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Screen Adaptations and Transmedia Storytelling

Literary texts, mostly novels, adapted into films or TV shows represent a large part of the entertainment which circulates, especially in Western cultures. Practically everyone has heard of big franchises such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Harry Potter (2001-2011), The Hunger Games (2012-2015), Twilight (2008-2012), and most importantly Marvel and DC cinematic series being adapted from novels or comics. This phenomenon of transmedia adaptation appeared much earlier than many may expect: indeed, the first ever fully adapted story was Cinderella (1899) by Georges Méliès, adapted to the movie screen from the Grimm Brothers’ story collections. From then onwards, the number of screen adaptations skyrocketed to the point of having multiple adaptations as the highest-grossing productions of all time, some of them being Avengers: Endgame (2018) or Joker (2019). Another indicator of great impact within the sphere of pop culture is that many of the most pirated TV shows of the century are also transmedia adaptations from novels into TV series, e.g., with the recent examples of Game of Thrones (2011-2019) or House of the Dragon (2022-ongoing).


The ever-growing phenomenon raises the questions of how to screen adaptations influence the audience's relationship to their literary source material, as well as what consequences, both negative and positive, there may be to it. Furthermore, it does not only apply to blockbusters or top-ranking entertainment, but also to much smaller productions. For this reason, this article attempts to present the current situation surrounding the topic and how it affects the cinematographic and literary scene. It will expand to the brief mention of Transmedia Storytelling as a possible consequence of Adaptation Studies.


Figure 1. Example of Intertextuality in Shrek 2 (2004), with a direct visual reprise of the famous upside-down kiss shot in Spider-Man (2002).

To begin with, an adaptation may be defined as a type of derivative work that stems from an original text to be turned into, most often, a feature film. While most of the source texts belong to fiction genres, adaptations of other types of texts such as journalistic, non-fictional, and biographic material have also been produced. Because of the number of adaptations, a new field of study has been established: Adaptation Studies. Since its origins, adaptations have been interpreted as a form of "Intertextuality", a term that was coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966. The Shrek franchise (2001-ongoing) could be considered an example of such intertextuality: the audience, according to their knowledge of a common American culture, can decipher the references made to other pieces of work. Hence, the movie, through a network of references, offers a type of collage or pastiche of cultural canons and literary recognized stories, a typical technique of postmodern times.


However, as Emig states it, “it is clear that Adaptation Studies need to broaden this intertextual frame of thought to include the media transfers and interactions that distinguish adaptations from mere rewritings.” (Emig, 2012, p. 15). Therefore, it is essential to understand that adaptations surpass the pastiche, and actually go beyond to influence the reception of the text and act as an intermediate. In other terms, they “might produce an increase in user activity on the book adapted and possibly some other changes in user behaviour, such as, for instance, a different perception of the book.” (Montesi & Aragoneses, 2014, p. 226).



Figure 2: A collection of Austen novel cinematographic adaptations.

In fact, arguments such as this justify the connection between Adaptation Studies and Comparative Literature. These connections have brought about the emergence of fidelity criticism. On the one hand, the members of the audience who feel closer to the source text are most likely to prefer the adaptation to be as loyal and similar to the original. Interestingly enough, such criticism might affect the reception and success of the film or TV production. It must be considered that when adapting any text, it comes with an entourage of followers as well as a new audience. Therefore, it is essentially an issue of providing what both sides desire. Such would be the case with canonical Austenian and Shakespearean adaptations. From these, Cartmell (2012) extracts that:

“All the ingredients of the adaptation genre are overwhelmingly present here: the period setting, music, emphasis on books and words, intertitles, foregrounding of media […], centrality of the author, art works, additional female friendly episodes and intertextual reference to previous similar adaptations. The verdict among the critics was generally, a pleasant but predictable and ultimately forgettable film.” (Cartmell, 2012, p.30).

On the other hand, and from a poststructuralist perspective, Murray (2011) argues that fidelity is the point from which most adaptations should depart. Additionally, “infidelity was in fact the very point: adaptations interrogated the political and ideological underpinnings of their source texts, translating works across cultural, gender, racial and sexual boundaries to secure cultural space for marginalized discourses.” (Murray, 2011, p.10). In that respect, the series Bridgerton (2020-ongoing), produced by Netflix and based on the series of the same title by Julia Quinn could be an example. After the exceptional success of the first season, the novels started to gain increasing recognition. Nonetheless, the reaction completely deviated from the show and the books were heavily criticized for depicting misogynist and racial behaviour toward many of its characters. However, by diverging from the source material in favor of color-blind casting, “racism therefore effectively cease[d] to be an issue, with black characters presented as equal members of the British aristocracy that partake in all of its activities,” (Šporčič, 2022, p. 124) independently of the subsequent debate about historic inaccuracy or utopic standards.

Figure 3. Bridgerton (2020). Netflix.

Another striking occurrence is the adaptation of comics from Marvel and DC Comics in the 21st century. These appeared with the first adaptation of X-Men (2000), followed by the trilogy of Spider-Man (2002-2007) led by Tobey Maguire. Since then, this type of superhero adaptation has snowballed from the initial adaptations of Batman and Superman, and they have become a major source of entertainment with larger and larger fandoms. Notwithstanding, there is a reason behind these American-inspired science-fiction stories. According to Liam Burke (2015) in a chapter titled The Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking, the appearance of comic-based films at the beginning of 2000 was a response to the 9/11 catastrophe, and “if anything, comic book adaptations have increasingly traded on their status as a US entertainment, a development at least partly expedited by 9/11 sentiment” (Burke, 2015, p. 25). Retrospectively, this response has contributed to the on-growing American patriotism of the early 21st century clearly represented in the whole Avengers saga, which is still currently in motion.


In addition, the comic book adaptation trend has produced the emergence of techniques such as Transmedia Storytelling which has impacted novels and other texts too. This term was first coined by Henry Jenkins, who defines it as follows: “Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” (Jenkins, 2010, p. 994). In other words, a source text or work is complemented by other media to expand the universe and story.

For example, a secondary character from an original film may see their own story developed in another form of media (e.g., a TV show or a video game). This is very characteristic of Marvel, where sub-stories of the same character are divided into films, shows, or video games. That is also the case with franchises such as Star Wars (1977-ongoing), Harry Potter (2001-2011), The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), and The Witcher (2019-ongoing), the plot lines of which derive from an original first source but then span out into either comic books, video games, sequels, prequels, or other animated and live-action shows that provide backstories and insights into other secondary issues. Yet, the two concepts, both ‘adaptation’ and ‘transmedia storytelling’ should neither be confused nor be considered mutually exclusive. In this perspective, one complements the other when considering the distinction “between adaptation, which reproduces the original narrative with minimum changes into a new medium and is essentially redundant to the original work, and extension, which expands our understanding of the original by introducing new elements into the fiction.” (Jenkins, 2010, p. 945).


Figure 4. Example of Transmedia Storytelling through The Witcher franchise.

Continuing with the consequences of screen adaptations, the contribution they provide to original sources is to be contemplated. In a study conducted by Montesi & Aragoneses (2014), they noticed that the reading interest in a novel such as Divergent (2011) considerably increased when the film adaptation was released in 2014. This peak points to “the film release as the influent event that more than any other produces a real impact on reading behavior” (Montesi & Aragoneses, 2014, p. 233). Therefore, the popularity of a text after the release of its adaptation is probably due to the film having significant profit and recognition. Consequently, it might be interpreted that screen adaptations are beneficial in terms of providing a wider readership after provoking an interest outside the book community.

In spite of that, there is the risk that the adaptation gains such extreme recognition that the books go unnoticed, or viewers do not become readers of the original text. For instance, both Game of Thrones (1996-) or The Wheel of Time (1990-2013) had a restricted readership before their adaptation because of the complexity of their stories. Yet, the current argument of not reading the book if there is a movie is an influential one that usually affects fantasy or science-fiction, even if adaptations cannot reflect the entirety of the original and some plots might not be included or modified. In fact, a reason for the preference for adaptations might be the visuality of the screen. Indeed, the ability to perceive, see and hear the story as it enfolds contents the viewer to not depend on their own imagination since the product is being provided sensorily and narratively. This clearly extends to any type of adaptation since “attending to an adaptation’s aesthetic dimensions allows the critic to examine how they have been vivified, dynamized, enriched, and transformed. Thus, although novels are grasped through the senses, and are certainly emotionally moving, films are privileged in their persistent sensual address and affectivity.” (Richard, 2021, p. 214)


In a nutshell, this article has attempted to present an overview of screen adaptations and some of their characteristics and consequences. As it is, this phenomenon is much more extensive than what can be covered here. In fact, the implications behind screen adaptations branch out from many fields and studies such as Film Studies, Comparative Studies, Adaptation Studies, Media Studies, Fan Studies, and so on. As a result, the extensiveness of the literature behind the topic provides helpful insights into understanding why such entertainment has become a trend. Evidently, screen adaptations affect their source text both negatively and positively, but they cannot be considered by themselves. In the end, the adaptations should always be analyzed in relation to the source. Likewise, adaptations pave the way for extensions of storylines and provide the fandom with a succession of stories in other forms, be it films, shows, or video games.

Bibliography

Burke, L. (2015). The Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking. The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s leading Genre (pp. 23-83). University Press of Mississippi.

Cartmell, D. (2012). Familiarity versus Contempt: Becoming Jane and the Adaptation Genre. In P. Nicklas & O. Lindner (Ed.), Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation: Literature, Film, and the Arts (pp. 25-33). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110272239.25

Emig, R. (2012). Adaptation in theory. In P. Nicklas & O. Lindner (Ed.) Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation: Literature, Film, and the Arts (pp. 14–24). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110272239.14

Jenkins, H. (2010) Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment: An annotated Syllabus. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24(6), (pp. 943-958). https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2010.510599

Montesi, M. & Aragoneses, M. (2014). Does a film adaptation of a novel influence reading behaviour? The answer is on the Web. Nuovi Annali della Scuola Speciale per Archivisti e Bibliotecari. XXVIII, pp. 223-239.

Murray, S. (2011). Introduction. In S. Murray (Ed.) The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation (pp. 1–24). Taylor & Francis Group.

Richard, D. E. (2021). Film Phenomenology and Adaptation: Sensuous Elaboration. Amsterdam University Press.

Šporčič, A. (2022). A Metamodernist Utopia: The Neo-Romantic Sense and Sensibility of the Bridgerton Series. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies,22(1) 122-138. https://doi.org/10.2478/ausfm-2022-0015

Visual References:

Figure 1. An example of Intertextuality in Shrek 2 (2004). Retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeed.com/kaylayandoli/clever-shrek-movie-moments


Figure 2. A collection of movies adapted from Jane Austen iconic novels. Retrieved from:

https://benmillett.us/blog/jane-austen-movies-to-watch Figure 3. Bridgerton (2020). Netflix. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/23/arts/television/bridgerton-review.html Figure 4. Example of Transmedia Storytelling through The Witcher franchise. Retrieved from: https://dreamfarmstudios.com/blog/what-is-transmedia/



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