Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

On the Origins of Adaptation: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and “Success”—Biologically

July 8th, 2013 · 4 Comments

Seminar Prompt

Andrew Knorr, Stephanie Moreno, Jacqueline Simpson, Christina Relkov

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.

 In this discussion, we will summarize and discuss the argument put forth by Bortolli and Hutcheon, considering how this theory relates to our practice as English teachers. We will lead the class through an activity using Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” as a means of diagnosing our own theories of adaptation, namely how and in what ways we feel adaptations should or should not be faithful to the original.

To begin, consider this list of “The 15 Most Successful Book to Movie Adaptations”:


The Argument: The success of an adaptation should not be defined by how faithful it is to the original

The article we will be presenting on, by Bortolotti and Hutcheon, discusses the idea of similarities between biological adaptation and cultural (or narrative) adaptation. The authors present a homology – that both biological adaptation and cultural adaptation are processes of replication that evolve with changing environments and should not necessarily be judged by their faithfulness to their source. They argue that this perspective can lead to new questions and answers about narrative adaptation theory – including the cultural equivalent of the most basic question asked in biology, why does life exist in so many forms?…Why do the same stories exist in such a startling array of forms?


 Discussion Questions:

  1.  Overall, in the English classroom, when we choose what to show in classrooms, are we looking merely for whatever video is closest to the original text?
  2. What is the argument to for using whole movies vs. just clips of movies?
  3. Should English teachers take on the role of teaching film studies (on their own or in conjunction with texts)?

Next, Consider:

  1. As adaptations descend from their original in varying degrees, are cries against reinterpretation a reflection of personal aesthetic tastes, or can we view the response as politicized? Are adaptations necessarily anti-canonical, or do they reinforce the canon by achieving relevance for a new audience? And are those who stand in opposition to these reinterpretations too heavily invested in a supposed integrity of the canon?
  2. As teachers of literature, are we doing the original works a disservice by allowing the deviated forms to be presented as equal to them?
  3. Do adaptations need to be authorized in order to be valid?



Using the synopsis of Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” (and any knowledge of it that you may already have) – in your groups discuss how you would adapt this story to video form. Create a working storyboard, outlining how your adaptation would look, sound, and any other ideas that you think would be crucial to your adaptation. You will be pitching your film/television/webisode adaptation to the rest of the class, so be clear in describing how your adaptation will look.

Following the activity, and after having watched an adaptation of the story as a music video, consider the following points:

  1. What do you think of the adaptation we just watched?
  2. What would you have done differently in your own adaptation?
  3. Are there any other adaptations of this short story out there?
  4. In adapting the story to new media, are crucial elements lost? What can be gained from this sort of adaptation?
  5. Would you use something like this in your own classroom?
  6. What do you think Bortolotti and Hutcheon would have said about this adaptation?



Tags: adaptations · Presentation · Seminar Prompts

4 responses so far ↓

  • scsmart // Jul 9th 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I’m surprised that I’m the first to respond to this, given Andrew’s closing remarks about the importance of blog participation in this class! I’d like to continue the thread that we started today in class during our discussion of using films as supportive materials in English classrooms. In the above discussion questions, this group has asked whether English teachers are generally just looking for a faithful-to-the-original film version of a text. My feeling is that if teachers are, they’re missing out on a whole world of remixes, riffs, and appropriations that can also bring a lot to the study of a story. Using a film version of a text in tandem with that text is, to be sure, a good way of helping students understand the story. It appeals to senses that aren’t engaged during reading, and it may assist more visual or aural learners in comprehending the material. However, connecting a text to other works that alter or perhaps even subvert the original is a great tool as well.

    In this sense, I think using “unfaithful” adaptations – even spoofs and parodies – of the text being studied is a great way to round out the opinions we’re presenting to our students. We have to remember that we’re – whether we like it or not – a figure of authority in the classroom. If we only present one version of any given story when other takes on it are readily available, we’re doing our students a disservice. Plus, using a “remixed” version of a story provides a great opportunity to talk about perspective, directorial/creative decisions, and the subjectivity of most every “text” we come into contact with. It leads naturally to a discussion, too, of how the students would tell the story, what they would change, what they would emphasize, etc. I can’t see a downside to these conversations.

    On a final note: if the story is familiar to the students already, introducing a different perspective via an adaptation is a neat way to revitalize their interest in it. I’m sure many of you know of the “True Story of the Three Little Pigs” by Jon Scieszka. For those that don’t – it tells the well-known fairy tale from the point of view of the “big bad wolf.” Turns out, he’s just a friendly neighbour with a terrible cold. (Or so he says, anyway…). I used this book with older students – Grade 11 – to talk about point of view and narrator reliability. They loved it.

    Thanks again for the presentation today!

  • adamh // Jul 10th 2013 at 12:07 am

    I think it is pretty safe to say that there is space for adaptations which stay true to the source text, and those that deviate from it, but I’ve been chewing on a thought, off and on throughout the day, inspired by this presentation and the authors’ mixing of biology and culture. I’m not sure if comparing cultural adaptation and evolutionary biology is a valid or worthwhile angle, but it did leave me with this query, which is still unresolved, so I guess that’s something.
    As I understand Hutcheon & Bortolotti (I’ve also read Hutcheon’s “A Theory of Adaptation” [2006]), adaptations should be viewed as stand-alone texts and not to be compared to their origins- they are new and independent creations. Alright, I can go with that, but what if we expand on their bio-cultural analogy, in a sort of way, and think about those of us living in colonized lands, and specifically Canada. Are we new creations, not to be thought of as coming from another place or maintaining a cultural tradition, from that place in any way? I think this would be foolish. Wherever we once came from, even if we have never been there, still influences who we are, especially in Canada where cultural traditions from many different places are kept alive (let’s not glorify our sense of multiculturalism too much, the Queen of England is still on our money and technically our head of state). Perhaps one day we will be so far removed from this ‘source text’ that we will be thought of as an original culture, but I doubt it (I also hope not, and that Indigenous peoples continually remind us of this fact, given the sordid history).
    So with using this little analogy of bio-cultural adaptation, can we legitimately say that literary adaptations are ever really able to be separated from their source? Or is this analogy a poor approach in thinking about the issue? Is it sufficient to say that adaptations, be they literary or cultural, are independent yet have a relationship with their source text? What is the extent of this relationship? Does it even matter?

  • domlee87 // Jul 12th 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Everyone seems to have one opinion or another on adaptations. However, to state matter-of-factly that an adaptation is “no good” merely because it does not remain 100% faithful to the source material seems to be somewhat short-sighted. I don’t necessarily feel that adaptations need to be 100% faithful to the source text for it to be well done; change is welcome sometimes. That being said, it depends a lot on what the producers have in mind when coming together to create said adaptation. If the changes are made with a specific purpose in mind and can create a different viewpoint of a certain subject matter or character, then it is often an interesting tool to bring into the classroom, whether or not you personally like the changes that are made.

    The example that we brought up in class, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) had many changes from the script of the play, a source material that already leaves a lot open to interpretation by the actors and directors. However, none of the changes to turned out to be problematic or distracting enough to divert too much attention away from the screen and (possibly aside from the bicycles) helped to enrich the visual experience and understanding of the play. My students were able to discern how even without the addition of any lines to the script, relying on extended scenes and the art of acting with one’s eyes, Michael Hoffman and Kevin Kline were able to truly bring the character of Nick Bottom to life.

    On the flip side, an adaptation that sticks much too closely to the source can, at times, yield little to no benefit for the viewers. While teaching Lord of the Flies to my grade 11s they repeatedly asked me if we as a class were going to watch the movie. I agreed to show it to them when we were just about done with the novel. Perhaps it was due to my lack of experience in teaching film and cinema, or perhaps our class discussions during the unit were just too darn good, but judging by the students’ postures and facial expressions during the movie, none of them were engaged. When I asked them later if they felt that their understanding of the book was enhanced by the movie, most of them said no.

    I understand that comparing AMND to LOTF may be slightly unfair as a Shakespeare play is always going to be harder to understand for students compared to a novel study. However, I did find this odd as two of my different SA’s had differing opinions on the films than my students and I did. When I asked them about this, the one who was in my class for LOTF said that the film was good because it remained faithful to the book whereas my SA for the Shakespeare class thought the film had too many changes. Go figure.

  • TMD // Jul 15th 2013 at 10:08 am

    Dear Andrew, Stephanie, Jacqueline, and Christina,

    Thank you for your interesting presentation on film and television. I’m glad you found the article worthwhile — such an interdisciplinary approach is useful in engaging students with diverse interests beyond the humanities.

    As we noted in class, the question of how film is used (generally as an aid to text rather than as a genre worth studying on its own) is a key issue in the teaching of English language arts. I’ve posted some of my ideas about that in response to Jacqueline’s post on the topic here: . Generally, it is curious how dramatic text is positioned in English classrooms as opposed to theatre classrooms: in the former text is key and performance is used as a supplement to understanding; in the latter text (script) serves as an aid to performance. The privileging of text in ELA classrooms is an evidently historical issue; I suppose the question is what benefits are there to studying text as an aid to performance in an English classroom (e.g., teaching text through performance)?

    As well, a pragmatic issue arises as we consider all the media forms that might be examined in ELA: At what point does the ELA curriculum become so diffuse that coherence is threatened? Is there any merit in a curricular model that would separate, say, literature, communications, film, writing/language, and so on, with the aim of privileging each as a separate subject worthy of study in its own right, or is such fragmentation counterproductive? There is no pat answer to this question: some argue against disciplinary “silos”; others feel that certain important areas of study (e.g., literature) will become subsumed if we don’t emphasize their value by developing focused classes in those areas

    As I noted in class, I liked the idea of having students create homologies. You’ll find a list of concept and mind-mapping tools here: > The one I showed was “Coggle.” It’s easy to use but at times the site doesn’t have enough bandwidth to handle requests.

    The Veldt activity was interesting. In general, a useful way to examine adaptations is to consider the amateur adaptations of many school texts that are prevalent on the Internet. One could encourage students to carry out an analysis of a number of amateur adaptations (say on YouTube) as a precursor to having them construct their own, or simply as a study in reception theory (e.g., what aspects of text do readers focus on as evidenced in their representations)?

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking presentation of the article and related teaching issues and ideas.



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