a. Introduction

Choosing to anchor my thesis studies with the notion of adaptation starts me in a mode of questioning and skepticism. Adaptation of any kind is often described as deeply problematic – it is a real and common phenomenon that nevertheless constitutes a problem. In the transference of a story from one form to another – there exists the basic question of adherence to the source, of what can be lost. It is the problem every graphic designer faces – it is a deep and fundamental question of communication, or form and content, of what the designer enfolds and what the audience unfolds from the final piece. In adaptation there is a source, and there is an outcome – and comparison between the two is inevitable. The idea of disproving dogmatic statements about how written language can be adapted to the visual realm suits my underlying feelings about the potential of graphic design as a communication mode. There remains in my thinking a deep skepticism for how well narratives survive an adaptation process – and at the same time a real idealism for what can occur. This idealism is rooted in the fact that the visual language I can create as a graphic designer might have communicative potentials beyond a purely filmic language or a written one. The interplay between the filmic and literary languages can fuse to form a new type of narrative, an inflection upon the original narrative. Ultimately, looking at theories and practices of how novels are adapted into film provides an interesting model to apply to how I use graphic design. It is not necessarily an applicable model. The main point of departure is that theories laid out about adapting written language into a visual language speak of a filmic language – which is not strictly analogous to the graphic design language I am working with. As I read more and more critical discussion of adaptation (Bluestone 1957, Wagner 1975, Spiegel 1976, and Reynolds 1993), I am forced to consider what use I can make of these theories in light of my own developing body of work about adaptation.


b. The Two Ways of Seeing

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see.” (Joseph Conrad, A Conrad Argosy (New York, 1942, p.83).

The history of adaptation theory was really born with theorists like George Bluestone and Andre Bazin, whose writings are canonical to the scholarship of adaptation. These early writings about the relationship between literature and film are valuable in identifying some of the core issues at the heart of the adaptation process. This theory places emphasis on differences – on ideas about what one form can communicate and what it cannot. George Bluestone’s “Novels Into Film” defines what he sees as the fundamental differences between the two media, and the ensuing impossibility of any perfect correlation. He writes extensively on the fundamental difference in audience perception of cinematic and literary forms – stemming from the differences in their raw materials. He describes the camera’s effect on our way of seeing, and the centrality of editing and its effect on the narrative form. “The film, then, making its appeal to the perceiving senses, is free to work with endless variations of physical reality... Where the moving picture cones to us directly through perception, language must be filtered through the screen of conceptual apprehension.” (Bluestone; p.20) He also discusses the two media’s differing ability to handle time and space. He defines language as a medium consisting of “three characteristics of time – transience, sequence and irreversibility” (p49), but in film “the camera is always the narrator, we need concern ourselves only with the chronological duration of the viewing and the time-span of narrative events.” (p49).

Bluestone therefore concludes that there exist between the two media, two fundamentally different ways of seeing, differing materials as well as the different origins, conventions and audiences. Interestingly, it is from what Bluestone sees as “the overtly compatible, secretly hostile” relationship between novel and film that he sees the great potential for the adapter. It is precisely due to the difference, the gap between the forms that adaptation is rendered into a far more creative and constructive process than simple translation. According to Bluestone, “…the adapter is not so much a translator but a new author.” (p15, Jenkins). Many theorists echo this conclusion that there exists great possibility in the adaptation process Jean Mitry in 1971 felt that different means of expression “...express different things…not the same things in different ways. Adaptation is a passing from one form to another, a matter of transposition, of reconstruction.” (Kubrick, p.16)


c. “Transmutation Among the Arts”

There are interesting overlaps between the two forms (novel and film) that pre-date theories of adaptation – even Bluestone’s which so cogently focus on the differences. In looking at the history of actual literary and filmic forms themselves, one sees examples of ‘convergence’ between these art-forms. As Robert Giddings, Keith Selby and Chris Wensley write about in “Screening the Novel”, there is a sort of interdependency of film and the literary tradition, “Film may have been a non-verbal experience, but it based its narrative on the Western European cultural experience of literature.” (Giddings; Adaptations; From Text to Screen, Screen to Text; p.9).

First is the instance of the novel pre-empting film – writers who employed what can be described as cinematic techniques in their work. The early and best-known examples of this circle around filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and author Charles Dickens. Eisenstein observed in Dickens’ writing an anticipation of the frame composition and the close-up of the film genre. Bluestone states that “Griffith found in Dickens hints for every one of his major innovations.” (p6). Filmmakers like Welles, Mankiewicz, Bergman and Cocteau could all be described as cross-over figures, like the filmmaker Max Ophuls, who was “at once literary, theatrical and filmic.” (p.xi; Film/Lit)

Arguments have also been made about the convergence between modernist literature and cinema in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century – “…for instance Flaubert’s alternating technique, Conrad, James and Woolf’s emphasis on mental images…” (p.xi; Film/Lit/Heritage). There are authors who broke with the representational novels of the earlier nineteenth century by “showing how the events unfold dramatically rather than recounting them.” (p5). Henry James’ writing anticipated cinema in the way he was able to decompose a scene, “altering point of view so as to focus more sharply on various aspects of an object, for exploring a visual field by fragmenting it rather than by presenting it scenographically.” (p5) Henry James used the technique of ‘restricted consciousness… limiting the point of view from which actions and objects are observed.” (p6). In his essay ‘The Art of the Novel’ (1884), James declares “It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way.” (p86) – showing his inherent understanding of the filmic in his novels.


c. Possible Modes/Kinds of Adaptation

Brian McFarlane’s writing on adaptation yields some fascinating insights on the possibilities and limitations of the adaptation process. He shifts the focus away from comparisons of the two narrative forms, and instead focuses on the structural effects of transposition from one narrative form to another. Much criticism of this adaptation process is flawed in focusing mainly on thematic interests and the formal narrative patterns of both forms, rather than ‘questions of enunciation’, the range of ‘functional equivalents’ available to the two differing media. Quite rightly, McFarlane notes the basic premise that both the novel and the film are built around the formal devices of narrative – but the devices that work as point of view, voice, metaphor and focalisation in the novel must be realized by other means in a film. He, and other critics, look at the possibilities for how this can be done in pragmatic terms. In addressing this issue, the larger question of what possible outcomes adaptation may yield arises.

Types of Adaptation

The question of the relationship between the adapted form and the source material is vital. Some writers have proposed categories of adaptation to shift the focus away from pure issues of ‘fidelity to the original’ – and look more deeply at the true potential in the adaptation process. Geoffrey Wagner proposed three possible routes adaptation can take in practical terms; “a) transposition, in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent inteference, b) commentary, where an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect…when there has been a different intention on the part of the film-maker, rather than infidelity or outright violation, and c) analogy, which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.”

Another comparable categorization system was proposed by Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, “first, fidelity to the main thrust of the narrative, second, the approach which retains the core of the structure of the narrative while significantly reinterpreting or, in some cases, deconstructing the source text; and third, regarding the source merely as raw material, as simply the occasion for an original work.” (p11) McFarlane concludes that what films and novels have in common is their propensity for narrative. But the way in which this ‘narrative’ functions in the two different media must be understood, and also what can and cannot be transferred from one narrative medium to the other. McFarlane distinguishes between the verb ‘transfer’ and ‘adapt’; some narrative elements in novels can be transferred to film, while some elements must find visual equivalences in the film medium.

Narrative and Narration Distinctions

McFarlane discusses the many categories used to define modes of presentation of narrative in the different media. This is essentially the story matter, and the manner of its delivery. While applying here to film and novel, the film category can easily be supplanted by the realm of graphic design for my own purposes of understanding possibilities for adaptation in my own work. The distinction between narration and narrative can also be described as that between story and discourse, the modern French poetics version of histoire and discours, and the Russian Formalist distinction between fabula (story as chronological sequence) and suzet (the plot as shaped by the storyteller). I prefer McFarlane’s own terminology in that it feels more applicable to the realm of graphic design and its hybrid form. Originating with the linguist Emile Benveniste, there is the enunciated, the ‘utterance’ (l’enonce) manifested in a stretch of text. This is the sequence, the sum of the parts that construct the narrative function. Enunciation differs in referring to how this utterance is mediated. In literature enunciation is affected by person and tense, while in film this can be achieved via mise-en-scene and montage. This is exactly what I described as my interest in adapting the intangible, the ‘tone’. It is the sound of the story, rather than the construct of the story. McFarlane concludes there are two considerations to the adaptation process; transferring the narrative (the elements of the story), and adapting the enunciation. This could be re-stated as action and mood, plot and atmosphere, structure and tone – the narrative and the narration.


d. Adapting Animation – A Comparable Model

“Animation transfigures the literary intention and transubstantiates the reader/viewer’s imagination into a visual mode that ultimately speaks louder than the words that inspired it.” (p213)

Considering the adaptation from literary form to an animation form is illuminating – in that animation is a distinctive film-form with many shared attributes to the realm of graphic design. Like graphic design, it is offers a unique vocabulary of expression. It is also a curiously hybrid form that blends word and image – with inherent elements of instability and mutability of the perception of textual allusion. Animation is also able to implement rhetorical structures from the literary model in ways film cannot, “…the movement from first-to-third person description; the accommodation of ‘stream of consciousness’ and extended dialogue; the slippage between narrational tones and styles; and the collapse of the picaresque into more abstract or self-reflexive modes.” (Adaptations: Cartmell and Whelehan; p.200)

Paul Wells’ essay “Thou Art Translated; Analysing Animated Adaptations” sheds a particularly pertinent light on how graphic design adaptations might function and flourish. The qualities Wells attributes to animation seem applicable to graphic design forms; namely how both animation and graphic design deviate from the film-form in their ability to break from realism, and also move beyond the limits of language. Wells discusses Michael Klein’s writings on literature’s relationship to visual art in general, whose theory on adaptation is centred around the notion that film “…offers the opportunity for transposition or translation from one set of conventions for representing the world to another.” (Cartmell; p199). Wells interestingly points out that “…animation literally can offer the capability of metamorphosis within its distinctive conventions…” (p199). I think this same argument can be applied to graphic design – that like animation it encompasses the widest vocabulary of aesthetic and technical expression. Using various Disney animations as case-studies – Wells picks up on the key potentialities that lie in adaptation to an animation/hybrid form. He argues that the Disney version of Snow White draws from both the literariness of the original tale, as well as the theatricality of a staged theatre version – but adds something new through animation’s own visual vocabulary. “Animation accentuates the intended ‘feeling’ of the text through its very abstractness in the use of colour, form and movement…animation simultaneously literalises and abstracts.” (p208)


e. Conclusions on Adaptation

The fact that adaptation theory is about film and novel – and not graphic design ironically was the exact reason for its usefulness. Many of the assertions about temporality in the novel, or plot in film are indisputable – and do limit what one can do when working in these media. But graphic design is not written and not filmic – my own graphic design uses both type and image, both filmic time and book conventions. Reading the ‘rules’ of film and literature illuminated to me how very hybrid graphic design languages can be – and the potential for real overlaps. Adaptation theory allows one to see the two differing language systems of the novel and cinema.

This analysis seems to elicit more questions than answers – but these questions fuel each project pursued from herein. And within the discrepancies that clearly exist between this type of adaptation theory and my own design process – this field of research left me with a set of principles that are applicable to my own adaptations. They are necessarily generalized – which indeed is why they might be applicable to the field of adapting into a graphic design language. The notion of visual equivalents is obvious but very profound. The notion that adaptation involves two main considerations. First exists the challenge of adapting a written narrative structure into a visual narrative structure. This involves consideration of how the thing is built; constructed, sequenced, paced, ordered, and ultimately – perceived. Second, the challenge of adapting the tonal qualities of the narrative structure into a visual tonal quality. This involves consideration of how tonal qualities of language (spoken or written) can translate into a visual tone. Above all, the idea of what enunciation can mean in a visual form is enormously challenging and rousing as I begin my own work.