Considering Adaptation Theories in the Globalized 21st Century

This post is based on a paper I wrote for Dr. Blair Davis‘ class on Adaptation during the Spring 2014 quarter at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. The purpose of this assignment is to “critically analyze in essay form the work of several adaptation theorists, in order to demonstrate [an] understanding of the phenomenon of adaptation as well as the evolving theoretical tradition surrounding it.” Therefore, I applied the work of three adaptation theorists to the phenomenon of cross-cultural adaptation, which is becoming increasingly common in the globalized world of the 21st century. I welcome any and all feedback, so please feel free to join the conversation on adaptation by leaving a comment in the comments section. Thank you.

Fidelity and Cultural Codes in Cross-Cultural Adaptations: The Consideration of Adaptation Theories in the Globalized 21st Century

This paper considers how various adaptation theories regarding cross-media adaptations can and should be applied to the study of cross-cultural adaptations, particularly when considering the increasingly globalized and mediated world of the 21st century. I contend that cross-cultural adaptations often negotiate many of the same tensions experienced in arguments surrounding the fidelity of an adaptation to the source material, both in adapting a property or story from one medium to another, as well as adapting it from one culture to another. This idea becomes important when considering that globalization has had a profound impact upon the very idea of adaptation, due to an increasing number of cross-cultural adaptations and/or translations which prove that the practice of adapting a property from one culture to another is now the norm rather than the exception, and has been a factor in cross-media adaptations for some time.1 Thus, it is important to understand how current adaptation theories apply to adaptations across cultures as well as across various media. Therefore, in this paper, I draw upon Thomas Leitch’s notion of fidelity in the context of literary adaptation, Guerric Debona’s argument regarding the cultural politics of film adaptation, and Timothy Corrigan’s discussion of the value of art in the relationship of an original to its adaptation, and I apply these arguments to the idea of cross-cultural adaptations in a global context.2

When considering adaptations, the notion of fidelity stands as perhaps the most important factor, whether the adaptation occurs across different media or across different cultures. Faithfulness to the source material is often emphasized above all else, which may be one of the reasons why the refrain of “the book was better” continues to persist when considering literary adaptations (Fig. 1). Leitch, however, argues that fidelity should not serve as the “defining criterion of an adaptation’s value.”3 Furthermore, the very concept of fidelity creates the expectation that the adaptation will function the same way as the source material, despite the fact that different media often have different narratological structures and modes of production that necessitates a different approach to the same story.4 Additionally, this presumption of fidelity to the source material places unfair expectations on the adaptation, which is already subject to more scrutiny than the source material. Therefore, despite the fact that the purpose of adaptation is often thought to be a “‘literal’ approximation” of the original text, fidelity should not be the rule, but rather the exception.5

Fig. 1: Literary adaptations are often (unfairly, in my opinion) compared to their source material, leading to a widespread cultural refrain of "the book was better."
Fig. 1: Literary adaptations are often (unfairly, in my opinion) compared to their source material, leading to a widespread cultural refrain of “the book was better.”

This notion of fidelity can also be applied to cross-cultural adaptations, which tend to take more liberties with their source material in order to ensure that the adaptation conforms to different cultural codes or modes of production (Fig. 2). Therefore, when considering cross-cultural adaptations in the context of globalization, “fidelity of the adapted text can be a possible standard measuring the cultural implications a text is generating as a product in a cultural community.”6 In such cases, expectations of fidelity must be considered in regard to adapting a text into different cultural codes or modes of production in addition to or instead of different media. Adapting films (or books, manga, comic books, video games, etc.) across cultures is often market driven, particularly in an era when multinational conglomerates control much of the world’s media and seek to maximize their profits across cultures. This is similar to Leitch’s assertion that the insistence on fidelity in literary adaptation is primarily driven by profit motives.7 Therefore, in the realm of cross-cultural adaptations the idea of fidelity (or lack thereof) is similarly financially motivated. Releasing a foreign film (or other media artifact) into a specific market sometimes limits the audience due to language or cultural barriers, and thus adapting the film into the vernacular of a specific culture allows the home audience to connect with the story without having to surmount any sort of cultural barriers.8 At the same time, however, adaptation can potentially open up a story to a global audience.9 This is particularly true in the case of Hollywood, which currently dominates the international film and television market, and specializes in remakes or adaptations of foreign material which are then made more universal in order to connect with the widest possible audience. Therefore, in the case of cross-cultural adaptations, fidelity is often eschewed in favor of translating the source material to different cultural codes, or is simply ignored in order to change the story so that it will hold a wide appeal on a global scale. Fidelity to the source material becomes the exception rather than the rule.

Fig. 2: A prominent example of cross cultural adaptation is The Ring (2002), which is an remake/adaptation/translation of the Japanese film, Ring (1998). Image credit: http://rossvross.com/2010/11/02/ringu-v-the-ring-2/
Fig. 2: One prominent example of cross cultural adaptation is The Ring (2002), which is a remake/adaptation/translation of the Japanese film, Ring (1998). Image credit: http://rossvross.com/2010/11/02/ringu-v-the-ring-2/

Corrigan also discusses the idea of fidelity, but does so in the context of larger cultural and historical factors. He considers the idea that national and cultural identities are often closely linked to film and literature, and that both often perpetuate a sort of mythical version of any given nation or culture.10 He goes on to explain that adaptations can sometimes have more in common with the larger cultural anxieties of a specific historical period than they do with the source material upon which they are based. This idea that national or cultural identities are linked to mass culture such as films or literature is significant when considering how those identities are then impacted by the process of globalization and cross-cultural adaptation. In much the same way, cross-cultural adaptations often have less in common with the source material on which they are based than they do with a larger cultural vision that is reflective of globalization. Therefore, instead of addressing the trauma of history, as Corrigan contends, cross-cultural adaptations could potentially act as a way for one culture to understand another one by adapting its cultural codes into a more familiar milieu, particularly when measured against one another (Fig. 3).

Fig 3: In translating the film Blood Simple from an American context to a Chinese context, the narrative essentially remains intact but nevertheless comes to reflect different cultural codes and anxieties.
Fig 3: In translating the film Blood Simple (1984) from an American context to a Chinese context, the narrative essentially remains intact but nevertheless comes to reflect different cultural codes and anxieties. Image credit: http://thebest1000movies.blogspot.com/2012/05/blood-simple-movies-in-bulgaria.html

Film critic David Ehrlich seems to agree with this idea. In an article about the Japanese remake/adaptation of the film Sideways (itself an adaptation of the novel by Rex Pickett), Ehrlich contends that cross-cultural adaptations can serve as a bridge between cultures, and that even when a media artifact is not intended for a specific audience, that artifact may still offer valuable insights into the cultural identity of the nation that produced it.11 In the case of Sideways, fans of the original film and/or novel would have an intertextual relationship with the Japanese remake, which in turn would allow them to gain an appreciation for Japanese cultural codes via a setting that is familiar to them. As in literary adaptations, cross-cultural adaptation speaks to the idea of one culture “redeploying” the cultural codes of another culture and placing them “under the lenses of intertextuality, cultural/textual power, and authorship” within a specific cultural and historical context.12 Therefore, the concepts of intertextuality and cultural value become especially important when considering cross-cultural adaptations.

This trailer for the Japanese remake of Sideways (aka Saidoweizu) demonstrates that the filmmakers tried to remain faithful to the original (itself a literary adaptation) while also trying to translate its cultural codes into a new context.

Corrigan also argues that film adaptations can sometimes evoke the artistry of a different time period or different medium, and he uses the film Children of Paradise as his example (Fig 4). He writes that the film “creates a homage to the artistic brilliance of an older period of cultural and social change” while simultaneously speaking to the anxieties of the war-torn 1940s by evoking nostalgia for a bygone age.13 In a similar way, cross-cultural adaptations pay homage to the artistry of another culture, while also serving as a shadow of the original culture through the process of transpositioning a story or media artifact into the context of new cultural codes. Soo Jung Hong argues that when viewed in relation to globalization, cross-cultural adaptations either affirm similar values that are shared by the different cultures, or they act as organizing and emphasizing the differences between cultures and the way their media industries operate.14 Therefore, cross-cultural adaptations have the potential  to serve as a means by which people of one culture can make sense of a different culture, particularly when compared with one another, primarily because they highlight differences that exist between the different cultures.

Fig 4: Corrigan points to Children of Paradise (1945) as an example of an adaptation that slightly alters the meaning of the source text during the translation from one medium to another.
Fig 4: Corrigan points to Children of Paradise (1945) as an example of an adaptation that highlights the artistry of different media during different time periods. More importantly, though, he argues that the adaptation alters the meaning of the original, and comes to reflect a different set of cultural anxieties.

Finally, Corrigan’s entire argument discusses the nature of art in relation to adaptation and fidelity, and he discusses whether there is more of an obligation to remain faithful to a so-called “Great” novel, while so-called “low art” such as pulp novels might lend themselves more easily to loose adaptations. Corrigan contends that loose adaptations of pulp novels can often result in great films, and he points to films such as Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity as examples of this phenomenon. His idea can also be applied to cross-cultural adaptations, which often run in the opposite direction, with the original being prized over the adaptation, particularly in the case of Hollywood remaking a foreign film or adapting some other mass culture object (Fig. 5). There is a particular cultural cachet surrounding foreign originals that is lost when they are adapted or translated, and this leads to a rejection of the remake and a subsequent elevation of the original material, regardless of actual quality.15 Thus, the tension that arises from the consideration of fidelity in regards to cross-cultural adaptations underlines this idea of whether or not it acts as a truthful representation of the culture from which the original hails.

Fig. 5: Spike Lee's Oldboy (a remake of Chan Wook Park's Oldboy, which is itself an adaptation of the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuuaki Minegishi) highlights Image credit: http://www.vulture.com/2013/11/what-did-spike-lees-oldboy-remake-change.html
Fig. 5: Spike Lee‘s Oldboy (a remake of Chan-wook Park‘s Oldboy, which is itself an adaptation of the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi) highlights the tensions that can arise when adapting a story from one culture to another. Image credit: http://www.vulture.com/2013/11/what-did-spike-lees-oldboy-remake-change.html

The increasing number of cross-cultural adaptations and translations seems to indicate that globalization is breaking down borders between cultures, and therefore it is important to consider this phenomenon in relation to the adaptation theories that have been put forth by scholars such as Leitch, Debona, and Corrigan. At the same time, however, it is vital to reconsider these adaptation theories in regards to an increasingly globalized and mediated world, as adaptations now cross cultures as well as media. In this paper, I have demonstrated that the adaptation theories we are studying in class remain relevant, but that they also must themselves be adapted in order to consider how adaptation has changed in the 21st century.

Endnotes

1. Hong, Soo Jung, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,” The Qualitative Report 19 (2014): 1-18; Moran, Albert. “Global Franchising, Local Customizing: The Cultural Economy of TV Program Formats.” Continuum 23 (2009): 115-125; Apter, Emily, “On Translation in a Global Market,” Public Culture 13 (2001): 1-12.

2. DeBona, Guerric, “Is There a Novel in This Film? Or the Cultural Politics of Film Adaptation,” in Film adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010; Leitch, Thomas M, Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: from Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007; Corrigan, Timothy, “Pens, Pulp, and the Crisis of the Word, 1940-1960,” in Film and Literature: an Introduction and Reader. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Routledge, 1999.

3. Leitch, “Literature vs. Literacy,” 17.

4. Leitch, “Literature vs. Literacy” 17; Moran, “Global Franchising, Local Customizing: The Cultural Economy of TV Program Formats,” 120.

5. Moran, “Global Franchising, Local Customizing: The Cultural Economy of TV Program Formats,” 119.

6. Hong, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,” 3.

7. Leitch,” Exceptional Fidelity,” 128.

8. Moran, “Global Franchising, Local Customizing: The Cultural Economy of TV Program Formats,” 119.

9. Ibid., 122.

10. Corrigan, “Pens, Pulp, and the Crisis of the Word, 1940-1960,” 39.

11. David Ehrlich, “The Curious Case of the Japanese Remake of Sideways,” accessed 28 April 2014; available from http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/530-the-curious-case-of-the-japanese-remake-of-sideway/; Internet.

12. DeBona, “Is There a Novel in This Film? Or the Cultural Politics of Film Adaptation,” 6.

13. Corrigan, “Pens, Pulp, and the Crisis of the Word, 1940-1960,” 41.

14. Hong, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,”1

15. Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos, “Reviewing Remakes: An Introduction,” In Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002, 6.

Bibliography

Adriaens, Fien, and Daniel Biltereyst. “Glocalized Telenovelas and National Identities: A ‘Textual Cum Production’ Analysis of the ‘Telenovelle’ Sara, the Flemish Adaptation of Yo soy Betty, la fea.” Television and New Media 13 (2012): 551-567.

Apter, Emily. “On Translation in a Global Market.” Public Culture 13 (2001): 1-12.

Corrigan, Timothy. “Pens, Pulp, and the Crisis of the Word, 1940-1960.” In Film and Literature: an Introduction and Reader. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Routledge, 1999.

Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

DeBona, Guerric. “Is There a Novel in This Film? Or the Cultural Politics of Film Adaptation.” In Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Ehrlich, David. “The Curious Case of the Japanese Remake of Sideways.” Last modified April 24, 2014. http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/530-the-curious-case-of-the-japanese-remake-of-sideway/ (accessed April 28, 2014).

Forrest, Jennifer, and Leonard R. Koos. “Reviewing Remakes: An Introduction.” In Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Hong, Soo Jung. “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization.” The Qualitative Report 19 (2014): 1-18.

Leitch, Thomas M. Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Moran, Albert. “Global Franchising, Local Customizing: The Cultural Economy of TV Program Formats.” Continuum 23 (2009): 115-125.

Films

Carné, M. 1945. Children of Paradise.

Coen, E. & Coen, J. 1984. Blood Simple.

Gluck, C. 2009. Sideways.

Lee, S. 2013. Oldboy.

Nakata, H. 1998. Ring.

Park, C. 2003. Oldboy.

Payne, A. 2004. Sideways.

Verbinski, G. 2002. The Ring.

Welles, O. 1958. Touch of Evil.

Wilder, W. 1944. Double Indemnity.

Zhang, Y. 2009. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.

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