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Abigail Burnham Bloom and Mary Sanders Pollock (eds.). Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1604977868. Price: US$109.99/£65.99

  • Marie-Luise Kohlke

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  • Marie-Luise Kohlke
    Swansea University

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Adaptation studies, by their nature, are perennially inexhaustible, with ever new adaptations inviting ever more criticism. While following in the wake of Dianne F. Sadoff’s Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen (2009), Abigail Burnham Bloom and Mary Sanders Pollock’s edited collection is by no means de trop, but rather the opposite. For while it is common for studies of film adaptations to treat at least one Victorian text or more, in-depth explorations of how a particular period’s literary productions are transposed onto screen remain comparatively rare. Yet exactly this kind of concentrated focus seems invaluable for exploring adaptation’s role as a form of doing history in an informative but popular fashion, simultaneously reinvigorating and commodifying our literary heritage.

Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation allows a range of synergies to emerge between varied cinematic approaches to re-/deconstructing the long nineteenth century as the formative era of modernity and re-envisioning its textual artifacts as variously comic, queer, monstrous and instructive reflections of as well as for the present. Framed by a critical introduction by Thomas Leitch and a useful “Bibliography of Adaptation and Film Study” by the editors and Leitch (which curiously overlooks Sadoff’s monograph), the volume’s eleven chapters are grouped into three sub-headings: “Reinterpreting the Victorians” concentrates on theoretical and technical aspects of filmic adaptations; “Modifying the Victorians” focuses on new perspectives on nineteenth-century texts and the ways we read them now; and “Translating the Victorians” analyzes how adaptations can be used pedagogically to make Victorian literature more accessible and appealing to new generations of readers. The usual suspects (adaptations of works by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc.) dominate, but space is also accorded less prominent adapted texts like Oscar Wilde’s comic drama, a short story by Joseph Conrad, and, refreshingly, Robert Browning’s poetry for children. One might have wished for a slightly expanded volume, so as to feature more surprises, perhaps enabling further thinking through of different genres’ implications for adaptive practice. Equally welcome would have been more discussion of why some nineteenth-century works, such as novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, tend to be far less frequently adapted today and, when they were adapted in the past, attracted less sustained critical attention. Another quibble relates to the significant gender imbalance across the volume: the only women-authored adapted texts covered are two Austen novels (and hence not, strictly speaking, Victorian), while the adaptors discussed are likewise overwhelmingly male. The role that gender plays in strategies of adaptation thus goes largely unremarked. Nonetheless, this does not detract substantially from the interest and quality of the volume’s individual chapters.

Leitch’s introduction comes closest to crystallizing the peculiar “continued fascination with the cultural capital [...] offered by nineteenth-century English literature and literary culture” (6). Leitch meditates on early film’s indebtedness to realism as well as our forebears’ penchant for visuality, spectacle and sensationalism, the latter credited with a crucial role “in defining the legacy of Victorian fiction” for cinema, adaptation theory, and wider culture (10). Add to this the iconic status of nineteenth-century authors—“so readily available to be fetishized” (7)—and adaptations of their texts mesh readily with (and benefit from an enhanced marketability within) today’s celebrity-driven culture. Leitch makes the provocative suggestion that rather than the literary canon determining filmmakers’ choices of texts to adapt, the process increasingly works in the opposite direction, resulting in “a new canon shaped by adaptation” (14)—though this might have been more persuasive if supported by a correspondingly wider coverage of lesser-known adapted Victorian texts in the collection.

The volume’s opening essay (again by Leitch) analyzes multiple cinematic appropriations of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Leitch weighs the merits of four competing theoretical models—spoke/sunburst, genealogy, daisy chain, and tracer text—that can be used to explicate the complex intertexual relations and struggle for “supremacy” (42) between source texts and adaptations. Next, Jean-Marie Lecomte’s chapter on Ernst Lubitsch’s silent film Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) considers adaptation in terms of stylistic “reprocessing” and “semiotic and cultural metamorphosis” (52), not least involving a metaphorical un-lacing of Wilde’s supposedly more “straight-laced” (55) heroine via the ironic exploitation and sometime inversion of “both cinematic and theatrical codes” (56). Natalie Neill’s contribution on the adaptation history of A Christmas Carol (1843), Charles Dickens’ “most peddled, parodied, remade, and retailed” work (71) explores how early piracy and bowdlerization as an effect “of emergent mass culture” (72) fed adaptive practice in the post-Victorian age. Romanticizing and ritualizing adaptations, Neill argues, increasingly displace the source text in the cultural consciousness, underlining the impossibility of achieving textual and period fidelity as the source text becomes “just one of hundreds of versions” (80) in circulation.

The second section is concerned with how adaptations can make visible latent aspects of Victorian texts, while engaging in complex ethical renegotiations that make them newly relevant. The editor Pollock’s perspicacious chapter deals with the “interpolation” (93) of Robert Browning’s poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1842) into Atom Egoyan’s 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks’s contemporary novel The Sweet Hereafter (1991). Pollock offers fine close readings of how various characters enact Browning’s Pied Piper role and of the traumatized community’s search for monetary recompense for the loss of their children in a tragic accident. The adaptation makes a scathing, if finally resigned, comment on our culture’s multifarious commodification of children while resisting, as does Browning’s poem, any reductive moral judgements.

Gene M. Moore’s chapter discusses how Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle (2005) likewise complicates viewer responses in fleshing out the insubstantial character of the anonymous wife in Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return” (1897). Through the servants’ reluctant witnessing of the warring couple’s altercations, the film draws the audience into a self-conscious “choreography of pain” (117). Moore’s conclusion that “Gabrielle can help to illustrate the problem [...] of making unspeakable thoughts and feelings visible” (119)—including the wife’s own desire to inflict suffering—emphasizes adaptations’ multi-directionality, with the new text generating a transformative reassessment of the old. So too in Michael Eberle-Sinatra’s essay, which interprets Amy Heckerling’s transposition of Austen’s Emma (1816) to a late twentieth-century setting in Clueless (1995) as an invitation to radically rethink the character of Frank Churchill and his duplicitous performance as a heterosexual suitor “in light of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of ‘homosocial desire’” (125), a topic still neglected in Austen criticism in contrast to relationships between her female characters.

Similarly, Louise McDonald reads Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) as throwing new light on the “anti-Enlightenment philosophy” and radically uncertain subjectivities of Thackeray’s novel (1856, serialised 1844). This uncertainty makes Thackeray’s story appropriate for the filmmaker’s “postmodern lament for the human condition” (137), even as Kubrick “understates” and replaces “Victorian sociopolitical concerns” with others deemed “more relevant for the postmodern viewer” (138). Ellen Moody’s chapter on Simon Raven’s and others’ screenplays for adaptations of Trollope’s Palliser novels (1865-1880) may be slightly confusing for readers unfamiliar with the sheer variety of source texts covered; nonetheless it aptly focalizes their inevitable reshaping in the light of screenwriters’ own ideological agendas, as when Raven focuses on crises of masculinity at the expense of Thackeray’s criticism of patriarchy and sympathy for the plight of Victorian women (see 159-60 and 163-4). Such tendencies may conversely lead to an emptying out of Victorian texts’ ethical imports; hence this section as a whole underlines how—deliberately or inadvertently—adaptations may rupture our complacent confidence in the superiority of our own value systems.

The final section discusses innovative practical ideas and pedagogical strategies that teachers of adaptation may well wish to incorporate into their own teaching practice. Sarah J. Heidt’s chapter explains how analyzing Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in conjunction with a range of classic and popular vampire films can help students become “savvier readers of novelistic and cinematic texts” (199), sensitizing them in particular to “enunciation techniques and interpretative stances” (195) and their ideological implications. Tamara S. Wagner’s contribution on Sherlock Holmes’ multifarious afterlives on screen focuses on the icon’s “transposition” into “incongruous environment[s]” and how “the resulting defamiliarization” (205-6) foregrounds the adaptive choices. These transpositions feed a process of “cultural mythmaking” (219), with some adaptations becoming irrevocable “conduit[s] or lens[es]” (6) that inflect or distort all subsequent perceptions of the source text and later re-visions. As does Neill, Wagner thus addresses the important issue of palimpsestic adaptation, whereby multiple intertexts—including prior adaptations and biographies of the author—are evoked and reworked simultaneously, something Pollock and Moody also touch on, if more indirectly.

The final chapter by Laura Carroll, Christopher Palmer, Sue Thomas, and Rebecca Waese returns to Austen via Roger Mitchell’s 1995 adaptation of Persuasion (1818). The authors advocate complicating students’ understanding of the adaptive process by introducing a mediating “third” text, such as the novel’s cancelled chapter or the film’s published screenplay, to effect a “triangulation” (225) which resists any “fetishizing or ossifying reception” by exposing all narrative and adaptive techniques and effects, such as realism, unity, closure, and authenticity, “as artifice” (229). Their resonant argument that only “[c]opies create originals” (229), helping students to literally ‘see’ the novel’s (and film’s) ideological “fissures” via “visual signifiers of race, class and empire” (231), draws an oblique line back to Leitch’s opening arguments about textual visuality.

Like adaptation itself, the adapted Victorians offer a movable feast. Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation offers thought-provoking deliberations for adaptation students, scholars, and teachers about how current preoccupations continuously inform and transform our always fluid understanding of nineteenth-century texts and their transformations on the silver screen, constituting a valuable addition to an ever-growing critical field.