Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

“Descent with Modifications Is Essential”

July 8th, 2013 · 1 Comment

Weblog Post #2: Jacqueline Simpson

What struck me most about this article was the concept that “descent with modifications is essential” (446). I do not believe in discourse fidelity for the sake of fidelity: I think that adaptations will always be viewed as such when the original is known, and it makes far more sense to consider the adapted work as an original creation even if it has borrowed plot, characters, and themes from another source. Absolute fidelity is not possible, and it is not (as far as I can tell) the purpose of an adapted script. As English teachers who turn to adaptations of texts for use in our classrooms, do we really do so merely as a means of bypassing the text, or as scaffolding students towards a reading of the novel by helping them to visualize the language?

We choose these film adaptations precisely for the visualization, for the departures from what is directly given from the text—in short, we are already making the choice to present something to the class that must, by its very nature, be different on several levels from a reading of the text in its purest form. In recognizing that some stories hold universal appeal (as in the numerous examples of Shakespeare adaptations), why would the acknowledged appeal not lend itself to re-imaginings in forms less obvious than near-faithful reproductions? In the case of Shakespeare, for example, all adaptations will by nature be reinventions as the script moves from theatre to film. In the most basic adaptations, the visual language changes from intended stage directions to the language of films, and this goes beyond fidelity to language and plot. In class we have discussed the need for teaching a meta-language for new forms of text/media/forms of literacy. In watching Ernesto’s presentation today, we considered how the language we are already teaching our students—the language associated with writing in its rhetorical and literary forms—is the same language that students can apply to a critical reading of a piece of visual media, as they analyze the language of an image and the strategies that the author has used. The same strategies that we teach for reading and writing are rarely applied to readings of visuals, and we are missing an opportunity to teach this crucial form of literacy when we present films as being secondary to plays or novels, and as imperfect works that will always be deficient for what they lack (rather than appreciated for what they offer). Not only are specific readings of specific texts limiting in this sense, they are also blind to the concept of how a text such as a play is meant to appear and—more importantly, how it can appear.

Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet” is a film that is taught almost as often as it is criticized. I have not met a single English teacher who has used the film as an independently interesting piece of film—it is only in adjunct to the study of the play, and it is inspected for its differences and similarities to a pointless degree. We are not told to teach film, many of us are not comfortable doing it, and it is perhaps due to this that we can have a narrow consideration of the possibilities of film as a valid literary form, worth studying in the English classroom. Like Copolla’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Luhrmann’s film is deliberately referencing the original and the author of that work while adding in extra-textual details, conjectures, and re-imagined elements. The title suggests fidelity to the original, but it is more of an homage than a direct retelling. In cases of adaptation, the word “inspiration” is too easily misread or ignored.

Bortolotti, G. and Hutcheon, L. (2007). On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and “Success” — Biologically. New Literary History, 38(3), pp. 443-458.

Tags: adaptations · Uncategorized

1 response so far ↓

  • TMD // Jul 9th 2013 at 7:34 am

    Hi Jacquline,

    Thanks for your excellent post. Your last observation is particularly astute. Here is a short excerpt from some of my recent writing in which I make a parallel observation:

    [begin exceprt]
    It is clear, for example, that print technology enabled the rise of the novel, which displaced other genres (e.g., poetry and the sermon) as the pinnacle of literary art. Notably, the conventional novel is a form that has no oral antecedent, is text-intensive, generally written to be read in a linear fashion (from beginning to end), and often devoid of images. As such, we might call the novel “monomodal” (relying on one mode of communication). Monomodal, linear forms have been the mainstay of the literary canon in middle and secondary schools for many years. As Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) observe,

    “For some time now, there has been, in Western culture, a distinct preference for monomodality. The most highly valued genres of writing (literary novels, academic treatises, official docu-ments and reports, etc.) came entirely without illustration, and had graphically uniform, dense pages of print” (p. 1).

    Even in cases where the printed text is a script for multimodality, as with drama, a key focus in schools has been (and to some extent continues to be) understanding the words as written. For example, a debate I have often heard among English language arts educators concerns whether a film or stage performance of a given drama should be scheduled prior to, during, or after the reading of the text. In such debates, the “prior to” option tends to be viewed as a way of engaging student interest in the text; the “during” option as a way of encouraging continued interest in the text; and the “after” option as a way of ensuring the performance does not colour students’ reading of the text, by precluding the imagination of anything other than a particular director’s interpretation. Significantly, each argument positions performance as an aid to understanding written text; that is, performance is not viewed as an end in itself. This is somewhat ironic given that in practice — in the theatre or film world among artists and audiences — it is script, written text, that functions as an aid to performance.

    [end excerpt]


    Dobson, T.M. (2013). Engaging Diverse Knowledge Frameworks. In James, K., Dobson, T.M., Leggo, C., Eds. (2012). English in Middle and Secondary Classrooms: Creative and Critical Advice from Canada’s Teacher Educators. Toronto: Pearson.

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