Form and Formation III: The Art of Adaptation

Even without reading recent studies of Americans’ streaming habits, we’d probably all guess that far more content is being streamed now than prior to the pandemic. I’ve been fascinated by the number of adaptations available on streaming services both in back catalogs and as original content: adaptations of novels, of movies, of comic books, of biographies. Adaptations are as old as narrative itself (the oral tradition is an adaptive tradition), but the presence of streaming content in our lives seems to make them newly ubiquitous. For those of us who love adaptations, streaming services provide treasure after treasure. It’s a fascinating genre, offering us the familiar and the alien simultaneously—creating within us a kind of comfortable discomfort that doesn’t seem too risky. 

As a genre, adaptations can help us shape conversations about vocation. While it may not seem odd to say that we adapt to new situations, it may sound very odd to say that we are ourselves adaptations. Yet this may be useful. The word “adaptation” has multiple definitions: the action of adapting one thing to another; the state of being suitable for a particular purpose or place; a revised version of a text or other creative work. In its multiple definitions, it signifies both process and product. Our lives are a series of adaptations, not only as we continually reshape ourselves to new forms and contexts but also as we embody each state of being newly shaped. I think that most of us have a sense of self that at its core seems constant—a kind of source text that is unchanging—but also conceive of ourselves as changing over time, as not being the same person as we were years ago. As we are re-purposed over and over again, we must rearticulate our vocations as well.

I regularly teach seminars focused on literary adaptations, most often a course on Sherlock Holmes. Students are eager for the course, sometimes because they think we’ll spend class time watching Robert Downey Jr., but mostly because they love the character or are drawn to mysteries. Ever since Conan Doyle published his first Holmes story in 1887, A Study in Scarlet, readers have clamored for more, so much so that Conan Doyle resurrected Holmes from the dead in 1901 after an eight-year hiatus despite his own antipathy toward his character. He adapted. In my course, we read a significant selection of Conan Doyle’s stories interspersed with various fictional and filmic adaptations, and we approach such intertextuality from Linda Hutcheon’s premise in A Theory of Adaptation that we experience adaptations as “palimpsests through our memory of other works that resonate through repetition with variation.” And that’s really why it’s so fun: many of us find repetition with variation pleasurable.

Yet students can miss out on that pleasure if they unwittingly desire repetition without the variation. I will never forget the student who walked into my Holmes class on the first day and set a deerstalker and a pipe down on the desk in front of him. After my initial trepidation about having a Sherlockian in class, I welcomed his extensive knowledge of the minute details of the stories—he could quote line after line by memory—and said on more than one occasion, “let’s ask Ian.” As we moved through our reading list of adaptations, however, Ian hit a wall. When we read Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978), he did not attend our class discussions, returning only when we had moved on to the next reading assignment. At first, I did not understand his uncharacteristic absence, but when I saw him next, he explained that he had chosen not to read Dibdin’s novel. He didn’t have to say more than that because I suddenly understood that the liberties Dibdin takes with Holmes’s character were too much for this fan to tolerate; Dibdin’s Holmes was wholly alien, Ian had decided, and he would not adapt himself to a text that he found to be beyond the limits of adaptation. Although he embraced the deerstalker—a hat that Conan Doyle did not mention in any of the stories but was rather created by an early illustrator—he would not accept a radical transformation of Holmes’s core character. He would not even tolerate our discussion of the novel’s premise.

While students like Ian are rare, most of them do grapple with the question of faithfulness.  Should an adapter be faithful to the original text, and what does “faithful” mean exactly? Holding an adaptation to the standard of fidelity with a source text limits meaning and possibility, and it doesn’t take as extreme an example as Dibdin’s novel to see that. When I ask students if Michael Chabon’s wonderful The Final Solution (2004) is a “faithful” adaptation of Conan Doyle’s beloved character, I am not asking them if it adheres to the details of any specific source text or reproduces a well-known context; I am asking them if it conveys the spirit of Conan Doyle’s creation—an extension of his character across space and time that we recognize as being Sherlock Holmes even if details and context are altered. Are we confronted with both the familiar and unfamiliar in Chabon’s character? Does this new creation offer a valuable interpretation of the world, one that we find meaningful for our lives? I hope that they will answer “yes” and see how Chabon’s novel exceeds the narratives that it adapts. 

How are we adapting to the reality of this pandemic that is both familiar and alien simultaneously—both the world as we know it and one that is frighteningly new? How are our students adapting? One answer would be to say, well, we’re streaming more movies at home and adjusting to life without public gatherings, and that would certainly be true. But that answer addresses the “how” as though it queries only the specific changes we’ve made to our daily lives. Perhaps, instead, the “how” asks for an assessment of the new reality: how is this adaptation?  How good is it? Such questions have everything to do with vocation beyond the current context as well.

Next spring, as my students and I discuss the continued resonance of this fictional Victorian detective within our own cultural moment, I will point students for the first time to the usefulness of adaptation theory for thinking about their lives and their vocations. In the context of a worldwide pandemic that will no doubt have altered our routines and increased the presence of death in our communities even further, I must adapt my questions. But I’m confident that such questions will provide a comfortable discomfort that will be useful even in future, less traumatic contexts as well. If we are ourselves adaptations, then such questions will be productive whenever we risk the unfamiliar.

To read Stephanie’s previous reflection on the themes of “form and formation,” see “Narrative Expectations” and “The Limits of Self-Help.”


Stephanie L. Johnson is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at The College of St. Scholastica. She teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, literature by women, and poetry, and has published articles on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. She is currently working on a book project that examines Rossetti’s theology of the body as shaped by her poetry and prose.

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