Overview of Relevant Adaptation Strategies
We will start students off with a discussion and overview of the concept of adaptation. If a masterpiece by definition has “already found its perfection of form,”
then why bother with adaptation? Well, film is the preferred medium for most modern students; moreover, “Well over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals.”
In studying films we can also study text.
Focusing on the intertexuality of films, as Naremore refers to it, can help illuminate this concept for students. Turning a story into film combines so many forms of creativity. It can bring in other stories, add to the original, and explore different forms of art in its composition. And all of this, at “The End,” contributes to the celebration of the story, and of the idea of stories as a whole.
So where do we start when art can be anything? In a world of seemingly endless possibilities, the concept of creativity must be focused, and the combination of story and film can do that. In his book,
Film Adaptation and Its Discontents
, Thomas Leitch describes many strategies in adaptation. For this curricular unit, we will focus on both the most common, and the most relevant to the works with which we will be concerned.
Leitch describes adaptation in its most common form as “adjustment, whereby a promising earlier text is rendered more suitable for filming by one or more of a wide variety of strategies.”
This is a good way to introduce adaptation to students. Although the idea of reimagining involves growing beyond the concept of simply adjusting a story to fit the available resources, this is a foundational necessity from which students can jump off for their own projects.
Leitch explores several different ways to adapt a story under the strategy of
, which he describes as “by far the most common approach to adaptation,”
culminating in what will be one of our main focuses in studying the re-imagining of classics. I have chosen
and paired it down to the most relevant for both this curricular unit and as examples for students about to study adaptation. Strategies under
Compression: wherein very long original texts are compressed to two hours or less to fit a marketable film length. A modern example of this that students may recognize would be
(2004), based on Homer’s
Expansion: wherein a short story is expanded out to fulfill promises made by the original brief plot. A prime example is
(1946), expanded from a 10-page Hemmingway story into a complex film noir classic. An example that modern students may be familiar with is
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
(2008) starring Brad Pitt, which is a very complex modern narrative film, based on the original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Correction: wherein an original text or story is retold in a way that changes an important plot point. A good example, although many students would not be familiar with it, is
(1984) starring Robert Redford, which ends with the batter hitting a home run, versus the original book by Bernard Malamud where the batter strikes out purposefully. This would warrant a discussion about the reasons and consequences of this choice.
Updating: According to Leitch, this “far more frequent strategy is to transpose the setting of a canonical classic to the present in order to show its universality while guaranteeing its relevance to the more immediate concerns of the target audience.”
Two of our explorations in this curricular unit deal with re-imagined
, Leitch outlines several more strategies in
Between Adaptation and Allusion
, one more of which is particularly apropos to this unit.
, in which the original text or work is satirized by the film adaptation, should be easily recognizable to students as exemplified by popular modern films like
The Nutty Professor
(1996), which heavily satirizes “The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde.”
Overall, the following stories and their modern film re-imaginings fall under what Leitch calls “neoclassical imitations.” That is, they assume the original story is “endlessly available for updating because [the] people and stories are universal.”
I would agree. There is a place where the enduring spirit of a story and the stylistic decisions of both iterations cross over, giving fans, scholars, and hopefully pupils a particular feeling that what they are experiencing is an accomplishment. This is why we love adaptation. This is why students want to know “if there is a movie.”
The following stories have been chosen both because their themes and characters and spirit have already withstood the test of time, and they make for notable examples of modern styles – musical, spoof, anime and “indie” film.
When working with classic stories and modern films, there is obviously a large pool from which to choose. While this will help when students ultimately pick their classics to adapt in their Independent Reading projects, it makes it difficult to decide which are best for illustrating the concept of adaptation and for analyzing some of the strategies that go along with it. The following have been chosen for several reasons. Mainly, because they are all great films (judged by myself, critics and even modern internet resources like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB), all derive from stories with which most Americans are familiar if not intimate, and because they exemplify distinctly different genres and therefore have range as a body for instruction. Offering a variety of styles and showing that adaptations can be successful across genres will help illuminate possibilities for students to execute their own adaptations of classic stories when the time comes.
Note: it will be helpful to the user of this unit to have read and watched the original texts and updated film adaptations herein.
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“Let’s have a conversation that makes you not guilty.”
is a strong place to start: it is Shakespeare, and what is more classic than Shakespeare? It is also dark – really dark – therefore engaging. It deals with the consequences of manipulation, treachery, betrayal and murder – all apt themes for analysis in film.
is sometimes taught in 9
grade (it is in my school) and therefore a synopsis or a brief abridgement can be a solid foundation for comparison to film adaptations, excerpting key scenes to be studied in detail. According to Michael Anderegg, “numerous commentators have. . .asserted – that Shakespeare’s plays are in some essential way ‘cinematic.’. . .Shakespeare’s plays are set, literally and figuratively, in an essentially bare, abstract performing area, far removed from the concrete, detailed “realism” that cinema very early on discovered to be one of its major resources and attractions.”
All this, to me, makes Shakespeare an ideal entryway for study of re-imagined film adaptations.
is a 2001 update of
, and a foremost example of the concept of re-imagination. The setting is completely transplanted, the professions and social intricacies replaced. “Mr.” Macbeth (played by a deftly goofy-turned-murderous-with-ambition James LeGros) is a fast food cook with designs on owning his own franchise. His wife, “Mrs.” Macbeth (Maura Tierney), of course fans the flame of these designs into treacherous ambition, inspiring the murder of the restaurant owner Norm (King) Duncan (James Rebhorn), and takeover of the business on the success of the brand-new concept of the “drive-through.” The clothes of
may be unrecognizable, but the film is incredibly loyal to the original plot and consequences of the characters’ actions. The film
qualifies as appropriate to show in a high school classroom, due to dark violence and brief scenes of drug use. This, however, can simply be turned into yet another mechanism for comparison: if Macbeth, or Lady Macbeth, were acting under the influence of drugs, what implications does that have on a conversation about ambition? This will be further explored in the “Classroom Activities” section.
According to Anderegg, “the supposed affinity between Shakespeare’s plays and film simply does not hold up, which may at least help us to understand why Shakespearean films have always fallen short of the theory that would make such films inevitably successful.”
falls under this supposition. It is rated only average on IMDB and made only $43,366 in its opening weekend.
However it’s uproarious take on the classic plot is deep, entertaining, and provides plenty of fodder to compare an original with a re-imagining.
Furthermore, we can consider here the not-unknown concept that among many American students Shakespeare is regarded as, well, boring. Or at least not wholly accessible. If there is an adaptation that can prove otherwise, what better way to promote the art form as a means of enhancing interest in reading? According to Eric Brown of the University of Maine at Farmington, often Shakespeare can be seen by modern audiences as boring, droll at best, and even popular film makers like Mel Gibson cannot take something like
(1990) and elicit as wide a response as
(1987) did. He asserts that
is the exception, in quality if not popularity, through its use of the
story (to which it remains impressively loyal) to shun elitism, satirize American obsession with fast food and convenience, while at the same time tackling the violence and pitfalls of misguided ambition.
Taking the original plot of a Shakespeare work and actually making it work for a modern audience is a prime example of the use of Leitch’s notion of
is in essence a complex crime caper and can be viewed as an entertaining modern film outside of any mention of
. This exemplifies
by carrying forward themes universal enough to span centuries, if they’re dressed in new clothes.
The Little Mermaid
“I know that I shall love the world up there, and all the people who live in it.”
The Little Mermaid
“You can’t be human and magic at the same time, sweetheart.”
The Hans Christen Andersen classic
The Little Mermaid
has been adapted many times and in many forms. It makes an apt study for high school instruction due to the popularity of the 1989 Walt Disney adaptation that today’s students can still quote by heart, singing its lyrics.
(2008), another animated adaptation by famed Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, offers students a considerably different take on the original – a literal “fish out of water” story. Miyazaki is famous for sweepingly imaginative animated films, and in
this is no different. Ponyo, the titular “little mermaid” character, leads the viewer through, funnily enough, a whole new world. Miyazaki proves, as he’s done with award-winning films like
Howl’s Moving Castle
, that creativity really is
; that is to say, in a world of infinite possibilities like that of the imagination, creativity, expression, and art are not mutually exclusive, and they all play a role when applied. The same is true for adaptation, a process that can be just as creative as coming up with original stories or films.
presents an underwater world that is rooted in reality, giving us the ocean as we know it as viewed from land, to seafaring ships and jellyfish. But beyond that the film deals mostly in deep fantasy. We are presented, for example, with hundreds of the little mermaid’s “sisters” as opposed to the original five, all of whom look like “fish” like Ponyo. This has a similar affect that Andersen illustrated with the original sisters’ concerns about her desire to be human, using the visual instead of the narrative, combining Leitch’s strategies of
by having her hundreds of sisters swarm around her like a school of fish to try and protect her, and ultimately to try and help her (see image).
Ponyo surrounded by her many sisters in the film
, Miyazaki's adaptation of
The Little Mermaid
Deborah Ross, in her article “Miyazaki’s
A Goldfish Out of Water,” points out the particularly imaginative qualities of the film, while maintaining that it not only utilizes some very important aspects of the original Andersen work, but pays homage to them. She describes
as, “like many Disney features, [presents] imagination as a sometimes dark and dangerous thing.”
This point is apt to share with students when confronting them with the original Andersen text, which is quite dark. Students familiar with the Disney version will probably find a bit of shock in the mermaid actually having her tongue cut out, permanently, instead of bartering her voice on a gamble like Disney’s Ariel. Or that the legs of Andersen’s mermaid bleed and cause her anguish with every step, “as if [she] were treading upon sharp knives.”
Which “alone may explain why parents are more comfortable setting their [children] down in front of the Disney video than they are reading them this gruesome story.”
, Miyazaki never crosses the line into the overtly disturbing as Andersen does, nor does he present a flashy, bubbly narrative like the Disney version. The character Ponyo, in an adaptive
, is in fact saved by the human object of her desire, in this case a 5-year old boy named Sosuke, instead of the other way around. Her mother is a major factor in the narrative, also a
from not only the original text, but from the many classic fairy tales which are missing matriarchs of any kind. It is still, however, a fairy tale in that the lessons to children remain quite palpable. In its significant environmental overtone,
teaches “that human actions have consequences.”
The “sea king” (in this case an underwater sorcerer) is a former human who left mankind to “serve the earth.”
There is a clear environmental agenda, utilizing the strength and universality of the original story to promote modern meanings, feelings, and even causes. The adapted narrative of
is consistently centered on preservation of coastlines and oceans, a prime example of
(Leitch) and apt for class discussion of the importance of the ability of adaptations to use classic, familiar stories to promote attention to modern themes and considerations.
Also apparent in Miyazaki’s adaptation are themes important to teenagers: the concept of being oneself and of persistence, and of magnanimous parenting. Again flipping the script of the original story, here it is the prince character, Sosuke, who is tested. “The happy ending cannot come about. . .until her true love, Sosuke, has promised Ponyo’s parents to love and accept the fish that still lives in her.”
Quite different from, and arguably far more progressive than, Andersen’s mermaid who must give up her tail and life in the kingdom of the sea just for the
to convince a prince to love her, Ponyo’s mother, on the other hand, both supports her decision and insists that she be free to make her own decisions, even her own mistakes. I’m sure at least a few students will approve of a parent who “is more focused on promoting love and growth and therefore on respect for her child’s will.”
That may even spark some good class discussion.
Finding in this adaptation such themes as feminism, progressive parenting, environmentalism and conservation, as well as the promotion of self-confidence, students will be able to see clearly the effects of good
. The film takes into consideration imagination just as much as Disney’s iteration, and relies more heavily than expected on the original Andersen narrative. “The storyline. . .acknowledges. . .that magic is something to outgrow, though not forget, as we learn to help each other endure and enjoy what we can of this damaged and dangerous world.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
“Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus. Here lies Arthur, King once, and King in the future.”
-Sir Thomas Malory
“Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Is there a more enduring classic than legend? This is another tale that many young people have been familiarized with over the years through the Disney iteration. In fact, it will come to bear that viewing aspects of the Disney production may be helpful in familiarizing students with the original story.
However we must start, as is the practice of this unit, with an original text. Arthurian legend has been written about and adapted and re-adapted since the 12th century. Comparing it to the loose, uproarious comedy of Monty Python offers both a look into the comedic culture of the 1970’s as well as providing variety from which to study adaptation of original work.
Arthurian legend has been adapted into so many different forms – narrative, lyric, pictorial, musical – that for instruction of it one might feel free to pick and choose. As with
, for purposes of this unit, I will be doing an overview with students of the legend of King Arthur, as well as using sections of the poem
by Chretien de Troyes which, according to Elizabeth Murrell, is the adaptation of Arthurian legend most responsible for sparking the imagination of British comedians Graham Chapman, John Cleese, et al. Using sections of the French poem (translated, of course) presents another opportunity for instructional diversity in this unit. The translated text can be found easily online (link in Teacher Resources). It’s not necessarily wise to expect a 12th century epic poem (especially one that was unfinished by its original writer and taken up again by several others, having as complicated a history as it does a plot) to be well-received by the modern teenager. However, paired with general overviews of the story of King Arthur and the quest for the Grail, certain lines can be interesting and advantageous for scrutiny in class before viewing the film. For example: “The man who does not honor women / shows honor must be dead within him.”
Themes of chivalry, hero quests, and even the concept of adventure as related to film can be explored in Arthurian legend. These are apparent, even in Monty Python’s comedic take, giving us a prime example of Leitch’s
Murrell agrees that Monty Python is a viable classroom resource: “Since students respond to humor and to the unconventional, the use of contemporary film in the classroom is a useful strategy for introducing material whose content may be intimidating, strange, or difficult.”
She asserts that
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
is a functional adaptation of the original poem, in addition to being highly engaging as an uproarious comedy. Focusing on the poem as an original classic text, an instructor gains the advantage of using a “borderline text – that is, it fills a space between epic and novel, as well as between myth and romance.”
What is an epic? What is a novel for that matter? All important questions to explore when developing a conversation and study centered ultimately on reading. Students will have to decide what genre they are dealing with if they are going to set the stage for their own adaptation. Again, exploring the entirety of
could easily make up a university semester or even a course of study. Highlighting particular lines to compare to scenes of the film as a good example of parody/pastiche is recommended and exemplified in the Classroom Activities section.
Another opportunity in using a comedic adaptation is to explore the nature of comedy as commentary. Throughout the film, the knights are being misunderstood, and there are problems with communication. The confusion, argument, and debate over words indicates a clear commentary on the nature of words and how much they can impede communication. For example, the famed Knights Who Say “Ni,” – giant, imposing would-be killers – demand a shrubbery, and nothing else, for King Arthur and his knights to pass. When Arthur procures this shrubbery, the Knights Who Say “Ni,” confounded, request another shrubbery. If time and context allows, an instructor might explore the nature of British humor from that time period. However for these purposes, an exercise in communication may be more universal to use with high school students. For example, in Classroom Activities we will explore what the nature of communication has to do with class divides as exemplified by scenes from the poem and film.
As a case study for film analysis,
The Holy Grail
is also worth a look. The film itself is often visceral and intense, portraying within its comedy a genuine feel for medieval times with jarring, handheld camera shots as well as frequent violence (sometimes comical, sometimes realistic, often both). Additionally, if there is time to go into the roots of the British comedy the film grew from, one should also point out the film as an example of comedic legend, since it is based on story that has become legend. Something that the film can help students realize is that the magic of storytelling is behind it all. The people who made this film were able to recognize a story that was so good, so epic, so universal, that it snowballed over the decades and centuries to become actual legend. This film was based on that legend, and in modern times, in modern media, it has become legend itself! Aren’t books grand?
I should note, incidentally, that along the same lines,
is legendary to an entirely different generation. The humor is often dry and not always universally accessible.
The Holy Grail
may be better shown in clips, since, while some jokes are extraordinarily lowbrow, its generally highbrow, dry and persistent humor sometimes relies less on narrative than on quick quips. Kids may lose interest. Clips on the other hand can be chosen carefully to pinpoint the actual plot points from Arthurian legend and also show that humor can be used in
The Wizard of Oz
“’Come along, Toto,’she said. ‘We will go to the Emerald City and ask the great Oz how to get back to Kansas.’”
The Wizard of Oz
“The genius who created me only took care of my dashing good looks, my razor sharp wit and my irresistible attraction to the wrong women. What he forgot to add...was a heart.”
It makes sense that an American tale as classic as L. Frank Baum’s
The Wizard of Oz
has been adapted so many times into a predominantly American artform, the musical. From the Judy Garland film to modern Tony winner
, singing down the yellow brick road is arguably more recognizable than the quartet’s walk down that road in the original work. In fact, simply calling it the “yellow brick road” is a habit born of adaptation -- Baum describes it in his original work as “the road of yellow brick.”
I suppose that “follow the road of yellow brick” wouldn’t have made as catchy a tune as “follow the yellow brick road!”
For the purposes of this curricular unit, we will be taking a look at
, the 1978 re-imagined adaptation that places the same classic characters in a different Oz, one set in New York City, the Kansas of the real world being replaced by Harlem, and the cast being predominantly African-American. Adding a musical to our arsenal of imaginative adaptation examples promotes an aspect of diversity, as does the cultural relevance of the film to a more urban setting (like the one in which I teach). As mentioned earlier, it also does not hurt that the film is fantastic. It is unlikely that an instructor would lose engagement from many, if any, students viewing a film so visually, musically, and of course narratively stimulating.
If the original MGM film updated such things as the phrasing surrounding Baum’s “road of yellow brick,”
(first the musical, then film to which I refer), continues that adaptive process. Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, and their friends “Ease on down the road”
to Oz. In an essay exploring the many adaptations of the original story, Ryan Bunch of Rutgers University describes well the nature of the update: “Black vernacular speech, music, and movement transform the agrarian, rooted, nostalgic myth of Baum’s book and the MGM film into an urban, mobile, modern vision.”
These new clothes on such a classic story not only can enhance appreciation for the original, but are quite dazzling visually, and the songs speak to the modern generation. Students will, depending on time, be reading the original story or excerpts from it, before watching
All said, each of these four films is fantastic and watchable in its own right. I highly recommend taking a look at each and deciding which may be apt for student study. The original stories of each are ones more or less known in the world of American education and it is likely students will have anywhere from a passing interest to active engagement based on that alone. But when we bring film into the instructional balance, when we add visual images and viewable human interaction and emotion to something students are familiar with or will have read in class, the use of adaptation can make the themes of these stories all the more teachable. Below are activities with which to do that for these stories and their film adaptations.