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A Theory of Evaluating Adaptations

Updated on January 08, 2012

    To evaluate any adaptation often ultimately means judging works of art not just according to our perceptions of “how good they are” but also within the context of the pattern set and left by the pieces that preceded them. When we look at the way an artistic work like Tom Stoppard’s Travesties imitates and adapts a piece like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, do we evaluate it as Theodor Adorno or those like him might? Do look at all art as imitation and adaptation, measuring them up against the standards set by popular art and judging them by how well they conform to those standards, or do we grade them in some other way? How should we judge art categorically labeled as “adaptation,” pieces which clearly and blatantly admit to extending, revising and imitating other works, such as Stoppard’s Travesties does with Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest? Should we evaluate an imitation within the context of a framework like that put forth by Adorno, which states that music (and all art, by my own extension) is merely imitation, or try to look past that assumption’s inherent flaws and use some element within a given piece itself to construct some other, more meaningful way to grade imitations and adaptations?

    In the eyes of those who believe as Theodor Adorno does, adaptation of material is simply a form of imitation and, while an incredibly integral component within the system as it stands, is still merely a means of setting the standards we, consciously or not, ultimately judge future material (adaptations) by. As example of this, Adorno states in his article, On Popular Music, that “The musical standards of popular music were originally developed by a competitive process.”(Adorno) and that “as one particular song scored a great success, hundreds of others sprang up imitating the successful one”(Adorno). The way in which this consistent building of art is achieved, creating a greater collective body through consistent and unshakable imitation and adaptation is not only an integral part of the reality of art construction to adherents of theories like Adorno’s, but also an inescapable part of the process. But could it really be that simple and limited? Could it be, as Adorno states, that all art is ultimately imitation and that the standardization it directly produces is an inherent and unshakable part of the process of the creation of “new” art? Is all art merely a reflection in some way of other art, doomed to being seen as we might see a play like Travesties, whose lines parallel those of The Importance of Being Earnest almost exactly in so many places? Consider for example, the line “But you don’t mean to say that you couldn’t love me if I didn’t share your regard for Mr. Joyce as an artist?”(Stoppard, 37) from Travesties contrasted against the line “But you don’t mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Earnest”(Wilde, 23) from The Importance of Being Earnest– the entirety of both pages echo one another almost exactly. Could one argue for possibly reducing any given piece to little more than the sum of its adaptive elements, or is there still some originality left in the world of art? “Even though jazz musicians still improvise in practice, their improvisations have become so ‘normalized’ as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization” Adorno states in On Popular Music, giving us a strong example that seems to lend definite credence to the idea he seems to be putting forth that art is, almost by nature, imitative, and that because of this imitation, it becomes bound to its own rigid standards, crushing and drowning out anything that Adorno would see as truly original, anything which does not adhere enough to set standards. The fact that this argument might be made against forms of originality and improvisation in any media or form of art itself seems to add profound strength to Adorno’s argument. Even within literature and film, there are categories and terms for forms of originality which could be seen ultimately as proof of imitation (like “guerilla art” or “non-mainstream”), categories which wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t at least enough imitation, revision and adaptation going on to put a verbal box around. Looking at the implications of Adorno’s theory of popular music, it quickly becomes clear that, by applying this theory to the greater world of art as a conglomerate of creativity, there is imitation and adaptation within all of it, even if only on the level of style and format, creating an unspoken adherence that makes even the most original-seeming art “rhythmically obedient”(Adorno).

    How then do we judge art which is categorically labeled as “adaptation,” pieces which clearly and blatantly admit to extending, revising and imitating other works, as Stoppard’s Travesties does with Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest? How do we evaluate an imitation within the context of a framework which states that all of art is merely imitation? I would argue that here the biggest flaw in Adorno’s ideas presents itself. Saying that popular music (and art by my own extension) is merely imitation and that the only truly original work is so far beyond any derivative behavior whatsoever and so totally outside the standards set by imitative art that it is no longer considered to be art (or anything else for that matter) is ultimately not only a construction which trivializes art, but over-generalizes all that makes art worth creating, studying and evaluating. Adorno’s wholesale ignoring of all the subtle nuances between works that the listener or the viewer or the reader or even the artists themselves are fully conscious of as looming, unshakable divisions between pieces that prove (or at least lend to) their originality weakens his approach so totally as to make it almost untenable. Even Robert Stam, in the book Literature and Film: A Guide to Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, would call this construction a “Substratal Prejudice” (Stam, 4), viewing Adorno’s stance of all art as imitation (especially popular, more recent art) almost as a poster child for the prejudice toward imitations and adaptations which states that “older arts are necessarily better arts” (Stam, 4). Even the fact that Adorno makes a clearly stated division between “popular music” and “serious music” and harps on the former as wholly imitative seems to show some of what Stam refers to as a “subliminal form of class prejudice” (Stam, 7) weakening what at first seemed a relatively solid stance within the body of On Popular Music. In the light of these critiques of weaknesses within Adorno’s argument, should the assertions that all art is imitation be used as any sort of framework for evaluating adaptations, or should it be tossed aside completely and held up as anathema? Neither, I would say. As a supplement, a misguided foundation meant to be shaped into new theories and re-envisioned outside of its original context, Adorno’s assertions in On Popular Music would be better suited as a guideline or a standard for a much more profound artistic imitation of his work. True, all art has some element of imitation and adaptation within it, but as human beings, we cannot avoid using at least some element of what we know when we create– it is literally impossible for someone to create something so original that it did not have any derivative elements whatsoever, but that doesn’t mean all art should be so easily dismissed as cheap additions to the standard or lumped under the umbrella of “imitative.”

    When we look at many works of literature from previous centuries, it goes almost without saying that every piece of art, regardless of its medium, is thoroughly steeped in the ideas and more common knowledge of its time. To say that we need to evaluate adaptations according to their adherence to standards set down and reinforced by imitation of other art not only justifies and encourages those flawed and unoriginal “standards,” but also is like saying that there is nothing worth paying attention to within plays like Stoppard’s Travesties save for the adaptive elements that could be compared and contrasted with similar elements and lines from Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. It would be like saying that we cannot read, appreciate and understand a piece of literature like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Bede’s The Dream of the Rood as stand alone and unique pieces of art without judging them within the context of the “history” they claim to be adapted from and comparing them up against the individual oral and written accounts which they were “adapted” from. As such, are the only pieces of Stoppard’s Travesties worth evaluating those which are labeled as imitation within imitation, and should we judge and evaluate separately the adaptive elements which match The Importance of Being Earnest and those which are less obvious imitations of other material? Is there nothing more within a piece like Travesties that is worth our attentions and the critical eye of the evaluator, or is the fact that Travesties adapts a great deal of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest a piece of knowledge with no more relevance to how we should judge it as a work of art than a footnote about the creator’s own personal history should be? My own opinion is that the “standards” put forth by Adorno are a rigid fallacy that is ultimately damaging to creative expression, and when evaluating adaptations like Stoppard’s Travesties, we should not judge them according to any standard other than how well they work as a stand alone piece. If a film maker were to make a stellar adaptation of an abysmal book, would we decry his or her lack of faithfulness to the text? Should we evaluate any adaptation according to its source material, history, creator’s history, or any other factor it may have adapted or imitated, or should we merely appreciate it within its own unencumbered context? I would argue that all art adapts in some way, but also that it is all unique and original in its own right, meant to be evaluated for the merit of what it presents solely within the text itself, and not have that evaluation be dependent upon or come through the lens of any other factors or theories. For all its borrowed elements, for example, one could argue that there is much within Stoppard’s Travesties which is original and not adapted, such as the thickly overlying theme of the foggy memory of the narrator’s real role in an arguably significant piece of history, or the entire element of two folders (one full of Lenin’s work, the other full of Joyce’s work) being dropped and mistakenly exchanged as a major plot device. Compare works of art to other works to whatever degree one sees fit to do so, but realize that every work of art should be evaluated based upon what it contains as a stand alone piece, encapsulated and set separate from any other context that might mar or devalue our understanding of it.

    As a creative individual, Adorno’s idea of all art as imitation strikes me as both frustrating and blindingly true. It is an unshakable truth that art, in all its forms, is adaptation of what the artist knows and sees, even if only in the vaguest, smallest ways, but it is also true that on closer inspection, there is often more difference between pieces of art than there is similarity, and this is what makes even the most direct imitations and adaptations unique. As such, it is only fit that we judge any piece of art uniquely, evaluating each creative work regardless of media as a whole, and yet separate from any context or standard that is not a part of the work itself. Adaptations like Tom Stoppard’s Travesties should not be evaluated based on any factor that ties them to Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest any more than they should be held against some standard tied to Lenin’s works or James Joyce’s Ulysses. We should grade them not as offshoots or imitations of the work they’re adapted from, but as wholly unique, original and independent forms of art no more bound by a necessary knowledge of other texts than any piece brimming with homages and references to classical literature should be. Art contains its own meanings, messages and qualities; let our interpretations of an adaptation be our guide for evaluation instead of some other procrustean standard mired in rigid prejudices and preconceptions of what is right and what is wrong in the world of art, or what “good” art really is.


    Adorno, Theodor W. “On Popular Music” 2008. Web. October 19th, 2009.
    Stam, Robert. Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, Print.
Stoppard, Tom. Travesties. New York: Grove Press, 1975. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York, Boni and Liveright, inc. 1919. Print.


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