Adaptation as Adaptation
An adaptation is not vampiric: it does not draw the life-blood from its source and leave it dying or dead, nor is it paler than the adapted work. It may, on the contrary, keep that prior work alive, giving it an afterlife it would never have had otherwise.(Hutcheon, 2006, 176)
n the last post I separated the filmic adaptation from its “original” via exploring the incommensurability thesis and thus made room for interpreting the film in its own right. This act of separation is needed to avoid the unproductive rhetoric of faithfulness, and also to specify the tools that are useful when meditating about a film. Once, however, the film has been severed from the “original,” one can avoid the trap, and one can use the appropriate equipment, then one may respond to the invitation of re-establishing a link between the filmic version and the “original.” The title of the movie invokes the “original” and also calls attention to the difference as well: Beowulf invokes the epic poem, while the appearance of Grendel’s name alludes to some difference. Thus in this post, I am going to answer the call by the title and will reconnect the filmic adaptation with the “original” through delineating what an adaptation is, and what kind of an adaptation there is in this case.
The adaptation as adaptation cannot avoid the discourse of comparison with the “original.” As Sanders claims
An adaptation signals a relationship with an informing sourcetext or original; a cinematic version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, although clearly reinterpreted by the collaborative efforts of director, scriptwriter, actors, and the generic demands of the movement from stage drama to film, remains ostensibly Hamlet, a specific version, albeit achieved in alternative temporal and generic modes, of that seminal cultural text. (Sanders, 2006, 26)
So the framework of discussing an adaptation as adaptation cannot disregard an “original” whose chronological priority cannot and should not be denied. The original functions as a point of reference at least on a thematic level.
Once accepting the presence of the original and that an adaptation necessarily associates relatedness to the original, I should also take a further step towards Beowulf and Grendel via showing what kind of an adaptation is at stake here. Sanders following Cartmell distinguishes between three types of adaptations: “transposition,” “commentary” and “analogue” (Sanders, 2006, 20.) All three types of adaptation proximate the “original” in different ways.
A filmic “transposition” lies in relocation but not necessarily geographically. As Sanders argues transposition is relocation “in cultural, geographical and temporal terms” (20). Relocation thus implies that a filmic adaptation keeps the “original” somewhat trimmed, maybe modernised, but the setting, the costumes, hairstyle, way of living are either moved in time (to a different historical period), in place (to another town, country, continent, planet), in social class (from say aristocracy to middle, working class). An illustration for this type may be Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Brannagh, 1996), where the Shakespearean text is kept, but the action is relocated into a Prussian 19th-Century context.
An “analogue” signifies a type of adaptation which is not necessarily related to the “original.” In this case an adaptation is so far removed from the original that when making sense of it, one may legitimately disregard the “original,” and the target audience may not even be aware of the “source.” So this adaptation may live its own life without the “original.”. Nevertheless, the interpretative horizon of the adaptation is widened with seeing it in its relatedness to an “original.” I would classify The Thirteenth Warrior, (dir. John McTiernan, 1999.) as a candidate to illustrate this type of adaptation, which occasionally alludes to Beowulf, but can be interpreted without reference to the epic poem.
The most interesting type of adaptation for the present purpose is the one that is labelled as “commentary.” This type of adaptation includes “adaptations that comment on the politics of the sourcetext, or those of the new mise-en-scène, or both, usually by means of alteration or addition” (Sanders, 2006, 22). So in the case of a “commentary” the filmic adaptation offers a meditation about either the cultural context of the “original,” or about the viewers’ cultural context through introducing changes. Consequently, the differences to the “original” are not to be accounted for in the framework of truthfulness but rather in their contribution to the claim of the adaptation.
The most usual changes introduced through the act of artistic transcoding take several forms. Sanders claims that the commentary “is achieved most often by offering a revised point of view from the ‘original’, adding hypothetical motivation, or voicing the silenced and marginalized” (Sanders, 2006, 189). A commentary thus displays heightened sensitivity to the cultural contexts through calling the viewers’ attention to a work in a way that it will be telling about the original cultural climate and/or the viewers’ cultural climate via changes to the narrative point of view and additions concerning motivations and characters.
The three possible changes Sanders mentions are all important in Beowulf and Grendel. Sander’s first modification refers to a revised point of view, which can be that of the filmic narrator who comments on the world of the Danes through presenting shades, colours, weather, filmic allusions, facial expressions. The point of view is further modified through presenting what is thought of about heroism through a focalizer, i.e. a fisherman’s viewpoint.. This also points towards giving voice to the marginalized or to the ones who are not even present in the movie, e.g. the introduction of the fisherman and Selma, the witch who functions as a link between the Danes and the outsiders, i.e. Grendel and Beowulf. Furthermore the character of Grendel who has not given voice in the “original” has his own characteristic voice on the screen. Sander’s third point, i.e. forging some motivation for either the characters or the plot or both is also markedly present in the movie as Grendel is equipped with a sound and just cause for his vengeance on the Danes.
Approaching Beowulf and Grendel as a “commentary” is productive on two accounts. First, because it helps to rescue the meditation from the rhetoric of vampiric “faithfulness.” A commentary being a commentary cannot be described as truthful to an “original” but as something that helps reconsidering an original, or its context from the point of view of another culture. Second, because it enables the viewer to deploy the approach to a film as a film, and not as a parasite making benefit only through its relatedness to an “original.” Thus, the discussion of Bewulf and Grendel as a commentary fosters a discourse which relies on both the relatedness of the adaptation to an “original” and also its individuality as an artistic product in its own right. Prepared with this pragmatico-theoritical consideration the next post will discuss the concept of heroism in the “original” to pave the way to the commentary on this concept.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. London—New York: Routledge, 2006.
Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London—New York: Routledge, 2006.