Book review / Cultural Theory and Concepts

Adaptation studies after the fidelity issue

By Jan Baetens

For many decades, scholars of adaptation studies have been quarreling on the flaws and merits of the so-called fidelity issue, that is the (biased) idea that the novel is always better than the film and that the value of a movie thus depends on its more or less faithful recreation of the original, whatever all these terms (recreation, faithful, original) may mean.

Current research has a more relaxed take on these problems, what does not mean of course that fidelity is no longer an interesting field of research. Simone Murray has done excellent work in the economic reframing of fidelity: the decision to select a work for adaptation and to rework it in a way that acknowledges the form and content of the adapted work is less determined by aesthetic than by financial issues (cf. The Adaptation Industry, 2012). Jean-Louis Jeannelle has foregrounded the necessity of making a genetic analysis of the adaptation process, making room for trial and error, if not for failures, censorship, and other types of obstacles (cf. Cinémalraux, 2014). Jean Cléder and Laurent Jullier, whose book Analyser une adaptation (2017) was reviewed here a couple of weeks ago, strongly advocate for the creative practice of adaptation as interpretation.


In this broader context, L’Adaptation. Des films aux scenarios (Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2018), a collection of essays edited by Alain Boillat and Gilles Philippe, respectively professor of cinema studies and linguistics at the University of Lausanne, can be seen as both an admirable synthesis of the abovementioned tendencies and a groundbreaking study that helps rethink the very process of adaptation.

On the one hand, one finds here many elements that were highlighted by Murray, Jeannelle, and Cléder and Jullier: a strong focus on the industrial aspects of cinema, a sharp awareness of the inevitable difficulties and dead ends of the adaptive process, and the healthy reminder that adaptations do not have to save the original but give it a new life –on screen and elsewhere. On the other hand, their work on the archive of a famous, although today not always much appreciated director, Claude Autant-Lara, a typical representative of the “French Quality” school of the 1940s and 50s, allows them to correct a certain number of historical errors and misunderstandings as well as to propose a different methodological and theoretical framework for the study of filmic adaptations. As an example of the former, I am thinking of their new reading of François Truffaut’s debunking of Autant-Lara and “French Quality” in his 1954 article “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”. Their historical reconstruction clearly demonstrates how critically and ethically unfair Truffaut’s attack actually was, and how urgent it is to abandon the caricature of “French Quality” that the young Turks of the New Wave have managed to establish as an eternal truth. As an example of the latter, it is key to emphasize the work that this book is doing on the redefinition of the very process of adaptation. Instead of being a single process of changing words into images, adaptation is a multilayered and temporally very complex procedure that involves a great number of intermediary agents such as, for instance, the person that transforms the book into a filmable idea, the person that further transforms this idea into a shooting script, the person that writes and edits the dialogues –not to mention the many feedback and interaction processes between them that determine the making of a movie.

All the essays in this book, written by some of the best film scholars in French today, share these same convictions. Hence the exemplary cohesion of the book, whose use-value is increased by the exceptional stylistic and conceptual fluency of all the articles and the elegant layout. Currently the best that is being said and written on cinema in French, this book should be translated in English with no further delay.