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Theory of Adaptation in Review


Over the next two months I will be writing a series of very short reviews of both critical work and fiction for a special project. As there is nothing more I plan to do with these short reviews, I thought it might be appropriate to post them here over the coming weeks, if only to give a few unorthodox book recommendations.

Theory of Adaptation in Review

If Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Adaptation (second edition, 2012) has a goal, aside from creating an actual critical theory of adaptation, it is to establish that adaptation across different forms and mediums are all valid as art. A lot of the work done to dispel preconceptions that adaptations are “secondary, derivative” (Hutcheon 2) works, pale imitations of something greater. Through her six chapters, Hutcheon undertakes the task of replacing such truisms as the book is always better than the movie with her own more positive, and open-minded truism: that all “Art is derived from other art; stories are born of other stories” (2). With this as the backbone of her approach, the book can take an in-depth and insightful journey through the what, who, why, how, when and where of the medium.

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Hutcheon runs through a gamut of adaptation, from book to film or stage, or film to video game, or book to comic, and every other possible application of the term. With smart and exact examples, she broadened my concept of what can be considered original and adaptation. Hutcheon points to the value of adaptations bringing “Difference as well as repetition” (114) to a classic story. Too often, adaptations are judged by how faithful they are to the original. Hutcheon points to the early Harry Potter movies as an example of creating a “known adaptation” (121), where the director attempted to be as faithful to the source material as possible to avoid being “crucified” (123) by fans of the book. But adaptations should not be judged solely on their faithfulness to the original work, likening the art of adaptation to “Jazz variations” (89). Adaptors, like performers, should be allowed their flourishes and inspirations, allowing each new iteration of a story to “point to individual creative decisions and actions” (89). This comparison is also my favourite of Hutcheon’s illustrations of the oddness of Adaptation being seen as a lesser art, pointing out that “little of the respect accorded to the jazz improviser is given to most adapters” (Hutcheon 87).

Theory of Adaptation helped me look seriously at how I see works concerning one another, as well as how seeing how inspiration can operate. Adaptations can build and create something unique out of the bones of older works. I also found the comments on how different mediums must necessarily affect a story fascinating, from how losing the interiority of a narrator on the page versus on the screen. Vice versa, Hutcheon also points out how different mediums sit closer to each other than expected, “for instance, literature’s ‘meanwhile’ […] find [its] equivalent in the filmic dissolve” (63). By delving into the mechanics of adaptation, and by reviewing how storytelling tropes and devices play out across different mediums, Hutcheon helps to visualize the transition from prose to stage, or stage to screen.

Under Hutcheon’s eye, adaptation becomes about more than merely translating a text into a new medium, or updating a text for a new generation. Hutcheon elevates adaptation to become about “Memory and mutation, theme and variation” (175). Hutcheon’s looks critically at a medium that many often fail to think of as an art, or as an art with its specific past and canon that continues to grow and evolve. Theory of Adaptation exists both as a work of cultural criticism taking a deep dive into an overlooked art, and as a guide for those attempting their adaptations, to help creators think critically about what and how to adapt a piece of work, and how to think about those process of the art of adaptation.

Work cited:

Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013.

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