Thomas Leitch, “What do Victorianists think of recent developments in adaptation studies?”

Note from the editors of Streaky Bacon:Workgroup SpectrumG03511 The invitation below comes from Thomas M. Leitch, a leading scholar of adaptation studies and a member of our advisory board. Leitch questions whether the two fields that Streaky Bacon addresses, Victorian Studies and Adaptation Studies, are sufficiently conversant with each other. Or, more directly, whether Victorianists inform their discussions of adaptations by consulting the existing theoretical work. We invite you to answer the questions below, and over the coming months we will feature responses from other scholars in both fields.

An adaptationist’s open invitation to Victorianists

Thomas M. Leitch, University of Delaware, November 3, 2016

As someone who was trained in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary studies but drifted first toward cinema studies and then, perhaps inevitably, toward adaptation studies, I’ve watched for years as the debate over fidelity discourse—that is, the proposition that stage or screen or opera or comic-book adaptations ought to remain faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the texts they are adapting—has played out among adaptation scholars. Most recent adaptation scholars have followed Robert Stam’s argument that an intertextual view of adaptation recasting every text as an adaptation of earlier texts displaces questions about a specific text’s fidelity to another specific text from the heart of adaptation studies. Indeed, adaptation scholars who criticize fidelity discourse are routinely chastised for attacking a straw man no one believes in anymore.

At the same time, Fredric Jameson and other contributors to the collection True to the Spirit  (2011) have chastised critics of fidelity for ignoring perhaps the most obvious and frequently deployed criterion for evaluating adaptations and scholars like J.D. Connor and Casie Hermansson seek new ways to recuperate fidelity as an essential evaluative tool.

In the course of this debate, I’ve been struck by a charge that several recent adaptation scholars, most notably Kamilla Elliott and Simone Murray, have leveled against their colleagues for ascribing to other adaptation scholars opinions about fidelity that are held only by journalistic reviewers, not by other academics. Murray summarizes the situation in these terms:

[M]ost striking in reading back over 50 years of academic criticism about adaptation is not the dead hand of fidelity criticism, but—quite the opposite—how few academic critics make any claim for fidelity criticism at all. (8)

In a forthcoming essay, Elliott adds:

Some fidelity myth proponents … cite media reviewers, audiences, and adaptation practitioners rather than scholars. Even as they rightly demonstrate the formidable cultural power of fidelity imperatives, presenting the opinions of non-academics as the views of most adaptation scholars unfortunately denigrates adaptation scholarship.

Both Murray and Elliott suggest that it’s unreasonable and unfair for adaptation scholars to attack a position about the fidelity of adaptations rarely taken by other scholars, even if it’s commonly taken by reviewers, general audiences, and other non-academics. This last term is what’s provoked me to post to Streaky Bacon. The phrase “non-academics” seems to imply “academics who don’t explicitly study adaptation,” and so reads many of my academic colleagues, especially Victorian scholars, out of the debate entirely.

My own belief is that fidelity criticism is widely espoused, in practice and often in theory, by plenty of academics, notably Victorianists, who have rejected or ignored recent developments in adaptation studies. I spent the first two pages of Film Adaptation and Its Discontents (2007) summarizing the views of five contributors to the Victoria listserv discussing Mira Nair’s film adaptation of Vanity Fair because I thought their take on the film, which by and large emphasized the question of its fidelity to Thackeray, was eminently representative of academics who did not happen to be adaptation scholars. Since then I’ve watched in frustration as colleagues in adaptation studies spent endless hours and years debating questions their own field had largely settled, debates that, as far as I could see, had had virtually no impact on the academic world outside adaptation studies.

I was enthusiastic about the launch of Streaky Bacon in the first place and eager to be part of it precisely because I hoped it would give adaptation scholarship a chance to be heard outside its own echo chamber.

How powerful a case have adaptation scholars made for adopting the approaches to the subject they’ve recently proposed? How successful have they been in reaching an audience of historically trained literary scholars, and with what results? In what ways is their message limited or flawed in ways that Victorianists could usefully supplement or correct? These are questions that keep me up nights. On the assumption that anyone who reads Streaky Bacon must have at least a passing interest in both Victorian studies and adaptation studies, I invite any of its readers to respond to any or all of the questions below.

I hope you’ll be willing to join a dialogue whose ultimate goal is to make adaptation scholars and Victorian scholars more thoughtfully aware of each other’s work by asking what each group could do to speak most helpfully to the other’s abiding concerns.

Works Cited

Connor, J.D. “The Persistence of Fidelity: Adaptation Theory Today.” M/C Journal 10.2 (2007). 4 Oct. 2016.

Elliott, Kamilla. “Adaptation Theory and Adaptation Scholarship.” The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies. Ed. Thomas Leitch. New York: Oxford UP, 2017.

Hermansson, Casie. “Flogging Fidelity: In Defense of the (Un)Dead Horse.” Adaptation 8.2 (2014): 147–60.

Jameson, Fredric. “Afterword: Adaptation as a Philosophical Problem.” MacCabe et al. 215–33.

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

MacCabe, Colin, Kathleen Murray, and Rick Warner, eds. True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

Murray, Simone. The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation. Ed. James Naremore. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2000. 54–76.


  1. Based on your own knowledge, how has adaptation studies developed over the past twenty years? How important are these developments to your own work in Victorian studies? What could adaptation scholars do that would make their work in adaptation studies most useful to you?
  2. What do you think of the continuing debate in and out of adaptation studies about fidelity to an original source as a primary criterion for evaluating a given adaptation?
  3. What would be the ideal relationship between adaptation studies and Victorian studies? What can the two fields learn from each other?

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