Adaptation is characteristic of everything – of all life, all disciplines and all media: Interview with Kamilla Elliott

in Interviews/Views

By Blanka Šustrová


Pietro Jeng,, CC0 1.0(2)
Pietro Jeng,, CC0 1.0

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that all of us have experienced some type of adaptation during our lifetime already. People often go to the cinema to watch movies based on their favourite books, play games based on their favourite movies and then read books based on the games. Adaptation is an organic process of information modification, of text shaping and media exploration. But what it is, exactly? Why it is good to stay unfaithful to the source material? And why is interdisciplinarity so important today? Professor Kamilla Elliott, a leading scholar in the field of adaptation studies, was kind enough to provide answers for all these questions and many more!


How did you get into studying film adaptations?


I was thinking about what to do for my PhD thesis as we had to come up with something original. Back then I was at the Harvard University English Literature Department, and I had a very inspirational teacher who asked us to write ten pages of criticism on one paragraph from Thomas Hardy. This seemed very daunting, she said it does not have to connect, it does not have to cohere, she said, you just need to show that you can study literature in depth.

I had studied film for a year as an MA, and it struck me, reading a passage of Thomas Hardy, how much the description of the character followed the film patterns of mid shot, long shot, close up, pan shot, and so on. And then I decided that the relationship between film and Victorian literature would be a very interesting project.


How does film adapt Victorian literature?


There are two ways in which film adapts the Victorian novel. First of all, film carries on traditions that were started in the Victorian novel, traditions of narrative, character type and the social function in society that the novel has, has largely been taken over by film, so there are important continuities in the history of narrative fiction.

If you go back to oral poetry, you can trace the rise of Renaissance drama, the rise of fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries and so on. It is a part of the evolution of English literature, or any nation’s literature. Film has taken up many of literature’s tropes, traditions and narrative structures. So that is an important cultural and also aesthetic narrative genre, media topic. But there is no other body of literature that has been so often adapted to film as the Victorian novel. We do have more Shakespeare adaptations than of any other individual author, but he is the only playwright in his period, or any period, that has been adapted that much. Just look at how many films there have been of even something like A Christmas Carol well over a hundred.

In the 19th century the novel was frequently adapted for the theatre, sometimes even before the novel was finished in serialisation – some early films are actually recordings of those theatrical adaptations. Many of the theatrical adaptations then evolved into radio dramas, which then evolved into television serialisation. If your interest is in narrative, there are strong continuities between literature and film that inform each other.

Film and fiction fed each other between the two world wars. Writers were looking at film and adopting filmic techniques in their writing, like shifting points of view, but also  filmmakers were using literature to develop their art, so there was a vital exchange there. Therefore if you study them separately, you miss out on a great deal of information about each. The book I wrote and published in 2003 (Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate) talks about how much is missing from literary study and how much is missing from film study by an artificial separation of those two disciplines. Literature tends to think of itself as a verbal art; film tends to think of itself as an image art, and it neglects its words, screenplays, dialogues, credits, titles and so on. But literature used to be copiously illustrated for adults, and there were all kinds of exciting interchanges between illustrations and texts, conflicts and collaborations, and film is full of words in various forms. So these are really rich, hybrid forms and setting them in dialogue brings a great deal of new information to both disciplines.


Laura Lee Moreau,, CC0 1.0(2)
Laura Lee Moreau,, CC0 1.0



Why did the notion of hybrid forms disappear?


Because of medium specificity theory, which also created the separate academic departments in which we now study. Modernists revived Lessing’s theory of medium specificity that was developed in the 18th century to separate poetry from painting. During the Victorian period there was a lot of mixing of the arts and breaking down of those separate species. But with Modernism, as scholars were trying to carve out academic territory, they opposed illustrations in literature, while there were lots of scholars and filmmakers pressing to get rid of words, to get rid of language in film.


To have a pure form?


To have a pure form but also not to be dependent on or contaminated by literature. And yet as I mentioned at the beginning, these techniques of description where you start with the full body and then you go to a half body and into the face and maybe into an eye – these are imagistic techniques from literature, such as Hardy’s writing. So the idea of a pure image art with no literary antecedents is artificial and incorrect. A lot of film history books and film aesthetic books are very inaccurate when it comes to their treatment of language and words. There is an ongoing movement to try and minimize text in film, and also images in literature. But if you look at other disciplines like the sciences or the social sciences, there is a much stronger embrace of interdisciplinarity, and actually a lot of theories that are applied in literary and film studies encourage interdisciplinarity, so that philosophy, history and psychology inform literature and film. So too do other media. And yet within the humanities there is still this very sharp separation based in theories of medium specificity.


Do you think it is gradually getting better, or should we work on connecting those? Do you feel that there is a movement towards the interdisciplinarity? And why are the humanities trying to have separate boxes?


I think that this is a longstanding ancient battle between words and images that goes back thousands of years. Higher value has been accorded to words over images, particularly in the West. There are all kinds of religious, scientific and political ideologies, philosophies fueling this, so there is a lot at stake in challenging it. And it really strikes me when we come back to adaptation. Adaptation is characteristic of everything, it is characteristic of all life, all disciplines, all media. And yet the humanities cling to pre-Darwinian theories supporting original creation and opposing adaptation as if they were religious, conservative theologians. They cling to this theory of separate species and this belief that the arts cannot or should not mix, that they are best kept separate, pure, individually created. And I think that now, in the days of digital media, you will almost never get a pure text anymore, nor a pure image, so this clinging is increasingly unhelpful to understanding media generally as well as literature and film specifically. In addition, there are music and movement and sound effects in media and we are starting now to use our fingers and touch more to access media via apps and touch screens. Therefore I think that academia is in danger of becoming obsolete and irrelevant if it does not engage with adaptation and media interdisciplinarity because we will have nothing relevant to say to culture.

Adaptation is characteristic of everything, it is characteristic of all life, all disciplines, all media. And yet the humanities cling to pre-Darwinian theories supporting original creation and opposing adaptation as if they were religious, conservative theologians.


We should break the walls down.


Well I think they have been broken down already but the question is, are scholars going to acknowledge and accept that, and are they going to try and understand it and explain it and have some kind of influence in society? If people stay in their separate spheres, they are going to end up eventually just talking to themselves, and there will not be anybody outside who has any interest in hearing what they have to say. This is already a danger in the humanities. I think that scholars could have a very important role in helping us to understand new media, and I think that the prejudice is not just medium specificity theory, but also a kind of pseudo-religious worship of aesthetic, and a tendency to mystify it, to give it a kind of value that does not have any kind of clear logical or even ethical weight to it. And yes, there is beauty and yes, there is pleasure in art, and we must hold on to that, but there is also beauty and pleasure in adaptation and in mixed media. It is not confined to pure media, and in fact sometimes the mixture of media gives the most astonishing aesthetic pleasure, and the most astonishing type of creativity. There is so much more you can do with talking about the dynamics between two media; there are so many different possible combinations, whether you are doing dialectics or dialogics or postmodern pastiche or whatever kind of multiplicity you are engaging, so that staying focused on just one kind of medium is not progressive. I am not saying there is no place for the single discipline, but…

If people stay in their separate spheres, they are going to end up eventually just talking to themselves, and there will not be anybody outside who has any interest in hearing what they have to say.


It is a bit outdated now.


It is a bit like American isolationism. We live now in a global society and it is not possible for any country now to ignore other countries. Similarly, we live in an age of mixed media and new media constantly being invented, new dynamics and interchanges among all different kinds of most of representation. And those people who choose to remain isolationists are increasingly going to find that they no longer even understand their own medium because so much is changing in it due to the influence of other media upon it, so much is happening with text, and if you do not study it in relationship with other media, you are going to fall behind, you are going to be lost in the past.


I have seen a cartoon of professors having a discussion, one of them saying: “We have to finally acknowledge that the internet won’t go away,” which illustrates that you have to actively engage in new media and stay up to date in order to write and comment on any work. Living in ivory towers is no longer possible, especially if you study pop culture.


I think that is true. Students today want to have the media that are at the centre of their lives explained to them and understood. It does not mean that the past is not important: I think that it is very important to know the history of your culture and its different modes of art and representation. But if you stop there and refuse to engage with what is happening now and you have a set of values that authorise you to refuse to engage with it, it is like those fundamentalist religions which refuse to acknowledge things like the progress that women have made, and that women no longer want to be oppressed and kept inside the home and kept from having any positions of power. And I think that it is the same, it is a kind of authority structure that is repressive and restrictive and it is no longer democratic, so I think that one of the things that keeps the old system in place is a kind of establishment like the ten commandments: rules that literature or film or any medium has to fit in order to be classified as good and worthy of study.

We do not just study media for their aesthetic value and their skill and their style; we study them to understand the cultures that have produced them, and we read the cultures that have produced them through media back and forth.

We do not just study media for their aesthetic value and their skill and their style; we study them to understand the cultures that have produced them, and we read the cultures that have produced them through media back and forth. This has always been important to a degree; it tends to have been more historical; now it is more ideological. But again if we are to understand what is being done, said today and written today in film today, it is very important. And there can still be aesthetic value but it should not be the only thing that we are looking for.


Is the idea of an adaptation as being something inauthentic this feeling of literature as a higher art still valid in the academic circles, or?


There is still a lot of prejudice against adaptation because we still have a set of values in the humanities that prioritises originality. There is an overemphasis in the humanities on difference and lack of attention to sameness and comparative issues. If you look at the social sciences and sciences, there are much more balances in the way that they set difference and similarity in dialogue with each other. In the humanities, we are constantly going on about difference, original work, medium specificity, original scholarship, and a constant breaking off and apart from what has gone before. If you think about what adaptation is in biology, it is similarity combined with difference, so you repeat something but it is differentiated, like DNA.


In order to survive we need to progress, to adapt to conditions?


Keeping things the same, you are doomed to extinction. You need to repeat aspects of what has come before – that is why adaptation is never completely new, you need to repeat but there needs to be the variation that ensures the survival, and the ongoing relevance in society.


Why do audiences like adaptations?


I think that adaptations show us that people still read literary texts but they also want to also rewrite them and remake them.


To fit their needs?


Yes, to fit their society and culture. There is something, for instance, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson that speaks to many cultures and ages – particularly the idea of the double self or the divided self. But the way that it is manifested in the 1880s, though it might be interesting as a read and a bit of entertainment, does not satisfy the hunger that the filmmakers, the television producers, playwrights and videogame designers and other creators have to adapt it to their medium and era. Also authors who want to rewrite it or make sequels or fanfiction want to take that core issue and work through it in a new way set in dialogue with Stevenson’s text. Adaptations, in many ways, function similarly to literary criticism. I think that one of the reasons that literary critics do not like adaptation is because it is a rival to what they do, but it does not do criticism in the logical thesis – argument – conclusion linear, rational mode that critics do. It is not necessarily verbal. There will be a light or a camera angle that casts a certain view on the material that is new and fresh, and because that cannot be constrained and limited by words, it is threatening, You can talk about it, but you cannot turn light into words. It lies beyond the impact that words and logic have.


Do you think that literary critics somehow consider adaptations to be rival?


I think that adaptation is threatening to literary critics, because it is so much more popular: most people would much rather see an adaptation of a literary text than go and read literary criticism about it, and I think that is another reason that literary critics have tried to shut out adaptation. I think that for film it is a different dynamic which I have mentioned before, which is wanting to shake free from literature, disavow its parentage, deny it and carry film into a separate sphere.


Do you feel that people do not see adaptation as an original work but more like a parasite that is actually feeding off rather than recreating it?


There is no question that adaptations are variable in quality, in power and in the effect that they have on their audiences, and that there are bad adaptations – just like there is bad literary criticism. There are adaptations that disappoint people and offend people, just as there is literary criticism that arouses protest, but if your interest is in knowledge and not solely aesthetics – and I do think that in academia the number one interest should be knowledge – you will not want to close off any knowledge that you could have about your text. As a scholar of Jekyll and Hyde I would want to read it as a text, I would want to read the criticism, to study the historical context, to read a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, but I would not want to stop there, I would want to know how it has been interpreted and adapted in other ways. And it is not just the film; it is the reviews of the film and the responses to the film, and the films that will adapt a prior film. It is like looking at DNA strands that run through lineages and heritages. I do want to know how it is being read today; I do want to know how it is being studied, and not just by academics, because often academics get stuck in ruts. Everybody who uses the same theory all the time, will come up with the same readings, just like a religious denomination will always come up with its own theology, and I think that adaptations often help to break us out of dogmas and ruts and help us see things from different angles.


What for you personally means a good adaptation?

I have my students do creative projects where they have to do an aesthetic adaptation of something, not just a critical work, and then they have to write an essay on what that aesthetic work – whether it is music or filming or drawing or making a cake based on a book – taught them about the text that they could not find through linguistic, rational, linear narrative criticism.

My priority is knowledge, and while it is important for me to have aesthetic pleasure, that is a bonus, not the main quest. A good adaptation tells me something about the source work that I could not have seen without it. I have my students do creative projects where they have to do an aesthetic adaptation of something, not just a critical work, and then they have to write an essay on what that aesthetic work – whether it is music or filming or drawing or making a cake based on a book – taught them about the text that they could not find through linguistic, rational, linear narrative criticism. Things that they discovered are things that critics have never discovered. For example, there was a student who did a ballet based on the female characters of Romeo and Juliet. She choreographed the relationships between those women, without the men there, to show what that society would be like, or what those relations would be like separated from the words and the context. There were things that were revealed there through the dance movements of those characters whose relationships would not have been clear if the criticism had just been done textually. There are things that people have done with music, which opened up aspects that you would not find if you were restricting yourself to the traditional academic verbal structures. And if my students can do that, then adaptations made by professionals can do that as well. There is something I can discover about a text that I did not know before – through the adaptation, whether it is aesthetically good or not. If it is aesthetically good it brings me pleasure; it does not necessarily give me knowledge, because that it is a different type of register for me.


Noom Peerapong,, CC0 1.0(2)
Noom Peerapong,, CC0 1.0

What do you think about the fidelity discourse in adaptation studies?


Well first of all, almost every new publication starts by complaining that adaptation scholars have been focused on fidelity too much, but there is absolutely no evidence for that. I have done a study on writings of adaptations in English from the 1690s, and by far the most common discourse is the need for infidelity in adaptations. If you look at the people who claim that there is nothing but fidelity, you see that they have no sources, they do not cite sources, or they cite someone else who says this who has cited no sources, or they cite non-academic sources. I went through all the publications on adaptations in an annotated bibliography covering the years 1909 to 1988, and found only a handful of studies that insist on fidelity, so to me that is a myth of the field and it all too often stands in place of a real, thorough-going history of the field. That is a thing I am writing now, a history of the field. It helps to explain why adaptation studies has been so marginalised and kept out of the mainstream. The reason that there has been much more obsession with infidelity is that people want originality; they want the difference in the adaptation; they want the adaptation to subvert the original and challenge it. I think that it has been a tremendous handicap to our field, to have people claiming this false history which is not a part of it.

I have talked about how film studies has a false history, how literature studies has a false history: well adaptation studies does too. It is paradoxical that adaptation scholars should even be concerned with originality; they should be concerned with adapting. That is not to say that ordinary people and scholars would not privately want an adaptation to be faithful to a beloved text, because if they are essentially seeking an amplification of something they already love, they want to see it fleshed out and illustrated, and they are disappointed when it does not do it in the way that they would like. That is definitely a common viewer response. So privately I think it is true, but in scholarship it has been infidelity that most scholars have been obsessed with.


I think fidelity is not possible because there is so much difference between the two signifying systems, between the verbal and the visual and oral and verbal which is used in movies, so fidelity cannot be possibly achieved.


The only way you can do it is to film the pages of the book and have the person turn the page at exactly the right speed, and even that is not totally faithful because you cannot smell it, nor feel it. But I think that as a scholar it is the ones that are unfaithful that are the most interesting, because you get the most knowledge from that, the most insight. Why are those differences there? You can explain why a similarity is there, but why is the difference there? And you mentioned that earlier – do I think it is a travesty to be appropriating to a paratext? No, because in a way it shows a value for it, but it shows a need for it to be reworked in order to continue to be valued. Linda Hutcheon has said that adaptation has kept texts alive that otherwise would disappear. And it has a function for survival. It does not mean that the only texts that survive have been adapted. It is like the Bible; if the text is not meaningful in new contexts, new environments, it will cease to be read, it will cease to be appreciated or used.


What do you think about fandoms and fan fictions, fan-works in general?


I have not studied them very much but I think that they are an important cultural phenomenon, because they allow ordinary people to be adaptors and to find audiences. In the past there has been a very narrow range of adaptations, because particularly in film, it has to appeal to a huge kind of mass audience to earn some money, and for a book to make a profit it has got to appeal to thousands of people. What the internet does, although of course you can end up with millions of readers there – it allows you to find smaller audiences, who might appreciate your work; it allows for more diversity, and it involves a new kind of relationship with the masses to literature. They are not just reading it, but they are writing back to it, so it is like The Empire Writes Back (2). The reader writes back to the text, and that is extraordinarily interesting. We have to have new ways of studying that if we are demanding that your average fan fiction achieves the quality of a handful of select great writers in history, and that is the only basis on which fan fiction is worthy of being read, it is going to be a very rare… although there are some fans who write beautifully. But if your interest is in studying how people have read and interpreted literature and how they are responding to it with their own creativity and their own writing and what that might say about culture or the medium of the internet then I think there is interest there.


What can students and scholars focus on in adaptation studies now?


If you are trying to break through in a fairly conservative department, you are not going to be able to get them to accept some kind of very cutting edge or “out-there” proposal, so maybe a good starting place would be to look at screenplays and texts, or scripts of adaptations, or to focus on the very strong tradition of performance studies that theatre has, so maybe take theatre and a good performance theory and then carry it into film, like a lot of the first films were recordings of plays. When I did my thesis at Harvard, no one had ever done adaptation before, so there was a lot of scepticism about it. But I made a very strong case for the relationship between the Victorian novel and film, and I showed that there is a continuity between the two media and so there was enough evidence to show that what I was going to do with adaptation would be of interest and would tap into questions that were asked about genre, narrative, history and form. So I was looking at the form.

One of the things I think that has discredited adaptation studies is that sometimes it becomes just a generic kind of vague cultural studies where you make a little left-wing point or a right-wing point, or a little point about feminism or something, and it does not have that rigour. If you want to break through and be a pioneer, you are going to need to come up with a thesis project that will allow you to both satisfy the kinds of issues and questions that your department wants you to study but also allow you to push into adaptation, and then down the road the next project you do might be a little bit freer and so on.


Do you have any last tips for students getting into adaptation studies?

I have got a colleague who does textual scholarship, and she looks at different versions of Tennyson’s poems between his draft and the final version: that is a legitimate source of study. You can take that kind of textual study and perhaps carry that into a text, to a screenplay, to a film, and look at the screenplay as an intertext. Very few people have done this. It is a really good area to be published in as well. Look at studies of Shakespeare in performance, on the stage, that is a completely legitimate field, no one would say to you if you are a Shakespeare scholar: “You cannot possibly study Shakespeare on the stage, you will not be allowed to,” so then say: “Right, I am going to do the theatre but I am going to look at the movement from the text to the theatre to the film.”

This is a great challenge to you to be adaptive and to be good adapters, so to look at what is the structure, what is this constraint, what is it I want to do and how can I adapt my project to that, but also how can I adapt those constraints that they will stretch for my project, and you know I think that a literary text survives through adaptation, academia will survive only if the new scholars like yourselves are going to be able to adapt it. It does not mean to depart from it, because then you will not have support, you will not have readers, you will not find publishers, but you take what is there, and you gradually find a way to make your interest work.


Kamilla Elliott
Courtesy of Kamilla Elliott

Professor Kamilla Elliott was born in the UK but moved to the US after her A levels. She studied at the University of Colorado and Boston University. She worked in health research and elder care for a while but returned to the academia and continued her studies at Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. From 1996-2004, she taught Victorian studies and interdisciplinary literature and film studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Kamilla is now employed at the Lancaster University in the UK, where she continues her research on intermedial adaptation theory and practice. She is now working on sequels to her two monographs: Rethinking the Adaptation/Theorization Debate follows on from Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Cambridge, 2003); Victorian Literature and the Rise of Picture Identification, 1836-1918 continues the research published in Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction: The Rise of Picture Identification, 1764-1835 (Johns Hopkins, 2012).