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?