Simone Murray (2012)

The Adaptation Industry.
The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation.
(Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies)
London, Routledge.

Review: © Patrick Cattrysse (30-11-2011)

In this book, Simone Murray proposes to ‘materialise’ the study of adaptation. The author argues that until now adaptation studies has predominantly focused on textual analysis. In order to complement such an approach, Murray proposes a ‘sociology’ of adaptation that encom­passes the extra-textual dimensions of adaptation. Referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of ‘field of cultural production’ and ‘agent’, Murray distinguishes six ‘agents’ or ‘key stakeholders’ within the current Anglo­phone adaptation industry: the literary authors; the literary agents; the book fairs, film festivals and writer’s weeks; the literary prize-winners; the screenwriters; and the film producers and distributors. The author explores each stakeholder in a separate chapter and concludes in an afterword with some remarks on two more recent forms of adaptation: fan fiction and fan made movies.

Joining a more recent trend in media studies that focuses on what Jenkins (2006) et. al. have called ‘convergence culture’, the study offers a wealth of information about the Anglo­phone book industry, and how in several of its key sections, it has adapted to the increa­sing conglomeration of single medium worlds, ‑ such as the book world ‑, into multi­national, multimedia or multiple platform worlds or corporations. Chapter one explores among other things the professionalization of literary authorship since the end of the 19th century, the rise of the ‘celebrity writer figure’, and the marketing of the literary authorial name as a brand. Writers promote their work and make all sorts of efforts (e.g. appearing on the red carpet of film festivals, making cameo appearances in adaptations, ...) to draw the attention of potential adapters. Some of them even manage to a greater or lesser degree to be involved in the adaptation project, ‑ ranging from selling rights to becoming a screenwriter or even an executive producer. Chapter two describes how throughout the 1980’s, literary agents legitimised their position in between writers and publishers. Some more successful literary agents became celebrities in their own right and developed as powerful brokers in the contemporary book world and – via the currency of book rights – in the broader media sphere. Chapter three explains how some major book fairs worked at rebranding themselves as cross-format rights market­places. Encounters which used to be occasional between the book world, the film world and the media world in general are more and more orchestrated and organised through cooperation, joint hosting of events and co-branding initiatives. Chapter four presents a detailed case study of the Man Booker Prize to suggest rather unsurprisingly that literary prizes such as the Man Booker Prize may have an impact on the chances of a book being adapted. And chapter six finally explores among other things how some ‘specialist distributors’, such as Miramax, have marketed literary values to tertiary-educated, culturally cosmopolitan, frequently affluent audiences who purportedly offer a ‘neat demographic fit with the pheno­me­non of literary adaptation’ (p.163).

It should be clear however to the reader that The Adaptation Industry explores first and foremost how the converging media industry has had an impact upon the book industry and not the actual (film) adaptation industry. If the latter is understood to refer to the film industry or to the higher-up overarching level of the converged multimedia or cross-platform industry, the title of the book may be misleading. Contrary to the author’s claim made in the introduction, Murray does consider the adaptation for the screen as an add-on or after-thought to the literary text, even if ‘it was factored in and avidly pursued from the earliest phases of book pro­duc­tion’ (p.13). As an expert of the book industry, Murray’s default point of reference is Literature. The word ‘adaptation’ is understood as the film adaptation of a prestigious literary text, even if Murray considers the very subject of prestige a matter of contention. Other types of adaptations, such as adaptations of unknown literary texts, non literary texts, comics, video or computer games, novelizations, remakes, etc., ‑ which actually constitute the vast majority of the sum total of adaptations that are made ‑, are called ‘limit-case’ adaptations (p.3) or ‘post-literary’ adaptations (p.5), ‑ as if those adapta­tions would somehow come after the literary adaptation. Whoever investigates character­istics of an adaptation such as mise en scène, editing, acting or photo­graphy does not study cinematic features but ‘non-literary’ features (p.4). One could be led to believe that the chapters on the screenwriter, the producer and the distributor, ‑ covering the last fifty pages ‑, compensate for the one hundred and thirty pages dealing first and foremostly with the book industries (p.134), but they do not. When looking into these more cinematic ‘agents’, Murray chooses the more literary figure of the screenwriter, even though she acknow­ledges that generally speaking it is not the screenwriter who initiates an adaptation project. A more ‘obvious’ choice from the point of view of traditional film studies would have been the director. Surely, a more interesting one could have been Murray’s own suggestion to examine a ‘politique des collaborateurs’ (p.136). Yet Murray ends up focusing on one extremely exceptional case: a star-adapter-screenwriter, ‑ Andrew Davies ‑, who has managed to acquire the power to initiate his writing projects. Hence, hardly a representative case. If looking for decision-makers with the capacity to buy and adapt IP’s, one would probably think first of the producer, but curiously Murray discards that ‘agent’ in less than three pages. She immediately moves on to the distributor. A distributor generally does not initiate an adaptation project but distributes (or not) what others decided to make before. That is why it is called a ‘distributor’. Obviously, some distributors also have a say in the selection, buying and adaptation process of source materials, but Murray does not study them. As indicated above, she is rather interested in the niche category of the art house literary adaptation and a few (one actually) ‘special’ cases, like Miramax, who managed to sell literary values to an international but elitist set of markets. Consistent with her literary bias, Murray deals with the cinematic producers and distributors under the paragraph heading: ‘Cultivating the reader’. Murray’s literary predisposition further emerges when instead of focusing on the (film) adaptation, she repeatedly engages in a debate with her literary peers about a redefinition of the concept of ‘Literature’, which according to her should not only encompass the academically aesthetic but also the commercially successful. At first sight, Murray’s references to Bourdieu’s praxeology seem to serve an argument against the traditional deification of the author-genius. However, soon enough, the author replaces this Arnoldian or Leavisite Romantic ‘auteur’-notion with what she calls a ‘neo-Romantic’ cele­bra­tion of authorship (p.27), including as indicated above the commercial realities of the book trade. Hence, the aforesaid discussion of the cele­bri­ty writer, the celebrity literary agent, the ‘A class’ book fair, the ‘celebrity’ screenwriter, and the ‘specialist’ or culturally ‘upscale’ distributor. All remain, ‑ as were the traditionally academically canonized ‘Great Men’ and their ‘masterpieces’ ‑, the very raison d’être of the discipline. Whatever happens to the common writer, the vast majority of literary agents or agencies, the average screenwriter and the rest of the crew, is left for someone else to study. Needless to say, any debate about the redefinition of the concept of ‘Literature’ is relevant to adaptation studies only if the latter is seen as a prolongation of literary studies.

Because Murray restricts her perspective to the book industry, her study can only explore topics which are surely interesting and may even have relevance with respect to the adaptation industry, but which must at the same time remain preparatory and peripheral to a study of the adaptation industry proper. Book world ‘agents’ such as celebrity writers, famous literary agents and class A book fairs may create all the ‘buzz’ they can in an attempt to draw the attention of potential adapters. At the end of the day, it is not the adapted but the adapter who has the final say in whether some intellectual property (IP) is selected and adapted or not. To the extent that a changing book world can be distinguished from a changing screen world, a source context can be distinguished from a target context, and the adapter, unlike the adapted, resides not in the source context, ‑ i.c. the book world ‑, but in the hosting target context, ‑ i.c. the film (adaptation) world. Hence, a study that is interested in describing and explaining if, to what extent and why specific source materials or IP’s were actually selected and adapted or not, needs to take into account the hosting context where the actual decision-making took place. Needless to say, efforts made in the source context may co-determine the final adaptational decisions, but previous so-called polysystem (PS) studies of adaptation (see e.g. Cattrysse 1990; 1992a&b) revealed already that target context based needs often play an even more important role in actually choosing and adapting source materials or not.

On the one hand, Murray’s source context oriented perspective may surprise because scholars in trans­lation and adaptation studies have since the 1920’s, if not earlier, argued for a target context oriented approach and a study of trans­lations or adapta­tions as phenomena that are initiated and recognized as such in their hosting context (see e.g. Russian Formalists Viktor Žirmunski and Boris Ejxenbaum quoted in Erlich 1969:268). Israelian (e.g. Itamar Even-Zohar, Gideon Toury) and German (e.g. Hans Vermeer and his ‘skopos’ theories of translation) translation scholars have repeated similar proposals in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Yet another decade later, a few Anglophone film scholars have copied that idea (see e.g. Dudley Andrew (1984) and Christopher Orr (1984)). In the early 1990’s, more elaborate proposals were published to apply a target oriented polysystem study of adaptation (see above). These initiatives show by the way that, as Murray acknowledges herself, this so-called ‘new wave’ of Anglophone adaptation studies is not entirely new (see also Leitch (2007:63) about this). Yet the argument to support this ancient idea still stands today.

Murray’s refusal to study the film adaptation industry as part of the film industry may also surprise because on more than one occasion, the author runs into cases that show that efforts made in the book world to draw the attention of potential adapters do not guarantee success in the adaptation world. For example, the author acknowledges that where­as major ‘class A’ book fairs showcase so-called ‘adaptation-ready’ texts, major film festivals tend to keep publisher-producer meets in the margins of their programme, if they present them at all. Murray also admits that when films derived from books are scheduled in a film com­pe­tition, their publicity often positions them as great films, not explicitly as great adap­ta­tions (p.96). The case study of Schindlers’ List illustrates how Spielberg diplo­ma­ti­cally managed to discard writer Thomas Keneally from the set, in spite of his winning the Booker Prize. The movie needed to be presented as based on historical fact rather than on fiction. In fact, with respect to the Booker Prize, Murray is surprised to observe ‘how long it has been acting as a catalyst for screen adaptation, yet how belatedly the prize’s manage­ment seems to have realised this fact and contrived ways to capitalise upon it’ (p.113). The claim that the Booker Prize actually functioned as a catalyst is never proven, but the fact that effects could be produced with or without ‘contriving ways to capitalise’ suggest that one cannot study the adaptation industry by looking only at the initiatives source context agents launched to increase their chances of being selected and adapted. At least at one point, the author admits that with respect to actual adaptational results, answers remain ‘opaque’ (p.106).

On the other hand, Murray’s source context-based perspective is not surprising because in spite of almost a century of ongoing theoretical proposals, a systematic target context based study of adaptation has yet to start. If someone were to aim at a real ‘new wave’ in adaptation studies, a systematic target context-oriented study of adaptation would surely constitute a new and pioneering approach, even if the theoretical proposals for it were published almost a hundred years ago.

In conclusion, it may be seen as unfortunate that Murray merely mentions the converging media industry, and does not develop various new phenomena such as ‘scouts’ or audience’s growing interest for medium independent contents, and promising concepts such as ‘content franchisability’, or ‘adaptation-ready’ texts, which imply specific target (con)text oriented features. However, on a positive note, Murray’s industrial approach of literature definitely opens up new avenues for literary studies. A similar approach to (film) adap­ta­tion studies would surely innovate the discipline in more than one respect. Certainly the growing scholarly interest for the conglomeration of media suggests rethinking some fundamental traditional concepts in adaptation studies. The merging of single medium worlds, ‑ e.g. the book world and the screen world ‑, into overarching multimedia worlds suggests that the tradi­tional distinction between source and target contexts requires reassessing. New practices in new working conditions may involve redefining also the very concept of ‘adaptation’, and consequently the concept of ‘original’. If so-called ‘cross-platform’ corpo­ra­tions plan content franchisability in terms of projects being produced simultaneously in more than one medium, how do concepts such as ‘original’ and ‘adaptation’ apply to these pheno­me­na? Whereas the practices and situations these questions relate to are new, the questions themselves are not. The limitations of a binary source context – target context approach of translation or adaptations were already explored in the early 1990’s if not earlier, e.g. in the aforesaid PS studies of adaptation. They already suggested looking into higher-up levels of common ‘poly­systems’ or contexts. So-called ‘twin track’ authors or hyphenated writer-screenwriters or screen­writer-writers appear already in Hollywood in the 1940’s if not earlier, and the practice of launching a project to be produced simultaneously on multiple platforms reminds Ginette Vincendeau’s theoretically similar problem of the 1930’s multiple language movies, i.c. movies being produced simultaneously in multiple language versions. Translation scholars studying European Union language policy meet with similar issues today when political texts are published simultaneously in a dozen or more different languages. All of these practices raise the interesting question: where is the ‘original’, and where the ‘translation’ or ‘adaptation’? A study that instead of ignoring the adap­tation proper examines it within its larger production and reception environments could help find new answers.


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