What Adaptation Says about Media Capacities
Adaptation studies is a thriving field existing at the crossroads of literary, theater, art, film, and media/cultural studies. Far more numerous in that literature, though, are studies of adaptations from novels or plays to film (see, for instance, Corrigan 2012; Leitch 2009; Naremore 2000; Stain and Raengo 2005), of films to other films (see, for instance, Loock and Verevis 2012; Smith 2016; Vere-vis 2006; Wee 2014), and increasingly of transnational television adaptation/ remaking (see, for instance, Fung and Zhang 2011; Hilm.es 2013; Mikos and Perrotta 2011; Perkins and Verevis 2015). With adaptation studies, though, relatively little has been written on moves from television to film, film to television, and much that has been written either exists in the trenches of specifics and/or says little about the narrative’s medial move (see, for instance, Grossman 2017; Loock 2014; McMahon-Coleman 2014; Scahill 2016). Constantine Verevis distinguishes between two types of film-to-television adaptation. The first
attempts to create a circuit between a generation (or two) of viewers who encountered the tele-series as first runs and/or reruns through the 1960s and beyond, and a younger generation of filmgoers—children or grandchildren of the first group—who may have little or no knowledge of the original tele-series but whose narrative image of that property is developed through the film’s promotion,
while the second “revises 60-minute prime-time television dramas as bigbudget, high concept remakes” (2015, 130), but his article on the topic is two pages and hence cuts short on this note.
Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation (2006) similarly has little to say specifically about moves from television to film or vice versa. After classifying adaptations into those that move between or within the realms of “telling,” “showing,” and “interacting,” Hutcheon surmises that film and television are both predominantly “showing” media, and both “relatively realist media” at that, and thus her attention is drawn elsewhere: “What happens,” she continues, “when a manifestly artificial performance form like an opera or a musical is adapted to the screen?” (46), and with that she moves on. However, as her title promises, the book offers some general contextualizing commentary on adaptation that might help us set the scene for moves from film to television, television to film.
Hutcheon’s approach is helpful for eschewing a crude technological determinism that she notes as another haunting figure in the history of adaptation studies and discourse. Hutcheon’s categorization into telling, showing, and interacting risks its own determinism, which she variously submits to or fights at different points in her book, but it at least walks back from the overly simplistic McLuhanesque tendency to believe “the medium is the message” (see McLuhan 1964). She examines numerous clichés of adaptation—that only the telling mode can adequately render both intimacy and distance in point of view, for example (52-6)—and though she explores how some adaptations follow the clichés, in dubbing them clichés, she frames their nonnecessity. Hutcheon thus illustrates that pure technological determinism is unhelpful. Technological determinism allows for cute aphorisms, but ignores entirely the agency of artists, creators, industries, or even audiences. Hutcheon wisely notes, though, that some adaptors may be motivated precisely by the challenge of turning a seemingly most novelesque novel into a play or film, or so forth. Writing of the many adaptations of Les Liaisons dangereuses, for instance, she concludes that “the formal difficulties in dramatizing [the epistolary novel] are more likely to be seen as challenges than as disincentives for adapters” (40). The initial creative move in some adaptations may be an attempt to buck and refuse technological determinism.
Nevertheless, Hutcheon’s discussion of telling, showing, and interacting points out that technologies and media will of course have some limiting factors. When a novel does not show pictures and a film is full of them, or when an opera is performed to those in seats watching while a video game is played with a controller in hands, we must allow for some limiting formal constraints. This chapter is not about those constraints, though, in part because film and television already flow into each other in technological and medial terms—as noted in our Introduction, many of the films we’ve all seen were on televisions. As Hollywood makes evermore sequels, and invests in evermore franchises, even the nominal difference that films are shorter in total running time, and hence over quicker than television shows, can be questioned. Freed from the requirement that episodes be 22 or 45 minutes, some television episodes on streaming and premium cable channels can now run as long as an average feature length film, while many film shorts run far shorter than the average television episode. But beyond changing rules and possibilities, both media are varied enough to provide us plenty of examples of texts that work against “rules” we might imagine to be medium-imposed: each season of 24 (2001-2010), for instance, covers just one day, meaning that the vast majority of films cover more time in 90 or so minutes than do the almost 17 hours of a 24 season. Or, while television might seem to allow more capacity for character development and identification, given all its time, some of media’s most enduring, beloved characters are filmic.
Hutcheon follows much of adaptation studies by being primarily interested in form, but her approach is also helpful in repeatedly gesturing to a prevalent discursive framing of relative medial “value” that surrounds and envelopes both adaptation studies and public discussions of adaptation. She notes how often discussions of adaptations presume and rely upon a hierarchical ladder of which media are “best,” which are “worst,” with intense approbation attending all downward moves. She observes, for instance, that adaptations from novels or plays to film often suffer from film being considered lower and lesser than novels or plays, and she cites Charles Newman calling an adaptation of literature to film or television a move to “a willfully inferior form of cognition” (2006, cited on 3). In short, then, and even though this is not the point of her book, Hutcheon shows discussion of adaptation to be a rich site for the discursive positioning of different media, for the creation and reification of hierarchies of value and meaning imposed upon media. Certainly, while film may live on a supposedly lower rung of the cultural ladder than do novels, as the rest of our book shows, when film is instead pitted against television, it has regularly been presumed to exist on a higher rung. Television has long been derided as a lesser, “feminine” (Huyssen 1986), working class medium, and too often film’s higher place on the ladder has been secured in relation to dismissive looks down upon television. Thus we should expect to see that moves from film to television will be seen as “downward” moves, while moves from television to film may be seen as graduations or promotions of a sort. And yet, as Michael Newman and Elana Levine (2011) powerfully document, some television producers, scholars, and fans have similarly proven themselves keen to distinguish between “quality television” and regular or ordinary television in order to rescue a place for some television, albeit at the expense of most television—witness, HBO’s infamous slogan, “It’s not television, it’s HBO.” Within such an environment—and they date this process to the 2000s and 2010s, concurrently with our sample— adaptations from film to serialized, “quality” television may be expected to fare better than before.
In considering discursive positionings, though, we should expect adaptations and the discussions about them to tell us more than simply which media are seen as best or worst. What other discursive boundary work is performed by adaptations? For the rest of the chapter, we look to television-to-film, film-to-television adaptations, and comics-to-either-film-or-television adaptations to see what cultural systems surround film and television. Working off the presumption that a good adaptation can overcome almost any formal “rule” that might be seemingly imposed by a medium, we consider that across multiple adaptations we will see patterns start to form about what is or isn’t “supposed” to be on film or on television, about what a move from one medium to the other “requires,” and hence about the discursive, not formal, boundaries that separate the two media. Hutcheon notes an analog in genetic adaptation, a “process by which something is fitted to a given environment” (31), so what does this tell us about those environments, and about the cultural “atmosphere” of each medium? Or if following Leo Braudy, the remake is a “meditation on the continuing historical relevance [...] of a particular narrative,” “what its makers and (they hope) its audiences consider to be unfinished cultural business" (1998, 331), what parts of that business are repeatedly envisioned as being televisual, what parts filmic?