rough notes

The Original, The Altered and The Aura

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Some thoughts on adaptations: the original, the altered, and the aura.

We appear to live in a culture that values the “final original” version of a work (“Art” may be freely substituted if so desired). Galleries, libraries and museums promote and covet their artifacts, and the people in turn covet the institutions. We revere the Folgers, the Bodleians, the Huntingdons, not only for their sheer number of volumes, but for the age and authenticity (preeminence?) of the volumes. Similarly, we flock to national and regional art galleries to steal a glimpse of “the original,” regardless of the fact that, as Benjamin noted well over fifty years ago, one can view a copy with greater ease by picking up a photograph, turning the pages of a catalogue, or in our day, surfing the web – a world of infinite copies.

The original is revered for any number of reasons, which ought not be contended with – there are too many cultural variables at work, which turns any discussion into an endless, unanswerable digression. Our age(s) of digital (descended from the mechanical) reproduction has offered a beautiful, and legitimate, alteration to the genetic code of our cultural works, though – the adaptation. Adaptations do more than provide alternate readings of the original (such as choosing to read one edition of Lear over the another). Adaptations take the original, and actively modify it to fit the vision of a different designer, to be observed in its own light: no longer does Hamlet speak long-winded soliloquies to an audience, but now, with the help of Ethan Hawke, Hamlet speaks to himself, and only to himself, in the former of audio-video recordings.

The adaptation has traditionally been treated with disdain. Using the language of science, critics have often observed the adaptation to act as a virus, appending itself to the organism, eternally mutating its structure and worth – one cannot consider Hamlet in the classroom today without praising or condemning Branagh, or Olivier, or even Jacobi, for that matter. Adaptations would take a body of work, and violate it, turning the corpus into a corpse. The adaptation would not be an original, or even a copy, but bastard child, created by the hands of the irreverent and the impious. Whereas editions of an original work would ultimately be valued equally (e.g. Greenblatt’s decision to offer both working editions of Lear to his Shakespeare Anthology in 1997) as treatments of the same work by the author’s hand, adaptations are too-often subordinated to the original as an overt (over-?) interpretation of one person’s work by an (the?) other. Hawke ruined Hamlet by preaching to an apparent audience of disaffected youth; Olivier ruined Hamlet, despite his performance, because he was just too old to be the young Prince; Branagh ruined Hamlet, apparently, simply because he gave it The Branagh Treatment – whatever that is.

Speaking on a different subject, Alan Galey(1) answers the question always asked about where the “Text” is. If – to show our debt to Benjamin once more – Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, then Hamlet is provisionally, and “mostly in the Folger library, though bits of it are in the British Library, the Bodleian, the Huntington, and other libraries as well as private collections” (Galey §13). But where is the “Text” once it has not only been interpreted by “the performance(s) behind the documents” (§13), but openly, and freely adapted to suit another purpose or desire? Alternatively (and equally), when does the interpretation become an adaptation? As much as one can love or deride Branagh’s Hamlet, how conventional, or outlandish, is it when compared to other Filmic treatments of Shakespeare, such as Taymor’s Titus, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, or even Junger’s Ten Things I Hate About You? Does it even matter where the “Text” is, or even if the “Text” exists in the adaptation?

The adaptation does draw a familial line to the original text, but it should not be considered alongside the original text. The thread must be drawn, and promptly cut. Let the traditionalists have their way by engaging Shakespeare on a thrust stage or in the round, in Verona, in Eastcheap and in Denmark. Let them have their fun, too, watching an interpretation-adaption in a pastiche of Verona/Venice’s, in present-day New York, or in an 18th-century hinterland. But let the adaptation, stand, too, as a work of its own value, to be seen in the light of its lineage, but not compared to it. The adaptation ought not to have an original, for it is not a copy. It is an alteration, not a mutation, and holds an aura in its own right. Returning to the language of science, the adaptation co-exists as a new species, alongside its ancestors. Natural Selection is not at work, for the ancestor survives, and persists alongside the new entity. Both are fit enough to survive.

you are commodified.

1. Galey, Alan. “Dizzying the Arithmetic of Memory: Shakespearean Source Documents as Text, Image, and Code.” Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 4.1-28>.

2. One need only google “susan orlean” and “adaptation” to find less presumptious, pseudo-academic, and more thorough criticism on the topic of adaptation.

Written by mitchellirons

November 5, 2006 at 7:07 pm

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