Robert Stam’s Literature Through Film Introduction

Like many adaptation theorists, Stam begins his monograph with “the critique of ‘fidelity’ discourse,” moving on quickly to outline “the multicultural nature of artistic intertextuality, the problematic nature of illusionism, the wealth of ‘magical’ and reflexive alternatives to conventional realism, and the crucial importance both of medium specificity—film as film—and the migratory, crossover elements shared between film and other media” (3).

He nevertheless notes that there is a grain of truth (or understandability) in fidelity discourse, but that there are more appropriate tropes for study: Bakhtin’s dialogism, Kristeva’s intertextuality, Genettee’s transtextuality and hypertextuality.

After all of this set up, Stam does something similar to Leitch in approaching adaptation from the perspective of genre. He argues that “filmic adaptations of novels invariably superimpose a double set of generic conventions, one drawn from the generic intertext of the novel itself, and the other consisting of those genres engaged by the translating medium of film. The art of filmic adaptation partially consists in choosing which generic conventions are transposable into the new medium, and which need to be discarded, supplemented, transcoded, or replaced” (6).

Stam also argues that it is crucial to understand that genre is “permeable to historical and social tensions” such that those tensions raise expectations of their own within a given genre—thus, adaptations inherit those social and historical tensions and expectations.

In the next section of his introduction, Stam explores the tensions between “fantastical” genres and realist genres. He notes that scholars have assumed a progressive teleology from romantic, magical genres to realist genres, but that it is hard to draw clear lines between these genres in the first place, and that “realism” depends on context. More precisely, “viewers’ perceptions of plausibility and verisimilitude shaped by generic codes” (10). ASIDE: a magic dog is plausible, even realistic, in urban fantasy but not in a historical novel.

Stam argues that “an important question for all adaptations is that of the film’s relation to modernism, and how it differs from that of literature” (11). He adds “the dominant model devised what became the aesthetic cornerstone of dominant cinema: the reconstitution of a fictional world characterized by internal coherence and by the appearance of continuity… the conventional Hollywood aesthetic promoted th ideal not only of coherent, cause-effect, linear plots revolving around ‘major conflicts’ but also of motivated, believable characters” (16).

In addition to continuity, reflexivity is another important quality of adaptation: “artistic reflexivity comes in many forms: methodological self-consciousness, meta-theoretical reflection, the mis-en-abyme of reflections ad infinitum, the breaking of frames, the relativization of cultural standpoint” (12). According to Stam, “in the broadest sense, artistic reflexivity refer to the process by which texts…foreground their own production” (12).

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