It has become a truism that contemporary multi-season TV dramas are inheritors of the methods and aims of Victorian serial fiction, or, as the New York Times editorial page put it in 2006, that if “Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it.” While not absolutely denying the validity of such assertions, this essay reconsiders them. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1949 essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today," now a locus classicus for thinking about the links between nineteenth-century fiction and twentieth- and twenty-first-century cinematic media, first formulated a model that has remained influential for considering Victorian fiction, and especially Dickens’s novels, as offering a “pedigree” and parentage for filmic media. But through a reading of several test cases of contemporary neo-Victorian adaptation, broadly construed—including Dickensian references in The Wire, South Park’s animated Great Expectations adaptation episode, and references to George Eliot in Kazuo Ishiguru’s novel Never Let Me Go—this essay questions and complicates Eisenstein’s paradigm of the Victorian novel as parent to contemporary media.
Corps de l’article
1. “By illiterates, of illiterates, for illiterates”
“If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it” (“Television You Can’t Put Down”): so declared the New York Times in a 2006 editorial that articulates what has since become something of a truism. The Wire gains gravitas and cultural importance from the comparison, but it can’t have hurt Dickens’s Q rating, either, to be so often associated in this way with a critically adored TV show. Although I do not entirely dispute the analogy, in this essay I sound a note of caution. Perhaps we should not be so quick to insist that our own serial televisual narratives match up seamlessly with these nineteenth-century fictional predecessors. The digital/media revolution we inhabit today, I would suggest, is rendering Victorian literature increasingly anachronistic, strange, different and distant: ever-further displaced historically and conceptually. Maybe Dickens would indeed be producing a web sitcom or pilot for HBO or Showtime if he were 25 years old today, but then, he would not be Charles Dickens, and that’s the point: it is perhaps a symptom (of what precisely, I will be exploring) that we so eagerly want to imagine a reincarnated Dickens taking meetings in Hollywood or Silicon Valley.
Jonathan Crary argued over two decades ago that we inhabit “a transformation in the nature of visuality probably more profound than the break that separates medieval images from Renaissance perspective,” part of “a sweeping reconfiguration of relations between an observing subject and modes of representation” (1). Needless to say, the dynamics Crary described have only accelerated since then, as we’ve entered a Web 2.0 media environment in which many of our most familiar contexts, technologies and modes of not only viewing but also reading and listening have mutated and shifted into new shapes. This paper explores some of the desires and fears manifested in our practices of adaptation of nineteenth-century texts into a contemporary media environment. I’m focusing here in particular on neo-Victorian adaptation, a practice I’m considering broadly enough that it also includes what might be called neo-Victorian referentiality (in a novel like Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go).
Adaptation studies spent a long time mired in an unproductive commitment to fidelity. As Robert Stam has put it vividly, “the language of criticism dealing with the film adaptation of novels has often been profoundly moralistic. . . . Infidelity resonates with overtones of Victorian prudishness; betrayal evokes ethical perfidy; deformation implies aesthetic disgust; violation calls to mind sexual violation; vulgarization conjures up class degradation; and desecration intimates a kind of religious sacrilege toward the ‘sacred word’” (54). The aspiration to offer a successful or even a simply adequate adaptation of a classic novel becomes charged with meaning in a sexualized drama of shame and potential degradation. From a naïve perspective, the successful adaptation is the one that’s simply “faithful,” like a loyal boyfriend. From a somewhat more sophisticated perspective, the position that avoids “degradation” would not be a perfectly faithful adaptation, since this is an impossibility, but an adaptation that feels continuous with the logic, worldview, and narrative content of the original.
Why the fear of degradation? Some of it surely lies in an anxiety of mediation: in the feeling that we, in our historically belated position and with our screen media, are destroying, forgetting, or even committing an act of violence on the original text. The fear may be that the film/TV adaptation, or the contemporary fictional rewriting or reference, will harm the original and become a kind of rogue or bad copy. And the still broader concern, I suspect, is that we ourselves have more generally become that bad copy or signifier—that the twenty-first century and its media are orphaned, cut off from a past associated with print culture, liberal individualism, and literacy. That we are degraded, debased, and illiterate; perhaps also diminished, miniaturized, and flattened like a one-dimensional character or an MP3 file. In this moral drama, the good adaptation proves that twentieth-century media practices can still allow us access to the wisdom of the past. The bad adaptation, on the other hand, becomes an incomplete sign, a token of a contemporary life severed from its own history. This affect, I think, also charges our pedagogy. At certain moments of crisis or miscommunication in the classroom, we see ourselves as confronting, in our students, our bad selves, ourselves digitized and stripped of literacy: bad or shallow readers, bad or shallow subjects.
There is, I will try to suggest, something unproductive in a Manichean logic that can seem to swing us between two extremes in our thinking about our relationship to a nineteenth-century past, and about adaptation. According to this logic we are either, on the one hand, the good children, those faithful to our cultural predecessors, who stand as parent-figures to us; on the other, we are abandoned, lost, in effect cut off from a cultural heritage.
Sergei Eisenstein’s 1949 essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today" is one locus classicus for any thinking about the links between nineteenth-century fiction and twentieth- and twenty-first-century cinematic media. This essay, in which the vanguard Soviet film-maker credits Dickens with having in some ways invented or given birth to the cinema, has been a gift that keeps on giving for Victorianists. What better evidence for the continued relevance of our beloved nineteenth-century novelists than Eisenstein’s claims that between the innovations of Dickens in the mid-nineteenth century, those of D.W. Griffith in film editing in the early twentieth century, and subsequent avant-garde Soviet cinema, “the ‘genetic’ line of descent is quite consistent” (195)? Eisenstein quotes from comments and letters by Griffith to make the case that “Griffith arrived at montage through the method of parallel action, and he was led to the idea of parallel action by–Dickens!”(205).
In one remarkable passage, Eisenstein clarifies the psychological stakes of his discovery that the roots of film go back not just to the technological breakthroughs of Edison and the Lumière brothers, but also to one of the great authors of the Western canon:
for me personally it is always pleasing to recognize again and again the fact that our cinema is not altogether without parents and without pedigree, without a past, without the traditions and rich cultural heritage of the past epochs. It is only very thoughtless and presumptuous people who can erect laws and an esthetic for cinema, proceeding from premises of some incredible virgin-birth of this art!
Let Dickens and the whole ancestral army, going back as far as the Greeks and Shakespeare, be superfluous reminders that both Griffith and our cinema prove our origins to be not solely as of Edison and his fellow inventors, but as based on an enormous cultured past . . .232
Wealthy benefactor Dickens steps forward as not just any parent but one with a “pedigree” and a rich family history. Film, hitherto condescendingly treated as an aesthetic orphan, the product of some “incredible virgin-birth” from technology alone, can now claim its cultural heritage. These “thoughtless and presumptuous people,” who will not honor film with its proper parentage, seem to be figures of the threat and danger of film media’s separation from the verbal. A 1921 essay in a Hollywood trade publication about film adaptation describes Hollywood film as “an institution by illiterates, of illiterates, and for illiterates” (qtd. in Cartmell and Whelehan 47). The specters of illiteracy and bastardy—as signifiers for a state of being orphaned from language, art, and culture, trapped in a mechanized technology apart from any organic, bodily source—haunt Eisenstein’s conception of film, and our own more generally.
We have tended to follow Eisenstein’s hopeful reading of film’s relationship to its nineteenth-century “parents.” Joss Marsh sums up a consensus when she asserts that “if cinema, born 1895, was the child of Victorian visual technology and the entrancement of the eye, then the Victorian novel stood it god-parent”(204), and adds that among these, “the father of fathers was Dickens”(221). Some scholars have, however, quibbled with this by now firmly established line of succession. Kamilla Elliot, for example, argues in her study of the film/novel connection that Eisenstein’s emphasis on Dickens misleads us from recognizing that “film shares far more affinities with the theater than with the novel” (119). Garrett Stewart points out that we tend to forget (or repress?) the last section of Eisenstein’s essay, in which Eisenstein explains that while “Griffith may well have taken Dickens as a model . . . in everything from melodramatic close-ups to parallel storylines” (124), and that the practice of Soviet montage took many of its methods from Griffith, Soviet filmmakers then crucially had to break with these origins in order to develop their own truly revolutionary aesthetic.
My own reading, following Elliot and Stewart, is that the Eisenstein essay on Griffith and Dickens can be read as symptomatic of, first of all, the desire of scholars of nineteenth-century British literature to define a continuous genealogy that might lead from Dickens to Griffith and then on to our own twenty-first-century filmic mutations. And more broadly, that Eisenstein’s essay, or rather, the way it is often read, is symptomatic of a longing to draw together nineteenth-century fiction and contemporary filmic/media culture in one coherent family associated by the blood ties of narrative technique. I don’t mean to argue that no such ties exist, but simply that in our urge to recognize genuine connection, we should also acknowledge discontinuity and rupture, counterweights of rejection, disavowal, parody and sheer difference.
2. Parasites and Hosts
Adaptation has often been seen as a degraded, minor cinematic genre precisely because of its seemingly “parasitic” relation to literature. Virginia Woolf articulates this vividly in her 1926 comments about film adaptation:
All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples.
So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable, written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy.
If it ceased to be a parasite, how would it walk erect? At present it is only from hints that one can frame any conjecture.n. pag.
Woolf offers a sci-fi horror tale worthy of James Cameron or Sam Raimi, in which the new upstart genre, cinema, brings down the lumbering attenuated Novel, “[falls] upon its prey with . . . rapacity, and . . . largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim.” This figuration of film’s relation to novels was surely an overstatement, but not as much as you might assume. In 1979, Morris Beja calculated that, since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1927-8, “more than three-fourths of the awards for ‘best picture’ . . . [went] to adaptations of novels” (qtd. in McFarlane, Novel 8). In a carnivorous logic of supplementarity, the hungry parasite drains the life from its host, producing an unnatural hybrid or mutation.
The image recalls J. Hillis Miller’s classic essay “The Critic as Host,” in which Miller unravels the uncanny logic binding parasite to host, “secondary” criticism to “primary” literary text. He asks, “Is a citation an alien parasite within the body of its host, the main text, or is it the other way around, the interpretative text the parasite which surrounds and strangles the citation which is its host? The host feeds the parasite and makes its life possible, but at the same time is killed by it, as ‘criticism’ is often said to kill ‘literature.’ Or can host and parasite live happily together, in the domicile of the same text, feeding each other or sharing the food?” (439). Miller’s figure of criticism as a parasite feeding on a host body (and/or vice versa) would seem to apply very well to the logic of adaptation. Hillis Miller’s essay pushes us to think in more uncanny terms about the generative potential of a body of work like Dickens’s. What makes it so irresistibly attractive as a host body, always producing more and more parasitic adaptations to live off its flesh?
Let’s consider the superb HBO drama The Wire as one test case for such Victorian adaptations. After a few seasons, The Wire’s creators apparently began to take notice of and to allude to journalistic references to Dickens and the Dickensian in discussions of the show. In the “Home Rooms” episode of Season Four, the low-level drug dealer Bodie tosses out the phrase “Charles Dickens” as a slang term for penis (one apparently invented by the show’s writers): “I'm standing here like an asshole holding my Charles Dickens, ‘cause I ain't got no muscle, no back-up.” I suppose the not very deeply encoded message here could be construed as: Dickens is a dick. And in the show’s 5th and final season, the Dickens subtext came to the surface in an episode entitled “The Dickensian Aspect,” in which the show’s chief newspaper editor sends his writer back to the streets, demanding that he find a way to flesh out his story to give it greater “Dickensian” sentimental pathos.
In a 2009 interview, David Simon described this episode as part of his rejection of the analogy between his show and Dickens’s work, explaining that “The Wire was actually making a different argument than Dickens.” Simon goes on to explain the origins of his satire in his own encounter, as a journalist writing about the drug trade in Baltimore in the 1980s, with a newspaper editor who killed his story for possessing insufficient uplifting pathos.
He came to me and said, “I want to do the stories that are about the Dickensian lives of children growing up in West Baltimore.” What he was saying was, “If you give me a nice, cute eight-, nine-year-old kid who doesn’t have a pencil, who doesn’t have a schoolbook, who lives in poverty, who’s big eyed and sweet and who I can make the reader fall in love with, I can win a fuckin’ prize with that. Write me that shit. . . . And he really used the word “Dickensian.” . . . I came back trying to explain how utterly bereft economically West Baltimore was, how distanced it was from the world that we were pretending to be, how it was not even a part of our world anymore. All he wanted to do was reach back and grab some cute kids and run with them to win a prize.Pearson
Part of what is articulated here, it seems to me, is a sense of our contemporary world drawing away from a previous epoch governed by print culture and everything associated with it, including certain forms of sentimental investment in characters. For Simon, the “Dickensian” is part of a world that is fundamentally cut off from the new reality— “utterly bereft”— he sees in front of him.
Walter Benn Michaels has argued that The Wire’s greatest achievement lies in its rejection of neo-liberal conceptions of character; in language echoing or paralleling David Simon’s own, he suggests that The Wire is less about individuals than “about institutions—unions, schools, political parties, gangs” ; “It’s about the world neoliberalism has actually produced rather than the world our literature pretends it has.” Simon views the “Dickensian” as a code term for the cynical foisting of the values of liberal humanism onto a social realm in which such values are fundamentally alien. In a worst case, of course, we ourselves could be accused of being part of just this kind of process in our teaching: if our goal is to create privileged, exceptional liberal subjects trained in the protocols of an anachronistic print-culture status world, we may risk performing, as did Simon’s editor does, as cynical guardians of an expiring order.
We could, of course, retort that Simon’s understanding of the relevance of Dickens’s work to our own social dilemmas may be, in its own way, as un-nuanced and reductive as the newspaper editor’s. Caroline Levine, for example, has argued persuasively that The Wire in fact shares with Bleak House a representation of “characters” as “not centered subjects but social intersections,” “nodes where social processes happen” and where networks converge (“Historicism”). But even as we consider affiliations, it’s also worth taking greater account of the fact The Wire is in fact explicitly engaged with Dickens and the Dickensian, but in a mode of resistance and disavowal rather than embrace. For The Wire to be properly realist, its writers seem to feel, it must reject the realism of a previous era as not realism at all but a hollow sentimentalism.
3. Killing That Which Has No Life
My next test case is a very curious Dickens adaptation, the episode from the fourth season of the celebrated (and, in some quarters, despised) animated Comedy Central series South Park, entitled “Pip,” a concise but thorough 22-minute whirlwind adaptation of Great Expectations, featuring none of the usual South Park characters and modeled after an episode of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, with Malcolm McDowell in the Alistair Cooke, pompous-Anglo host role: “Hello, I’m a British person.” This episode—which the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have described as one of the show’s most unpopular in its entire 200+-episode, 14-year run—makes a show of hostility to a source text viewed as a resented classroom imposition: Great Expectations, here, seems the book you dutifully trudged through in A.P. English in sophomore year. Dickens embodies over-elaborated Britishness, cultural capital, and prestige (“all that David Copperfield kind of crap” [Salinger 3] as Holden Caulfield famously put it) pitched to a key perceived as irrelevant and tone-deaf to the cultural and media landscape of its young American readers. Yet the episode also may be read as carrying a trace of nostalgia for a lost world of pre-twenty-first-century literary print culture and its attendant features: psychological and characterological depth, realism and a world to which realism seems adequate, and a sense of history as continuous.
South Park has often been incisive on the postmodern evacuation or flattening of character in contemporary media. In one Emmy-winning 2006 episode, for example, the protagonists lose themselves in the experience of playing the online game World of Warcraft in a doomed struggle with the seemingly unbeatable online avatar of a “a silent, obsessive, overweight adult player” who “is said to have been playing the game nearly every hour of every day for a year and a half since the game was released.” The manufacturers of the game become concerned that this player cannot be stopped; as one of the game designers asks, striking an Agambanian note, "How do you kill that which has no life?" (“Make Love, Not Warcraft”).
The episode culminates in a series of deeply boring shots of this disturbing, nearly motionless rogue player himself, sitting in the depressing squalor of his apartment, manipulating his mouse with tiny hand gestures—and also the South Park protagonists, who after two months of 21-hour-a-day play and an exclusive diet of Red Bull and Ramen noodles, have similarly turned into overweight, glassy-eyed automatons. The show cuts between the online action, featuring brave warriors, elves, dwarves, and the like, and these crushingly dull scenes of game players who have come to resemble bloated ticks making repetitive hand gestures. The episode suggests that our media are turning us into creatures out of The Matrix or Avatar whose “real life” exists entirely on a virtual plane. We might remember Baudrillard’s controversial assertions that, in Carolyn Dean’s summary, “television and Auschwitz meld into each other, and are simply different modern modes of transforming human beings into dead things: empathy must always be a form of nostalgic longing for a world in which people were living things that mattered” (14). South Park here seems to agree that fictional “characters,” as rounded and depth-filled analogue for rounded and depth-filled human beings, may be artifacts of a pre-digital past, one in which episodic novels rather than addictive games defined the terms for fictional narrative.
Part of the wit of the Great Expectations episode consists in the mismatch between the beyond-“cartoonishly”-flat South Park characters and animation style, and the familiar Dickens narrative and language. As James Kincaid commented after the episode’s initial airing, there is something “weirdly reverential” in this remake (qtd. in Kreilkamp). It’s an absurdist, foul-mouthed piss-take on what it mockingly calls “Charles Dickens’ prestigious novel,” but for at least the first two-thirds or so, it tracks the plot relatively faithfully and even recapitulates or at least references significant chunks of dialogue.
Clip from South Park episode “Pip” (Southparkstudios.com) [This video is only available in the United States]
The episode becomes a hostile but at some level also thoughtful reflection on the meaning and function of a body of work like Dickens’s in our “World of Warcraft” mediascape. South Park offers absurdist satire but also, perhaps, the nostalgia of media workers for their days as English majors, looking back at a now seemingly anachronistic way of life organized around, among other things, long, prestige-granting print narratives. (The show’s hapless English-teacher character, Mr Garrison, by the way, “allegedly is based on Parker’s British literature professor” [Weinstock 8]).
The episode takes a decisive turn away from its source text in a spectacular conclusion that depicts Miss Havisham as a sci-fi villain who has trapped Estella’s dozen or so previous boyfriends (including her current beau, the sullen teenage Steve) in order to harvest their tears; these tears will be used to power her Genesis Device in order to meld her biologically to Estella. This rather brilliant critique of fictional sentimentality offers a vision of a matriarchal “virgin birth,” a mechanized genesis-without-procreation that will allow a kind of Second Life. The scene of a would-be mechanical grafting of bodies reads, too, as a parody of phobic visions of aesthetic adaptation as unnatural deformation and mutation.
This denouement registers a sense of impatient, ADD boredom with Dickens’s patiently long-form fictional realism, and offers itself as an intentionally obscene and debased fulfillment of Woolf’s condemnation of all secondary filmic adaptations as the “scrawl[s] of an illiterate schoolboy;” or a proudly literal fulfillment of F.R. Leavis’s declaration that the very idea of filming D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love was “an obscene undertaking” (qtd. in McFarlane “It Wasn’t Like That” 8). And the episode is a possible imagining, once again, of Eistenstein’s dystopia of film’s virgin birth as an orphan child of technology. The jilted spinster Miss Havisham becomes a sci-fi-gothic matriarch, more H. Rider Haggard than Dickens, who aims to circumvent entirely any natural procreation using sentimental tears as fuel. South Park presents Dickens as a copyright-expired corpse to be looted and strip-mined, in an allegory of our media’s relation to a cultural past that can now seem to function primarily as source material for video games and Hollywood productions. The episode can be read as an experiment in most thoroughly satisfying the terms Robert Stam suggests are often applied to filmic adaptation of literature: Infidelity and betrayal (ethical perfidy), deformation (aesthetic disgust), violation (sexual violation), vulgarization (class degradation), and, of course, desecration (sacrilege). Malcolm McDowell serves as an appropriate Alaister Cooke, for this Masterpiece Theater production offers a Clockwork Orange-like vision of a classical heritage as an atavistic survival of a lost world of literate culture, with Dickens playing the role occupied by Beethoven in the Kubrick film.
4. Something that was once close to our hearts
For my final test case, I turn to the references to George Eliot in Kazuo Ishiguru’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. Ishiguru posits a nightmare version of modern England containing a class of young people who are man-made clones, but who are encouraged in various ways to believe they possess a full humanity, a deep subjectivity, and all that goes with it. Somewhat as he did in The Remains of the Day, Ishiguru draws on and references nineteenth-century fictional precedents, yet here with a more biting, even frightening sense that this world of Victorian and Edwardian fiction may now be so far behind us as to constitute a dangerous nostalgic fantasy for contemporary readers or writers.
Never Let me Go is set in “England, the late 1990s.” The first part of the novel takes place primarily at Hailsham (echoes of Havisham), a boarding school set in an idyllic English countryside setting, where the narrator Kathy lived as a teenage girl, but framed within a narrative point of view set years later, when she is now a “carer” working with “donor” patients in a disquieting medical setting. Hailsham is presented to us immediately as an object of nostalgic remembrance. “There have been times over the years when I’ve tried to leave Hailsham behind, and when I’ve told myself I shouldn’t look back so much. But then there came a point when I just stopped resisting” (5). Kathy is brought to this capitulation by one of her “donor” patients, who is apparently desperate to forget and to repress his own actual upbringing; “What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham.” That is, he wanted the narrator’s memories to become so vivid to him that he could take them on as his own in a false vicarious memory that would offer an escape from his own past. It becomes clear that Hailsham was itself somehow conducive to an analogous form of nostalgic or created memory even on the part of those who did live there: “We loved our sports pavilion, maybe because it reminded us of those sweet little cottages people always had in picture books” (6).
For reasons we don’t fully understand for some time, the lives of the students at Hailsham are pervaded by a mysterious sense of loss and sadness. None of them had ever ventured into the world outside Hailsham, and they develop a heightened, imaginary relationship to certain geographical locations within England that become in their minds charged with special intensities and meanings. Norfolk, for example, is transformed into a place where that which is lost might always again be found, a kind of transcendent, national lost-and-found: “What was important to us, as Ruth said one evening . . . , looking out at the sunset, was that ‘when we lost something precious, and we’d looked and looked and still couldn’t find it, then we didn’t have to be completely heartbroken. We still had that last bit of comfort, thinking one day, when we were grown up, and we were free to travel around the country, we could always go and find it again in Norfolk’” (66). Even years later, she explains, when she actually found herself in Norfolk, “we both felt deep down some tug, some old wish to believe again in something that was once close to our hearts” (67).
We eventually realize, in a slow process of revelation, that what these characters have lost is literally their human status. They are clones, biologically reproduced from, most likely, “[j]unkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps” and convicts (166). They are being raised like cattle in order to donate their vital organs to the fully enfranchised citizens of a modern Britain which has become a thoroughly eugenic state possessing a slave class of the “donors.”
The novel becomes a devastating fictional experiment in the logic of what Herbert Marcuse deemed “affirmative culture,” that is, the offering of art, aesthetics and “culture” more generally to modern citizens as a panacea or a substitute for those human capacities they cannot otherwise exercise within capitalism. What are “lost” in the novel are, most literally, works of art: the students’ own paintings and sculpture, primarily, traded in an internal economy within the school but occasionally taken away to some mysterious Gallery outside, and also, for the narrator, a particular treasured cassette tape of a folk singer-songwriter.
Our narrator is also, fascinatingly, a budding young Victorianist, albeit one stuck in the all-too-familiar netherworld of an unfinished thesis. She mentions early on that the Hailsham library contained a lot of Victorian fiction, which she complains was next to useless in the early teenage quest to learn about sex: “We had a lot of nineteenth century fiction, stuff by Thomas Hardy and people like that, which was more or less useless”(99). But soon she reveals that for her major senior essay project, she chooses the topic of “Victorian novels” (115), and we see her “reading Daniel Deronda on the grass” (122).
The essay on Victorian fiction never got written. Now, years later, Kathy has even “toyed with the idea of going back and working on it. . . . But in the end, I suppose I’m not really serious about it. It’s just a bit of nostalgia to pass the time. It’s . . . daydream stuff” (116). The Eliot novel in this context becomes a token of this lost “fully human” world, one from which these characters are radically cut off. We might speculate that Ishiguru chose Daniel Deronda in particular for its searching reflections on ethnic identity and Britishness. Kathy’s identity crisis is more radical than Deronda’s, however. If he wonders whether, as a Jew, he can ever be fully British, Kathy struggles like Frankenstein’s creature with the question of the degree to which she counts as a human being or person. Never Let Me Go can recall The Matrix in the way these students, including our protagonist Kathy, are in effect walking organ containers, beings birthed and raised only in order later to have their body parts harvested for the actual citizens of England. But like the inhabitants of the Matrix, the students of Hailsham have been implanted with a false worldview in which they see themselves as citizens, moral agents, and valued human beings. Victorian novels, along with the artwork the students are encouraged to produce, function as “affirmative culture” in the most cruel sense, a smokescreen to conceal the true brutality of their situation. Our protagonist whiling away the hours with Daniel Deronda, or working assiduously on her drawings and paintings in hopes they will be selected for inclusion in the mysterious off-site Gallery, is a dupe of art and literature and the nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberal culture that supported it. Kathy and her classmates resemble Mary Shelley’s creature listening to the De Lacey family reading out loud: they envy and long for literacy and its deep subjectivity, but for them it is a chimera. As clones, they are in fact, in Eisenstein’s words, “altogether without parents and without pedigree, without a past, without the traditions and rich cultural heritage of the past epochs,” and created via a mechanized “virgin birth.” They are, in other words, themselves like Eisenstein’s image of cinema as a disavowed orphan.
The most corrosive reading of the novel along these lines might lead to a conclusion that George Eliot’s novels run the risk of functioning similarly for us as well, as vessels of affirmative culture that allow us to continue to pretend to inhabit a vanished world. Nineteenth-century fiction would thus embody and stand for “some old wish to believe again in something that was once close to our hearts” (67). Louis Menand comments about Never Let Me Go that “Ishiguru does not write like a realist. He writes like someone impersonating a realist, and this is one reason for the peculiar fascination of his books.” Ishiguru may be suggesting that we are trying, mistakenly, to continue to read and live like Victorian realists, like those for whom nineteenth-century fictional realism could continue to exist as something more than a relic of a vanished world of print culture and liberal humanism.
To conclude: if George Eliot were alive today, would she be Kazuo Ishiguro? Would Charles Dickens be David Simon? (Or Trey Parker and Matt Stone?) One interpretation of the texts I’ve been examining would suggest that once we pose the question in this form, we may already be presuming too much continuity between our own media and those of the past. I like these adaptations, if we can call them all that, in part for the ways they bring to the foreground what is often buried as subtext in adaptation and revival. Adaptation often presents itself as a straight-forward tribute to the achievements of the past, and tends to be less honest about its more disreputable or appropriative desires, fears, rivalries, disavowals, and other motivations. Victorian fiction will surely remain a popular well from which contemporary media will often draw, and often with successful results. But we should also keep in mind that sometimes the best and most fitting tribute we can pay to our favorite Victorian novels is simply to read them, and not to revise, continue, re-work, or appropriate them: simply to leave them alone and so to acknowledge their intractable difference and distance from us.
Ivan Kreilkamp is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Indiana University, where he is also co-editor of Victorian Studies. He is the author of Voice and the Victorian Storyteller and of recent pieces in Victorian Review, Novel: a Forum on Fiction, Blackwell Companion to the English Novel, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, and Public Books.
On this figure for adaptation, see Linda Hutcheon: “Richard Dawkins argues that because ideas propagate themselves by imitation, they are like either malign or benign parasites. When we plant a fertile idea in someone’s mind, he says, we turn it into a vehicle for the idea’s propagation ‘in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of the host cell.’ Is this how some stories propagate?”(176)
For my purposes here, I am placing The Wire (and the South Park adaptation) within a larger category of the cinematic or filmic that includes the televisual. I am certainly aware that in doing so I am bracketing a host of conceptual problems relating to distinctions between the cinematic and the televisual. See the Jason Mittel essay I cite, for example, on the need to think about the televisual as a distinct medium.
For a detailed discussion of this episode see “The Wire Mondays: Season 4, Ep. 3, “Home Rooms.”
Jason Mittel argues that
[b]y asserting The Wire as a televised novel, Simon and critics are attempting to legitimize and validate the demeaned television medium by linking it to the highbrow cultural sphere of literature. The phrase “televised novel” functions as an oxymoron in its assumed cultural values, much like the term “soap opera” juxtaposes the extremities of art and commerce into a cultural contradiction. For The Wire, especially in its context of HBO’s slogan “It's Not TV, It's HBO,” the link to the novel rescues the show from the stigmas of its televised form, raising it above the commercialized swamp of ephemera imagined by many as typical television. But I would contend that emphasizing the literary facets of The Wire obscures many of its virtues and qualities, setting it up to fail when measured by some of the aesthetic aims of the novel.
Mittel does not discuss David Chase’s own complicated rejection or satire of the “Dickensian” label for The Wire. See also Caroline Levine’s response to Mittell, “From Genre to Form.”
Trey Parker comments of the episode, “Everyone, including us, hates ‘Pip’”; for his part, Stone observes, “I don’t hate it. But it was like, ‘why did you guys do that?’” (Stone and Parker).
In “Dickens, Selznick, and Southpark,” Jeffrey Sconce argues that “in the end, the ‘Pip’ episode finally becomes a larger joke about literary adaptation and the very ‘non-literate’ audience SP seeks to court” (185).
In “Word to Image: The Problem of the Filmed Novel,” published in 1956, one of the founders of the modern study of film adaptation, George Bluestone, argued that “one may note . . . that genus Homo and genus Felis are similar in depending on air for the oxidization of the blood; but the moment one thinks of converting a human into a cat, one must know only what differentiates them. The same thing is true of film and novel” (175).
Shameem Black has persuasively argued that the novel offers a “critique of Romantic-inspired assumptions about aesthetics and empathy” (785), a critique that articulates a dark realization “that art, along with the empathy it provokes, needs to escape the traditional concept of the human” (786) and that “only by recognizing what in ourselves is mechanical, manufactured, and replicated—in a traditional sense, not fully human—will we escape the barbarities committed in the name of preserving purely human life” (786).
Thanks for Lauren Goodlad and Caroline Levine for participating with me in the “Television for Victorianists” panel at the 2010 NAVSA conference for which the first version of this essay was written. Thanks also to Jennifer Fleissner, Rae Greiner, Caroline Levine, and John Plotz for their readings of and suggestions about it.
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