Thomas Leitch’s Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ

Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. London: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.

Introduction / Chapter One:

In the introduction to his monograph on adaptation, Leitch traces the shift to canonical authority and passive reading in American curriculum in order to illustrate the ways in which adaptation studies have followed a similar path of passively accepting “original” texts as immutable, immovable authorities. Although he says a lot about literature and literacy that I’ll cover in another blog post, the main point is that to get beyond an adaptation=fidelity of transformation mindset that’s held adaptation studies in a chokehold for too long, we might want to approach adaptation as an act of immersive or participatory reading / critical rewriting.

Leitch suggests that these are the goals of liberal arts educations in the first place, and adaptation as rewriting makes good sense. The most relevant passages of the introduction in this regard are:

[This] alternative approach to adaptation study does not approach adaptations as either transcriptions of canonical classics or attempts to create new classics but rather as illuminations of the incessant process of rewriting as critical reading. It is informed by the conflict Bakhtin discerns between heteroglossia, whose protean, internally persuasive meanings are irreproducibly dependent on the context generated by particular readers and reading situations, and canonization, which seeks to standardize authoritative meanings for all readers…This approach to adaptation study treats both adaptations and their originals as heteroglot texts rather than as canonical works , emphasizing the fact that every text offers itself as an invitation to be rewritten. (16)

And, possibly most interestingly / importantly:

Adaptation study has unique potential as the keystone of a new discipline of textual studies less ideologically driven, and therefore more powerful, than either contemporary literary or cultural studies not because it resolves these questions but because it keeps them front and center–beginning with whether we want to organize textual studies around the question “What should we be reading?” or the question “What should we be reading for?” (19-20)

Chapter Two:

            In this chapter, Leitch examines the trends and techniques in early film adaptation. He begins by discussing Tibbetts’s two criteria for adaptation: first, that adaptations must be “derived from stage plays” and/or, second, that adaptations “at least in some way simulated the illusion of a theatrical production” (22).

Aside: what I’m gathering, here, is that film is drawing on the public’s tendency to view the text (literature in this case) as authoritative. Leitch suggests that early adaptations (and many modern ones, for that matter) “create a simulacrum of the institutional text of literature” (23).

Like many of the recent adaptation theorists I’m reading for this exam, Leitch views adaptation as inherently inter- and multi-textual, maintaining that we shouldn’t “accept as definitive a narrow conception of adaptation…[that] a given adaptation refers to a single complete literary text” (23; original emphasis).

Subsequently, Leitch tries to expand on and complicate the qualities of early adaptation, noting that it is often:

  1. Parasitic – it “depends on a well-known theatrical source of which it expects its audience to have some knowledge.”
  2. Highly selective in drawing on that source – particularly in terms of very early adaptation, the technical capabilities of film (length of film reels, particularly) and expectations about the length of films (very, very short compared to modern standards) meant that adaptations often only represented a handful (potentially only one) of iconic moments from the source text.
  3. Not, strictly speaking, a narrative itself – as indicated above, there might not be a narrative beginning, middle, or end in single-moment representations of the source text.
  4. Attempts both to memorialize its subject and to bring it to the widest popular audience.

Leitch notes that these “single reel epics” are inherently #transmedia adaptations because they draw on sources such as magic lantern shows, symphonies, tableaux, and etc. not only as inspiration, but as elements of the film. He states:

The goal of these adaptations is not to provide a faithful transcription of their original sources but to use those sources as inspiration or pretext for a digest, reminiscence, hybrid, or inflation—at any rate for something new and different. (25-6; my emphasis)

In 1907 and 1908, according to Leitch, a narrative approach to adaptation began to take over. In 1909, censorship attacks by the Motion Picture Patents Co. led to an even more increased turn toward classical literary sources, because those sources couldn’t be considered infringements of other (contemporary) filmmakers’ property.

So, this turn toward narrative adaptations of literary created problems for filmmakers: “how could a one-reel film running only twelve minutes convey something of the weight or gravitas, something like the epic sense, of a story that might run to many years, dozens of characters, and hundreds of pages?” (27). This is a problem filmmakers still face, especially if fidelity happens to be one of the goals of their adaptations.

Interestingly—and importantly—these early film adaptations were often not based on the NOVELS at all. They were based on plays based on the novels.

So, the central problem faced was not to make adaptations seem longer, but deeper, broader, bigger, and more highbrow. These adaptations were more like illustrations of the source texts, and, these performances did not always privilege language over spectacle in the nineteenth century.

Chapter Three:

            In this chapter, Leitch considers the specific problems that adaptations of scriptural sources raise. Thinking particularly about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and other adaptations of the gospels.

He notes that “the controversy surrounding Gibson’s film raises three general questions about filmed lives of Jesus that it brings into unusually sharp focus:

  1. What is the relation between inspiration (“a religious experience”) and mass entertainment?
  2. How does Scripture focus problems of fidelity more urgently than any other precursor text filmmakers could possibly choose to adapt?
  3. And what does it mean to make a film that is faithful to the Gospels? (49)

One problem adaptors face is that the gospels are episodic. They are not, from the perspective of Narrative Theory, strong narrative. (That is, they are different, in some ways noncontiguous version of the same story.) Adaptations typically approach these problems in one of two ways:

  1. They present themselves as highlights or illustrations rather than strict, one-to-one retellings
  2. They attempt to heighten the narrative elements (50)

Another problem for adaptors is that the bible establishes its authority by claiming to be the only reality. So, it is difficult to supplement the text or to take any artistic license without provoking the potential audience: “Scriptural texts [in general]…pose unique problems to anyone with the temerity to adapt them to film, however reverent and non-entertaining the adaptation might seek to be.” Again, there tend two primary approaches to these “unique problems”: additive fidelity (creating a more holistic narrative by cobbling together details from each of the four gospels), and/or, picking and choosing from the four gospels (53).

Having established these challenges to adaptation, Leitch notes that there is an inherent lack of fidelity to scriptural texts (which would seem to demand increased fidelity, is the assumption) in terms of Jesus’ ethnicity: “even films that attempt in some way to convey Jesus’ Jewishness visually distinguish [him] from his Jewish opponents by means of their clothing” (54).

All of this leads Leitch to conclude that, in terms of scriptural adaptations, there are three different ideals of fidelity:

  1. Fidelity “to the lexical particulars of the text—its literal words”
  2. Fidelity “based on the hermeneutical idea of ‘ostensiveness,’ the assumption that there is ‘a sequence in the spatiotemporal world to which the narratives supposedly refer’”
  3. And “moral and spiritual rather than historical or circumstantial [fidelity], [which] addresses the question of what Jesus’ ministry, Passion, and death mean for movie audiences today” (57).

Chapter Four:

            In this chapter, Leitch explores the point of view that values adaptations of literary texts

as introductions to classic literature. Focusing specifically on adaptations of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Leitch examines the positives and negatives of such an approach. He suggests that these adaptations “exemplify the problems involved in the charge of providing an introduction to a literary classic and the contradictions built into that charge” (68).

The assumption from such a perspective is that “children [are] being taught something they need to know [and] adults are being reminded what they already know” (61). More precisely, children are being taught three things:

  1. Something about A Christmas Carol itself
  2. They’re being introduced to Dickens in general
  3. And they’re being introduced to high culture (provided cultural capital) (70)

Leitch notes that “entry-level adaptations of literary classics assume that the elements that make a book a classic can be made available to viewers who have limited interest or ability to enjoy the book itself” (70).  Language, plot, and organization don’t seem to be among these. He adds, “the problem of bundling the text, its author, and the institution of classic literature together with the injunction to have more care for the downtrodden is a small-scale version of the essential problem of cultural transmission and education” (71). Namely, “if ‘universal’ values are universal, why do they need to be taught?” and “how [is it possible] to teach someone [such as a child] their own culture when it feels foreign?” (71).

Although the discussion of adaptations of A Christmas Character is really interesting, the take aways can be summed up much more quickly as follows: characters grow over time and change such that there are often different takes/versions of them within the same text, and choices must be made about whether or not to portray all of them, which ones to portray, and etc. Second, just as with characters in particular, there are so many choices to be made about which elements to depict (which are “essential” to the tone of the story? Is it possible to take anything out and still produce something that can be considered an introduction to a literary classic?).

Chapter Five:

            In this chapter, Leitch traces some of the critical/theoretical approaches to adaptation to introduce his examination of allusion. He begins by tracing three broad types of “transition of fiction into film”:

  1. Transposition “in which a novel is given directly on the screen, with a minimum of apparent interference” (93).
  2. Commentary (reemphasis or restructure) “in which an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect” (93).
  3. Analogy “[in which] a fairly considerable departure [is made] for the sake of making another work of art” (93)

He then discusses Kamila Elliott’s six critical approaches (which I’ll be discussing in a different post) and Gerard Genette’s transtextuality and five modes of possible relations between texts: intertextuality, paratextuality, metatextuality, hypertextuality, and architextuality.

The point of all of this setup is to note that there is no clear demarcation or distinction of where ALLUSION fits in the study of adaptation in any of these major theoretical considerations of the subject.

In order to think through where/how allusion fits in the grand scheme of adaptation, Leitch provides an in-depth discussion of 10 kinds of adaptation:

  1. Celebration: “subordinate whatever specific resources they find in cinema to the attempt to preserve their original texts as faithfully as possible” (96). (Think Shakespeare or Austen adaptations.) This includes:
    1. Replication
    2. Homage
    3. Heritage adaptations
    4. The reverse (in which cinema is celebrated over novelistic sources) tends to happen most often in terms of “distinctly less respectable sources” like monster movies (97).
  2. Adjustment: “by far the most common approach to adaptation…a promising earlier text is rendered more suitable for filming by one or more of a wide variety of strategies” (99) including:
    1. Compression (of length, scale, or detail)
    2. Expansion (inclusion of backstory, etc.)
    3. Correction
    4. Updating
    5. Sumperimposition
  3. Neoclassical imitation: a recognizable version of a story set in a new time period (I think?). The example Leitch gives is Sherlock Holmes films. But also
  4. Revision: “when adaptations frankly seek…to transform their sources in ways that go beyond adjustment, the results are revisions” (107).
  5. Colonization: “see[s] progenitor texts as vessels to be filled with new meanings” (109). Things that leap to mind for me are Star Wars cats videos, advertisement adaptations of literature/film, porn versions of things like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
  6. Deconstruction through metacommentary: films about adaptation. Maybe adaptations about adaptation?
  7. Analogue: films that are analogous to but not adaptations of text. So, stories that are reminiscent of a literary source but not adaptations of it.
  8. Parody and Pastiche
  9. Imitation: these include “secondary, tertiary, or quaternary imitations” (120) in which it might be the setting, a character, or an aspect of the story that is adapted rather than the whole shebang.
  10. Allusion: includes quotes or references to an earlier text, “continuities with other modes of intertextual reference raise[s] special problems for adaptation theory.” I think these occur both internally, or in film corpuses by the same director (think allusions to other films in the Kevin Smith body of work) and/or externally, or in works by one director in reference to works by another director. This might also have something to do with worlds—are films considered part of the same world (regardless of who makes them)? Are allusions happening in different worlds?

Chapter Six:

            In this chapter, Leitch takes a more head-on approach to fidelity, arguing that adaptations studies should ask “why does this particular adaptation aim to be faithful?” rather than “why are so many adaptations unfaithful?” (128).

He then identifies and examines some specific problems for adaptations that attempt to emphasize fidelity. First, he notes that the length of the progenitor text causes trouble. He uses the LOTR series and Gone with the Wind to emphasize his point. A one-to-one replication of page length to script length is impossible, and would result in a ridiculously long film and a ridiculously enormous budget. Second, he notes that such adaptations are indebted to other texts besides the source text—including other texts in a series, the authors’ allusions to other texts, the other texts that comprise their own research, and more. Attempts to supplement an adaptation so that it feels more faithful actually (ironically) lead adaptors astray from the source text and lead to a loss of fidelity (although possibly a more enjoyable, cohesive viewing experience).

After this, Leitch discusses tie-ins both as a potential loss of fidelity and as a process toward fidelity, noting that transmedia, later adaptations, and etc., can all work together to provide a more authentic experience of different mediums’ realizations of a narrative.

Chapter Seven:

            In this chapter, Leitch discusses the traditions of quality in the adaptation industry. He begins by noting that “there is, of course, a darker side to the question of fidelity to a beloved literary source, a side exposed most influentially by Francois Truffaut …[who] described the ‘tradition of quality’” (152). Truffaut apparently “consider[ed] an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema” (qtd in Leitch 152). “Tradition of quality” became something of a term of contempt because it signified a film industry that “emphasized craft over innovation, privileged established directors over new directors, and preferred the great works of the past to experimentation.” From the perspective of the ToQ, all adaptations are considered interchangeable, regardless of their quality or their mode of adaptation, because they are based on works of classic literature or “great works of the past.”

Leitch contends that there is not one but several traditions of quality, mostly because there is not one era in which literary adaptations were most predominate—they’ve remained fairly constant over time. Discussing this early-ish adaptations, which would have been considered part of the ToQ, can help us to recognize adaptation tropes, and self-authorizations, that still happen today. The most prominent, is, perhaps, the visualization of the book itself: “one of the enduring clichés of adaptations that seek to trumpet their literary association,” Leitch states, “is running their opening credits over a shot of the book under adaption” (158).

Adaptations of this kind make implicit (sometimes explicit) claims about their fidelity by using images of the book, quotes from the book, and claims about the quality of the original text that ostensibly extend to film. The use of “chapter” headings [intertitles called chapters], for example, invokes the cultural capital of books.

These adaptations often also fetishize the figure of the author in addition to fetishizing the written text itself. Leitch notes that authors are often written into films as celebrities (see The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). ASIDE: something similar happens in Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman). According to Leitch, “reverence for words and books and authors is a fetish that sanctifies the power of the adaptations true auteur” – it takes the filmic author to fully realize the artistic promise hinted at in the book (162).

Leitch discusses Selznik’s ToQ, the Merchant Ivory ToQ, and miniseries ToQ (BBC), noting that “the most important legacy of the miniseries tradition of quality, in connection with the earlier traditions of Selznik and Merchant Ivory, is the revelation that since quality depends less on any particular literary antecedents than on the invocation of an exotic or Edenic history, a particular visual style, and shrewd merchandizing, anything with a historical basis…can be marketed as a Quality adaptation” (178).

In this sense, Leitch concludes, “fidelity in adaptation is not an end but a fetishistic means, for every adaptation that aims at fidelity is really aiming at quality” (178).

Chapter Eight:

            In this chapter, Leitch examines the ways in which adaptation has been understood, analogized, and/or figured in theorizations. He notes, “of all the [rumors/misapprehensions] that have bedeviled adaptation studies, the most persistent is the belief that film adaptations involve a transfer from words to images” (179).

Leitch’s purpose for this chapter is to establish and explore a few different ways of conceptualizing adaptation, beginning with W. J. T. Mitchell’s claim that “the interaction of pictures and texts is constitutive of representation as such: all media are mixed media, and all representation are heterogeneous; there are no ‘purely’ visual or verbal arts” (180).

So, instead of a transfer from one form to another, Mitchell’s argument refigures the relationship as a mutually constitutive one:


According to Leitch, it is also possible to think about visual-to-visual adaptations (such as adaptation from comic book to film, or film to comic book, but even including things like adaptations of an illustrated children’s book to film/tv, adaptations of illustrations themselves, etc.). He notes, “the challenges in adapting picture books, books whose illustrations are at least as prominent and important to their interpretation as their words, is still greater because the relationship between word and image is more obviously dialectical” (187). Leitch illustrates this by noting that there have been no adaptations of picture-only books (for children or adults). I’m not sure if this remains true. Nevertheless, Leitch argues that such adaptations would almost have to add audio/speech of some sort because “for better or worse, modern film audiences have come of age in an audiovisual culture that prescribes and promises saturation of two senses, not just one, by complimentary, often heavily overdetermined, auditory and visual cues” (189).

Using adaptations of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Leitch illustrates five important problems in the adaptation of picture books to the screen:

  1. “the impossibility of translating a child’s private, interactive experience of having a picture book read aloud by a specific reader to cinema, which is restricted to a single public voice” (193).
  2. “[the] problem of fitting voices to characters without speaking roles in the book” (193).
  3. “[the] need to translate lines of Seuss’s drawings into the colored masses of animated cartoons or the three-dimensional space of…live-action film” (193).
  4. “the different depth cues pen-and-ink drawings and movies deploy—the difference…between the ways the two different media conventionally imply a third dimension” (193).
  5. “the problem of translating the discontinuous tableaux of Seuss’s drawings into the continuously streaming images common to cinema” (193).

After discussing children’s book / illustration to film adaptations, Leitch discusses comic strips. He notes that “animated adaptations raise fewer problems than live-action adaptations in translating two dimensional into three dimensional, line into shapes in space and black and white into color” (193-4). He notes a specific difficulty in these types of adaptations is “the need to impose a single coherent story on what originally appeared as a succession of three- or four-panel jokes” (194). ASIDE: think about PhD comics to film adaptation. It was pretty weird, but I think worked fairly well…

Where films are audiovisual, comics are lexicovisual, which poses another potential adaptation problem. Leitch states, “comics and movies both use a two-dimensional medium that has the ability to imply a third dimension. But comics and movies deploy color very differently, since comics are normally limited to six colors (eight, counting black and white), whereas the most rigidly controlled movies usually exploit the resources of a much wider color palette…” (195). ASIDE: I think this might be interesting in terms of recent adaptations like iZombie, where the comic and its color scheme is fetishized with intertitles and opening credits…

Comic book adaptations are more often criticized than literary adaptations for their lack of fidelity, partly because there are so many competing intertexts to be faithful to, as Leitch notes (202).

Chapter Nine:

            In this chapter, Leitch talks Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Being a Sherlock Holmes junkie, I was fascinated. The interesting thing about Holmes adaptations, for Leitch, is the fact that there are so many sources for adaptation that adaptations have become hybrids, distinct from the original: “movie life is…complicated by the need to pick and choose which progenitor texts to follow, which to modify, and which to ignore” (208). Interestingly, many character-based adaptations are not based on Conan Doyle’s descriptions of the character, but on Sydney Paget’s early illustrations of the character for Strand magazine.

Ultimately, though, Leitch is using Holmes to consider where the line between imitation (pastiche) and parody lies. He notes that “the frequent difficulty in distinguishing between imitation and parody extends to the franchise’s most distinctive feature: the vast array of sherlockian pseudo-scholarship that has grown around the canon” (211). Perhaps one of the first large-scale fandoms, as we know them today, Holmes scholars/fans, while recognizing that their favorite detective is fictional, support and often work toward the obfuscation of the fiction/reality boundary. An iconic case in point was the British government’s real-life creation of Holmes’s fictional address: 221 B Baker Street. As Conan Doyle wrote, there was no such address. Now, there is—and it is the location of a Holmes museum that apparently accepts letters to the great detective and sometimes responds to them.

Leitch notes that “the Holmes adaptations…take as their primary referent not the particular story they are ostensibly adapting…but the franchise as a whole” (213). BBC’s Sherlock is a wonderful example of this, as it contains allusions to many different incarnations of the Holmes franchise.

Leitch argues that this leads to “questions about the relations between authorship and authority” (216). He suggests that Holmes’s many resurrections (both in Conan Doyle’s body of work and his reincarnations in the greater Holmes franchise) “give[s] [Holmes] at least three kinds of special privilege. It makes him a hero with a hundred faces whose resilience is such that he can be impersonated by dozens of actors….it ensures that he will never die…finally, it makes this most secular of mythopoetic figures endlessly adaptable in the specific sense that he is endlessly available for use” (218). Actually, I’d argue that it does the same for Watson. Case in point: CBS’s Elementary, in which Watson is an Asian woman.

In examining Holmes adaptations, Leitch comes to three conclusions:

  1. “fidelity to a franchise is impossible when the franchise is as riddled with contradictions as Doyle’s corpus” (230)
  2. “in the same way that much of sherlockian commentary veers into narrative, many details in…narrative adaptations cross over willy-nilly to textual or interpretive commentary” (230)
  3. adaptations take a fetishistic attitude toward Doyle’s text, “giving the appearance of fidelity by concentrating on certain kinds of details, but neglecting, correcting, or improving others” (230)

Leitch notes that, ultimately, these adaptations don’t want to be faithful to the canon or franchise so much as the want to BECOME the canon or franchise:

The paradoxical goal of all these revisionist adaptations is the same goal all adaptations of a successful franchise share. The more playfully freewheeling they are in their inventions, the more care they take to root them in a historical context that seems real…the more vigorously they insist on the historical and documentary reality of Conan Doyle’s fictional canon, the more forthrightly they pose as explanations, corrections, or revelations about that canon more real than the canon itself” (234-5).

In this light, “new adaptations are admitted as canonical only to the degree that they both acknowledge the primacy of earlier texts and succeed in establishing their own reality as superior” (235).

Chapter Ten:

            In this chapter, Leitch considers the filmmaking careers of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Disney to consider the “adapter as auteur” (237). He begins by asking, “given the difference between film authorship (playing a leading role in creating a film) and autership (establishing a claim to authorship that is widely recognized), how do adapters establish themselves as auteurs outside the film industry and the academy?” (237). In answer to this question, he concludes that “the auteur status of filmmakers depends at least as much on their temperament and working habits, their triumphs in conflicts with other inspiring authors, and their success at turning themselves into brand names as on their artistic aspirations or any textual features of their films” (237).

Leitch is very thorough in examining the hows/wheres/whys of each of these three qualities, but a brief overview will give a sufficient idea:

  • Hitchcock obscured the fact that his films were adaptations and did his utmost to make his name the only one associated with the film, shoving other heavy collaborators under the proverbial bus.
  • Kubrick collaborated but used his name as a selling-point that promised a specific kind of film.

So: “If Hitchcock represented the adapter-auteur as generic trademark and Kubrick the adapter-auteur as solitary artist, Walt Disney managed to combine both figures in his rise to auteur status” (243).

Chapter Eleven:

      In this chapter, Leitch examines the current trend of “post-literary adaptation,” arguing that the trend is to adapt works that are NOT classic literature, such as video games. He notes, “so far…neither reviewers nor theorists have developed a way of talking about post literary adaptations that has progressed much beyond sarcasm or outrage. The problem is especially acute in the case of movies whose sources are not only nonliterary but nonnarrative” (258). Since his writing, actually, many theorists have tackled this problem. Notably, Jasmina Kallay.

Leitch argues that “the summary [critical] dismissal of such adaptations is evidently based partly on a literary bias that assumes cinema should adapt only original [sources] more culturally respectable than cinema itself and partly on a narrative bias that assumes stories are the ingredients that make the best movies” (258).

Leitch’s goal for this chapter is to articulate the particular problems inherent in such adaptations, suggesting that “they throw a new light on the subject of adaptation and suggest a possible alternative to the chimerical quest for fidelity” (258).

ASIDE: non-literary adaptations are nothing new—see Clue (1985)

Leitch begins, more or less, by arguing that “[non-literary sources] have obvious attractions” for adaptation (263):

The conventions—the playful use of familiar elements from the original source whose recognition in a new context will evoke pleasure, the activation of narrative potentialities already implicit in the source text, the filling out of circumstantial detail by evoking resonant historical settings or piggybacking on established narrative texts or genres, a generally and often incongruous lightsome tone suggesting that this sort of adaptation is fundamentally more whimsical than the serious adaptation of novels or plays or stories—remain surprisingly constant throughout the realm of post literary adaptation. (262)

Video-games adaptations, in particular, “generally observe all four of the conventions of post literary adaptations, beginning with the playfully ingenious recycling of elements from the original game” 264).

ASIDE: Super Mario Bros. (1993)


Although these four conventions are traced out above, Leitch expands on them a bit more. Post literary video game adaptations, then, generally include/have/institute:

  1. Playfully inventive references to their video-game originals
  2. Selective narrativizing of the games’ narrative hints/implications
  3. Fill out hints with borrowings from other fictional or historical narratives
  4. A generally unserious tone ironically at odds with the violent, high-level threats the stories present

These are generally market-driven approaches to adaptation, and have the interesting result not only of exploiting a market created by a source text but of increasing sales of the original source text.

Chapter Twelve:

            In this chapter, Leitch turns to “one last kind of adaptation [that] is still problematic and more seldom treated as adaptation: films that profess to be based on no source text at all but on a true story” (280).

Leitch argues that the “based on a true story” device really only comes into common use during the 1990s, although the concept is much older as demonstrated by things like The Castle of Otranto which was supposedly based on an authentic manuscript and translated into English, but was just Walpole messing with everyone…

In literature, this device was often used to establish authenticity and credibility using detailed historical prologues and epilogues that indicated the fates of the leading characters.

In film, the “based on a true story” claim “indicates a source text that both is and is not a text, one that carries some markers common to most source texts but not others” (282). Most notably, the adaptation rights for such stories did not have to be purchased from authors/publishers. It is a claim that doesn’t HAVE to be made, so it only appears when it is to the film’s advantage in some way.

Leitch adds to this discussion by asking “given that the claim to be based on a true story is always strategic or generic rather than historical or existential, what exactly does it mean? … The claim is made only on behalf of movies…whose representational conventions are so similar to those of recordings of historical events that audiences might well take those representations as themselves historical if it were not for counterconventions like the casting of actors and actresses as historical figures” (303).

Leitch argues that such movies “are not simply claiming to tell the truth. Nor are they claiming a specific educational function…the claim to be based on a true story appeals to the master text of the true story—a secularized, authorless Book of Life not to be confused with reality or history of the truth—for specific kinds of textual authority, all of them having only an incidental relation to historical accuracy…the claim turns the represented people and situations into a series of setup lines whose punch line is that everything the film is showing, or at least a tantalizingly undefined part of it, actually happened” (283-5). Tellingly, Texas Chainsaw Massacre claims to be based on a true story, and this particular instance of the claim makes the aesthetic, affective implications of saying THIS COULD HAVE HAPPENED pretty clear.

Leitch circles around the point of such a claim several more times, suggesting that “the point of claiming that a film is based on a true story is not to establish truth or fidelity to the truth as a predicate of the discourse but to use the category of the true story as a privileged master text that justifies the film’s claims to certain kinds of authenticity—ideally by placing them beyond question” (286).

These sorts of texts situate themselves within a network of intertexts and define themselves in opposition to them as somehow truer or more authoritative.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Fargo show that a source can even be textualized as a true story without being either preexistent or true. If Fargo creates its own textual source by creating an original story and then framing it as if it were true, it would seem that anything can be made to assume textual authority, even if it is not a source, not a text, not true, and nonexistent outside the imagination of the filmmakers. Given these films’ challenge to the distinction between films that are adaptations and films that are not, the slippery slope away from adaptation studies to intertextual studies seems dangerous indeed.

Yet the future of adaptation studies, and of textual studies generally, depends on our ability to negotiate this slope. The lesson of films that identify themselves as based on a true story is only a more urgent version of the lesson of all the adaptations I have been considering in this book. Adaptation studies will rest on a firmer foundation when its practitioners direct their attention away from films that present themselves as based on a single identifiable literary source— preferably a canonical work of fiction like Pride and Prejudice or A Christmas Carol— and toward the process of adaptation. Instead of distinguishing sharply between original texts and intertexts, future students of adaptation will need to focus less on texts and more on textualizing (the processes by which some intertexts become sanctified as texts while others do not) and textuality (the institutional characteristics that mark some texts, but not others, as texts). The study of adaptations offers a matchless opportunity to treat every text, whether or not it is canonical, true, or even physically extant, as the work-in-progress of institutional practices of rewriting. Instead of viewing literature from afar and from below as a collection of canonized works, it offers a foundational invitation to scholars in textual studies to place at the center of their investigations the theory and practice in allegedly original texts, in their rereading through adaptation, in our own work, and the work of our students, of still further rereading and rewriting— of literacy. (302-3)

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