The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Julie Sanders

Descriptions of the novel as a form almost inevitably discuss the use of intertextuality, allusion, and quotation as some of its major narrative strategies. Canonical examples of the nineteenth-century novel are frequently constructed around an architecture of citations, epigraphs, and cross-references. For example, we can look to Charles Dickens's invocations of William Shakespeare both as language and as performance in Nicholas Nickleby (1838—39) and Great Expectations (1861), or many of George Eliot's shaping epigraphs in Middlemarch (1871—72), derived from her vast reading knowledge. Postmodern novels, albeit in sometimes fragmented form, have as their vertebrae the literature that precedes them (see MODERNISM). Angela Carter's self-conscious bricolage of poetry, novels, and films in her fiction and short stories provides one obvious example. Her Nights at the Circus (1984) derives imaginative energy from Dickensian style and aesthetics, while Wise Children (1991) provides an intricate response not just to Shakespeare's plays but the complex global and cultural history of Shakespearean adaptation and afterlives. All of these works are relevant to a discussion of the novel as an inherently appropriative and adaptive genre, but when we talk about adaptation with reference to the novel, we are usually describing a more sustained relationship between specific texts. Such a relationship serves as a direct invitation to read intertextually, with knowledge of at least two texts or works simultaneously, allowing for interaction with each. It is for these reasons that the emergent field of adaptation studies often invokes parallel fields of scholarship, such as reception theory, the study of reader response, and cognitive poetics (see COGNITIVE THEORY).

Voicing the Marginalized Character

Discussions of adaptation and the novel focus on novels that serve as facilitating examples of the general conventions or methods of practice within the field. Two touchstone works of this kind are Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and J. M. Coetzee's deeply metafictional Foe (1986).

In its reorienting of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Wide Sargasso Sea proleptically brings into view many of the chief critical concerns with that novel during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Su, 392). Rhys's novel presents the viewpoint of the marginalized and oppressed character Bertha Rochester, Mr. Rochester's “mad” first wife, who is confined to the upper storey of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE). Rhys responds in combative fashion to Bertha's reduction to a rabid, animalized creature, only briefly visible in the narrative, who bites any intruders to her chamber and persistently seeks to destroy both herself and the site of her incarceration through acts of arson. In Rhys's novel, Bertha becomes Antoinette Mason and is ascribed not only large sections of first-person narrative but is given a complex and detailed history prior to her appearance in Brontë's novel. Rhys therefore mobilizes a response to the cultural and racial politics of Jane Eyre—rewriting, or “writing back,” as postcolonial theorists have termed it, from an informed position—and to its perceived proto-feminist politics, which equate marriage with slavery and bondage in problematic metaphors embedded within the text (see FEMINIST THEORY).

Artist Paula Rego's 2003 series of illustrated responses to Jane Eyre has been filtered through and influenced in turn by Rhys's novel. Rego's Jane is a dark, muscular figure who shares elements with Bertha as described in Jane Eyre. Rego's interpretation engages with the sexual and racial politics of Brontë's text articulated by the feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who describe Bertha as Jane's “darkest double” (360). But Rego's vision is also shaped by Rhys's critique of the original novel because it implicitly valorizes Jane at Bertha's expense. This suggests a rich pattern of influence whereby adaptations become shaping texts in themselves (Kaplan, 31—34).

Rhys's strategy—according a narrative voice to a marginalized character—has been adapted and adopted by other novelists working in this sphere. Many of these are women writers, which further suggests an implicit examination of feminist politics taking place in this particular manifestation of adaptation (see GENDER THEORY). For example, in Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer (1999), Sena Jeter Naslund fashions a 650-page novel from a few glancing references in Herman Melville's oceangoing Moby-Dick (1851) to the wife and child who Captain Ahab has left behind, onshore in Nantucket. Naslund appropriates material from both real life and fictional nineteenth-century narratives of women who escaped to sea cross-dressed as cabin boys. She uses them to create a vivid fictional voice for her fictional protagonist, Una Spenser. This results in a pastiche, not only of a whole range of factual and fictional texts from the period of her main source-text, but also of one of Melville's prime literary methods. The character's name invokes Una, from Book I of Edmund Spenser's Elizabethan epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590—96), and thereby locates Melville's own epic quest in a far longer literary tradition, one which, incidentally, features cross-dressed heroines who demonstrate agency and bravery in the face of danger. Similarly, Marina Warner's Indigo (1992), a reimagining of Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611) in novel form, ascribes central roles to Miranda, Prospero's daughter in the play who is subject to his paternal and political will, and Sycorax, dead before the play begins but invoked and described through the voices of others.

Postcolonial Reconfigurations

Warner created a novel that is also a postcolonial reexamination of The Tempest, and here she finds kinship not only with other authors who adapted The Tempest into novel form—including the Canadian works Prospero on the Island (1971) by Audrey Thomas, and Margaret Laurence's The Diviners (1974)—but also with the Australian writer Peter Carey, whose Jack Maggs (1997) accords both a voice and a detailed history to Dickens's transported convict Magwitch, from Great Expectations. Dickens's first-person narrator Pip is reduced to the marginalized character of Henry Phipps, who is presented with little invitation for sympathy from the reader. Like Naslund's Ahab's Wife, Carey's self-consciously postcolonial response to Great Expectations pastiches a whole range of nineteenth-century literary strategies, from those of the detective novel and sensation fiction through to Australian convict confessionals.

Carey wrote Jack Maggs in direct dialogue with Edward Said's claim, in Culture and Imperialism, that Great Expectations enacts both a “penal” and an “imperial” sentence on Magwitch, prohibiting his return to the metropolitan center (xvi). In thinking about how this affected Australian ideas of identity, Carey finds an obvious precursor in Coetzee's Foe. Foe grapples with perhaps the ultimate “master-narrative,” Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22). Coetzee invents the figure of Susan Barton, who shares many of “Cruso's” island experiences. The slippage of the e from the spelling is a typical Coetzee move, signaling the textuality of his novel, and referring to the 1719 unlicensed edition of the novel that adopted this spelling (see TYPOGRAPHY). The novel plays more widely with eighteenth-century printing conventions in its use of quotation marks, enacting literary imitation at the level of form as well as content. Coetzee opts to have both Susan and Friday, a character who is silent in this novel due to his tongue having been removed in mysterious circumstances, confront their “author” Foe, whose name reflects Defoe's famous change of his surname to foster a more upper-class publishing identity. The novel explores deep questions about authorship, authority, ownership, identity, and integrity in increasingly convoluted narrative turns that leave the reader uncertain whether any of what was described “happened.”

Challenging and Confirming the Canon

Robinson Crusoe has spawned numerous adaptations, rewritings, and responses in both prose and alternate genres. One notable example is Michel Tournier's post-Freudian, psychoanalytic Friday, or the Other Island (1967). Coetzee's pragmatic version of Crusoe's island is a deliberate response to the eroticized spaces and soils of Tournier's setting, again demonstrating the impact of adaptation on other adaptations.

Derek Attridge and others have argued that works such as Wide Sargasso Sea and Foe ultimately reinforce rather than challenge the canon of English literature in writing back to canonical master-texts in this way (19). It remains true that responses to canonical works lie at the heart of much adaptive writing. We could argue this is a simple matter of knowledge: to read intertextually assumes a prior knowledge of a source-text, and therefore the texts turned to for the process of adaptation are almost invariably those already circulating with some force within the cultural domain. Nevertheless, it is striking that nineteenth-century novelists such as Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky have all proven to be prime sites of contemporary literary activity. “Vic lit” in general, as all European literature of the mid- to late nineteenth century has impishly been termed, is a recurring site of adaptation, and it is salient to ask why that might be the case. Cora Kaplan, examining modern obsessions with “Victoriana,” as she describes it, suggests that the reason is a complex combination of “historical investigation, aesthetic appreciation ... entertainment,” and our continuing interest in issues of class, gender, and empire, which the Victorian period (1837—1901) contains and contests in ways relevant to our own time (5).

But it is fair to say, in any survey of novel adaptation, that it is not solely Victorian fiction or indeed the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that have proven to be productive sites of engagement. Texts from the medieval and early modern canons have also served their turn. In Tokyo Cancelled (2005), Rana Dasgupta transfers the traveling tale-telling of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales to a modern airport. Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills (2007) relocates Giovanni Boccaccio's collection of stories, the Decameron (ca. 1348—53), from a plague-ridden Tuscany to the Hollywood hills at the outbreak of the Iraq War in March 2003. In turn, Smiley is able to play with resonances between her novel and Boccaccio's work, highlighting how she can write a far more explicit sex comedy than he was able to produce in a medieval context, while also updating the politics to her own culture and time. This method reveals another key aspect of the process of adaptation, which plays on the pleasures incipient within both similarity and difference.

Theoretical and Cultural Contexts

Adaptations can be a means of tracking the theoretical and cultural preoccupations of given moments and periods. They often reflect the pressing concerns of their own time by “updating” and relocating their source text, all in the interest of resonance, relevance, and topicality, or what French theorist Gérard Genette terms cultural “proximization” (304). In Smiley's 1992 novel, A Thousand Acres, there is a sustained response to Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear (ca. 1605) from a feminist perspective, featuring a female narrator based on Goneril from the play. But Smiley's novel is also an act of “proximization” that relocates its plot to an American Midwest farming community and demonstrates the influence of the ecological politics and environmental concerns of Smiley's own era, along with the subject of recovered memory, which was then in the news.

Ideas of Authorship

In postmodern fiction, the process of adaptation has most frequently played out a contemporary concern with the reevaluation of the role of writing and questions of authorial identity and integrity. Numerous novels have appeared which adapt “real lives” or available biographies into fiction, but it is telling how many of these are responses to a writer's life. Henry James is examined in both Colm Tóibín's The Master (2004) and David Lodge's Author Author (2005). Helen Dunmore's Zennor in Darkness (1993) concentrates on D. H. Lawrence's sojourn in Cornwall during WWI. Carey's aforementioned Jack Maggs revisits early Dickens in the shape of Tobias Oates, a characterization that, in its examination of Dickens's complicated family life and sexual liaisons as well as his journalistic roots, appears itself to be informed by the work of novelist Peter Ackroyd, whose literary life Dickens (1990) combined fact with fiction, imagined dialogue, and even dreamscape to account for the writer's work. Ackroyd has himself had a sustained career writing novelistic responses to writers and their works. Individuals he has refashioned through fiction include Thomas Chatterton (1752—70), John Milton (1608—74), Charles Lamb (1775—1834), Mary Lamb (1764—1847), and Oscar Wilde. Bringing those literary connections full circle, his first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), is a rewriting of Dickens's Little Dorrit (1855—57).

Michael Cunningham's The Hours (1998) adapts and appropriates Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway by employing the title Woolf once used for her novel in progress, and by borrowing Woolfian aesthetics, such as stream of consciousness (see PSYCHOLOGICAL). But he also includes characters from other Woolf texts in newly imagined contexts. The “Mrs Brown” of Woolf's essays on fiction is reenvisaged as a 1949 Los Angeles housewife trapped by the expectations of her gender and role as wife and mother, and Woolf herself is seen both in the process of writing Mrs. Dalloway and in the act of ending her life in 1941. Cunningham speculates that this action has become the prism through which much of her writing is understood and he himself revisited the suicide through a series of texts, including Woolf 's own letters, diaries, and her suicide note to her husband Leonard Woolf. In Flaubert's Parrot (1984) Julian Barnes goes one step beyond the conventional literary biography to consider the literary biographer himself as a subject.

Shadow Texts

There are numerous contemporary novels in which other works act as shadow texts, such as The Tempest in relation to John Fowles's The Magus (1965, rev. ed. 1977), or indeed the same play within Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (1978). Father and Son (1907), an autobiography by literary critic Edmund Gosse, provides intertextuality for the opening sections of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1988). Henry James, a rich source of fictional reworkings, also stands behind the aesthetic approach and tone of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004). To underline the point, Hollinghurst plants a discussion of James's visits to English country houses at the heart of the novel, encouraging knowing readers to infuse their interpretations of the later novel with their understandings of Jamesian themes and topics. Zadie Smith has described her 2005 novel, On Beauty, as a contemporary reworking of E. M. Forster's Howards End (1910), and in Dorian (2002) Will Self writes a robust modern version of Oscar Wilde's fin-de-siècle novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), with its crucial invocations of both Homer's epic The Odyssey (ninth or eighth century BCE) and Shakespeare's Hamlet (ca. 1603) in the midst of its compendious chapters, might be regarded as an Ur-text in this respect. Chapter headings in early versions of that novel signaled these relationships explicitly. The contextual relationship is more suppressed in later versions but remains crucial to a full understanding of many of Joyce's operating themes, such as the relationship between fathers and sons, and the idea of a journey, both spiritual and material. The “Cyclops” and “Circe” sections are perhaps the best-known examples of an intertextual reading that brings Joyce's full meaning and method into the light.

Sometimes entire genres or modes of writing perform the function of shadow texts in adaptational novels. Myth and fairytale provide two particularly potent examples of this idea in operation (see MYTHOLOGY). Joyce's Ulysses, in its mythic invocations, enacts its own individualistic version of this form of adaptation. Two theoretical schools already mentioned, feminism and postcolonialism, have demonstrated a particular investment in “re-visioning” texts in this manner, to use a term derived from feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1929—). Carter's novels and short-story collections, such as The Magic Toyshop (1967) and The Bloody Chamber (1979), repeatedly ascribe greater agency to the conventionally passive or acted-upon heroines of fairytale narratives, and in many instances rewrite the conventional endings of these well-known stories. In this way, novels self-consciously engage with literary archetypes, forging their own individual take on familiar themes in the process.

The idea of shadow texts in adaptive works can also refer to those instances when the physical text or actuality of a novel, along with its reception, form the driving force of the invention. The centrality of Dickens's Great Expectations to the child-narrator of New Zealand author Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip (2007) illustrates this kind of narrative effect. In the course of the novel Dickens's text is devoured by the children of the island school, who are hungry for knowledge of a world other than their own, tribally riven community; burned by scornful troops; remembered and paraphrased as an act of reconstituted memory by the children; and revisited in adult life by Matilda, the narrator. The power of literature in all these revisits and returns, culturally, politically, and spiritually, is palpable.

Questions of Originality

Questions of homage, pastiche, and plagiarism naturally accrue around a topic such as adaptation. Graham Swift's 1996 novel, Last Orders, charts a postwar grouping of male friends and their journey to the English seaside to scatter the ashes of one of their group. It upset critics concerned with rigid notions of originality when, subsequent to Swift winning the Booker Prize that year, close connections were found between the novel and William Faulkner's classic of American modernism, As I Lay Dying (1930). The argument was strange in several regards, since those who knew Faulkner's novel would have recognized an obvious homage, not only in the polyphonic monologues that form the basis of Swift's narrative structure but even in the typeface of capitalized chapter headings mostly provided by the characters' forenames.

Already an acknowledged admirer of Faulkner's style, including his evocations of landscape and environment, Swift is a deeply allusive writer. Last Orders possesses additional examples of intertextuality from the English canon, including Old English poetry, The Canterbury Tales, and the poems of T. S. Eliot, indicating in turn that poetry as a genre is as available for adaptation as the novel itself. Swift's work also engages with the wartime film A Canterbury Tale (1944), a production of director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger. This raises larger theoretical questions about writing: are we judging novels of this kind by a post-Romantic valorization of “originality” rather than celebrating an earlier notion of the skills involved in mimesis and imitation? In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), T. S. Eliot argues that imitation and response is actually a key to higher creativity; it has itself become a critical debating point on this issue.

Drama, Film, and Theater Adaptations

Until now we have largely considered novels that respond to other novels, with some additional recourse to poetry. But the novel has fed creative energies in other genres as well, particularly drama, television, and film. Despite a sometimes pejorative assumption that theater can only act as a parasite in this relationship, feeding off the creation of its host genre, many far-from-conventional reworkings of “classic” novels for the stage can be identified. While a populist mode such as the musical is readily associated with the act of adaptation, as in the example of the twentieth-century musical version of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables (1862, The Wretched Poor), theater in the work of companies at the cutting edge of performative practice demonstrate a highly engaged art of adaptation. The Chicago-based company Steppenwolf or the Shared Experience and Kneehigh Theatre companies in the U.K. are good examples. Shared Experience, in particular, has created strong physical theater interpretations of novels such as Leo Tolstoy's Voyná i mir (1865—69, War and Peace) and Anna Karenina (1875—77). They have been much influenced by the Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, which was adapted by playwright David Edgar and performed in Stratford-upon-Avon, London's West End, and on Broadway over two years. The production ran for over eight and a half hours, with 39 actors sharing 150 roles between them. At various times, this ensemble could suggest the urban bustle of London or the moving theater of a stagecoach journey, as required by the plot. In addition, they constantly moved in and out of character to share large chunks of Dickens's omniscient narration. So, for example, the detailed account of Wackford Squeers's physiognomy in the novel was delivered onstage by an actor-narrator at the same time that the audience caught their first sight of the actor performing that role. It remains a remarkable example of a creative relationship between the physical act of embodiment that is theater and the intricacies of narrative technique in the novel.

Steppenwolf has created renowned productions of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937) and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884—5). That a number of these productions were aimed at the youth market is indicative of certain market conditions and of the synergistic relationship between theater, canon, and educational syllabi. One recent example of this synergy is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy—The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—which is an acknowledged response to John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). As well as being adapted for radio drama and the first novel as a CGI-heavy film, the books were re-created as a two-part theater performance, physicalizing the narrative with its stunning stage puppetry, dance, and movement to represent Pullman's complex world of humans and “daemons.”

Television in North America and the U.K., through the work of channels such as PBS, CBC, and the BBC, have presented adaptations of novels by Jane Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, and others. The films produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory in the 1980s and 1990s were a large-screen extension of this tradition. See, for example, their cinematic interpretations of Forster's novels A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End, filmed in 1985 and 1992, respectively. These kinds of adaptation, careful in their re-creation of period “authenticity,” have become linked in Anglo-American public consciousness with the wider sphere of the heritage industry. In the UK the best-known writer of such screenplays for the small screen is Andrew Davies. His recent ventures include multipart adaptations of Dickens's Bleak House (1852—53) and Little Dorrit, produced in 2005 and 2008, respectively, which in their half-hour episodic structures seek to recapture some of the effects of reading the novel in periodical form in the nineteenth century (see SERIALIZATION). In turn it has been argued that the television form has itself impacted the structure of modern novels (Cardwell; McFarlane, 195).

Some film versions of novels may retain the historical setting and context of their sources, but this should not lead us to ignore the point that the shift into the new medium encourages innovative creative input and fresh acts of interpretation. Deploying Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's theory of “replacement” as a key part of the adaptational process, we can see in these films working examples of the view that “replacement is at its most radical when the new space is of a different medium” (44). David Lean's film adaptations of Dickens are often regarded as masterpieces of the form. His 1946 production of Great Expectations and 1948 production of Oliver Twist (1838) provide dark cinematic responses to the novels. Thomas Hardy is another novelist whose work has received much attention from filmmakers, including John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) and Roman Polanski's 1979 Tess, based on Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891). But Hardy has also proved ripe for cinematic remediation that moves more into the realm of appropriation than adaptation: The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) was reworked within the genre of the Western as The Claim (2001), by director Michael Winterbottom. More humorous cinematic updates can be found in the U.S. high-school genre, notably with Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995), a knowing and arch “re-vision” of Austen's 1816 Emma set in the world of Beverly Hills conspicuous consumption.

Adaptation from page to screen can often be an insightful transition that allows the two media and the two works to exist alongside each other in their own right, displaying the strengths of their own specific media. Joe Wright's 2007 film of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement (2001), which itself involves a conscious pastiche of Elizabeth Bowen's novels, among other things, is a useful facilitating example in this regard. A deeply textual novel, with layers of texts within texts and a series of unreliable narrations, many regarded Atonement as virtually impossible to adapt into a film. Wright's skill, along with that of his screenplay writer, the playwright Christopher Hampton, was to find cinematic equivalents for the intertextuality of the novel. Hampton's background again demonstrates that the role of playwrights in reimagining novels for the screen as well as the stage should be considered more deeply as a creative act. In the light of innovative work of this kind, literary criticism has been able to rid itself of the shackles of what has been called “fidelity criticism,” which concentrates on how a film or adaptation is “unfaithful” to its source (D. Cartmell and I. Whelehan, 2007, Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, 3).

Some adaptations move so far beyond their source-text and have such cultural impact in their own right that their status as an adaptation fades into the background over time. Such texts are often deemed to be appropriations, rather than straight adaptations. One example is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), a brutal and haunting rethinking of Conrad's Congo-based novella, Heart of Darkness (1902), set during the Vietnam War (1954—75). Nonetheless it remains true that an understanding of Coppola's film is enriched by experiencing it intertextually, just as one might experience a reading of Wide Sargasso Sea.

Multimedia and the Novel as Adaptation

Adaptation, it should also be stressed, has a multidirectional flow in generic terms. It is not just a case of novels being adapted, or adapting themselves, but also the form itself is now regularly adapting material from other media and genres. Shakespeare has long been the prime site for this kind of activity. Examples include Alan Isler's The Prince of West End Avenue (1994), which along with Swift's Ever After (1992) and Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince (1973), responds to Hamlet; Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (1988), which reworks The Tempest in a southern American idiom and from an African American perspective; and British novelist Kate Atkinson's deeply allusive Human Croquet (1997), which revisits As You Like It (ca. 1600) as well as a range of well-known Shakespearean lines and characters. Isler's novel was in turn adapted into a one-man stage performance in 2004 by American actor Kerry Shale, which is further evidence of the plurality of approach and the multiplicity of responses that adaptation appears to encourage and nurture. Novels are finding renewed cultural life in new media forms such as computer games, digital art, and avatar-based sites on the internet. Similarly, film is revitalized in book form, particularly in the youth market, which is proving to be a vibrant locale in this regard. And as the graphic novel finds its place in mainstream culture—the sites and spaces for response, revision, and reworking, the key processes of adaptation—the potential for the novel to continue to position itself at the center of this activity seems certain.

Wolfgang Iser famously described the reading process as the action of “gaps” being filled, and nowhere does this description seem more resonant than when we think of the act of reading or viewing an adaptation (2001, 181). What remains to be stressed in this overview of the practice and the varying forms it takes is the deep sense of pleasure that the act of gap-filling, the tracing of the relationship between source-text and the new creative work, instills in the active reader.

See also: Bakhtin, Comparativism, Copyright/Libel, Parody/Satire.


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