FilmAdaptation and Its Discontents:
From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007
$55, 368 pp., ISBN 0-8018-8565-5.
Reviewed by Shannon Wells-Lassagne
Université de Bretagne Sud
The last few years have seen an increasing number of book-length studies attempting to grapple with the very meaning of the word ‘adaptation’: while recognizing the latest Jane Austen film seems obvious, the parameters of the discipline are not. Is a film based on several different sources, not all of them literary (an adaptation of the King Arthur myth, for example) still an adaptation? Are films ‘based on a true story’ still adaptations? To this extent, Thomas Leitch follows in the footsteps of notable critics like Kamilla Eliot, Linda Hutcheon, Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, to name but a few of the most recent examples, in seeking to expand the definition traditionally implicit in adaptation studies, and thus to liberate the discipline from a simple analysis of screen translations of canonical literary texts.
Leitch begins his analysis with the consecrated examination of the fidelity debate, explaining why fidelity to the original text is not a relevant criterion for evaluating the success (or even the interest) of a given adaptation. This has become de rigueur in all works on adaptation theory, though Leitch manages to make some unique contributions to the debate by examining the idea of ‘cultural literacy’ originally introduced by E.D. Hirsch as it relates to the phenomenon of adaptation (the idea that adaptations may actually make canonical literature more widely accessible to a new generation). Indeed, I would argue that much of the innovative nature of his analysis resides in his use of well-known texts in an original way to further debate on some of the most popular (and sometimes well-worn) aspects of adaptation theory. For example, in broaching yet another much-studied area of adaptation studies, the ‘heritage film’ (period dramas most often associated with Merchant Ivory or BBC productions), Leitch makes use of François Truffaut’s ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ article and his categorization of the different types of films in what he considered a moribund period of filmmaking (leading to the Nouvelle Vague). Though Truffaut’s piece is well-known to all film enthusiasts, it is to my knowledge the first time that his work has been applied to the specific area of adaptation and the problematic struggle between conservation (of the original text and the past worlds it represents) and innovation that characterizes many period films.
The organization of the study is the other innovation that Leitch has managed to incorporate into Adaptation and its Discontents. Rather than focus on a specific type of adaptation (videogames, canonical texts, etc.), or on a specific author or auteur à la Hitchcock, Leitch chooses to focus each chapter on one of the difficulties inherent to the field of adaptation studies. Thus for example his third chapter focuses on Biblical adaptations, the ultimate canonical text that is in and of itself problematic (both in terms of narrative coherence and in defining what constitutes the source text – which Gospels? Which apocryphal texts?), while his eighth takes on the recurrent fallacy that the transfer from novel to film is the equivalent of the movement from text to image, using examples from children’s literature to support his argument (he rightly points out that children’s picture books are almost never transferred to the screen, for the simple reason that parent’s comments in fact make up the dialogue missing from the book itself, something that cannot be reproduced for film). In so doing, Leitch ensures that his book will indeed be focused on adaptation and its challenges, thus avoiding the frequent tendency to string together a series of individual studies and tie them together with a more theoretic introduction and/or conclusion. On the contrary, Leitch clearly seeks to push the reader into reflecting on the field of adaptation studies as a whole instead of getting bogged down with individual cases or exceptions. Of course, this inevitably implies that the texts and films he studies become secondary to the point they prove: though many of his analyses are clever and convincing, it is clear that he is more interested in the many adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ introducing Dickens to a more massive audience than he is in the tale itself, for example. This sometimes proves frustrating, but it seems a necessary evil given Leitch’s ultimate goal of establishing adaptation studies as a valid field of research, rather than a diverting pastime for literature professors seeking to enliven their courses. As Leitch himself states in his final chapter focusing on films that are ‘based on a true story’:
Adaptation studies will rest on a firmer foundation when its practitioners direct their attention away from films that present themselves as based on a single literary source … and toward the process of adaptation. Instead of distinguishing sharply between original texts and intertexts, future students will need to focus less on texts and more on textualizing (the process by which some intertexts become sanctified as texts while others do not) and textuality (the institutional characteristics that mark some texts, but not others, as texts) 
Though researchers coming to the field from literary studies may disagree with the firm stance Leitch takes here, it is nonetheless a welcome change from the repeated insistence, however veiled, on the source text as model rather than inspiration, and a necessary reminder that adaptation theory must be just that, and not a series of simple case studies. I highly recommend the book both to those new or well versed in adaptation studies as a thought-provoking look at the questions to be asked – and perhaps answered – in this domain of ever-increasing importance.