Thomas Leitch: “Adaptation Meets New Media, With a Vengeance”


Thomas Leitch

When the persistence of the novel coronavirus, itself presumably an adaptation, forced the cancelation of the AAS conference scheduled to meet this October at the Université de Bourgogne, Kyle Meikle, who’d proposed a session on Adaptation and Newer Media, was determined to keep it alive. With the support of the AAS board and a dozen attendee/participants, Meikle was joined by four panelists who braved the challenges of intercontinental Zooming across several time zones to bring adaptation up against new media in ways none of them had ever considered a year earlier for a ninety-minute session that emphasized free-wheeling discussion over formal presentations.

Anna Blackwell kicked off the panel with “Materialising the Adaptation Process,” a brisk, suggestive presentation that focused on the kinds of literary-inspired memorabilia that proliferates on websites like Etsy, where a common strain is the insistence on the value of digital craft items to define the cultural identities of buyers and sellers alike. Handcraft adaptations, of course, are as old as cakes whose decorations refer to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or mittens embroidered with the images or initials of the wearer’s favorite fictional characters. But Blackwell’s emphasis on Etsy and its ilk raised welcome new questions concerning what’s new about the newest generation of handcraft adaptations—and what ways these nostalgic artifacts’ availability through Etsy’s networking in newly commodified, industrialized, and marketed ways encourages us to revisit our assumptions about the power and distinctiveness of handcraft adaptations that are increasingly produced and reproduced on a much larger scale and, more generally, our histories of textual and intertextual production.

Kamilla Elliott’s presentation took off from her forthcoming essay “Ad-app-ting the Canon,” which argued that the haptic technologies engaged by both creators and consumers of contemporary apps “require going beyond adaptation theories based in phenomenologies of hearing and seeing; virtual and augmented reality technologies require us to go beyond epistemologies based in realism, cognition, and imagination; and, when technologies allow consumers to become produces […] theories of production and consumption based in older technologies such as print culture and cinema are insufficient to explicate these processes,” because ad-app-tations “leapfrog over theories such as poststructuralism, postmodernism, and radical politics to reinstate traditional formalist, modernist, and humanist approaches to the canon.” In a survey as wide-ranging in its theoretical explorations as in its state-of-the-art prooftexts, Elliott renewed age-old question about why new media generate new theories of adaptation, whether new texts in old media have the power to generate such theories, and whether these new theories are required, because the new texts reveal the inadequacy of old theories, or optional, because they offer new invitations to rethink about the field that do not amount to requirements.

Jim Fleury followed with a tantalizing glimpse of new approaches video games have taken to adaptation in the light of industrial and technological developments. Noting the transformation of games from stand-alone software to online or streaming services and the decline of the theatrical-to-home video window, Fleury joined Blackwell, Elliott, and Meikle in raising questions about how novel interactivity is as an aesthetic desideratum—and, if it’s not entirely novel, how it’s changed with, and within, the arrival or evolution of videogames. Do children’s video games, for example, work by adapting stories or fictional worlds, in the manner described by Henry Jenkins? Now that games marketed explicitly as tie-ins to successful earlier fictions have declined, would it be more reasonable to expect their resurgence or their total eclipse? More generally, what sorts of developments, complications, or challenges to prevalent theories of adaptation as newer game platforms evolve, or as a result of their replacement by streaming services?

Thomas Leitch used Thoreau’s question, “Why do precisely those objects which we behold make a world?” to raise questions about the relations between virtual reality and the reality we assume is not virtual at all. Positing adaptation and adaptation studies, which both depend on what Linda Hutcheon has called creators’ and audiences’ oscillation between inhabiting variously immersive fictional worlds and analyzing their relations to other worlds, as the logical complement to virtual reality, Leitch suggested that every world is constituted as a world by either adapting it, as the Derridean copy establishes the identity of the original, or adapting to it, acknowledging it as a coherent, finite realm whose rules it’s in our interest to postulate and trust. Because all world-perceiving is world-building, and our relationship to the worlds we postulate, construct, and come to trust is radically transactional, new versions of familiar worlds shouldn’t logically make us place either more or less trust in the old versions; they should make us ask harder questions about the nature of trust.

These four presentations provoked vigorous discussion in two modalities. In the audio-visual boxes generated by each attendee, the assembled company, moderated by Meikle, considered what new questions about adaptation newer media raise, what older questions they resurrect or redirect our attention to, and how we might organize different modes of nostalgic, haptic, immersive, or adaptive texts or experiences. Video games, as Fleury notes, require their users to master particular skills in order to advance; do novels and films also reward their users for mastering cognate skills in reconstituting stories or making better guesses about how they will unfold? Would the increased popularity of “snackable fiction” on sites like Etsy lead to a revaluation of nostalgically adaptive simulations of individually tailored aesthetic experiences like wearing the sweater grandma had decorated with a favorite fictional heroine? What’s new, and what we can learn that’s new, about seriality, fluidity, and “ongoingness”?

At the same time, an equally wide-ranging discussion broke out in the chat room, where participants more inclined to write down their thoughts and questions than compete with other speakers in the severe one-speaker-at-a-time economy of Zoom wondered how handcraft adaptations that borrowed Shakespeare’s cultural capital could turn it into economic capital in the online marketplace, whether it was the job of adaptation scholars to tame intertextuality by policing it, how to write about serial adaptations that haven’t yet come to a decisive end, how theories of adaptation might change if they were based on the ongoing project of journalism rather than the discrete texts of literature, cinema, handcrafts, or video games, and how well positioned adaptation studies is to adapt to a rapidly changing world of new media platforms and practices. In a perfect dilemma for adaptation scholars, participants had to decide how to balance participating in the oral discussion with contributing to the written sidebars. Nothing was settled, but everyone returned to their home screens with a welcome sense of having maintained and even extended their community under circumstances so dire that they required heroic feats of adaptation.