What is Adaptation studies?

Put simply, adaptation studies is the analysis of a text and its adaptation, whether that ‘text’ is a novel, film, dance, play, comic strip, musical score, sculpture, video game, etc. The adaptation might be in the same narrative form, but is often in another.

This area of enquiry became very popular in literary studies with novel-to-film criticism, and George Bluestone’s highly influential work, Novels into Film was published in 1957. For several decades after, it wasn’t always clear what people were teaching when they were teaching novels into film, or why they were teaching it. In the classroom it is acknowledged that watching the film of a novel, play or story can make the understanding of that text easier, particularly if the original work is perceived to be difficult because of its age, use of language or form.  Many teachers found that watching films of books made students better readers and that they were able to read more attentively and better understand form and structure. This finding is obviously contrary to the popular view that viewing kills reading.

As academic interest in this area of study grew, so emerged the understanding that the relationship between a text and its adaptation is one of cross-fertilisation and exchange, rather than, as articulated by critics in the early twentieth century such as Virginia Woolf , one of parasitism where the original text becomes a shadow of its former brilliant self. There are terrible adaptations and there are some which make one forget or ignore the original; some adaptations reignite interest in a long forgotten story; and some texts such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, can never be adapted enough. A personal favourite of mine is the ‘Great Expectations Boat Ride’ at Dickens World in Kent, UK.

Adaptation studies is now less about which is the better, the original or the adaptation, and more about engaging with the process and understanding the motivations for an adaptation – whether it be explanation, homage, revision, critique, pure exploitation or something else.  Adaptation studies facilitates an understanding of social change, narrative form, cultural difference, commercial imperatives, power relationships and so much more. As I hinted in my first paragraph, the subject of adaptation studies has moved far beyond the realm of novels and literary studies, even though literature on screen approaches still dominate.  A thorny question one might now ask is ‘when is an adaptation not an adaptation?’ Luckily no one agrees on the answer.

Adaptation studies is taught by scholars in universities and teachers in schools, sometimes unconsciously. A historian showing students Gallipoli (1981) is looking at an adaptation. Those involved in teaching the Classics might be simultaneously thrilled and bemused by the explosion of recent film adaptations of Homer. Victorianists in literary studies must feel overwhelmed by the current trend for neo-Victorian novels.

There is a community of scholars out there with interests in adaptation who would benefit from knowing what others are talking about in their classes or adding to their curriculum. University students may find in adaptations studies an answer to their interdisciplinary yearnings or simply a new way of approaching old questions and developing new directions in knowledge.

This project is about inviting the community to identify itself via Adapt. To share materials, which can then be read, adapted and reused in quite other ways.  I shall blog about what it means to ‘share’ in this way at a later date; and even later when the project is in full swing there will be a chance to browse materials and upload your own.

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