Linda Hutcheon: A Theory of Adaptation

[Readings] (03.02.09, 4:06 pm)

A Theory of Adaptation presents a comprehensive and general theory of adaptations. Adaptations are widespread and universal. They seem common and nautral, but pose curious problems in content, structure, and intertextual politics. The work here looks to develop a theory of adaptations in general, not just with novels to film. Hutcheon wishes to consider adaptations as lateral, not vertical. One does not experience adaptations successively starting from the original work, rather the works are a large collection to be navigated. One might see an adaptation before the original. Hutcheon also wishes to view adaptations as adaptations, not as independent works. What makes them work and desirable as adaptations? There are three ways of story engagement: telling, showing, and interactivity.

One dimension that is missing from this, I think, is a critical aesthetics of adaptations. Given a set of adaptations, how can or should one judge them with respect to each other and the adapted work? In my study of games, I think that aesthetics can come from thinking about the mechanics and models of the narrative worlds, but this is, of course, just one perspective. Hutcheon avoids judgments specifically for the purpose of opening up literary acceptance to legitimize adaptations in the first place. This perspective comes particularly from translation studies, which generally places the original work and language on a pedestal, asserting its supremacy to any translation or adaptation that may be made of it. Only recently has the perspective changed to view translations as weaving the original text into the culture of the target language (Bassnett), or seeing translation as breathing life into a text (Toury).

Beginning to Theorize Adaptation

Adaptation always exists in a secondary relationship with the original, but despite their supposed inferiority, adaptations are pervasive. Adaptations also dominate their own media. The most heavily awarded films are adaptations. Hutcheon suggests that the pleasure of adaptation from the perspective of the consumer comes from a simple repetition of a beloved story with variation. Far from losing it, adapted works keep and extend Benjamin’s Aura. Adaptations nonetheless add a financial and economic dimension to production. Adapted works are popular among content producers because they are “proven” and already have a culture and fan base that are likely to be interested in the adaptation.

To help steer clear of the common practice of devaluing adaptations, Hutcheon foregoes the use of terms such as the “original” or “source” text, but instead calls the text from which adaptations are made the “adapted text”.

To borrow Michael Alexander’s term, adaptations are palimpsestuous works, works that are haunted by their adapted texts. Hutcheon wishes to avoid resorting to fidelity criticism, which originates in the (often false) idea that the adapters wish to reproduce the adapted text. There are many reasons why adapters may wish to adapt, which can be as much to critique as to pay homage. There are three dimensions to looking at adaptations: as a formal entity or a product, as a process of creation, or as a process of reception. Adaptation is simultaneously a process and a product.

Hutcheon distinguishes between adaptations and sequels and fanfiction. Sequels and fanfiction are means of not wishing a story to end. This is a different goal than the recreation done by adapting a work. There is a legal term to define adaptations as “derivative works”, but this is complex and problematic. Adaptation commits a literary heresy that form (expression) and content (deas) can be separated. To any media scholar, form and content are inextricably tied together, thus, adaptations provide a major threat and challenge, because to take them seriously suggests that form and content can be somehow taken apart. This raises another difficult question: what is the content of an adaptation? What is it that is actually adapted? One might consider this to be the “spirit” or “tone” of a work. Adapting a work to be faithful to the spirit may justify changes to the letter or structure in the adaptation. In my perspective, the content of adaptations is (or should be) the world of the adapted text.

Hutcheon specifically addresses videogames and how they engage in activity beyond problem solving. She suggests that if a film has a 3 act structure, then gameplay is only the second act. Excluding the introduction and the resolution, gameplay is tied up with solving problems and working to resolve conflicts. Games adapt a heterocosm: “What gets adapted here is a heterocosm, literally an “other world” or cosmos, complete, of course, with the stuff of a story–settings, characters, events, and situations.” (p. 14) A game adaptation shares a truth of coherence with the adapted text. The format may require a point of view change (for example, in the Godfather game, where the player takes on the role of an underling working his way up). Other novels are not easily adapted because the novel focuses on the “res cogitans”, the thinking world, as opposed to the world of action. This is a point that I would disagree with Hutcheon’s assessment, I think that even the thinking world of a novel abides by rules and mechanics, that these mechanics may be simulated or expressed computationally, but they may not be suited to the conventions of action and spatial navigation popular in games right now.

Hutcheon notes that some works have a greater propensity for adaptation than others, or are more “adaptogenic” (Groensteen’s term). For instance, melodramas are more readily adapted into operas and musicals, and one could extend that argument to describe how effects films tend to get adapted into games. This may be due to the fact that there are genre conventions that might be common to both media.

Adaptation may be seen as a product or a process, the product oriented perspective treats it as a translation (in various senses), or as a paraphrase. The product oriented perspective is dependent on a particular interpretation. As a process, it is a combination of imitation (mimesis) and creativity. Unsuccessful adaptations often fail (commercially) due to a lack of creativity on behalf of the adapters. There is a process of both imitating and creating something entirely new, but in order to create a successful adaptation, one must make the text one’s own.

There is an issue of intertextuality when the reader is familiar with the original text. But there can become a corpus of adaptations, where the subsequent works are adaptations of the earlier ones, rather than the adapted text itself. This has been the case of texts which have had prolific series of adaptations, such as Dracula films (Hutcheon’s example), as well as Jane Austen’s works. These works are “multilaminated”, they are referential to other texts, and these references form part of the text’s identity, as a node within a network of connected texts.

A final dimension is the reader’s engagement, their immersion. Readers engage with adaptations with different mdoes of engagement. “Stories, however, do not consist only of the material means of their transmission (media) or the rules that structure them (genres). Those means and those rules permit and then channel narrative expectations and communicate narrative meaning to someone in some context, and they are created by someone with that intent.” (p. 26) Adaptations are frequently “indigenized” into new cultures. When texts supply images to imageless works, they permanantly change the reader’s experience of the text. For example, due to the films, we now know what a game of Quiddich looks like (and due to the games, we now can know tactics and strategies), or what Tolkien’s orcs look like.


This chapter gives a through account of the way adaptation operates on the different forms of media. Hutcheon does give an in-depth discussion of the different media transformations given by many adaptations, and discusses games in particular. The section is very useful for considering the experiential modes of engagement with adaptations. Hutcheon’s treatment of games focuses on the dimensions of interactivity, kinesthesia, and dependence on the player for the story to reach a happy ending. I think what is missing is a discussion of the mechanics of the narrative worlds in the adapted texts, and how they are transformed into the mechanics of the games. This is what I would consider the content, whereas the structures of interactivity and kinesthesia I think are part of the form of games. As it stands, this discussion is missing, and seems worth considering.


This chapter discusses the reader’s pleasure in adaptation, and here (p. 135) focuses on games and interactive narratives. She discusses these primarily in terms of the media content, for example, sound, visuals, the 3d environments. Again, missing is a discussion of the world or the model underlying the adapted text.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorHutcheon, Linda
TitleA Theory of Adaptation
Tagsfilm, adaptation, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

1 Comment »

  1. […] This perspective comes particularly from translation studies, which generally places the original work and language on a pedestal, asserting its supremacy to any translation or adaptation that may be made of it. Only recently has the perspective changed to view translations as weaving the original text into the culture of the target language (Bassnett), or seeing translation as breathing life into a text (Toury). Pokračování […]

    Pingback by Nové přírůstky v knihovnÄ› JAMU « RTDS uvádí… — February 22, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.