Kamilla Elliott, “What can Victorian Studies learn from adaptation studies?”

Note from the editors of Streaky Bacon:Workgroup SpectrumG03511 In the following essay, Kamilla Elliott responds to Thomas M. Leitch, who in an earlier invitation on our site questions whether Victorianists consult adaptation theory. Elliott explores how Victorian studies and adaptation studies wrestle with similar issues — such as whether to privilege aesthetics or culture, and the creation of media hierarchies — and makes the case that the two fields can usefully supplement each other.

We invite you to share your comments below, and over the coming months will feature responses from other scholars in both fields.

What can Victorian Studies learn from adaptation studies?

Kamilla Elliott, Lancaster University, January 27, 2017

Patrick Fleming has invited me to respond to Thomas Leitch’s forum question, “What can Victorian studies learn from adaptation studies?” As a scholar working in both fields, I have learned a great deal from looking back and forth between them, so that I cannot ask the question without asking the inverse one, “What can adaptation studies learn from Victorian studies?” Not only can each learn from the other, but each can also learn from its existing and potential intersections with the other.

Adaptation studies and Victorian studies already have a great deal in common. They are both robustly interdisciplinary, with deep roots in literary studies. In her introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture (2016), editor Juliet John affirms that “Victorian studies today embraces heterogeneity: there is a generosity, curiosity, and inclusivity in its spirit. The corollary of this relaxed pluralism, and indeed precondition for it, is a certain elasticity about spatial, temporal, and disciplinary parameters” (2). The handbook’s table of contents attests to its disciplinary scope, treating war, empire, politics, religion, economics, science, technology, education, sexuality, gender, genre (art, literature, theatre, periodicals), aesthetics, celebrity culture, and geography. The table of contents for Thomas Leitch’s The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies (forthcoming 2017) also attests to the field’s disciplinary range, though it evinces a wider range of media disciplines and genres (theatre, fiction, film, religious scriptures, comic books, opera, popular music, radio, telenovelas, videogames), and a narrower range of cultural disciplines (politics, religion, history, nation) than the Victorian handbook. The proliferation of terms such as intertextuality, intermediality, interactivity, transmedia, transtextuality, translation, and ekphrasis attest to its theoretical roots in narratology and media studies. Adaptation studies has managed to maintain a focus on formal issues, aesthetics, and creative agency, emphases that were marginalized in Victorian studies following an influx of cultural theories at the end of the twentieth century. Just as adaptation scholars have been returning to recuperate fidelity, widely excoriated in adaptation studies from its incipience, so too Victorian scholars have been returning to issues rendered taboo by the radical cultural critique: aesthetics, creative agency, affect, form, and character (John 14). John Hodgkins brought the affect theory that has been prominent in Victorian studies into adaptation studies in 2013, but it has not found a similar following, perhaps because he pits it against fidelity criticism rather than the political impact imperatives and philosophical skepticism against which it was asserted in Victorian studies. Each new theory needs a theoretical antagonist with some teeth; fidelity criticism, I and others have argued, is a rather insubstantial, largely mythical theoretical antagonist. Since George Bluestone’s Novels into Film (1957), adaptation scholars have far more often championed infidelity in adaptation than the other way round (Elliott, Rethinking, 128-9).

Even so, cultural studies are by no means absent in adaptation studies. Edited collections by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan from 1996 foreground them. Both adaptation studies and Victorian studies share a deep concern with questions of art and cultural value. From Victorianist Matthew Arnold, both fields inherited liberal humanist theories according moral, spiritual, and civilizing significance to “high art,” often contrasted to the materialism and “vulgarity” of mass culture. Both fields subsequently experienced an influx of radical, political cultural studies from the 1960s on, and the view that art is subject to the operations of power and not transcendent of them, and critiques of the elitist, oppressive politics of high art forever changed the landscape of both fields. Yet there was a time lapse between these movements in Victorian and adaptation studies. Radical political studies were well established in the former by the 1970s, and Victorian scholars have worked for decades to restore marginalized works and perspectives to the field, finessing and complicating cultural theories and methodologies. However, it was not until the mid-1990s that radical leftist critiques were levied on adaptation with any momentum, beginning with Cartmell, Whelehan, Hunter, and Kaye’s Pulping Fictions: Consuming Culture across the Literature/Media Divide (1996). Because adaptation generally was marginalized as low art by aesthetic formalism, it may have taken longer than it did in other fields to make championing some adaptations over others theoretically resonant.

Hablot Knight Browne - The Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller with Mr. Stiggins

Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, just one instance of the important overlap between Victorian fiction and illustrations, began as a supplement to Robert Seymour’s illustrations.

Yet even though Victorian studies made earlier, and today makes more nuanced critical inroads on sexism, racism, and a host of other –isms than adaptation, it has been slower to rid itself of the media hierarchies that it inherited from formalism and New Criticism. In 2012, Whelehan critiqued Neo-Victorian scholars for continuing to express prejudiced and denigrating attitudes to audiovisual media; in 2016, Julia Thomas was still fighting against the marginalization of illustrations in Victorian literary studies, a battle that she has waged eloquently and persuasively since 2004. In spite of my own critique that no theory of the novel includes illustrations, no subsequent theory has redressed this omission (Elliott Rethinking, 13). Like adaptation, illustration usually receives a token chapter in handbooks, marginalized from the mainstream. Illustrated fiction is a form of intramedial adaptation, in which pictures and prose mutually adapt each other, mingling on the pages and in audience cognition. Illustrations were not marginal in the Victorian era; they were pervasive and integral to the production and consumption of prose fiction. Indeed, they are each other’s most pertinent contexts, an intriguing hybrid of intertextual contextualization whose further study would benefit both Victorian and adaptation studies.

Victorian scholars have been reluctant to cede that other media are just as much a part of literary context as history, politics, philosophy, psychology, economics, and society. A superannuated adherence to medium specificity and devotion to high culture, even among radical political scholars, keeps other media cordoned off as context by media boundaries and categorical divides. Victorian studies can learn from adaptation studies to take more interest in intermedial engagements—in the very transtextuality, intermediality (etc.) that populates the table of contents in adaptation studies handbooks, treating them not solely as forms but also as contexts and environments.

Victorian studies and adaptation studies not only share approaches and ideas in common, but each also is further implicated in the other. No other body of literature has been more frequently adapted to other media (theatre, painting and other visual arts, music, dance, film, television, and new media) than the Victorian novel. (While Shakespeare is unrivalled in terms of the sheer number and range of adaptations, he is the only figure from his era to be widely and persistently adapted; that his plays were written to be performed rather than printed makes their initial adaptation to the stage less remarkable.) Victorian scholars can learn from adaptation studies not only how other media inform their literature, but also about how their literature has been reinterpreted across cultures, eras, and media forms. They can further learn what literary criticism and adaptation share, as well as what adaptation can reveal about literature that is not accessible through verbal epistemologies and modes of analysis (see Elliott, “Doing Adaptation”).

Before Victorian studies, the Victorians were themselves immensely interdisciplinary: abandoning neoclassical categorical divides through the gateway of Romanticism and preceding modernist academic territories, polymaths such as George Henry Lewes, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and Francis Galton wrote in many disciplines. Writers on such subjects as the philosophy of mind blended psychology, history, biography, science, art, religion, philosophy, politics, and more in single treatises. Rampant interdisciplinarity extended to rampant intermedial adaptation. In 1983, Martin Meisel documented how pervasively the Victorians adapted across media, including poems, novels, plays, paintings, operas, songs, dances, tableaux, and tableaux vivants adapted to each other, in every direction and back again. Robert Patten has documented the further adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers to commodities or tie-in merchandise:

There were Pickwick hats, canes, cigars, fabrics, coats, song books, china figurines, Weller corduroys and jest books, and Boz cabs. There were imitations, plagiarisms, parodies, sequels, extra illustrations, Pickwick quadrilles, stage piracies, and adaptations.  (Qtd. in Guida 41)

The Victorians adapted not only the works of their own day to other media, but also the works of prior periods and other cultures to their own, including the Judeo-Christian Bible, Greek literature, medieval art and poetry, Arthurian legend, ballads of Robin Hood and other British folklore, and Shakespearean plays.

Adaptation scholars can learn from this Victorian history of adaptation. The film adaptations that have constituted the core of adaptation studies did not begin with the birth of film, but grew out of Victorian interart adaptations and intermedial technologies. Indeed, a tendency to study adaptation across media to understand differences between media rather than as a historical continuum across forms has led to ahistorical field myths, such as the notion that Dickens is “cinematic,” when Joss Marsh has shown that “Dickens is cinematic only and insofar as he responded to pre-cinematic technologies and entertainments” (24), such as magic lantern optics. Conversely, wherever cinema resembles Dickens, cinema should be dubbed literary rather than Dickens being anachronistically dubbed cinematic (Elliott, “Cinematic Dickens”).

Attention to a longer history of adaptation helped me to understand and challenge field myths and resolve contradictions in adaptation theory. When I was researching Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (2003), I kept coming across paradoxes that clarified when I looked at poetry and painting debates in the eighteenth century, prose and illustration debates in the nineteenth, and theatre and film debates in the twentieth, all of which fed into novel and film debates in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Greater attention to the history of adaptation within the Victorian period can clarify and strengthen both fields and, in adaptation studies, free us from the mythologies that currently substitute for actual histories of the field (see Elliott, “Adaptation Theory and Adaptation Scholarship”).

Works Cited

Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. Berkeley: U California P, 1957.

Cartmell, Deborah, I. Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye, and Imelda Whelehan, eds. Pulping Fictions: Consuming Culture across the Literature/Media Divide. London: Pluto P, 1996.

Elliott, Kamilla. “Doing Adaptation: The Adaptation as Critic.” Teaching Adaptations. Eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 71-86.

——. “Cinematic Dickens and Uncinematic Words.” Dickens on Screen. Ed. John Glavin. Cambridge UP, October 2003. 113-21. Reprinted in Dickens Adapted. Ed. John Glavin. London: Routledge, 2012.

——. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Guida, Fred. A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dicken’s Story on Screen and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

Hodgkins, John. The Drift: Affect, Adaptation and New Perspectives on Fidelity. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

John, Juliet. “Literary Culture and the Victorians.” The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 1-26.

Leitch Thomas, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Thomas, Julia. “Illustrations and the Victorian Novel.” The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 617-36.

Whelehan, Imelda. “Neo-Victorian Adaptations.” A Companion to Literature, Film, and Adaptation. Ed. Deborah Cartmell. Oxford: Blackwell, 2012. 272-92.


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