Classic Remarks: Adaptations

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Nahum Tate is infamous for his 1681 adaptation of King Lear with a happy ending.  Why do you think some adaptations of works are praised and others dismissed?  Can we separate the merit of an adaptation from the merit of the work it is based on?

The definition of an adaptation is more elusive than it might initially seem.  For example, what is the difference between writing a story based on another story or inspired by another story, or writing an adaptation?  Is West Side Story an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet?  Is The Lion King an adaptation of Hamlet?  Is Nameless by Lili St. Crow an adaptation of “Snow White?”  How many matching elements must a story  have to be an adaptation?  Must the similarities be intentional on the part of the creators?

And if Shakespeare’s stories were inspired by others, why don’t we consider his works to be adaptations?  No one writes “The Winter’s Tale, an adaptation of Robert Greene’s Pandosto.”  Is a work only considered an adaptation if it’s considered inferior to the original?  Or if the original has a big name author attached to it?  And yet Pandosto was very popular during Shakespeare’s time.  How do we begin to decipher what is “good” literature or who counts as “popular?”  Many times works become famous due to a mixture of influence, money, and luck–not necessarily because they’re better than anything else out there.  And tastes change.  The sentimental novel was once considered great art in America.  Now people make fun of it.

Pinning down precisely what an adaptation is is difficult enough, without bringing in questions of merit.  And yet I think that the definition of an adaptation might tie into this question.  Nahum Tate’s King Lear is infamous now (though theatre audiences of the time loved it) because it seems a desecration to so radically transform Shakespeare’s existential commentary.  King Lear is greatness!  Who dares to give it a mere happy ending just to please people who don’t enjoy death?  But when Tate wrote, Shakespeare wasn’t quite the revered demigod he is today.  Transforming his work was acceptable, just as Shakespeare’s transforming others’ work had been acceptable.

Differing audience reception over time suggests that the merit of an adaptation is determined not solely by the work as it stands on its own, but by a comparison with the original.  If you adapt a lesser-known work that people are less attached to or familiar with, chances are you will run into less criticism than you would if you tried to radically adapt a the work of a “genius.”  But is this fair?

I think that adaptations should be judged on their own merits, and yet I also acknowledge that it seems almost impossible not to compare adaptations with their sources or even with other adaptations of the same work.  When someone adapts a work, I generally assume that they are making some sort of commentary on the original work.  I wonder, why did they make certain changes?  Are they speaking to changed cultural norms or making the story more politically relevant?  Are they speaking to audiences who might have always wondered something like “Where did Rumpelstiltskin come from?” or “Does Kate have to be ‘tamed’?”  Texts, for me, are inter-textual–I want to know what conversations the creators are engaging in, to see whom they’re referencing and responding to.  So, unfortunately, I cannot assess an adaptation without also thinking about the source.  Why adapt something if you don’t want to start a conversation?

Leave your link below! Krysta 64

9 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Adaptations

  1. Briana says:

    I know it’s core tenant of adaptation theory that questions of how “faithful” the adaptation is shouldn’t be paramount. But I agree that this is almost impossible to achieve. By writing (and labeling) an adaptation, you’re inviting comparisons. And I think there is something tied to how “good” people think the original is. Today, you don’t mess with Shakespeare. BUT, you can adapt Outlander for TV and have the TV adaptation be “better” than the book, in part because a lot of the TV audience hadn’t even read the book.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I have seen that argument, but even if scholars or critics attempt to ignore questions of faithfulness, I wonder how many people in the audience can do the same. And, on some level, I wonder what the point of an adaptation is, if you’re not going to comment on the source material in some way.


  2. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    I have always understood an adaptation to be the original material presented in a new form, i.e. book to film (as mentioned above). If this holds true, then I personally feel that adaptations should maintain a high amount of faithfulness to the original work and should expect to be compared to the original and critiqued on this.

    I do feel that more often retellings are confused with adaptations. Where a retelling might hold true to the “spirit” and characters of the original work, it is not expected or obligated to maintain the same amount of faithfulness.

    This is a fantastic post as always. You always manage to encourage great discussion! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

      • fictionalescapeartist says:

        I it reply too soon sorry. Pride and Prejudice is a good example of that, I consider the movies and even the Lizzie Bennett Diaries an adaptation but not the book Eligible that came out this year. Even though LBD and Eligible are both P&P on modern days, LBD keeps to the orginal story faithfully, just updating to modern times. Eligible had taken the basic idea of the plot and did their own story.


    • Briana says:

      I think the issue of different media gets tricky in cases like Shakespeare. We often read Shakespeare today, of course, but it’s still a play and there are many play adaptations of it. Or movie adaptations, which I would consider pretty similar to plays.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

        This is true. Of course I think sinse it is an adaptation and not a retelling, we would still be fair to critique it based on how familiar and true to the original story it holds. It is also fair to expect a small amount of deviation from time to time to provide a breath of fresh air so to speak. But then again, we have to consider how much one can deviate before the story is completely altered 😊 Shakespeare is a tough one because his work has definitely been adapted and retold probably more than any other.


        • Krysta says:

          The interesting thing about adaptation studies is that half the time no one agrees on what constitutes an adaptation. Plenty of people think that The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet. I don’t. But there’s no set definition of what an adaptation is or how closely a work has to adhere to the source text to be considered an adaptation.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

            I would agree about The Lion King. If anything it might loosely be a retelling 😉 I feel the definition is clear enough, but can definitely see how some might question exactly how much a piece of work has to follow suit with the original. Given the definition and meaning of adaptation, I have always viewed it as transferring the same work to another form of media 😊 but we all have our own interpretations. Great discussion!


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