Adaptation Types

When I give students an assignment to create an adaptation of a text–usually a canonical text by someone like Shakespeare, Milton, or Jane Austen–they often have a tendency to simply “perform” the text with a small twist, usually modernization. In order to encourage greater quality and diversity in the adaptations my students create, I provide them with a list of ten (non-comprehensive) adaptive approaches that they can think about using, along with examples that I bring into class to illustrate these techniques. As a class, we discuss these examples, how they function, what each tries to achieve, and how a single example might employ multiple techniques. Above all, I emphasize that the students’ adaptations have to exist as more than simply an adaptation for adaptation’s sake: they must have a purpose or goal. Students are expected to be able to critically reflect on their own aims in choosing a particular adaptive technique or set of techniques.

1. Parody: Create a satiric or ironic imitation (usually characterized by exaggeration) meant to make fun of the original source.

Example:  Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of Lady Gaga’s song “Born this Way.”

2. Pastiche: Borrow the style of text in order to create a new text. Like parody, pastiche is a form of imitation, but it tends towards neutrality rather than exaggeration or satirization.  According to Frederick Jameson, pastiche is “blank parody.”

Example: Soomo Publishing’s adaptation of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance to tell the story ofAlice Paul and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

3. Extrapolation (Filling in the Gaps): Address an element of the story that the text has left unexplored. Sometimes this means dramatizing elements that only happened “behind the scenes,” or that exist only as sub-text. Sometimes an extrapolation also addresses the question of what happens after the end of the official text.

Example: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

4. Interpolation: Explore what happens if something—a new character, a subplot—is added to the story.

Example: Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.

“The birth of Jesus has been well chronicled, as have his glorious teachings, acts, and divine sacrifice after his thirtieth birthday. But no one knows about the early life of the Son of God, the missing years — except Biff, the Messiah’s best bud, who has been resurrected to tell the story.”

5. Remotivation: Explore what happens when the characters of the story are given different motivations.

Example:  TV Show Once Upon a Time‘s retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

6. Revision (sometimes called an “Alternate Universe” adaptation): Rewrite the story from the ground up by altering the underlying assumptions of the source.

Example: In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (by Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI Researcher at the Singularity Institute) Harry Potter grows up in a family of scientists, and attends Hogwarts in order to determine how to understand magic through science:

The witch-lady was smiling upon them and looking quite amused. “Would you like a further demonstration, Mr. Potter?”

“You don’t have to,” Harry said. “We’ve performed a definitive experiment. But…” Harry hesitated. He couldn’t help himself. Actually, under the circumstances, heshouldn’t be helping himself. It was right and proper to be curious. “What else canyou do?”

Professor McGonagall turned into a cat.

Harry scrambled back unthinkingly, backpedaling so fast that he tripped over a stray stack of books and landed hard on his bottom with a thwack. His hands came down to catch himself without quite reaching properly, and there was a warning twinge in his shoulder as the weight came down unbraced.

At once the small tabby cat morphed back up into a robed woman. “I’m sorry, Mr. Potter,” McGonagall said, sounding sincere, though her lips were twitching toward a smile. “I should have warned you.”

Harry was breathing in short pants. His voice came out choked. “You can’t DO that!”

“It’s only a Transfiguration,” said McGonagall. “An Animagus transformation, to be exact.”

“You turned into a cat! A SMALLcat! You violated Conservation of Energy! That’s not just an arbitrary rule, it’s implied by the form of the quantum Hamiltonian! Rejecting it destroys unitarity and then you get FTL signaling! And cats areCOMPLICATED! A human mind can’t just visualize a whole cat’s anatomy and, and all the cat biochemistry, and what about the neurology? How can you go on thinkingusing a cat-sized brain?”

McGonagall’s lips were twitching harder now. “Magic.”

7. Reorientation: Tell the story from a different point of view, or alter an element (such as the gender or age of the characters) in order use the adaptation to examine an issue that the original source does not.

Example: In Jasper Fforde’s Something Rotten, the “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is re-told from Ophelia’s point of view, and retitled, “The Tragedy of the Fair Ophelia, Driven Mad by the Callous Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”

8. Hybridization (or a Mash-up, or Cross-over): Put two texts into conversation with each other, using one to bring out a new way of thinking about the other, or both together.

Example: A fan trailer for a mash-up of the BBC Shows Sherlock (2010) and Doctor Who (2005).  (Note: Sherlock is itself an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, and the 2005 Doctor Who might be considered either an adaptation or a continuation of the classic 1960’s show)

9. Generic Transformation: transform a text from one genre or form to another.

Examples: In terms of form, this might include something as basic as illustrating a scene (as in the Dore painting based on Paradise Lost below), or be as complex as turning a play into a graphic novel or film. It might also include using the plot from a Shakespeare play in a science-fiction film (like The Forbidden Planet) or transforming a tragedy into a comedy (or vice versa).

Forthwith upright he rears from off the pool
His mighty stature; on each hand the flames
Driven backward slope their pointing spires, and, rolled
In billows, leave i’ th’ midst a horrid vale.

John Milton, Paradise Lost Book I, 221–224

10. Meta-adaptation and Meta-fiction: Draw attention to the process of adaptation. A meta-adaptation will draw attention to how it is using the original text, and meta-fiction might include the original text within itself in some other way.

Example: Slings and Arrows (2003-2006), a Canadian television show that depicts the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival as they perform Shakespeare’s plays.

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