venuti has called the scandals of translation and the corresponding scandals occasioned by both specific adaptations and adaptation in general, the respective focus of the volume’s two parts, to argue that adaptation is at least as scandalous as translation. Analyzing the conflicts between the ideals of integrity and of adaptability, it uses Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be Or Not to Be to dramatize the connections between the scandal given by an adaptation that dares treat the Nazi occupation of Poland as material for a romantic farce and the scandals inevitably raised by adaptation as a practice. It concludes with a brief summary of each of the thirteen chapters that follow.
Thomas Leitch
Succès de Scandale: From Adultery to Adulteration
This chapter examines several scandalous cinematic and theatrical revivals of Lev Tolstoi’s novel Anna Karenina. To make the central diegetic scandal of Anna’s infidelity intriguing for their contemporaries, adapters recast it by reimagining the adulteress, placing it in contemporary settings, and violating media boundaries. Anna Karenina reworkings demonstrate that adaptations adulterate the literary narrative, while their succès de scandale justifies their unfaithfulness. Greta Garbo’s divinity sanctioned crude deviations in Edmund Goulding’s rendition, Keira Knightley’s popularity transformed Joe Wright’s version into a cultural event, and John Neumeier’s reputation guaranteed an enthusiastic reaction to his ballet adaptation. Doubly scandalous are interpretations that challenge the inevitability of Anna’s demise, like Radda Novikova’s abbreviated rendition, in which Tolstoi’s heroine becomes a nemesis retaliating against men.
Irina Makoveeva
Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945): Designing for Scandal
If the intentions of the author of a source text remain the object of neoromantic speculation, those of its filmic adaptors are more publicly visible in its production history. In fact, as this chapter contends, the key to understanding the cultural value of any particular filmic adaptation is the discovery and evaluation, insofar as this is possible, of the purpose it was meant to serve. In the case of adaptation as Scarlet Street of Georges de la Fouchardière’s La Chienne (The Bitch), a property with no pre-sold value, that purpose was to provide Fritz Lang and his co-producer Walter Wanger a chance to repeat, using the same principal performers, the director’s success the year before with The Woman in the Window (1944). That remarkable production year saw, counting Window, the appearance of the first four very successful films noirs, all adaptations of popular American novels, including, as far as Hollywood was concerned, the master film in that emerging series, Double Indemnity, based on the James M. Cain novella. Those four films had successfully challenged the protocols of the Production Code, offering stories in which themes of sexual malfeasance and homicidal pathology had dominated, ushering in a different relationship for Hollywood with its audiences. All four of these films, however, featured conclusions in which the gesture of a happy endings ameliorated somewhat their dramatization of the dark side of American life. La Chienne was picked for production by Diana Films, releasing through Universal, because its sardonic depiction of marital breakdown, low-life criminality, and—surprisingly—the production of painting of serious quality—could be turned to even more provocative ends than the other four adaptations. Scarlet Street, indeed, proved scandalous, as its makers hoped, exceeding their expectations, though passed by the Production Code Administration, by actually provoking the scandal of being banned in three American cities. This banning only increased the film’s box office. Much-imitated but never equaled, in its successful negotiation of scandal, Scarlet Street became the first of the many Hollywood noirs to configure the full dimensions of the erotic as a form of self-generating male fatalité.
R. Barton Palmer
Sweet Smell of Success: Noiradaptation “in This Crudest of All Possible Worlds”
This chapter uses three casts of characters—those surrounding the source and production of the classic 1958 film noir Sweet Smell of Success, its fictional men, and its touchpoints in historical and contemporary media/political landscapes—to explore the inherently noir elements of adaptation. “Tell Me about It Tomorrow,” Lehman’s thinly veiled 1950 Cosmopolitan fictionalization of media personality and gossip columnist Walter Winchell, caught the interest of a new production company actor Burt Lancaster had formed with literary agent Harold Hecht and screenwriter James Hill, who brought in Scottish director Alexander MacKendrick. After tense power struggles among Lancaster and his colleagues drove away an ailing Lehman, Clifford Odets entered to revise the script, adding most of the film’s wickedly witty dialogue and cauterizing its noir tone. The film, whose sensationalist content prophesies Donald Trump’s rise to power, charts the naturalistic slide of press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and media mogul J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). Its acute, Janus-faced anatomy of the American public’s craving for excess and invective in its media hype, gossip, and presentation of politics as entertainment constitutes a searing adaptation of real-life social and political traumas and demagogues, earnest writers, and dirty players. This chapter examines the film’s noiradaptational properties to suggest adaptations’ inherent impurities. Hunsecker’s comment to musician Steve Dallas that it’s “difficult to be an artist in this crudest of all possible worlds” reveals the abiding messiness of adaptations. Because they are the product of multiple social contexts and wranglings, adaptations can never “come clean.”
Julie Grossman
On Incest and Adaptation: The Foundational Scandal of Cecilia Valdés
This chapter examines three adaptations of Cuba’s national novel Cecilia Valdés (Cirilo Villaverde, 1882) as reflections on race and the persistence of colonial power structures in Cuba. Humberto Solás’s 1982 film Cecilia suppresses the incestuous relationship between half-siblings Cecilia and Leonardo, instead highlighting Cuba’s Revolutionary potential. Conversely, Reinaldo Arenas’s 1987 novel La loma del ángel [The Graveyard of the Angels] parodies and emphasizes the incest between the lovers as a critique of the corruption within Cuba’s socialist regime. Finally, Norge Espinosa Mendoza’s puppet play La Virgencita de bronce [The Little Bronze Virgin] suggests that all adaptations—of Cecilia Valdés, culture, and history in general—are inherently incestuous, looking to the past to narrate the future.
Elisabeth L. Austin, Elena Lahr-Vivaz
“We Need More Input!”: John Hughes’s Weird Science (1985) and Scandals from the Red Scare to the Twitter Mob
This chapter traces the ways John Hughes’s 1985 film Weird Science adapts numerous texts from Frankenstein to the E.C. Comics 1950s pre-Code series of the same name to comment on the lingering effects of the Cold War, a status that seriously complicates reductive readings by a barrage of recent viral articles and tweets that quickly shifted the film’s legacy, establishing themselves as essentialist adaptations that so completely abandon fidelity that they eschew discussion of the movie entirely. Drawing on Jesse Cohn’s formulation of antirepresentationalism and Simone Murray’s work on the adaptation industry, it considers the implications for adaptation studies of social-media discourse that opts to depose rather than engage with source texts.
Jerod Ra’Del Hollyfield
Adaptation and Scandal in The Goldfinch
This chapter explores the adaptation network initiated by Carel Fabritius’s 1654 painting, which includes Donna Tartt’s 2013 bestselling novel and John Crowley’s 2019 film. For Newell, the initial play between trompe l’oeil and still life evident in Fabritius’s painting and developed in the critical discourse shapes the adaptation strategies of The Goldfinch(es) as well as their critical response. Each iteration generates an interpretive disconnect as audiences attempt to answer the question “What is it?” Debates over the generic categories that best describe the works reveal that the scandals present in The Goldfinch(es)’ adaptation network are those of adaptation studies in general, which likewise grapples with how to discuss adaptations as adaptations without having categories of “the thing” and “yet not the thing” overdetermine that discussion.
Kate Newell
Scandalous Dystopias: Hyping The Last of Us Part II and Cyberpunk 2077 During the Pandemic
This chapter explores how the COVID-19 pandemic scandalized two of 2020’s most anticipated video games: The Last of Us Part II—a sequel to an older game that adapts zombie media like 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead—and Cyberpunk 2077, based on the cult tabletop roleplaying game Cyberpunk 2020, which adapted Dungeons & Dragons and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. The pandemic exposed the risks of building hype by framing these games as adapting other media whose most appealing features they incorporated. Hyping them through their associations with prestigious earlier media increased their visibility but created unmanageable expectations. These discrepancies became increasingly apparent as the pandemic disrupted the games’ carefully planned releases, giving birth in both cases to disastrous scandals.
Daniel Singleton
Bowdlerizing for Dollars, or Adaptation as Political Containment
This chapter explores a two-pronged scandal, one in practice and one in theory, which combine to form a familiar dynamic in adaptation studies. The first scandal, perpetrated by adapters, is bowdlerization, the radical softening of an activist target text in order to appeal to a broader audience. The second, perpetrated by adaptation scholars, is the under-reading of those bowdlerizations. To mainstream challenging texts, producers often position adaptations as apolitical. Rather than fully explore those adaptations, critics often read them as emptying out the target text’s political investments. This essay examines bowdlerizations of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1793) and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) to argue that rather than construct apolitical adaptations, they function as conservative political containments of their target texts.
Glenn Jellenik
(Re-)Writing the Pain: War, Exploitation, and the Ethics of Adapting Nonfiction
This chapter explores ways that adaptations of war nonfiction can scandalize their viewers and subjects both ethically and aesthetically. Since ethical concerns are hardwired into the practice of writing creative nonfiction, filmmakers share a responsibility to take due care when adapting a work of nonfiction. Readers ought to read adaptations critically, alert to signs of exploitation. This “buyer beware” approach shifts the ethics of adapting nonfiction onto the audience, which must take a pragmatic view of how texts work as texts and how they work socially. In terms of aesthetics, adapting a nonfictional literary text into a cinematic one inevitably fictionalizes the nonfiction to some degree, resulting in a paradoxical genre that both is and is not nonfiction.
Geoffrey A. Wright
Adaptation and Censorship
This chapter examines the controversy surrounding HBO Max’s decision to temporarily withdraw Gone with the Wind from its streaming platform before returning it with new framing material that sought to respond to outcries against the film’s racism. Although all parties to the controversy insisted that they were against censorship, a problematic activity they ascribed only to other people, this chapter argues that adaptation is a mode of censorship audiences and analysts find acceptable because it does not feel like censorship, even though it is “a mode of reframing or recontextualizing that chooses certain textual details to emphasize and systematically suppresses other details,” raising hard questions about what Americans want their history to say and how they want this history, or histories, to be inscribed.
Thomas Leitch
Cinematic Contagion: Bereullin (The Berlin File, 2013)
Ryoo Seung-wan’s 2013 film Bereullin (The Berlin File) openly echoes Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) while including elements and memes drawn from spy thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy, the political history of North and South Korea, and the city of Berlin as a site of both heightened Cold War conflicts. Ryoo is scandalous in foregrounding the uneasy combination of these materials, beginning with his English title The Berlin File, with suggests separate documents that relate to a particular subject, yet to be integrated. The creator of such works ultimately becomes one who observes affinities among elements in a reservoir of cultural consciousness that invite recombination, revealing adaptation as contagion.
William Mooney
Periphery and Process: Tracing Adaptation Through Screenplays
The screenwriting process, by means of which adaptation occurs and through which adaptations are created, is restricted to a marginal niche within the already marginalized field of adaptation studies. This process is a fundamental and essential component in film adaptations, yet it is too often ignored in our scholarship. This chapter, which considers screenwriting’s formative role in the process of film adaptation, calls for much greater attention to it within adaptation studies. It uses Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) to illustrate how screenwriters approach adaptation and how multiple variant drafts document and record the incremental, creative, and fluid process of adaptation. These documents can deepen and even transform our understanding of movies and adaptation.
Jonathan C. Glance
The Narcissistic Scandal of Adapting History
This chapter examines a phenomenon it calls “historical–poetic interpolation,” the process of seeking analogies in the historical past by rereading history and literature that reflect it. It contends that we turn to rereadings in times of apparent historical crisis because, as adaptations, they ensure our entanglement with the past and with continuing history. A consequence of this impulse, however, is a confusion of the import of the present with that of the past. When observers compare their times to the French Revolution or George Orwell’s 1984, we may over- or underappreciate ongoing events. Moreover, by comparing or modeling ourselves on the past, we threaten to scandalously perpetuate the errors of our ancestors and erase our particularity in favor of memorability.
Kristopher Mecholsky
The Scandal of Adaptation
Thomas Leitch
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