Streaky Bacon and the Adaptive Mode

By Patrick C. Fleming, Fisk University, March 15 2016

In the famous passage that gives this site its title, Charles Dickens justifies his seemingly abrupt transition from the pathos of young Oliver’s kidnapping to the humor of Mr. Bumble’s courtship by allusion to a popular theatrical genre. The “murderous melodramas” to which he refers emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and by 1837, when Oliver Twist was published, melodrama was a popular and recognizable form of theater. And just as Dickens borrowed from the theater, the theater borrowed from him: even while Oliver Twist was being serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany, enterprising theater managers adapted it for the stage. John Forster recalls accompanying Dickens to a production of Oliver Twist at the Royal Surrey Theatre in 1838, before the ending of the novel had been published: “in the middle of the first scene he laid himself down in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell” (Forster 150). Whether he liked it or not (and usually he did not), Dickens would face this challenge throughout his career, as his popular novels became popular plays – often melodramas – over which he had no control.

Oliver Twist is one key example in the history of melodrama, which was not simply a genre of theater but a “dominant shaping force of modernity” (Williams 193). While as a stage genre melodrama has identifiable features (such as stock characters, musical style, expressions and gestures from performers, and tableaux), the “melodramatic mode” became “a behavioral and expressive model” in a “wide variety of social settings, not just on the stage” (Hadley 3). Streaky Bacon makes a similar case for adaptation, or what we might call the “adaptive mode.” Throughout the Victorian period, as Linda Hutcheon puts it, “the stories of poems, novels, plays, operas, paintings, songs, dances, and tableaux vivants were constantly being adapted from one medium to another and then back again” (Hutcheon xiii). Oliver Twist is only one famous instance of a common practice: adaptation was an expressive mode traceable across a variety of Victorian genres and social settings.

Adaptation has become even more expansive in the twenty-first century. With “even more new materials at our disposal — not only film, television, radio, and the various electronic media, of course, but also theme parks, historical enactments, and virtual reality experiments,” the public reception of literature from the past depends heavily on adaptations (Hutcheon xiii). In the last two decades, critics like Hutcheon, Thomas Leitch, Kamilla Elliott, and Dianne Sadoff have developed theoretical approaches to this range of adaptations, considering factors beyond whether an adaptation faithfully reproduces an “original.” This introduction outlines some of those theories, and the essays on the site demonstrate the variety of adaptive practices.

Approaches to Adaptation

As Thomas Leitch writes, adaptation studies “traces its descent more directly from literary studies” than from film studies, and so tends to privilege literature over film, resulting in “a triumph of an evaluative impulse to insist that originals are always touchstones of value for their adaptations, unless of course the adaptations are better” (3, 6). Most discussions of adaptations, Leitch argues, lead to evaluation rather than analysis, and the criteria for the evaluation involves asking, how faithful is the “original” or “source” text to the adaptation?

What unifies the diverse range of theories of adaptation is a stance against this tradition of “fidelity discourse.” For Leitch, “When we focus on fidelity as the central problem of film adaptation, we overlook the problematic nature of source texts that makes them worth studying in the first place” (17). Julie Sanders insists that studying adaptation is “not about making polarized value judgments, but about analyzing process, ideology, and methodology” (Sanders 20). Robert Stam argues that we need to focus less on “inchoate notions of ‘fidelity’ and to give more attention to dialogical responses — to readings, critiques, interpretations, and rewritings of prior material” (Stam 76). One aim of Streaky Bacon is to share analyses of process, ideology, and methodology, and to explore how adaptations might critique, interpret, and rewrite the texts they adapt. In part to avoid evaluative judgments, we prefer the term “precursor” to “original,”  as it emphasizes temporal precedence rather than value.

This is not to say that an adaptation should be considered apart from its precursors. For Hutcheon, the pleasure of adaptation “comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise. Recognition and remembrance are part of the pleasure (and risk) of experiencing an adaptation; so too is change” (Hutcheon 4). Indeed, as Julie Sanders notes, adaptations depend on “the audience’s awareness of an explicit relationship to a source text” (Sanders 22), a fact that separates them from “appropriations” that might obscure the “founding relationships and interrelationships” (32). While we do not privilege the precursor text over the adaptation, we nevertheless insist on the importance of the relationship.

As Kamilla Elliott has argued, that relationship has an aesthetic of its own. Elliott grounds her study of adaptation in the history of interart analogies stretching back to the eighteenth century and beyond. She identifies two diverging methods of approaching connections between different media (painting and poetry, for example, or film and the novel): one method sees them as categorically different species, while the other sets up “rhetorical family resemblances through interart analogies” (Elliott 1). Such a distinction, Elliott argues, raises important questions that disrupt our assumptions about form and content. Poststructuralist critics overturned the form/content binary by “debunking and ghosting content altogether,” but in doing so they rendered “adaptation a theoretical impossibility” (134). If content is merely an illusion, and cross-media adaptations are in categorically different forms, then what exactly is being adapted? Elliott argues that “theory has obfuscated a clear understanding of aesthetic practice and of intra- and inter-disciplinary dynamics” (6), and sees adaptation as a way of addressing that obfuscation. The essays in Streaky Bacon provide examples of those intra- and inter-art dynamics and ways to theorize relationships between adaptations and their precursors.

In some cases the precursor is not so easy to identify. For Hutcheon, one reason it doesn’t make sense to consider an adaptation “in relation to its proximity to any single ‘original’” is that “none may even exist” (Hutcheon xxvi). Some adaptations blend multiple precursors, or relate more to intervening adaptations than to a specific precursor. Others adapt a concept, rather than a single text: many works of neo-Victorian fiction, for example, refer to a Victorian aesthetic rather than to any individual work. In its structure, Streaky Bacon takes an interpretive stance on this question: we see the adaptive mode as tied to specific, identifiable texts, even when those texts may be several degrees removed, and even when the link to a precursor is not the only (or even the main) feature of the adaptation. We promote the importance of Victorian texts, even while we emphasize the various filters through which those texts pass. Thus, to take one example, our essays on Sherlock Holmes consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictions, even while recognizing that the precursor is a character whose fame and importance extends well beyond the stories and novels in which he first appeared.

This structural emphasis opens us to a second criticism, or rather returns us to the criticism with which this essay began: that identifying specific precursors leads to evaluative claims about fidelity. Leitch claims that organizing studies of adaptation around canonical texts and authors implies “a presumptive criterion for each new adaptation. Arranging adaptations as “spokes around the hub,” whether a canonical author or, in our case, a literary period, establishes “literature as a proximate cause of adaptation that makes fidelity to the source text central to the field” (Leitch 3). We believe that that the risk is balanced by two points: the ability to emphasize practical utility over theory by collecting numerous related examples and the value of collecting specifically Victorian adaptations. The Victorian period witnessed the proliferation of media technologies, from machine-made paper and other printing innovations that allowed for the rapid growth of the novel and the periodical press to photography, sound and video recording, electricity, the telegraph and the telephone. By organizing essays around this temporal center, we claim the enduring importance of this multimedia era.

Streaky Bacon and Adaptation

Despite this investment in a historical period, the aim of Streaky Bacon is not simply to memorialize the Victorians. Our emphasis on adaptation evidences our commitment to studying how Victorian texts remain alive in the twenty-first century. Often, the adaptations take a stance that would have shocked the text’s author. Indeed, for John Glavin the most exciting aspect of an adaptation is its potential “to open a back door to current critical practice” (Glavin 13). Often audiences who know the precursors experience “not their continuation but their transgression. The adaptations freewheelingly reverse or invert these sources even as they work to retain the original emotional resonance” (Glavin 35).

Nor does limiting ourselves to precursors from the Victorian period discount the production of the adaptations themselves. As Dianne Sadoff argues, the cultural context of the adaptation is as relevant as the context of the source. While it is certainly true that “the historical, industrial, and cultural moment” in which a classic literary text was “produced and circulated” informs our interpretation of that text, those interpretations are equally bounded by their own historical, industrial and cultural moments (Sadoff xii). Joshua Gooch’s essay on the ending to David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), for example, argues that the adaptation must be understood in the context of England’s rebuilding after the devastation of World War II. If Dickens’s novel posits the need for individual suffering to build character, Lean’s film puts that suffering on a national scale.

This example demonstrates Sadoff’s insistence that we address “the production, distribution, and exhibition situations of films that adapt classic novels” since these films “may seek or fail to resolve structurally similar yet historically very different social contradictions” (Sadoff xiv). Sadoff focuses primarily on film, but her point extends to other mediums as well. For example, J. P. Burnett’s stage adaptations of Bleak House, as Julianne Smith explains, changed in response to the popularity of actress Jennie Lee’s portrayal of Jo the crossing sweeper. Lee’s performance thus becomes a cultural context that shapes the adaptation, as a minor character in the novel becomes a major character in the stage production.

Smith’s essay calls attention to an important point: adaptation is by no means a new mode. Streaky Bacon welcomes essays about historical adaptations, which are themselves crucial contexts for understanding a text’s reception history. In fact, the presence of intervening adaptations has repercussions for how we understand contemporary adaptations. David Altman laments how often “critics blithely postulate a direct connection between a film and the novel from which it is ostensibly drawn, when even minimal research clearly identifies a dramatic adaptation as an important direct source or the film” (Altman 147). For Altman, “The absence of attention to stage intermediaries is not itself the problem; it is a symptom of the real problem,” which is the ignoring of popular culture (158). Streaky Bacon addresses that problem by bringing attention to all kinds of adaptations, from Victorian melodramas to classic films to young adult novels and theme park attractions.

The example of Jo’s centrality in Burnett’s play also demonstrates how characters can take on a life beyond the text in which they first appear. Continuations, such as sequels and prequels, imagine the lives of characters beyond the story, and fall into the adaptive mode that Streaky Bacon celebrates. David Brewer describes a practice he calls “character migration,” whereby “readers imagined characters’ lives as extending off-page” (78). We find evidence of this practice in continuations of Victorian texts. In Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, for example, one of Dickens’s most beloved characters takes on a life of his own, in what Carrie Sickmann Han calls a “literary and historical pastiche” that locates Dickens’s character amidst a host of Victorian characters, figures, and social issues. Clare B. Dunkle, in another young adult novel introduced by Sonya Sawyer Fritz, imagines an origin for Heathcliff, the mysterious anti-hero of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Because these novels center on single characters, we classify them as continuations. But sometimes what makes a precursor appealing to an adaptor is not the characters but the narrative treatment of themes like social class or gender, which can be understood in different historical and cultural contexts. Such is the case with Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s film adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. As Emma Burris-Janssen explains, Winterbottom relocates the story to contemporary India and collapses the two main male characters into one. Winterbottom gives one example of how an adaptation generates a new cultural interpretation from a precursor.

Hutcheon also distinguishes between “knowing” and “unknowing” audiences. To experience an adaptation as an adaptation “we need to recognize it as such and to know its adapted text, thus allowing the latter to oscillate in our memories with what we are experiencing” (Hutcheon 120). Teachers work within this model when they assign an adaptation to help students grasp a classic text. In many cases, though, we come to an adaptation before we read, or perhaps even become aware of, the precursor. In such cases, “Our imaginations are permanently colonized by the visual and aural world of the films,” and perhaps “the novels then effectively become the derivative and belated works, the ones we then experience second and secondarily” (Hutcheon 121-2). Such is the case for many of our students, who are often introduced to Sherlock Holmes through Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey, Jr. before encountering Doyle’s precursor. Streaky Bacon encourages readers to consider the nuances of these relationships.

As this introductory essay hopes to demonstrate, a collection of essays about adaptations of Victorian texts need not privilege precursors over adaptations. Rather than comparing and evaluating adaptations, essays on this site instead ask how the aesthetics and conventions of different media and genres allow an adaptation to generate a new text from a precursor; how intervening adaptations shape a later one; how the cultural context of an adaptation projects a new meaning onto a precursor; or how familiarity with an adaptation shapes an audience’s interpretation of a precursor.

No one essay aims to be the final word on the adaptation it considers: rather, we hope to generate productive classroom discussions and scholarly investigations that will build on these examples. The layers in a side of streaky bacon are most evident when raw, and we hope our readers will continue the cooking.

Works Cited