Guide to Adaptation Research
“The book was better than the movie.” We’ve all heard it before. People have been comparing novels to film ever since the first adaptations were made. But it’s one thing to have a knee-jerk reaction to something, and quite another to actually back your words up with facts. This guide is for anyone who’s ever been interested in studying adaptations from a scholarly point of view. From movies based on novels or comics to video games based on movies, adaptation is quickly becoming a “hot topic” for scholars. There is a growing number of resources out there. This guide will get you up and running in no time. I wrote my masters thesis on adaptation and have studied it quite extensively. Let me share what I’ve learned with you.
This guide is intended to act as an introdiction to adaptation theory. It is important to note that its focus is heavily slanted toward a literary approach. Adaptation theory is a subject that many different disciplines are interested in. Film studies, American studies, foreign language studies, English departments–all of these are looking at the processes and ideas involved in adpatation. This guide is aimed toward students of English interested in gaining a deeper understanding of how their field relates to adaptation. Students of other fields are of course welcome to use the guide as well, but know that this might not include all works important to those other fields.
The guide is organized into the following categories. Click a link to go directly to that category, or scroll down to read through the entire guide.
Periodicals ~ Indexes ~ Websites ~ Professional Associations and Conferences
Key Search Terms, Subject Headings and Call Number Ranges
If you are looking for specific adaptations of books or authors, or adaptations done by certain film makers, search for those individual books or people. Pay special attention to see if the library you’re using has a normalized vocabulary term for that book or person. (A normalized term is a standard way the library has for referring to something. For example, there are many different spellings of “Dostoevsky,” but the library has likely settled on one spelling and gathered all entries about the author under that one term. Knowing normalized vocabulary can be a powerful took in helping you do efficient research. Usually the best way to see if the library has a normalized term is to scan the entries for hyperlinked words–words that will do automatic searches of the catalog for you. These hyperlinked words are usually the normalized vocabulary.) Other good, general terms follow:
- Adaptation studies
- Film studies
As with key search terms, your own library might have its own normalized vocabulary for subject headings– vocabulary that may be different from the headings listed below. If this is the case, follow the instructions under “Key Search Terms” to determine what the normalized vocabulary is, and then use that to search subject headings further.
- Film Adaptations–History and Criticism
- Film Adaptations
- Motion Pictures and Literature
Dewey: In the Dewey Decimal Classification system, analysis of adaptations are classified with the same number as the work being adapted. Thus, if you are interested in finding out about Shakespeare adaptations, books about them will be classified along with the works by Shakespeare. However, if you want to find books written about adaptations in general, there are a few good call numbers to browse. Books in these ranges will present a variety, not all of them on adaptation in specific, but if you just want to browse, it is a place to start.
Library of Congress: As with Dewey, books about adaptations are often going to be cataloged in many different places, depending on what work was adapted. However, there is a call number range for books written about adaptation in general. This is a fairly broad range, and there are a variety of books there if you’d just like to browse and see what information is out there.
- PZ 1995-PZ 1997
The following are useful general guides to adaptation. They can help you find a place to start your research or get an overview of whatever subject you’re interested in. They aren’t particularly “dense”–their focus is more on being reader friendly and giving quick summaries. I would suggest going to these sources to find ideas for topics you might want to do further research on. They are good starting points, but from there you’ll need to keep researching.
- John Tibbett’s The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film
“One of the great pleasures of moviegoing is seeing a beloved novel adapted for the screen; one of the big delights of novel reading is encountering a book that has been made into a favorite film. The Encyclopedia of Novels into Films is an expansive volume that will guide you through the rich history of film adaptation. Each entry falls into two parts: the first describes the original novel; the second assesses the film it inspired. Particularly interesting are records for books like Dracula, Les Misérables, Great Expectations, The Body Snatchers, and The Great Gatsby, which were each made into several radically different movies. Some entries may surprise you. Did you know that The Silence of the Lambs, Shaft, and Rear Window were bestselling books before they became famous films? Trivia like this, along with larger issues about how to transform literature into visual art are covered in this wonderful and informative guide. –Raphael Shargel” (amazon.com)
- Linda Cahir’s Literature into Film
“For most people, film adaptation of literature can be summed up in one sentence: “The movie wasn’t as good as the book.” This volume undertakes to show the reader that not only is this evaluation not always true but sometimes it is intrinsically unfair. Movies based on literary works, while often billed as adaptations, are more correctly termed translations. A director and his actors translate the story from the written page into a visual presentation. Depending on the form of the original text and the chosen method of translation, certain inherent difficulties and pitfalls are associated with this change of medium. . . . Written with a formalistic rather than historical approach, this work presents a comprehensive guide to literature-based films, establishing a contextual and theoretical basis to help the reader understand the relationships between such movies and the original texts as well as the reader’s own individual responses to these productions. . . . Films and literary works receiving this treatment include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Lady Windemere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare’s Henry V.” (amazon.com)
As with any subject, there are some sources that are particularly noteworthy. These are the main texts that the rest of current adaptation theory and works have been based on. Ignore these sources at your own risk: any paper or research that fails to show it has been informed of these ideas automatically opens itself up to criticism. There are other books by authors that touch on the same subject (using their own theories, of course), but these are the most important three. Once you have a topic in mind, consult these sources for information on how to analyze adaptation or how to approach it.
- George Bluestone’s Novels into Film
This is the “granddaddy” of adaptation works. It served as the groundwork on which all later studies have been built (in one way or another). Some of Bluestone’s ideas are dated, but a proper understanding of his technique and theory helps the modern scholar get a clearer idea of where adaptation theory has been and where it is going.
“First published in 1957, this seminal work of film theory analyzes the process — “the mysterious alchemy” — by which novels are transformed into films. Beginning with a discussion of the aesthetic limits of both the novel and the film, George Bluestone goes on to offer close readings of six films based on novels of serious literary merit — The Informer, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Pride and Prejudice, The Ox-Bow Incident, and Madame Bovary — focusing on the additions, deletions, and other changes made by the filmmakers in adapting the source material for the screen. Based on both in-depth research into film archives and libraries and on interviews with the screenwriters, directors, and producers who worked on these films, Novels into Film concludes that because the novel lends itself to states of consciousness and the film to observed reality, the adaptation of one from the other produces a new and wholly autonomous art form.” (amazon.com)
- Brian McFarlane’s Novel to Film
McFarlane’s work was the next book since Bluestone to have a major impact on the field–almost forty years later. It has been derided by some and praised by others, but like it or not, it has also served as the measuring stick for studies in recent years–either articles are “pro-McFarlane” or “anti-McFarlane,” so to say. Again, one must be exposed to his ideas to properly understand the issues being debated.
“”It wasn’t as good as the book;” this is the response to many a film adaptation, and even the starting point of many film reviews. This book offers the first systematic theoretical account of the process by which the great (and not so great) works of literature are transformed into the good, bad (sometimes ugly), but always distinctive medium of cinema. Drawing on recent literary and film theory, Mcfarlane provides careful analysis of the theory and practice of metamorphosis. The Scarlet Letter, Random Harvest, Great Expectations, Daisy Miller, and Cape Fear provide case studies for a range of fictional and cinematic practices.” (amazon.com)
- Robert Stam’s Literature and Film
Stam seems to be the up-and-coming expert in the field. He has a trio of books that were published in 2003, all of which handle adaptation theory very well and offer some interesting new ideas on the subject. Read him for an idea of where adaptation theory is today. Of the three he wrote, this one book offers a good overview of his ideas, and from there you can go on to study his other works if you so choose.
“Literature and Film is a superb collection of vibrant essays that chart the history and confluence of literature and film. Bringing together the very latest scholarship in the field, this guide contains astute and readable contributions – both theoretical and thematic – on the translation of literary into filmic texts. Subjects range from established classics including The Last of the Mohicans, through consecrated genre works like Cape Fear, to contemporary classics such as The English Patient and Beloved. Almost all of the essays are originals, especially composed for this volume, and written by leading international scholars on both literature and film. The book features an ambitious introductory essay tracing the theory and practice of adaptation, providing the ideal entry point for students or scholars exploring this dynamic and multifaceted field.” (amazon.com)
These are some of the most important journals relating to adaptation theory. Don’t just read them–also consider submitting your work to them for publication. As a rule, adaptation journals are much more open minded right now about publishing quality work, regardless of the source. This is a community, and people in it are interested in hearing the ideas of others.
- Literature/Film Quarterly
Literature Film Quarterly, established in 1973, for over thirty years has focused upon problems of adapting and transforming fiction and drama into film. It has also covered film genre, theory, and criticism and has featured interviews with screenwriters (such as Daniel Taradash, Horton Foote, and Joan Tewkesbury) and directors (such as Robert Altman, Robert Wise, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Louis Malle, and others). It circulates coast-to-coast in the United States and Canada and has nearly 200 subscribers in nearly thirty foreign countries beyond North America.
- Film Quarterly
Whether you teach film theory, study film as an aspect of popular culture, or simply want to keep abreast of the latest developments in the art, Film Quarterly is for you.
- Film & History
Film & History is concerned with the impact of motion pictures on our society. Also, unlike many other journals, Film & History focuses on how feature films and documentary films both represent and interpret history.
- Journal of Popular Culture
The Journal of Popular Culture is a peer-reviewed journal and the official publication of the Popular Culture Association. The popular culture movement was founded on the principle that the perspectives and experiences of common folk offer compelling insights into the social world. The fabric of human social life is not merely the art deemed worthy to hang in museums, the books that have won literary prizes or been named “classics,” or the religious and social ceremonies carried out by societies’ elite. The Journal of Popular Culture continues to break down the barriers between so-called “low” and “high” culture and focuses on filling in the gaps a neglect of popular culture has left in our understanding of the workings of society.
These are some of the most important indexes relating to adaptation theory. It’s important to note that these are only available to libraries that subscribe to them. In other words, they cost money– usually lots of it. So if you want access to one of these indexes, it’s best to either go to a library that subscribes to it, or belong to such a library. (Many libraries now offer home access to the indexes they subscribe to. To do this, you typically need a user name and password to log in. Speak to your local or university librarian to find out if you can do this.) With that said, go here to find out what other people have written about the topic you’ve chosen.
- MLA International Bibliography
1963+ Indexes articles in literature, languages, linguistics, and folklore. Updated ten times per year.
- Film Literature Index Online
FLI Online contains approximately 700,000 citations to articles, film reviews and book reviews on film and television published between 1976-2001.
- Humanities Full Text
1984-present. Updated 4 times a week. Indexes and abstracts over 500 periodicals in art, archaeology, classical studies, communications, film, theatre, literature, folklore, etc. Full-text for only 180+ publications since 1995. Includes reviews of books, films, plays and links to web sites and original works of fiction, drama, and poetry.
While not as scholarly nor as typically reliable, these are some of the more valuable websites that you can use to do your research into adaptation. The nice thing about these is that, unlike indexes, they’re free to use anywhere you have access to the internet.
- Internet Movie Database
This is truly the best web site out there for people interested in any aspect of film. It has thorough entries on practically everything and everyone in any way associated with the motion picture industries, from films to film makers to screenwriters to actors. Use the search bar on the left of the screen to go to your desired topic, and then follow the plethora of hyperlinks to find out everything there is to know about that topic and anything connected to it. A warning, however–IMDb gets its information from users, and as such it has been known to be wrong now and then. Still, this is the first place to go for information about films.
- Movie Review Query Engine
If you’re looking for reviews of movies, look no further. They have a fast, simple interface and a deep listing of reviews, from professional to fansites.
There are several professional associations and conferences that take particular interest in adaptation right now. If this is something you’re really interested in, I encourage you to contact these associations and take part in their conferences. Most of them are quite open to paper submissions and eager to hear from different people about their ideas. Even if you’re not interested in presenting at a conference, these are still good places to go to learn about the most current theories and ideas and to talk to other people who share your passion. Look for me there–I’ve been to quite a few of these myself.
- Popular Culture/American Culture Association
The conferences of these two associations are a wonderful place to go to meet people interested in adaptation. There are conferences both at the national and regional levels. Of particular note are the national and Southwest regional conferences, as they typically have a large number of panels on adaptation in specific and film in general. Follow the link above to their website, and from there you can find information about the upcoming conferences, both at a regional and national level. The national conference is typically held at the beginning of April, and the times of the regional conferences vary, although the Southwest conference is usually a few months before the national one.
- Film & Literature Conference at Florida State University
Florida State University has been holding this conference quite a while–in 2006 they’re holding their 28th meeting. Unfortunately they don’t have a specific website devoted to the conference, but a Google search for the conference name should bring up the information on the current conference, which is typically held at the beginning of February.