Monday, 8 November 2010

Beowulf’s Heroisms: Part 1.1.


Incommensurability via Intersemiotic Transposition 

ccording to the last post, this time I am going to start making room for a meditation about Beowulf and Grendel via divorcing the film from the original, i.e. from the epic poem. This act of separating the two is inevitable insomuch as without this the relationship and the link between the two works can only be founded on subjective aesthetic value-judgements which cannot generate a productive and beneficial rhetorical framework for a meditation about a filmic adaptation. The question then is not whether it is possible or impossible to compare two works, but rather the framework that makes unavoidable comparison legitimate and productive.

To avoid a naive comparative analysis, I have to elucidate what may be termed as the incommensurability thesis. The locus classicus for this thesis goes back to the late 1970’s and to Terry Eagleton’s argument about the relation between text and ideology which parallels that of text and theatrical performance. He claims that
a dramatic production is not to be judged by its fidelity to the text [...]. Text and production are incommensurate, because they inhibit distinct real and theoretical places. (Critism and Ideology, London--New York: Verso, 1975, 64)
Thus the incommensurability thesis in this case claims that a film and a text can hardly be compared being so different from each other. This problematics acquires significance in so much as the exploration of this thesis enables one to release the meditation about this filmic adaptation from the “faithfulness or unfaithfulness” or “truthfulness or untruthfulness” dichotomies, which plague the meditation about filmic versions of literary works. Once the filmic adaptation has been cut off from the narrative poem theoretico-pragmatically, will there be room made for establishing a link between the movie and the poem without falling into the trap of the rhetoric of faithfulness.

The exploration of the incommensurability thesis must begin with elucidating the false assumption that lies at the heart of the discourse of faithfulness. The assumption lies in believing that one can compare a poem and a film. Knowing a poem, a novel may compel one having seen its filmic adaptation to claim that this movie is not faithful to the poem or novel, because so and so is not like this in the poem. Although every viewer of a filmic adaptation of a literary work is driven by this compulsion, what is actually done is something completely different from comparing a literary work to its filmic adaptation. To be able to see this difference one should take a glance at what takes place when a literary work is put on the screen.

A semiotic approach may well give me a hand in clarifying the process leading from a literary work to a filmic version. When comparing the process of filmic adaptation to that of translation, Hutcheon points out that
[i]n many cases, because adaptations are to a different medium, they are re-mediations, that is, specifically translations in the form of intersemiotic transpositions from one sign system (for example, words) to another (for example, images). This is translation but in a very specific sense: as transmutation or transcoding, that is, as necessarily a recoding into a new set of conventions as well as signs. (Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, LondonNew York: Routledge, 2006, 16)
What follows from this argument is that during an “intersemiotic transposition” there takes place a shift from one sign system to another, completely different system. In the case of a filmic adaptation the shift or transcoding is from signs on a white sheet of paper to visual and auditory signs on the screen. And once the signs are different, decoding, participating in the act of signification will be absolutely different in the two cases.

What is simple and straightforward in a text may well become completely difficult in the movie. In a narrative poem the representation of a simple state of affairs say, two characters talking to each other may be left without commentary by the textual narrator. The filmic narrative, however, has to face a problem, because the two characters are seen when talking to each other, i.e. they must be presented in detail. They have facial expressions, they are to be positioned in relation to each other, the director has to decide what they are doing when talking to each other, what kind of angle, closeness is used when the scene is shot, what colours dominate the scene, slow or fast cuts are used, whether there is something going on in the background, or there is music or complete silence during the scene. All these must be decided in a filmic adaptation, and these decisions should harmonise with each other, and will necessarily play a significant role during decoding the scene.

The act of transcoding, as Hutcheon claims, does not stop with the change of medium, but also determines the context, the conventions that enable the reader to make sense of what is read or watched. The reader of Beowulf most of the time makes sense of the poem with reference to the warrior society of the Germanic tribes, to the tension between Christianity and the pagan world view, or more dominantly establishes relationship between Beowulf and other epic, narrative, heroic works, and finding similarities and differences will help the reader to making sense of the work. Watching a film is also determined by conventions in which certain details make sense, e.g. other filmic adaptations, filmic techniques used in other films, scenes alluding to scenes from other movies. Conventions of the new medium inevitably offer themselves for the process of decoding the work.

This semiotic transcoding, however, may still imply a hierarchical relationship infecting the possibility of freeing any adaptation theory from the rhetoric of faithfulness and truthfulness. This hierarchy implies that the “original” is superior to the adaptation, as chronological priority entails superiority as well. It does not follow, however, necessarily that chronology must result in superiority, implying that the adaptation is only secondary, derivative, parasitic. Terry Eagleton’s reference to the incommensurate nature of text and dramatic performance have been substantiated from numerous theoretical stances relying on Roland Barthes’ famous distinction between “oeuvre” and “texte” in his essay “De l’oeuvre au texte” (Revue d'esthitique 3, 1971).

W.B Worthen deployed Barthes’ distinction between “work” and “text” when arguing for the authority of performance. He argues that the “work” has in its structures “meanings, gestures and themes,” it is “taken both as the ground and origin of the performance and the embodiment of authorial intention” (Worthen, “Discipline of the Text/Sites of Performance” TDR, Vol. 39, No. 1. (Spring, 1995), 16). “Texts” in this distinction stand for “material objects that house the ‘work’ of the author” (ibid.) Once this premise is accepted, it follows that a “text” is only a materialization of the “work” as well as a theatrical (I may add a filmic) adaptation, and thus can hardly be accounted for as less authentic than the text. Worthen concludes then “[b]oth texts and performances are materially unstable registers of signification, producing “meaning” intertextually in ways that deconstruct notions of intention, fidelity, authority, present meaning (Worthen, 23.)

Barthes’ famous distinction was developed into a further direction, owing to the renewed interest in textuality with the advent of digitalisation projects. Digitalisation at a rather naive level of understanding aims at reproducing printed material in a new format. The very activity of digitalisation very soon led to rethinking what is meant by reproduction and this problematics immediately resulted in meditations about what it was that was to be reproduced in the new format. The performative aspect of texts partakes in signification on many levels. Shillingsburg makes a distinction between the “lexical part of the text” lying in words, sentences, punctuation, and “script act” anchoring the act of signification in a historical context, and the “bibliographical codes” “the appearance of a document—the type fonts, the formatting, the deployment of white space, the binding, and perhaps also the pricing and the distribution method [...].(Shillingsburg, From Guttenberg to Google, Cambridge—New York: CUP, 2006, 16-18.) Especially this latter is important in dividing the adaptation from its original, because this calls the stability of the original into question.

Performative aspects of textuality direct our attention to the fluidity and procedural aspect of textuality which undermines the hierarchy of original and adaptation. This is even more compelling in the case of the Beowulf poem. When locating the poem higher on the ladder of authenticity than the movie, one should also consider the script act and the bibliographical codes in a historical perspective. As the text is only a materialization of the work having its original existence in the oral tradition, never fixed, all the time changing. The oral tradition was then fixed in writing determined by the conventions of transcription. The only copy of this is accessible in the British Library which, however, was damaged in a fire in the 18th Century. This somewhat corrupt textual materialization is now also a priceless historical document, which also affects the process of signification. As the access to this copy is rather limited, the reader can consult modern transcriptions of the poem in Old-English with modernized letter-types in print or in digital versions. These versions, however, are restricted to those who read Old-English, whereas the majority of readers contact the poem in a great variety of modern translations, in editions with or without introductions, with or without illustrations, with or without running commentary attached to the text, with different letter-types and sizes, margins etc all these affecting the process of signification. It seems then a daunting task to anchor the original in one of these versions claiming that one of these may be superior to, more authentic and authoritative than the adaptation.

It follows thus from the previous meditations that theoretically it is much easier to adhere to the incommensurability thesis. As the text of the original is neither more stable, nor authentic and authoritative than the adaptation, no rational case can be made for the secondary, parasitic nature of the filmic adaptation. If the two cannot be arranged in a hierarchical order, since they are on the same performative level, they may well be treated independently from each other, i.e. if the text can be read without reference to the movie, the film can also be treated in its own right. Thus the incommensurability thesis has come to a full circle.

Although a poetic text and its filmic adaptation can be interpreted without reference to each other, this is not necessary at all. The freedom of the filmic adaptation rather enables one to treat a filmic adaptation as a filmic adaptation, i.e. as something that displays an intricate relationship with the original. It is this very relationship that is going to be the theme of the next post.

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