Upcoming Conference: Adapting the Canon

Adapting the Canon is a Legenda Conference organised with the IMLR, MHRA, and Maney Publishing. Interested parties are invited to attend on 10 October 2014, 09:00 – 19:00 (Court Room, Senate House, University of London).

Keynote speakers include: Professor Dudley Andrew (Yale); Dr Kamilla Elliott (Lancaster); Professor Clive Scott (East Anglia).

The emergence of ‘adaptation’ as a distinct and dynamic field of research in recent years is amply evidenced by the rapidly increasing number of monographs appearing in this area, together with the establishment of several dedicated journals and websites, especially since 2006. At the interface between a range of disciplines (Modern Languages, English studies, Comparative Literature, Film and Media studies and Digital Humanities, Performance and Reception History, History of the Book, and others), the study of adaptation foregrounds a range of key methodological questions, regarding the status of the ‘text’, the ‘author’ and the ‘consumer’ of literary and cultural artefacts.

In the move away from ‘fidelity studies’, broadly conceived, new approaches to adaptation have emphasized its creative and subversive potential. This conference aims to bring together a range of perspectives on adaptation – representing the most recent work in the field in different national and critical contexts (including French-, Hispanic-, Italian-, Germanic-, Slavonic- and English-speaking cultures), and covering a range of periods (from the medieval and early-modern to the twenty-first century.

Advance registration required by 29 September 2014. Fees for the event: £35 (standard rate), £20 (reduced rate), £20 (student rate).

Programme and registration form linked here.


Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London School of Advanced Study Room ST 279, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU


Thomas Erskine Graduate Student Award for Excellence in Adaptation Studies

Visit our friends at Literature Film Quarterly!

Apologies for cross-posting:

The co-editors of Literature/Film Quarterly, Elsie Walker and David Johnson, will present this award to a graduate student who submits an outstanding essay about adaptation studies. The winning essay will be the lead piece of the journal issue immediately following the bestowal of the award. The winning graduate student will have three years of free subscription to Literature/Film Quarterly as well as five copies of the journal featuring their essay. (Any other outstanding essays may be considered for future issues of the journal.) The recipient of the award will be announced on the LFQ Web site as well as being honored in the introductory editorial of that issue which features their work.

Literature/Film Quarterly, now in its 41st year of production at Salisbury University, is a leading international journal in adaptation studies with subscriptions in over 30 countries. This award is created in memory of one of its founding editors, Thomas Erskine. The award also honors the journal’s long-standing tradition of publishing exceptional graduate scholarship, a tradition begun by Erskine and his co-founder James Welsh.

The deadline for those who wish to submit entries for the second annual Erskine Award is December 31, 2013. The word count should be about 5,000 words.

The requirements for content are deliberately expansive. In keeping with the standard journal call for papers, the term “adaptation” may be interpreted from various cinematic, literary, historical, multi-media and intertextual perspectives.

Entries for the essay competition should be primarily focused on one of the following:

  • why, how and to what effect particular texts are adapted, made new or remade through cinema
  • the wide-ranging cross-connections between literature and film
  • the reciprocal influences of film and literature
  • locating specific texts and film adaptations of them within their own cultural moment/s
  • the intersection, inter-illumination and/or collision of different media (especially cinema as it relates to and uses various textual forms)
  • different cinematic adaptations of a single literary work
  • a director’s style of adaptation
  • the “cinematic” qualities of an author’s work/s
  • an author’s attitude toward film and/or film adaptations
  • teaching film and/or film adaptation

All submissions should be e-mailed to litfilmquart [at] salisbury [dot] edu by 5 p.m. on December 31, 2013.

Past Winners Include:


Kyle Miekle, “Rematerializing Adaptation Theory”

Nemanja Protic, “Where is the Bawdy? Falstaffian Politics in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.”

For more information, please feel free to contact Literature Film Quarterly with any questions or concerns.

University of West London

PhD Adaptation Studies Scholarship: University of West London

The University [of West London] wishes to appoint a Graduate Scholar in the field of Adaptation Studies who will register as a full-time MPhil/PhD student and teach up to six hours per week (seminars, tutorials, marking and assisting in monitoring the academic progress of students).

The Scholarship will offer:

  •  MPhil/PhD fee waiver at the home/EU rate (scholarship only open to UK/EU students)
  • Tax-free stipend of £7000 per annum;
  • Support, subject to satisfactory performance and academic progress, for three years;
  • Principal supervision by Professor Jeremy Strong, co-chair of the Association of Adaptation Studies (AAS) :
  • Student membership of AAS for three years.

Please email: and with:

  •  a CV that includes the names of two academic referees.
  • a personal statement (1 side of A4) outlining your suitability for the role.
  • an initial proposal (1 side of A4) for your intended topic.

Applicants will be expected to hold an excellent undergraduate degree in a relevant Humanities discipline. An MA is desirable but not essential.

Closing date for applications: Thursday 12th December 2014.

Image by Felix Ling,

Full-time Lectureship in Literary Adaptation

De Montfort University is hiring a full-time, permanent lecturer in the area of literary adaptation. The job posting is available here, and is listed along with a more general 20th- and 21st-century writing. The details are as follows:

School of Humanities

Lecturer in English Literature (Two Posts)
Permanent, full time
Grade F: £31,331–£34,223 per annum

Applications are invited for two full-time, permanent Lectureships in English Literature, based within the School of Humanities.

Post 7951: You should have the ability to teach and undertake research in the area of Literary Adaptation;

Post 7952: A similar ability is required in relation to Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Writing.

For both posts an ability to teach one or more of the following would be welcome: modernism, postcolonialism, women’s writing, drama, modules in English Language.

You should have completed a PhD, have teaching experience within a university environment and have recent relevant research publications.

Please quote reference: 7951 and/or 7952

Closing Date: 30 October 2013

The Great Gatsby promotional still

Review: The Great Gatsby

By Dennis and Kate Cutchins

We’ll preface this review by noting that we have never been Baz Luhrmann fans, much less Leonardo DiCaprio fans, but these two men have finally found a film for which their unique talents and styles are almost perfectly suited. This is the only film we’ve seen recently that we wanted to immediately watch again after it was over.

We’ll start by suggesting that Luhrmann’s style has turned us off in the past. His glitz, loud pop music, exaggerated colors, ridiculous costumes, and generally over-the-top approach lend themselves to spectacle, but not so much to character development or narrative nuance. But things were different for us this time around. It turns out that Luhrmann’s skill set is ideal for Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the 1920s as a kind of frenetic party filled with movie stars, gangsters, loud music, risqué dancing, and excessive amounts of alcohol has never been put on the screen in a convincing sort of way before this film. If Luhrmann specializes in spectacle then he’s a good match for the character of Gatsby, whose whole life is a spectacle and a façade. Gatsby’s over-the-top parties, castle of a house, obsessive love, collection of multi-colored shirts, and infinite hope in the “orgastic future” parallels Luhrmann’s vision of the world. Who better to paint Gatsby’s colorful façade than the cinematic king of colorful façades?

But The Great Gatsby isn’t all spectacle. As Dennis has noted elsewhere, The Great Gatsby, novel or film, hinges on one utterly indispensible point: the reader or audience member has to be, at least at first, attracted to Daisy. We must see her as Nick and Gatsby see her. She must be beautiful, and vulnerable, and desirable, and completely sympathetic. Fitzgerald accomplished this in the novel in two main ways, one of which is to make Tom, her husband, one of literature’s worst spouses ever. Fitzgerald distracts us from any of Daisy’s flaws by highlighting Tom’s. Within a few pages of Tom Buchanan’s appearance in the novel we learn that he is a conceited, privileged ex-jock in the midst of an ill-concealed extra-marital affair. Worse yet, he’s a racist who blathers throughout lunch about the rise of the “coloured empires.” It’s difficult not to feel some compassion for the long-suffering and delicately beautiful Daisy, a woman who tends to whisper because it makes men lean closer to her.

Fitzgerald also makes sure that readers only “see” Daisy through the eyes of Nick, and later Gatsby, both men who are infatuated by her. That technique works for Fitzgerald, but filmmakers use cameras. And the trouble with putting Daisy on film is that she is just as privileged and conceited as Tom, and she may be even more self-centered. It’s difficult to hide that on film. If readers were allowed to ignore Nick’s infatuation and Gatsby’s love, and see past Daisy’s beauty and vulnerability to her core of shallow selfishness at the beginning of the novel most of us would quit reading immediately. Why would we want to read a book about Gatsby, a man stupid enough to fall in love with an airhead like Daisy?

That’s pretty much exactly what happened to the 1974 adaptation of Gatsby starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. Farrow is the perfect Daisy, but as soon as she utters her first line in the film, “Nick, is that you? I’m p-p-paralyzed with happiness,” viewers see her for what she really is—a selfish, spoiled brat of a woman. But Luhrmann and Carey Mulligan work together to create a perfect façade for Daisy. One thing that helped is that we were introduced to Tom first. He takes Nick through his ridiculous hall of trophies and blabbers meaninglessly (with great authority), and it’s made painfully obvious what an obnoxious and horrid person he is. The audience was left with the sour taste of Tom in our mouths, so by the time Nick first enters the drawing room and the curtains are blowing magically while sunlight sparkles in through the open windows, and Daisy gazes up at him over the edge of the couch and smiles, we’re immediately taken with her. She’s beautiful, fragile, and charming; you can’t tell what a flimsy, changeable person she really is. With that obstacle cleared, slowly revealing her character to the audience becomes much more interesting. We don’t find out until the end of the film what a horrid wretch she really is, and even then, we were still almost charmed with her. She’s as lovely and innocent as a flower—it’s Daisy’s magic, and Luhrmann and Mulligan truly created it on the screen.

1974 film director Jack Clayton, on the other hand, can’t hide the real Daisy from us for a second. Thus the foundation for the whole story, Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy, crumbles almost immediately, and viewers are left only with a feeble 1920s spectacle that looks as if it had been shot using a television camera with a broken white balance.

The 1974 hero, Robert Redford, with his all-American good looks, should have been the perfect Gatsby. But his performance is weak tea. He has the handsomeness of a leading man, but lacks the guts of a Gatsby. And let’s remember that Gatsby is not a simple character. He’s a poor boy who’s in love with a rich girl. In his efforts to win her he becomes a bona fide war hero, a protégé to a millionaire, an erstwhile gentleman, a bootlegger, and an extremely rich man. Redford definitely looks like a matinee idol, but we could never believe that he would charge a machine gun nest, rescue a foundering yacht, or run a criminal empire.

The 1949 Gatsby, Alan Ladd, on the other hand, does manage to pull-off Gatsby. The 1949 adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel is solid, if not great, and Ladd, with his blond hair and winning smile, had just the right combination of boyish exuberance and gangster edge. Ladd’s film noir credits had already established for him a screen reputation as a diminutive tough-guy perfect for the role of Gatsby.

But we did not know how successful Gatsby could be on screen until we saw Leonardo DiCaprio play the part.

Leo is charmingly nervous before his first meeting with Daisy at Nick’s bungalow, but is edgy and a little scary in other scenes. He epitomizes, in short, the incongruous mixture of criminal cynicism and young lover’s hope that is Gatsby. And of course Nick is seduced by Gatsby (in a manly sort of way). Who wouldn’t be flattered by the focused attention of a successful, rich, and charming guy like Gatsby?

At the beginning, we were not sold on Tobey Maguire as Nick. Fitzgerald’s version of Nick is a perfectly relatable and understandable character that everyone connects with on one level or another. We were worried that Maguire’s Nick would be a little bit soggy–a pushover, a weakling. However, as the film progressed, we came to like him more and more. He played Nick as simple and unassuming, eager to help but battling his own conscience at the same time. Should he side with Gatsby and assist him in leading a married woman (especially his own cousin) to have an affair? Nick’s loyalty toward Gatsby was heartbreaking and touching, and the way Maguire interacted with DiCaprio leading up to the end of the film made it truly believable. To Nick, Gatsby was a symbol of hope. Nick’s world is so bland and realistic, whereas Gatsby lives on a bubble of hopes and dreams. More than once, he remarks that Gatsby was the most hopeful person he had ever met. That bubble eventually pops, of course, and leaves Nick stranded in the stratosphere. We really enjoyed the way Maguire brought Nick’s belief in Gatsby to life.

The upshot of all of this is, go buy the movie. Enjoy it. Use it in class. Make your students figure out why the 1974 film fails, and why this one succeeds. They’ll learn to appreciate good film making, and they may even learn something about good literature.

The Great Gatsby promotional still

stack of papers

Call for Papers: Ekphrasis Volume 10, Issue 2

EKPHRASIS. Images, Cinema, Theatre, Media
Vol. 10, Issue 2/2013

Recycling Images: Adaptation, Manipulation, Quotation in the Digital Age

Having long played an essential role in the development of art, media and culture, recycling has emerged also as a field of theoretical explorations. The idea of recycling is understood here in a wider sense, as a production means and critical thinking tool, as an instrument for approaching and reclaiming—equally with deference and irreverence—the established cultural models.

Adaptation, remix, manipulation, remediation, quotation, serialism, appropriationism, simulations, mash-up, cut-and-paste, or simply copy-paste are different manifestations of the same idea of recycling and are all part of what was called the “Re- culture.” Such diversity proves that recycling—as a concept and as a means—is not linked to a specific artistic trend, media, technique or time period.

The main consequence of the practice of freely borrowing and recirculating sources is the undermining of established values such as originality, uniqueness, authorship and copyright. So, instead of narcissism and hermetic construct, recycling relies on networking and borrowing, on adaptation, free reference and intertextual commentary. In this process, both the sources recycled and the resulting products are seen not as terminals, but as networked nodes, as open narratives ready to be incorporated and reinterpreted in a new, recyclable discourse.

Ekphrasis is seeking papers that address the theme of recycling in the larger context of the digital age. How notions such as adaptation, manipulation, quotation are mobilized by artists and scholars nowadays? Does the act of recycling images have been altered as a result of the recent developments of new media technologies? What role the new recycling methods play in cinema, visual arts, literature and mass media? What are the goals, expectations, means and limitations of recycling images in the digital age? Is recycling a possible catalyst for the emergence of new technologies and mediums? How recycling images acted upon the development of new audiences?

Topics may include, but are not restricted to:

  • Adaptation and quotation in film, art, literature and mass media
  • Medium revisited and residual media
  • Remediation and accessibility
  • Valuable, available, tactical cultural models
  • Recycling as a locus of cultural exchange
  • Mix, remix, mashup
  • The use of found footage and their artistic impact
  • Ownership, accountability, copyright
  • Empathy, epigonism, fake
  • Cross-disciplinary/inter-disciplinary recycling process
  • Originality, postmodern relativism and new forms of recycling
  • Transfer between high and low cultures
  • Appropriation and (media) manipulation
  • Strategies, patterns and platforms of recycling
  • Global, local and cross cultural fertilizations
  • Nostalgia and the memory of images
  • Recycling and cultural institutions: cinema, museum, archive
  • Retro chic
  • Piracy, activism, hacktivism
  • Oldies but goldies

Guest editors: Horea Avram and Claudiu Turcuş

Deadline for abstracts of up to 300 words: September 30th 2013.

Final submission is due November 20th 2013.

The articles should be written in English or French (for English, please use the MLA citation style and documenting sources).

For the final essay, the word limit is 5000-8000 words of text (including references).

Please include a summary and keywords

The articles should be original material not published in any other media before.

Graduate students are particularly encouraged to submit papers.

Please send all correspondence to

Ekphrasis is a peer-reviewed academic journal, edited by the Faculty of Theatre and Television, “Babes-Bolyai” University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

For more information and submission guidelines, please visit:

stack of papers

Call for Papers: Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPACA)

Adaptation: Literature, Film, and Culture

Southwest Popular / American Culture Association (SWPACA) 35th Annual Conference, February 19–22, 2014

“Popular and American Culture Studies: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”

Hyatt Regency Hotel & Conference Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Proposal submission deadline: November 1, 2013

Proposals are now being accepted until November 1, 2013 for the Adaptation: Literature, Film, and Culture Area at the 2014 Southwest PCA/ACA Conference. We invite you to submit argumentative presentations ranging from critical essays to analyses selected from classic to contemporary film adaptations, and employing recognized research methodologies. Paper presentations should be 15 minutes long.

For individual presentations, submit a proposal with the following items:

  • maximum 250-word abstract, including paper/presentation title;
  • current curriculum vitae;
  • working bibliography for your paper; and
  • contact information (name and email).

All presenters must enter their own information and proposals into the conference database (including panel proposal members).

Proposals for panels of 3–4 presenters are also welcome. To propose a panel, submit the following:

  • panel title;
  • name and email address for the panel chair;
  • titles and abstracts of each paper; and
  • name and email address for each presenter.
  • above information is in addition to the individual presentation submissions.

Submit all proposals to

Please see for a list of graduate student awards and requirements.

Chuck Hamilton
Film Adaptation Area Chair

Of Popular Cultures, Shakespeare, Henry James, & Adaptation: Impressions of Recent Conferences

By Laurence Raw

Recently I came across one of those articles that tried to look at adaptation studies past, present and future. The article argued, for instance, that the discipline lacked theoretical rigor when compared with related disciplines—for example, transmedial studies.

On the evidence gathered from my attending several seminars this spring, there is a certain truth in this accusation: many presenters seem reluctant to problematize the terms associated with adaptation—for example “fidelity,” “reliability,” “textuality”—or speculate on the ways in which the act of adaptation is not just associated with film, television, and media studies, but also an essential process of our existence. “Adaptation studies,” isn’t just a new, interdisciplinary version of literature-to-film, but actually involves reflection on how all of us make sense of the world around us.

At the Popular Culture Association conference in Washington DC, for instance, I listened to one presentation on The King’s Speech that argued for the film’s “relevance” to contemporary society on account of its subject matter. It was designed to make a comment on the British Royal Family and its changed role, especially since the death of Princess Diana in 1997. This is a fair point, but it assumes a homogeneity of response. Would viewers in non-Western countries respond to the film as an allegory of the Royal Family, or would they respond differently? To compare reactions might prove an interesting exercise, telling us a lot about how no-Western material is consumed in various territories.

I listened to another presentation on the work of Kenneth Branagh, and while I learned a lot about his love of Shakespeare, I heard little about his fondness for collaboration. Many of his most successful films—for example, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost—were prepared with the assistance of many different people, including Russell Jackson of Stratford’s Shakespeare Institute. Hence the familiar film studies–originated notion of director-as-auteur simply doesn’t hold water. The psychologist Jerome Bruner insists that adaptation is a collaborative act; it is only through group interaction that individuals negotiate between the poles of autonomy and community and hence determine their future course of action. This is as true in the cinematic world as it is in other contexts—for example, the academy or the family.

Maybe the problem has a lot to do with the way in which this particular seminar was constructed: as a series of panels, in which learners (mostly Ph.D. students) and early-career academics came in, delivered their papers, and left. Maybe more attempts need to be made towards creating workshop formats in which formal papers are accompanied with discussion of more important issues, such as the following: “Why adaptation studies?”; “How can/does adaptation studies fit into humanities curricula?”; or “What kind of theoretical models can adaptation studies develop that depart from the rather schematic forms of comparison that continue to dominate the field?” Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the entire conference I attended was a roundtable discussion chaired by Dennis Cutchins in which these issues were discussed at length. I think that if this kind of event could be extended—perhaps with an agenda circulated in advance, together with some position papers and/or other interventions distributed to the participants—it would prove extremely fruitful, both intellectually and personally, as well as stimulating new areas of research in the discipline.

This issue wasn’t just confined to the Washington conference. I attended another event for undergraduate and graduate learners entitled “Madness.” An interesting topic, no doubt; but the term is so culturally constructed that it invites us to contemplate on how cultures (re)construct the differences between “madness” and “sanity.” Such distinctions also play a fundamental part in the ways in which we adapt ourselves to the world around us. I listened to some fascinating pieces: one offered a full-frontal attack on “Body Worlds,” a pan-European touring exhibition in which body parts are brought to life: shades of Frankenstein, perhaps? The presenter argued with some justification that the exhibit represented a Western-style meditation on the relationship between “life,” and “death,” without understanding that such terms are often problematized in different cultures. Another presenter looked at the relationship between “madness within” and “madness without”—the ways in which individuals are perceived as mad, as opposed to the ways in which they might believe themselves to be mad. Once again, however, I was sad to find the lack of an overarching framework; in a Department of English Literature in the Republic of Turkey (where the conference took place), it would have been nice to consider how “madness” is perceived in the two countries and how individuals adapt to the condition.

Another event offered the eco-critic Scott Slovic introducing the discipline of eco-criticism to local educators and academics in the Republic of Turkey. He argued very forcefully about the importance of reinventing the discipline in different territories: in China, for instance, his experiences were very different from those in the United States. Nonetheless, he did suggest that eco-criticism should have as its main focus of attention “works of art raising moral questions about human interactions with nature.” This is a fascinating observation. By reflecting on one’s relationship to nature, one can understand how adaptation works. More than ever I understood how “adaptation studies” is something far more than just textual transformation. It is something that covers so many different areas of the academic field that the possible range of research opportunities seems limitless. Perhaps it’s time to release us from the tyranny of the literary text and pursue new, exciting areas of collaborative research.

The truth of this statement was emphasized at an event on Henry James organized by my home institution. I might be accused of bias here, but it seemed to me an ideal example of how an adaptive seminar should work: a group of 30+ academics gathered for a two-day festival of papers, workshops, and discussions on “The Master.” There were some thematic pieces centering on his novels, but other presentations looked at James from a transmedial perspective, as a subject for radio adaptations of the 1940s, which told us more about post-1945 American history than James himself. Other discussions looked at filmed James as a subject for university learners. These discussions moved away from the prison house of textual “fidelity” and concentrated more on the ways in which the films provided a “way in” to understand James’s analysis of human behavior. It is often said that literary texts should stimulate the imagination: learners need to identify with the characters in terms of their own culture-specific experiences to enjoy the novels. The James films provide a suggestive way to initiate this process. The final panel assumed direct political significance when it was suggested that James was particularly interested in “freedom”—freedom of thought, spirit, and expression. Sometimes his characters struggled to find that freedom, just like many people living in the contemporary Republic of Turkey. The association was not lost on some participants, who understood—perhaps for the first time—that James could be seen as a political writer. This moment proved the truth of how adaptation studies can and should work. Through group discussion and participation, individuals learned how to adapt themselves to James, and thereby found new culture-specific constructions of him that mattered specifically to them.

I wish I could say that this moment was planned, but it wasn’t. It just happened, like all the best moments of intellectual discovery. However, I do maintain that it only emerged through collaboration and discussion about purpose: the purpose of studying James, the purpose of adapting oneself to his novels, and the purpose of adapting oneself to the views of the group. Maybe this should be a way forward? I certainly hope so.

Grimm cover

Be Afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf: Fairy Tale Idealism in Horror Movies

By Brooke Jorden

Film shares a closer artistic relationship with oral storytelling than with written literature. The medium of film allows for not only dramatic pauses and sound effects—which are, according to Maria Tatar, the tools of all history’s storytellers—but also mood music and changeable scenes and settings (287). Horror films, specifically, correspond closely with fairy tales in terms of intentionally weak characterization, an uncertain ending, an implicit “wonder tale” morality and logic, and, of course, violence. However, the most vital link is the fundamental idealism upon which both genres are built. Both genres create worlds where morality is black and white, where the wicked suffer and only the truly virtuous ultimately achieve the proverbial happy ending. Such brutal idealism is simplistic but appealing.

Fairy tale idealism is widely accepted—and often criticized—but what is so idealistic about murderous psychopaths or possessed children? This paradox can be difficult to swallow, so let’s start with the basics. Consider that many fairy tales have—quite easily—been adapted into horror films. For example, the TV movie Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), starring Sigorney Weaver, was rated “R” for “horror violence.” Further, most “stalker” movies like The Lovely Bones (2009) and Freeway (1996) have strong, and often explicit, ties with the story of Little Red Riding Hood. A more recent adaptation even throws werewolves in the mix (Red Riding Hood, 2011). Such adaptations are only the natural side effects of the underlying structural and conceptual kinship between fairy tales and horror movies, and in order to see the idealism in both genres, we must first explore the similar structure and pattern that enables it.

The pairing of fairy tales and horror movies may seem strange in terms of the common conceptions of both genres. Typically, when viewers think of horror films, the first thing that comes to mind is violence. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (1978), The Hills Have Eyes (2006)—these are just a few of the extremely gory films we typically associate with horror. It would be impossible to deny the overwhelming presence of violence in horror films; however, violent content is not limited to the genre of horror. Strangely enough, the oldest known versions of fairy tales are often the most violent and raw. Far from the sugar-coated bedtime stories Disney tells our children, classic fairy tales are, according to Tatar, filled with “graphic descriptions of murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and incest” (364). Tatar even points out that the Grimms, though considered prim and proper, often “made a point of adding or intensifying violent episodes” in their tales (364). But the violent content in both genres is not merely superficial. Violence serves several functional purposes, and its structural functions demonstrate the deeper ties between fairy tales and horror movies.

First, violence drives the narrative of both fairy tales and horror movies. As Isabel Pinedo puts it, “Contrary to popular opinion, violence in the horror film is not a gratuitous but a constituent element. The horror narrative is propelled by violence, manifested in both the monster’s violence and the attempts to destroy the monster”—whether that monster is supernatural, alien, or human (20). The plot of Jaws (1975), for example, is driven by the actions of the man-eating great white and of the people trying to stop it. While the motif of violence as a catalyst may be obvious in horror films, we need look no further than the tale of Jack the Giant-Killer to see that many fairy tales plots are also driven by violence, though not all tales are so overt. The violence of cruel stepmothers or tyrannical fathers forces protagonists into action in many fairy tale plots.

Violence propels the narrative of both genres, serving the dual purpose of vilifying the “evil” characters and enabling the triumph of the “good” characters. For instance, in many versions of the tale of Snow White, the evil queen (also Snow White’s stepmother) orders a huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart. When this fails, she attempts to poison her step-daughter. In some versions, she makes multiple attempts until she succeeds in sending Snow White into a sleeping death. Such malicious actions reinforce her villainy and justify her violent end—from dancing in hot, iron shoes to falling to her death from a cliff. Thus, violence in fairy tales functions as an indicator of the nature of each of the characters. The same delineation can be seen in horror films. The murderers or monsters are evil because they use violence against the virtuous characters; they disrupt the social order. For example, Michael Myers in Halloween (1978) murders his own sister and then, when he escapes from the asylum years later, stalks young Laurie while she babysits, brutally killing all of her friends and attempting to kill her. Michael’s depraved, violent actions clearly demonstrate his evil nature.

But, as both fairy tales and horror movies demonstrate, violent behavior itself does not necessarily indicate that a character is evil. Often even the most virtuous characters use violence to reinstate the social order that the monster/bad guy has violated. However, the heroes’ actions are always justified by either the virtue of their character or by the inherent evil of their enemy. For example, in most versions of the Hansel and Gretel story, Gretel pushes the witch into the oven, baking her alive. Sure, that’s pretty violent, but that act doesn’t make Gretel a monster. The witch had made it very clear that she planned to eat the children, so Gretel’s actions were self-defensive, and thus justified. The protagonists in horror films often perform acts of justified violence as well. In the frightening thriller Red Eye (2005), no one blames Lisa for stabbing her new acquaintance in the neck with a pen when he threatens to kill both Lisa and her father. Again, the fact that Lisa, a normal, virtuous person was driven to violence to protect herself only serves to further vilify Jackson, the man she stabbed.

But Jackson is clearly one of the bad guys, based on his actions and intentions, and Lisa is clearly one of the good guys. That’s the easy part. Weeding out the immoral from the moral characters, even in the circle of protagonists, is perhaps the most idealistic function of violence in these genres. This gray area is what makes reality so difficult, but both fairy tales and horror movies construct an ideal order in which morality is entirely black and white. As Stephen King, popular horror novelist, suggests, “the mythic ‘fairy-tale’ horror film intends to take away the shades of grey. . . It urges us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites” (2). Violence in horror films is clearly a means of instating and reinforcing an idealistic social order.

The accepted social order that is established in both fairy tales and horror movies is even clearer when we look at the way characters are developed and portrayed in both genres. Horror movies have always been criticized for weak characterization. Some critics have attributed the lack of extensive plot and characterization in contemporary horror films to post-modernism, but fairy tales have been employing this very technique for as long as stories have been told. Fairy tales, like horror films, are known for their flat, static characters. Again, these similarities in content serve much more important functional purposes. In both genres, the weak characterization is completely intentional. Shallow stock characters always carry with them certain expectations, so they can be easily classified as either good or bad. Just as in fairy tales the youngest daughter will always be kind and the prince will always be brave and the talking animal will always be clever, you can bet that in horror films the jock will always be a chauvinistic pig and the prettiest teen will always be too promiscuous for her own good. These stock characters represent either an inherent virtue or an inherent vice. Thus, even without seeing the characters develop, audiences already have a sense of what those characters are capable of and whether they deserve to survive to earn a happily ever after ending. Notice that these characters types are classified based on their moral character and behavior.

Most horror movies, like most fairy tales, are either tales of caution or tales of example. Sometimes both. As Mikel Koven suggests in his book Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends, the “didacticism within terror tales, although rarely explicit, contains strong implied moral purposes” (131). Such stories teach readers and viewers either what to do or what not to do, morally speaking. The actions of a fairy tale character can be categorically deemed either virtuous and clever or contemptible and foolish. For example, in all versions of the tale of Toads and Diamonds, the fairy blesses the kind sister and curses the cruel one. In the wonder tale world, justice restores the ideal social order with the triumph of the virtuous and the punishment of the wicked. The same justice is dispensed among the characters in the typical horror movie. In Cabin in the Woods, this ideal moral is imposed to such a degree that the characters are systematically killed in the order of their predetermined morality. The ritual requires that “the whore” dies first, followed by the skeptic scholar, the chauvinistic jock, and the bloody fool (pardon the pun), in any order. The virgin does not need to die unless she violates the code by doing something foolish or immoral. As a meta-film, Cabin in the Woods is commenting on the black and white nature of justice in such tales, questioning the unrealistic nature of the implicit wonder tale system of morality. But that impossibility is what makes wonder tale morality so appealing.

Folklorist Daniel Barnes developed a schema for the moral structure of urban legends that applies well to both fairy tales and horror movies. In his pattern, the plot moves through four phases: interdiction, violation, consequence, and (attempted) escape. In the interdiction phase, the characters are informed (whether explicitly or implicitly) not to do something. In the violation phase, they do it anyway, so the consequences are revealed. The characters then spend the rest of the tale attempting to escape or redeem themselves from those consequences (Barnes 1996 quoted in Koven). Little Red Riding Hood knows (implicitly or explicitly, depending on the version) that she should not wander from the path, that she should be careful in the woods, and that she should not talk to strangers. By violating all of these rules, she endangers (and sometimes enables the murder of) her grandmother and herself. We also see this pattern of warning and violation of the rules clearly in many horror movies. But what are the rules? In this clip from the meta-film Scream (1996), Randy teaches his friends how to survive a horror movie: (play clip)

So, the rules are simple: (1) don’t sin and (2) don’t tempt fate. Those who sin—whether it is immorality or merely incivility—are punished. Those who resist and preserve their virtue, survive. Delineated by morality and enforced by violence, justice is always served in wonder tales.

But the violations in wonder tales are not limited to sexual sin and substance abuse. Wonder tale morality, though black and white, covers a far wider scope. The sins of stupidity, irresponsibility, and dishonesty are similarly punished. The sin of dishonesty is perhaps the most serious breach of social script. Dishonesty often removes the possibility of a “happily ever after” ending, even in fairy tales. Madame D’Aulnoy’s tale “The Yellow Dwarf” has a tragic ending. Because both the queen and the princess go back on their agreement with the ugly dwarf, they lose the protection of the wonder tale code. The princess’s dishonesty enables her own and her prince’s death. Similarly, in the film Insidious (2010), the Lambert family is full of dishonesty. Even though Mrs. Lambert believes she is protecting her son Josh, the fact that she keeps the truth from him his whole life puts him and his family in danger. Further, because Josh fails to confide his fears in his wife and lies to her instead, he loses his chance for a happy ending and is overcome by the insidious spirit that has haunted him since childhood.

But what is the point? If Devil and Snow White and Frankenstein and Rumpelstiltskin are just old wives’ tales that reinforce the same things our mothers have always taught us, why bother looking any deeper than their entertainment or didactic value? Why apply critical literary methods to an exploration of either horror movies or fairy tales when both are self-professedly nothing more than fictional stories? As the authors of social scripts and the instigators of social order, fairy tales have earned their place in the ranks of literary study. Horror movies update and reinforce these patterns by assimilating the structure of fairy tales. This structural verisimilitude seems to suggest that horror films, too, have literary merit.

The fundamental structure and pattern of both fairy tales and horror movies are based on an inherent idealism. This idealism is not the chase for the proverbial “happily ever after,” but rather an underlying, often brutal justice, a restoration of order in which every character gets his or her due reward. Both fairy tales and horror films provide a kind of “psychic relief on this level because this invitation to lapse into simplicity . . . is extended so rarely” (King 2).

So do we enjoy horror movies because, as Stephen King put it, we need to feed the metaphorical alligators swimming in the dark recesses of our brains? Are we like the crowds that gathered around the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, hungry for blood? I don’t think so. The unchanging nature of the structure of stories tells us something quite different. We don’t hunger for the depravity of horror movies, but rather the sheer, brutal, unadulterated idealism present in a genre where everyone “gets what’s coming to them”—for better or worse. Really, the idealism in wonder tales is not the code itself, but the alluring idea of a world that, unlike ours, abides by a code at all. We want to believe that there is a world where everything is more than fair, where our virtues can not only save us but save others, too. That idealism is the reason that fairy tales have always been told, and it is the reason that horror movies have answered the call to provide the kind of story that readers and viewers really want.

Works Cited

Aarne, Antti and Stith Thompson. “The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1999. Print.

Carrol, Noel. The Nature of Horror. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46.1 (1987): 51-59. Web. 5 Nov 2012.

Darnton, Robert. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1999. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “Snow White and Her Evil Stepmother.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1999. Print.

Haase, Donald. “Yours, Mine, or Ours? Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and the Ownership of Fairy Tales.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1999. Print.

King, Steven. “Why We Crave Horror.” Playboy (January 1982). Web. 1 Nov 2012.

Koven, Mikel J. Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends. Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2008. Print.

Opie, Iona and Peter. The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.

Pinedo, Isabel. “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video 48.1 (1996): 17-31. Web. 9 Nov 2012.

Schacker, Jennifer. National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in Nineteenth Century England. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Print.

Simonsen, Michele. “Do Fairy Tales Make Sense?” Journal of Folklore Research 22.1 (1985): 29-36. Web. 9 Nov 2012.

Tatar, Maria. “Sex and Violence: The Hard Core of Fairy Tales.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1999. Print.

Warner, Marina. “The Old Wives’ Tale.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1999. Print.

Zipes, Jack. “Breaking the Disney Spell.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1999. Print.

stack of papers

Call for Papers: Journal of Popular Romance Studies

Special Issue: Romancing the Long British 19th Century

The long British nineteenth century (1789-1914) appears to have the long global twentieth century (including the first decades of the twenty-first) in its thrall. Regency and Victorian settings proliferate in popular romance fiction, ranging from scenes of domestic life within the United Kingdom to British espionage in Europe and British colonial settlements. Retellings and “sequels” of Jane Austen’s novels line our (digital) bookshelves and fill fan-fiction websites, spilling over most recently into the YouTube sensation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Such adaptations of Austen’s novels, along with film and TV versions of the Brontë sisters’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, suggest that modern audiences cannot get enough of stories about Georgians, Victorians, and Edwardians in love.

The Journal of Popular Romance Studies seeks papers on this enduring love affair with 19th-century Britain. Why does a period that is historically associated with the establishment of the Industrial Revolution, the consolidation of the Empire, and the coalescing of middle-class mores now strike us as a particularly “romantic” era? How do popular and middlebrow media from around the world construct, interpret, and recast the world of 19th-century Britain, broadly construed? What do these interpretations say about our current moment and our modern (or postmodern) thoughts and feelings about romance?

We welcome submissions that explore these and related questions from any disciplinary or theoretical angle. We invite papers that cover different media, including (paper and digital) literature, film, TV, online content, and marketing.

This Special Issue of The Journal of Popular Romance Studies is guest edited by Jayashree Kamble and Pamela Regis. Please submit scholarly papers of no more than 10,000 words, including notes and bibliography, by March 1 2014, to An Goris, Managing Editor, at  Submissions should be Microsoft Word documents, with citations in MLA format. For more information on how to submit a paper, please visit