Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate
Even in the craggy patches and thinned-out air of its high altitudes, Kamilla Elliott’s ascent in Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate astonishes. Aggravated by the critical quagmires she encountered when trying to write a book about Victorian novels and their film adaptations, she abandoned her original project. In its place, Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate appears as a publication ghosted by Victorian masters: Charles Dickens, William Makepiece Thackeray, Emily Brontë, Lewis Carroll. Strange bedfellows emerge, usually still fully costumed, as Elliott positions eighteenth-century poetry-painting debates, nineteenth-century book illustration practices, and early, mid, and late silent film intertitles as the unnamed players in the cultural wars dividing words from images in modern thought. Consequently, it’s easy to predict that Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate is likely to prove of most value to other Victorian scholars. Yet conscientious readers will perceive its ambitions as far wider in scope. Elliott aims to overturn entrenched—but unacknowledged—prejudices within the field of adaptation studies and aspires—by staging Nietzschean-inspired séances—to retrieve buried cultural genealogies in order to resuscitate the patient.
Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate is like being offered
a tour of the back lots where literature and film have wrestled
in the shadows. It’s like watching a Punch & Judy
show from backstage while being instructed in the craft of commedia
dell’arte artisans. “Look, Dear Reader,”
Elliott’s Victorian-based scholarship asserts, “here
is what really has been happening.” Painstaking research and
elegant phrasing enable Elliott to execute with brilliance her self-assigned
Herculean task: an attempt to reframe how words and images have
been set against one another and to reveal in arduous detail how
they have been confusingly labeled as both independent and interrelated.
Horace anchors her meditations with his dictum, “ut pictura
poesis.” Enlightenment thought prompted dueling theories:
poetry and painting should be analyzed according to categorical
differences, understood as unique entities devoid of shared characteristics;
poetry and painting should be analyzed according to the paradigm
of interart analogies, recognized as bearing interchangeable traits,
revealing incest and sibling rivalry at play. Uncovering the sloppiness
rampant in today’s adaptation studies, Elliott unmasks the
shoddy positions encased in cultural studies, literary studies,
and film studies responses to this debate. Proclaiming the present
state of affairs at an impasse, she contends that a new model for
analyzing how novels appear in films is needed. To maneuver out
of our present cul-de-sac, she claims that a model that “yokes
the pictorial and the verbal in cognition without erasing all differences
between them and opens a space between form and content that nevertheless
maintains that bond” [p. 185] is needed.
Yet Elliott’s own not fully acknowledged biases color some of her appraisals. It’s a strange oversight when she claims that few modern novels have received more than one film treatment. Consider, for instance, that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has received three, not counting TV adaptations. Similarly, she tends to overstate the Victorian novel’s influence on film, as when she rather coyly rephrases Christian Metz saying that “it is not simply that the nineteenth-century novel influenced western film, but that it in some sense became film” [p. 3]. Wishing to emphasize the dominance of Victorian narratives, Elliott exhibits a tendency to minimize other rival influences. In “Cinematic Novels / Literary Cinemas” she concedes that “a few historians point to film’s origins in vaudeville, optical devices, comic strips, short stories, and fairground entertainments rather than in the classical arts or in the novel” [p. 117]. Here she cites John Fell’s Film and the Narrative Tradition (1974) as the touchstone work while ignoring the prominence of Tom Gunning’s contribution, especially his highly influential theory of “the cinema of attractions.” It seems important to note that Gunning’s scholarship radically altered the direction of early cinema studies and offers a significant rival history to Victorian literature’s influence.
Elliott’s foundational chapter, “Analogy and Category,” is one of the book’s most inspiring. Although densely packed, her line of argument here is tantalizing. Most admirable about her innovative style is the way she deftly transforms strong irritation with adaptation studies into a rallying call for rapprochement. She is proposing a new space, a different geography for her peers to consider. This bravado is so exceptional that its achievement should not be underscored. Elliott returns to the Enlightenment’s aesthetic wars as a foundational strategy for constructing a hermeneutics of mis-reading. If Victorian ghosts are present in this project, deconstruction’s ghosts also lurk, assisting her in overturning past errors, and in tracing previously unacknowledged taints. Yet at this point Elliott traps herself in her own version of paradox, a condition that she so shrewdly undresses in others. In the Introduction, she generates a list of what she has pre-calculated could be understood as omissions, that is, topics and issues likely to be viewed by others as too quickly cast aside. Although she admits her scholarship is informed by insights and methodologies fostered by postmodern theory and Cultural Studies, she asserts that their approaches must be kept outside her project’s perimeter. This is where she is most likely to open herself up to some critical rejoinders and judicial calls to redirect. Rethinking the Novel-Film Debate could not have been written without the “permissions” granted by recent critical theory, and her insights vibrate with the tensions strung out between semiotics and poststructrualism, deconstruction and New Criticism, New Historicism and annals merely chronicling history. Absent from this book are nearly all traces of the rich materialist critiques Marxist considerations might have provided even though her findings lean in this direction more than she might have imagined. Further discussion of how studio practices staged how and why words appeared in silent film might have offered astonishing results. Elliott begins this critique rather than completes it.
One of Elliott’s many virtues is her ability to recontextualize iconic figures, allowing them to pop up in unexpected places. Tolstoy appears, offering pronouncements upon the occasion of his eightieth birthday:
As a man known to have anguished over his income, F. Scott Fitzgerald is heard worrying that “as long past as 1930, I had a hunch that talkies would make even the bestselling novelist as archaic as silent pictures” [p. 52]. Elliott’s skill at interjecting such entertaining incidents throughout Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate often creates the illusion that she is sitting across from you at table, chatting. Achieving such moments of casual intimacy in the midst of this intricate interdisciplinary project is no small feat.
Since Elliott’s scholarship can be spellbinding in sections, the occasional spots where she overreaches or fails to convince seem worth mentioning. In the Introduction, Elliott constructs her claims by positioning Dudley Andrew and W.J.T. Mitchell, dons within the field, as straw men. She wants to gain legitimacy by appearing to construct a counterargument to offset their errors in judgment. Here, however, a touch of sloppiness creeps in: she quotes theoretical positions that they staked out approximately two decades ago, without due deference to the evolution of their speculative thoughts. Scholarship’s vitality turns upon the modification of prior positions taken, and Elliott should have brought up the alteration in Andrew and Mitchell’s positions, if only in footnotes. Although it is true that Andrew theorized “the absolutely different semiotic systems of film and language,” he did so in 1984. It seems strange not to have reviewed his own altered stance in Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography (1997). In the Introduction to this collection of essays, Andrew takes Mitchell to task, naming him as one of the last to see words and images as separate. Yet, to be fair, Mitchell’s scholarship also bears the marks of evolutionary thought, differences stated in Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (1987) and Picture Theory: Essays in Verbal and Visual Representation (1994). The way scholars frame their projects offers clues as to how eccentric blind spots are generated. In citing outmoded opinions within the field as if still uncontested, Elliott ironically fails to take into consideration the historical conditions that prompted these claims in the 1970s and 1980s. To write about adaptation at that time allowed newly emergent Film Studies a chance to gain creditability in university settings. Positing Film Studies as a step-child of literature allowed then and now for its interdisciplinary funding in English and Comparative Literature departments. Is it that Elliott is unaware of this reality? Certainly not, rather she is campaigning for her own vision. What has been uncovered is how the golden bowl’s original crack, the as-of-yet not fully resolved tension between semiotics and formalism, must be recognized as part of the volatile dynamics still at play across a wide range of disciplines.
That said, Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate is a tour de force, well worth recommending.