In adaptation studies, the concept of fidelity locates two texts relative to one another, setting one up as the standard for the other. To better understand adaptation studies through lens of this criterion and the scholarly treatment of it, I examined André Bazin’s establishment of the work in “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest,” Dudley Andrew’s basis for fidelity as a measure of an adaptation’s success in “Adaptation,” Robert Stam’s deconstruction of fidelity in “Beyond Fidelity,” and John Dewey’s views on aesthetics in general from Art as Experience. These writings speak to the assumptions and inconsistencies inherent within fidelity as a gauge by which to measure adaptations and collectively demonstrate the deficiency of it as such.
Amidst his discussions of non-literary examples of adaptation with which fidelity is not a concern and the superiority of cinema as a cultural conduit, Bazin challenges the legitimacy of fidelity. He begins by establishing “the invention of character and situation” as a narrative core: “The thoroughgoing integration of what philosophy discriminates as ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (in more direct language, organism and environment) is the characteristic of every work of art (Bazin 60, Dewey 289). This core of character and context is understood to center the style of the work as well, as it reflects the narrative—inseparable from it. He describes the principle of cinematic adaptation “whose aim is to simplify and condense a work from which it basically wishes to retain only the main characters and situations” Bazin (61). This marriage of character and situation operates as a kind of Platonic form of a specific narrative, being augmented with each adaptation; this grounding of the narrative in the commonality of its various manifestations subverts the idea of primacy of chronology. Bazin further asserts that “true aesthetic differentiations” are not be made across media, making fidelity a fruitless consideration (62).
Andrew speaks to the necessity of these various manifestations as the entire narrative “is never fully present” in either novel or cinema (70). Narrative codes specific to each medium, through connotation, produce narrative units such as the characters, their relationships, their contexts, and the “basic narrational aspects that go into determining the point of view of the narrator,” all of which Andrew categorizes as the letter of the text, in addition to tone, imagery, and rhythm, which Andrew calls the spirit of the text (68). These units are intrinsically linked such that their relations permit the “elaboration of the fictional world” as they are revealed “sometimes slowly and subterraneously, sometimes (as when a passionate train has started) with a sudden burst of fancy” (Andrew 69, Dewey 163). Fidelity would then need to be measured, if it is to be measured, according to the equivalence of corresponding narrative units, across media, for which Andrew proposes an equivalency of position in each element’s respective domain, the way one might liken a tuba’s sound to an object, animal, or style of architecture. However, if the fidelity of an adaptation were set aside, the peculiarities of its expression could act as an “instructive barometer for the age” in which it was assembled (Andrew 71).
Media exist in “certain times and places,” and the utilization of their distinct expressive qualities are determined by “conventions of rite and ceremony,” which “live in the life of the community” conveying “what is active in the experience of the group” (Dewey 158). For Stam, the essence of novels and fiction films is “to have no essence, to be open to all cultural forms” (78). Capitalizing on this flexibility through adaptation and communicating a narrative via dissimilar media “generates an automatic difference,” and depending on how much time has passed between a source text and an adaptation, this difference can either be disparaged or embraced (Stam 76). Stam challenges the fidelity’s entailments of the original’s essence, “a kernel of meaning or nucleus of events that can be ‘delivered’ by an adaptation,” and that original’s capacity to produce only one interpretation of it, irrespective of any “passage of time” or “change in place” (76). These entailments call into question what it is that any adaptation can even be faithful to. Complicating matters further is the complexity of cinema’s material of expression, from the integration of moving images, spoken word, music, noises, and written word to the embodiment of characters and delivery of information by actors who themselves represent a “thespian intertext formed by the totality of antecedent roles” (Stam 79). Stam shifts the focus from how loyal adaptations are to what they do for their sources, “inserting them into a much broader intertextual dialogism,” which “refers to the infinite and open-ended possibilities generated by all the discursive practices of a culture, the entire matrix of communicative utterances within which artistic text is situated” (81).
Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader, 2nd ed, by Timothy Corrigan. Routledge, 2012, pp. 65-73.
Bazin, André. “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader, 2nd ed, by Timothy Corrigan. Routledge, 2012, pp. 57-64.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Perigee Books, 2005.
Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity The dialogics of adaptation.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader, 2nd ed, by Timothy Corrigan. Routledge, 2012, pp. 74-88.