Adaptation, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, has a plurality of meanings and applications, most of which allude to the process of changing to suit an alternative purpose, function, or environment; the alteration of one thing to suit another.
In a media context, adaptation is defined as:
An altered or amended version of a text, musical composition, etc., (now esp.) one adapted for filming, broadcasting, or production on the stage from a novel or similar literary source.
Although this definition is accurate, it is somewhat incongruous with contemporary theories of media adaptation, which have moved beyond the unidirectional movement of literature to film. As content moves away from notions of a single, stable source, and an identifiable author, and towards an era of transmedia creation by multiple entities and media conglomerates, it is the biological meaning of the word which would appear to have greater relevance to more contemporary notions of adaptation, namely:
A process of change or modification by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment or ecological niche, or a part of an organism to its biological function, either through phenotypic change in an individual or (esp.) through an evolutionary process effecting change through successive generations.
A text can not only survive the shift from one form to another, but it can also thrive in ways not previously possible in the original form. Consider a property such as Star Trek, which began as a failing television program, but survived extinction through adaptation into other media such as animated television, comic books, novels, and feature films, before returning to television and commencing the cycle again. Since 1966, Star Trek has leapt back and forth from medium to medium, capitalizing on new platforms and technology, reinventing itself again and again for new audiences.
Of course, just as countless biological organisms have failed to adapt to changes in their environment, a text can also fail to survive when attempts are made to adapt it to a new form. This is often the case when an adaptation does not live up to audience expectations regarding casting, mood, or fidelity. While Star Trek has survived multiple adaptations, attempts to adapt other television series such as The A Team, Lost in Space, and The X Files intofilm franchises have met with limited success.
Much like a biological organism, the field of Adaptation Theory is also constantly evolving in response to changes in its environment. On a basic level, the field is concerned with the “transport of form and/or content from a source to a result in a media context”. For theorists such as Linda Hutcheon, the term adaptation has a multi-layered application, referring simultaneously to (a) the entity or product which is the result of transposing a particular source, (b) the process through which the entity or product was created (including reinterpretation and re-creation of the source), and (c) the process of reception, through which “we experience adaptations as palimpsests through our memory of other works that resonate through repetition and variation”, or in other words, the ways in which we associate the entity or product as both similar to and a departure from the original.
Humans have a long history of adapting “texts” into different forms. Historical events and spoken legends were the inspiration for paintings and sculptures, plays, written tales, stained glass windows, and later, stories in the form of the novel. Cinematic adaptations of literary and theatrical texts are as old as the medium of cinema itself, and as long as screen adaptations have existed, so has the tension between literature and film. Leo Tolstoy considered film “a direct attack on the methods of literary art”, while Virginia Woolf felt that cinema and literary adaptations in particular, were responsible for the moral decline and vulgarization of modern society, invoking the biological in her description of cinema as a “parasite” and literature as its “prey” .
According to Robert Stam, there are several factors which have informed the traditional privileging of literature over film (and other media forms), including class prejudice, iconophobia (suspicion of the visual), logophilia (a belief in the primacy of the written word), and anti-corporeality (distaste for the ways in which the medium of cinema engages with the body of the spectator).
This disciplinary tension between literature and film has also informed adaptation theory, which, until recently, was primarily concerned with the translation of the literary into the cinematic. Such analysis traditionally focused on the notion of fidelity, and the perpetuation of a hierarchy which situated the literary text as a primary, touchstone, or “source” text, and the adaptation as a weaker, derivative text. Accordingly, adaptations from literature to film (and other media such as comic books and animation) have often been branded in derogatory terms implying sacrilege, theft, impurity, dilution, and failure to preserve the integrity of the source. Such texts were also often judged on the misunderstood assumption that the goal of the adaptation was simply one of replication, rather than other motivations such as interrogation, reinvention, or exploration.
However, recent trends in adaptation theory have moved away from the dichotomy of film and literature and toward a focus on multidirectional flows across a transmedia model, concentrating less on what has been lost by a text during the process of adaptation, and more on what the text has gained by taking on a new form or variation. Theories of Intertextuality have also become a central element of adaptation theory, as the user compares the adapted text with not only the original, but other adaptations and similar texts in an ongoing dialogical process.
The entertainment industry has embarked into what Thomas Leitch refers to as an era of post-literary adaptation, in which non-literary and sometimes non-narrative sources are adapted into storylines for feature films and other forms of media. Building on an established tradition of mining the superhero comic book and graphic novel mediums for inspiration, film companies have built successful film franchises based on video games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, board games such as Battleship, and even theme park rides such as Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
When content undergoes adaptation, it is subject to a variety of forces and factors, which are dictated by the nature of the source text, the reason for adapting the text, medium, market, and culture into which it is adapted. Large novels, for example, have traditionally undergone a process of compression in order to fit into a two-hour film format, while short stories have required some measure of expansion. An older text may undergo a process of correction or amendment if it contains anachronistic elements such as racial stereotypes, or may be shifted into an entirely different setting for purposes of social or market relevance. A story which is adapted into a video game may lose elements such as pacing and narrative flow, but gain other qualities such as tactile interactivity and more scope for an extended and varied experience.
Like biological organisms, some texts need to change their characteristics in order to survive in a new environment. One successful example of transnational adaptation is the process undertaken to successfully adapt the British television sitcom The Office to the North American market. While the medium of the text itself did not change, elements such as scene locations, dialogue (including slang and cultural references), the look and demeanor of the characters, and even the storylines, were all changed to meet the sensibilities of an American audience.
A more controversial application of adaptation theory is that of the non-sanctioned adaptation of content which is protected under copyright law. Some theorists such as Linda Hutcheon, consider fan fiction, parodies, and other “unofficial” texts to be outside the realm of adaptation theory. Others such as Simone Murray, note the success of texts such as Seth Grahame Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and query whether it is even possible to separate such texts from unofficial fan fiction, fan films, mash-ups, and video game “mods”. Leitch, in an amusing take on the situation, even gives consideration to pornography films which appropriate the name of the original work, but empty the adaptation of most of the source text’s qualities, citing titles such as Flesh Dance and Flash Pants as loose adaptations of the film Flash Dance.
Like the biological organism that thrives in its new environment, successful adaptations change over time, adapting to new conditions, migrating to new areas, and ultimately, doing their best to perpetuate their existence. The test of a good adaptation is one which achieves repetition without replication, – rather than being a mere a copy which sheds its Benjaminian aura, the adaptation both evokes and is amplified by a user’s experience of the original, while also taking on distinct qualities of its own. A successful adaptation balances “the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty”, not only carrying the aura with it, but contributing to its continual expansion.
Mark Brokenshire 2014
“Adaptation”. OED Online. 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.proxy.uchicago.edu/view/Entry/2115?redirectedFrom=adaptation (accessed January 23, 2014).
Bazin, Andre. “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest”, in Film Adaptation, edited by James Naremore, 19-27. (Article originally translated by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo). New Jersey: Rutgers, 2008.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
Bruhn, Jorgen; Gjelsvik, Anne, and Hanssen, Eirik. Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions, London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Cartmell, Deborah, and Whelehan, Imelda. Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
Griffin, Jeffrey. “The Americanization of The Office: A Comparison of the Offbeat NBC Sitcom and Its British Predecessor.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 35, no. 4 (Winter2008 2008): 154-163. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 3, 2014).
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. London & New York: Routledge, 2006.
Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptation and its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Murray, Simone. The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation. New York & London: Routledge, 2012.
Stam, Robert. “Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation”, in Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, 4th edn, 1-52. USA, UK, and Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2008
 Oxford English Dictionary, “adaptation”, accessed January 23 2014, http://www.oed.com
 Deborah Cartmell, Imelda Whelehan, Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) 128-9;
Simone Murray, The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation, (New York & London: Routledge, 2012) 186.
 Oxford English Dictionary, “adaptation”, accessed January 23 2014, http://www.oed.com
 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, (London & New York: Routledge, 2006), 32
 Ibid 42-3
 Jorgen Bruhn, Anne Gjelsvik, Eirik Hanssen, Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions, (London & NY: Bloomsbury, 2013), 9.
 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, (London & New York: Routledge, 2006), 8-9.
 Andre Bazin, “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest”, in Film Adaptation, ed James Naremore (New Jersey: Rutgers, 2008), 23-4
 Thomas Leitch, Film Adaptation and its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2007), 22.
 Robert Stam, “Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation”, in Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, ed. Robert Stam & Alessandra Raengo, (USA, UK, and Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 4.
 Cartmell & Whelehan, Screen Adapatation: Impure Cinema, 41; Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 3.
 Stam, Literature and Film, 5-7
 Leitch, Film Adaptation and its Discontents, 127; Murray, The Adaptation Industry, 27
 Cartmell & Whelehan, Screen Adapatation: Impure Cinema, 128; Stam, Literature and Film, 3-4
 Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 6-7; Cartmell & Whelehan, Screen Adapatation: Impure Cinema, 5-6
 Cartmell & Whelehan, Screen Adapatation: Impure Cinema, 13; Murray, The Adaptation Industry, 41.
 Cartmell & Whelehan, Screen Adapatation: Impure Cinema, 16; Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 21.
 Leitch, Film Adaptation and its Discontents, 250.
 Ibid, 99-101
 Jeffrey Griffin, “The Americanization of The Office: A Comparison of the Offbeat NBC Sitcom and Its British Predecessor.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 35, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 154-163.
 Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 9.
 Murray, The Adaptation Industry, 189.
 Leitch, Film Adaptation and its Discontents, 110.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 223-5; Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 4, 173
 Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 173