A Taxonomy of Adaptations


Well, this is a pretty huge topic, so I want to try to get it a little under control by creating a tenative taxonomy of ways of adapting source material:

1) The most basic way of adapting a classic story is what I’d call a remake.  The newer work is essentially trying to recapture the older story more or less beat-for-beat, with some twists, and often a modern (or more modern) seeting.  This happens most often in movies, but you do get it in books, and I think The Humming Room is a good example of this.

2) Then you have books that we might call loose remakes, where the main characters and basic set up are maintained, but the author feels free to play with numerous plot points and even the ending.  Here I’m thinking of novels like Alan Gratz’s Something Rotten and Something Wicked, in which he recreates Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth as high school detective stories.

3) Another key category would be novels which are inspired by classic stories but create their own set of characters and situations.  Matt Bird had an excellent post on The Cockeyed Caravan talking about finding the “core metaphor” of a class story and rebuilding up from that metaphor.  He mentions that Suzanne Collins created The Hunger Games by finding the core metaphor of the story of the Minotaur.  I would also include something like The Westing Game, which takes the basic premises of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie but builds them up into a brand new story.  Keeping the Castle falls into this category (although, for the record, I should correct you that the wealth and status of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice is actually a lot closer to the situation in Keeping the Castle than you remembered it–in fact, the relative coarseness of her family is the primary reason Darcy originally objects to Elizabeth).

4) I would put into a separate category entirely retellings of fairy tales and myths.  These can be more or less “faithful” to the classic version, and therefore fall anywhere along the spectrum of the first three categories I outlined, but because of the nature of myths and fairy tales, which are meant to be (and have been) retold and recreated unendingly, I think of these novels more as existing on a continuous stream with earlier adaptations and retellings of the story.  Thus, Flinn’s Beastly, McKinley’s Beauty, Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of My Lyon,” Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and Perrault’s “Beauty and the Beast,” are not five separate imaginings of the Beauty and the Beast tale but one continuous dialogue with one another.

5) Finally, there are books that are not strictly adapting or remaking earlier works but, through allusion and thematic content are reliant on them to some extent.  A great example here is a book I just finished at Karyn Silverman’s urging: The Storyteller by Antonio Michaelis.  Michaelis’s story is by no means a retelling, but she explicitly references Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic The Little Prince.  I had never read that novel, so I picked up a copy and found that it was extremely helpful in working out some of the themes of The Storyteller.

To the extent that I have a point in making this list (a perhaps debatable prospect) it’s that I think it is important to be clear just what is being attempted by a work before we start to judge it.  This is a point that I have tried to make over and over again in my blog posts about movie adaptations on The Hub: that we cannot judge a movie adaptation by reflexively assuming that it is trying to be a “faithful,” beat-by-beat recreation of a book.  It may instead be trying to get to the core metaphors of the book and using them as a spring-board.  Or it may be setting up an intertextual relationship with the book, acting as a commentary of sorts on it.  All of this can be true of books based on classic literature as well.  What do you think? Does this help in thinking about Keeping the Castle and The Humming Room?  Any categories to add to my taxonomy?

– Mark


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