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The Best Literary Revenge of All Time: The‌ ‌Betrayal‌ ‌of‌ ‌Adaptations‌

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One of my dear friends once posted on Twitter that

“Edmond Dantès had one of the best literary revenges of all time.”

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She was mocking the Kanye West debacle at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Dantes was betrayed by those he assumed loved him, and he was a tale of revenge and redemption. One of the more fascinating problems with adaptation studies is that if one is familiar with the source of the adaptation – such as Alexandre Dumas, père’s The Count of Monte Cristo – you have preconceived notions of what would make a successful adaptation. You feel emotionally compelled to see it properly translated. In one of the articles I came across, the first query asked by Thomas Leitch about the validity of adaptation studies is

“does the movie in question betray its literary source?” (65).

There are many definitions of the concept of betrayal, each more excessive than the last. The definition of “literary source” is fluid in the context of adaptation studies as well. For this paper, “to be false or disloyal to” will be the one to remember. Furthermore, this essay will focus on the so-called traditional literary sources: primarily novels and plays into films.

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The adaptations of the collected works of William Shakespeare count in the hundreds, if not thousands. His literary authority throughout the centuries has survived through the years via these adaptations. As noted by Linda Hutcheon,

“Shakespeare’s works were appropriated through Romantic translations and, through an assertion of the Bard’s Germanic affinity, used to generate a German national literature” (28).

How is this possible? They originated from the hand of Shakespeare, yet an entire literary knowledge base for the Germanic people was based on his works. Ton Hoenselaars argues that the translation of Shakespeare’s works from English to another language is an adaptation; therefore both sets of works exist as separate entities. Hoenselaars would disagree that the Germanic Shakespearean works are a betrayal.

“Translation may be defined as a mode of adaptation, while adaptation may convincingly be defined as a form of translation in a metaphorical sense. But the two terms cannot be used interchangeably” (50).

Hoenselaars is looking at the broader issue. However, nuances must be explored. 

For example, one could take a play credited to Shakespeare, such as Titus Andronicus, and retell it for a Japanese audience. For brevity’s sake, a theatrical production of Titus Andronicus was put on by director Yukio Ninagawa in 2006 at England’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. Ninagawa’s production was a faithful reproduction of its literary source, according to reviews.

However, if Ninagawa were to bring his version to Japanese film audiences, the language would have to be translated from Shakespearean English to modern-day Japanese. Plots would need to be simplified or eliminated. Characters would probably be redrawn to make the final adapted product more palatable for its audience. Could the Japanese translation be viewed as a betrayal of its Shakespearean source? Remember that Hoenselaars said that “translation” and “adaptation” cannot be used interchangeably. 

How is it possible that an adaptation can be a translation, but translation is a second thought when applied to adaptation studies as a whole? In response to this argument, Shannon Donaldson-McHugh and Don Moore write that

“film adaptations … are without authentic ‘origins,’ and thus cannot properly be called adaptations (although they may be), as they are merely supplemental adaptations of earlier adaptations” (226).

If we continue to use the Japanese Titus Andronicus as an example of an adapted work, the film could never betray its literary source with this argument. Film adaptations cannot betray their literary sources because they stand alone. Therefore, because their origins do not exist within the confines of Hoenselaars’ definitions of “translation” and “adaptation,” they would be film adaptations but only in name.

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In keeping with this idea of literary betrayal on film, several of Shakespeare’s plays have been redone for modern mainstream audiences. This is true with the recent interpretations of “Taming of the Shrew” (1999’s “10 Things I Hate About You”) and 2000’s “Hamlet.” One argument is how these adaptations go about achieving this goal, which could be seen as a betrayal of their literary sources. Douglas Lanier tells us that

“Shakespeare can be relocalized in new cultural contexts without filmmakers needing to address the politics of adapting the master texts of a former master” (108).

Going further with the prior example of the imaginary Japanese Titus Andronicus, a filmmaker could place Titus Andronicus in modern-day Japan, rather than keeping it in its time period, as Ninagawa did with his theatrical production. If done right, subtle parallels could be drawn because of the male-centric culture of Japan. Lanier further argues that

“adaptation is characterized by an engagement with and reproduction of earlier texts” (167).

The Donaldson-McHugh and Moore argument is relevant to this argument because the Japanese Titus Andronicus is singular in its existence. The supposed betrayal of its Shakespearean literary roots is moot. It could be seen as merely an engagement with its literary source, even if it were to be modernized in that way.

Furthermore, there is the argument that adaptations are complete slaves to their literary sources and thus cannot be considered separate entities. An argument for the betrayal of literary source exists when Ian Olney tells us that

“adaptations today frequently seem to reflect their makers’ interest not in translating a literary text to the screen, mainly, but rather in using it as a springboard to generate spectacular computer-generated and manipulated imagery” (166).

Imagine again our Japanese Titus Andronicus. In the interest of selling tickets and filling up theaters, the gore, the murders, and the rape of Lavinia could all be emphasized by the filmmakers or marketed correctly to create a so-called faithful adaptation. But would viewing the gore and Lavinia’s rape lend credence to the film, simply because it already exists on paper? Would Tamora’s revenge be that much more stomach-churning if we were to see her facial expressions when she refuses to save Lavinia from her sons? What if they eliminated the callous murder of the nurse by Aaron’s hand? The opportunity for the betrayal of the literary source is clear with this argument.

Additionally, when applying the logic of betrayal to a literary source with large bodies of work, we are faced with completely different inquiries. Wen-Chin Ouyang notes that

“notwithstanding its adoption and adaptation of the familiar characters, motifs and plots of the (One Thousand and One) Nights, the structure of the novel, its plot and focalization transform the mode of the story from fantasy to realism and the function of storytelling from fending off death into the prevention of evil” (408).

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The problem with telling Scheherazade’s frame story – and the 1,001 stories – is that they can be separated. There is no way to present them on film otherwise. They are singular entities, meant to be absorbed in a single night. Therefore, if a filmmaker were to take on the daunting task of telling Scheherazade’s frame story, they could not tell her individual stories without losing something in translation. The linguistic translation of Scheherazade’s frame story could only be successful if the literary source was betrayed. For further understanding, we must revisit Hoenselaars definition of “adaptation” and “translation” once again. 

Hoenselaars states that

“if, on one hand, we can observe that more researchers than ever have come to accept that the term ‘translation’ may cover a multitude of virtues, it also seems appropriate, on the other hand, to recognize that, perhaps, translation has, by analogy to Terry Eagleton’s remark about culture, ‘expanded to the point of meaninglessness’” (64).

If we were to study the Japanese Titus Andronicus within a formal American classroom setting, the professor would need to contextualize the Japanese culture in Western terms. The academic focus would be placed on the separation of each presentation of Titus Andronicus as individual entities. The betrayal would be present, simply because of the translations of the literary source from English to Japanese and back to English again. For example, the emphasis within one culture on the rape of Lavinia may change when translated back into its original language and contextualized.  The question remains that it may work for one culture, but it may not work for another. 

Betrayal begets revenge. The fact of the matter is Edmond Dantès did have one of the best literary revenges of all time. Ultimately, critical and consumer reaction to an adaptation lies with one’s personal knowledge of the literary source. The literary revenge will always supersede the adapted work. The source is right there, in black and white. But the literary source can also be seen as a betrayal. It should be measured as an individual entity, and judged on those merits alone. 

Works Cited

Donaldson-McHugh, Shannon, and Don Moore. “Film Adaptation, Co-Authorship, and Hauntology: Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998).” Journal of Popular Culture 39.2 (2006): 225-233. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 6 Oct. 2011.

Hoenselaars, Ton. “Between Heaven and Hell: Shakespearian Translation, Adaptation, and Criticism from a Historical Perspective.” The Yearbook of English Studies 36.1 (2006): 50-64. JSTOR. Web. 6 Oct 2011.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Lanier, Douglas. “Recent Shakespeare Adaptation and the Mutations of Cultural Capital.” Shakespeare Studies 38.(2010): 104-113. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 6 Oct. 2011.

Leitch, Thomas. “Review Article: Adaptation Studies at Crossroads.” Adaptation 1.1 (2008): 63-77. Oxford University Press. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.

Olney, Ian. “Texts, Technologies, and Intertextualities: Film Adaptation in a Postmodern World.” Literature Film Quarterly 38.3 (2010): 166-170. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 6 Oct. 2011.

Ouyang, Wen-Chin. “Metamorphoses of Scheherazade in Literature and Film.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 66.3 (2003): 402-418. JSTOR. Web. 5 Oct 2011.

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