Article: Here Lies a Fallacy
June 18, 2012 in Critcism
by Glenn Jellenik, Ph.D.
Thomas Leitch’s 2003 essay “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory” is a seminal source for those whose research and teaching critically engages with the emerging concepts of Adaptation Studies. Its central concern—enumerating, analyzing and combating long-held and largely un-productive critical assumptions—has become the overall shape of much of the field. It’s the Swiss army knife of Adaptation Studies, and I regularly use both the essay (and its ethos) in my research and classroom. But here’s the thing: there are way more than just 12 fallacies bouncing around the critical and cultural conversation on adaptation!
One of the most useful parts of Leitch’s essay is his offering of specific counter-examples of the critical fallacies he challenges. For example, Leitch’s 2nd Fallacy, “Differences between literary and cinematic texts are rooted in essential properties of their respective media (150), filters the essentialist fallacy through Kracauer’s Theory of Film assumption: “[E]ach medium has a specific nature which invites certain kinds of communications while obstructing others” (1). This argument reaches its apotheosis with Chatman’s “What Novels Can Do That films Can’t (and Vice Versa),” which has proven an annoyingly durable essay for those of us who would get beyond generic essentialism. Leitch exposes the fallacy that underwrites Kracauer and Chatman by offering a specific example. In response to Chatman’s assertion that voiceover is an un-cinematic carryover from literature (an idea brilliantly exploited for a laugh in Adaptation. (Jonze/Kaufman 2004)), Leitch offers Sunset Boulevard: “Would anybody writing today argue that the highly assertive and descriptive voiceover commentary by the murdered Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, a film not adapted from a literary source, was inessential to the film’s effect because, as McFarlane notes, voiceover narration by its nature ‘cannot be more than intermittent as distinct from the continuing nature of the novelistic first-person narration’—or, in Chatman’s terms, that it was uncinematic because it was literary?” (151). Leitch not only brings a theoretical fallacy to light—his essay offers a practical example with which to disprove the fallacy: Yes, some uses of voiceover feel “un-cinematic,” but not all. There is no nature to mediums, only sets of reading strategies. Thus, essentialism, at least in a general sense, is a fallacy.
Having a ready repository of these specific and productive counter-examples is absolutely vital to combating those annoying the-book-was-better/deeper/smarter clichés that litter the landscape and make navigating the field difficult. As with most clichés, there’s an element of seemingly empirical truth on the surface of many of these fallacies. This is what makes them difficult to combat; they work on an experiential level, but not on a critical level. As Leitch shows, simply because many film adaptations use voiceover ineffectively, we cannot extrapolate that film, as a genre, has an essential incapacity to use voiceover effectively, or that voiceover is somehow un-cinematic. Again, I would argue that fallacies like these are still a huge part of the adaptation-discourse, both in academia and popular culture.
So I propose this space as a repository of fallacies and counter-examples that hinder the discourse on adaptation—a place where we can consider ideas that don’t sit right, and come up with specific moments that expose those ideas as fallacies. My hope is that rehearsing dis-proofs of these fallacies will allow us to negotiate them more efficiently going forward, in our research and in our classrooms. You know, drive forward the work begun almost 10 years ago by Leitch’s “Twelve Fallacies.”
In order to broaden commercial appeal and widen potential audience, film adaptations always gut and whitewash their sources’ thematic engagements with troubling issues.
The logic of this fallacy depends on complimentary concepts: 1) film, as a visual medium, has a harder time fleshing out shocking and disturbing concepts (read Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye (1928) or Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1794) and then try to imagine filming them), and 2) this unwillingness to fully engage with troubling issues stems not only from film’s visual nature but also from an industrial need to maximize the film’s audience and profitability.
This fallacy is particularly prevalent in the discourse on adaptations of children’s and young adult literature, and we’ve just seen a perfect example of this attitude in the discourse on the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. To flesh out the dynamics of this fallacy, I’ll begin with some of the discourse on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). That film adapts the first three books of Daniel Handler’s 13 book series. Handler’s books are notable, in part, for an obsessive, sophisticated and witty intertextuality, as well as their borderline sadistic darkness. That sadism revolves around Handler’s plot-engine: a series of perils-of-Pauline like trials that befall his main characters, the Baudelaire children. In her NY Times review of that film, Manohla Dargis cleverly compares the process of adapting a novel into a Hollywood feature with the tortures suffered by the Baudelaire children: “To date, the cause of their misfortunes has been their onetime guardian, Count Olaf, who hopes to steal their fortune. But now the characters have embarked on one of the most dangerous adventures known in literature: their story has been turned into a major Hollywood movie” (NY Times 12/17/04). Dargis maintains the meta-critical conflation of characters and text: “[The Baudelaires are] not yet aware of the threats posed by greedy relations and very big movie stars.” Critics who work in adaptation studies will recognize Dargis’s complaint, a common one that equates the adaptation process with torture and mutilation of the source. Specifically, the critic complains of adaptation’s inability to reproduce a books’ deeper and more textured thematic engagements: “A Series of Unfortunate Events suffers from one of the most grievous maladies that can strike a children’s film, notably a regrettable tendency to fill in all the quiet with noise.” Linda Hutcheon uses the same film to push on the same point:
Adults, of course, often ‘censor’ adaptations … or else they change the stories in the process of adapting them to make them more appropriate for a different audience. For instance, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) is a film adaptation of part of three books by Daniel Handler about the Baudelaire orphans. Although the books are aimed at preteens and adolescents, the film wanted and knew it would attract a larger audience and so made the very dark tales considerably brighter. (118)
To be fair, both Hutcheon and Dargis are pointing out a tendency that we’ve all felt in one adaptation or another. But when we continually point out one tendency without offering examples of the possibility of a counter-tendency, we’ve sown the seeds of fallacy.
Indeed, much of the discourse on the recent film adaptation of The Hunger Games has revolved around the issue of the de-clawing of the source. Suzanne Collins’s novel tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year-old girl who lives in a future dystopian version of America called Panem. In that cold bleak world defined by lack, Katniss volunteers to take her lottery-chosen 12 year-old sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a barbaric annual competition in which 24 children (12-18 year-olds) from the country’s impoverished and exploited districts are forced to fight to the death in a reality-show production. The Games serve as entertainment for the nation’s few Haves and dehumanizing punishment for the Have-nots. In his negative New Yorker review, David Denby zooms right in on the adaptation’s thematic engagements:
Making an exciting movie out of The Hunger Games should not have been that hard …. [However] Ross consistently drains away all the tensions built into the grisly story—the growing wariness and suspicion that each teen-ager must feel as the number of those still alive begins to diminish, or the horror (or glee) that some of them experience as they commit murder. The Hunger Games is a prime example of commercial hypocrisy. The filmmakers bait kids with a cruel idea, but they can’t risk being too intense or too graphic (the books are more explicit). After a while, we get the point: because children are the principal audience, the picture needs a PG-13 rating.
Denby’s conclusion echos Stephen King’s humorous musing in his 2008 review of Collins’s novel: “Let’s see the makers of the movie version try to get a PG-13 on this baby” (Entertainment Weekly 9/8/08). Both reviewers engage with the idea that, due to financial concerns, film adaptations must sanitize (and thus destroy) their source’s troubling thematic engagements. Or, as David Thomson puts it in his grumpy scathing review of the adaptation, entitled “Why I Hate The Hunger Games,”
the plot motif, of teenagers in a contest where they must kill one another, might threaten sentimental ideas of what children are or ought to be. But the only way this movie takes on that issue is to disguise it, in case it interferes with the commercial inevitability that came to fruition on that first Friday (known at Lionsgate, the film’s distributor, as Good Friday) …. Whether the filmmakers like it or not, [The Hunger Games] is a story about kids killing other kids with knives, bows and arrows, and anything else they can get their hands on. If you don’t like that violence, and if you fear it will jeopardize the box office, then don’t do the story.
Again, we see the concept that adaptations are serially cleansed and disinfected by commercial concerns.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that these criticisms of The Hunger Games are unfounded. My objection is not with attributing such comments to Ross’s treatment of the defining action in the arena in The Hunger Games. Rather, I’m taking issue with the way we stretch such examples out into general rules about adaptation. Here lies the fallacy: Because some (or even most) adaptations choose to sponge away their sources’ most disturbing moments, that is all that adaptations are capable of doing. Logically, any critic knows this can’t be the case. Of course, that’s the thing about fallacies, right? They’re not logical. Or at least they’re not theoretically sound. But they are widely held. And so they must be combated. To do that, we have to be ready with counter-examples.
A close look at a moment in the film and novel versions of The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008/2003-4) gives the lie to that fallacy. To the point, The Spiderwick Chronicles represents a good counter-example to the above-fallacy, because it deals with virtually the same dynamic as Lemony Snicket and The Hunger Games—a popular series of children’s/young adult books adapted into a feature film.
To begin, it’s worth mentioning another fallacy, one that underwrites the theme-sponging fallacy. Adaptation critics regularly (and rightly) point out the capitalist side of the film industry. But we often conveniently omit the capitalist side of the publishing industry. That is, we tend to labor under a romantic notion that the publishers of novels are driven only by artistic, and not materialistic, concerns. But novels are capitalist ventures in much the same way that films are. That said, The Spiderwick Chronicles—novels or film—does not, for the most part, push on any of the darkness-envelopes of The Hunger Games or Lemony Snicket. Both texts are largely anodyne children’s fare. They tell the story of 9 year-old Jared Grace, his twin brother Simon and his older sister Mallory. When their parents split up, the Grace children and their mother move into Spiderwick Estate, a creepy mansion owned by their mother’s great aunt. There, they discover and access a fantastical faerie realm where an evil ogre named Mulgarath is bent on domination. As the action unfolds, the Grace kids, and particularly Jared, become all that stands between Mulgarath’s control of not just the faerie realm but the entire world.
Again, this is standard fare for children’s novels and movies. The story is first and foremost an adventure that engages copiously with pre-adolescent fantasies of exciting and amazing unseen worlds that exist beneath the surface of our boring everyday existence. As for the more troubling aspects of that everyday existence—specifically, the trauma and fallout of a failed marriage—both novel and movie merely hint around the edges. The audience is told that Jared is a problem child … that he is angry at his parents’ split … that he misses his absent father … that he primarily blames his mother. The dots for a psychoanalytical reading of the situations are there, but they are never more than remotely connected to the action.
Except for one extraordinary moment in the movie.
At the denouement of the narrative, just when it seems that Jared and his siblings have defeated Mulgarath and restored order, the absent father, Richard Grace, is thrust into the story. The insertion of the absent father serves as a reader-signal of sorts: oh, by the way, thematically, this was a story of the disorder brought on by a dad-vacuum; the action’s over, and you’re free to think about it that way now. However, this is a false ending. That is made perfectly clear in the novel. The chapter that contains Richard Grace’s appearance and the restoration of order is entitled “In Which All Hell Breaks Loose” (95), and immediately upon seeing his father, Jared, the reader’s avatar, does not share his siblings’ relief: “Jared furrowed his brow. Something about this didn’t feel right” (95). Jared’s reluctance to accept at face value the appearance of his father continues to build as the reader is given a glimpse of the Graces’ family-dysfunction. Richard declares his intention to re-unite the family. Everyone but Jared is eager to accept. A frustrated Richard asks, “Don’t you want us to be a family again?” (101), to which Jared answers, “Of course I do! … I want Dad to be less of a jerk, and for Mom not to be sad. I want my dad to stop talking about himself and his movies and his life all the time and remember that I’m the loser who almost got kicked out of school and Simon is the one who likes animals and Mallory is the fencer. But that’s not going to happen and you’re not him” (101-2). And at that moment, Richard Grace transforms into Mulgarath. Again, the novel primes the reader for this revelation; it comes as little surprise and is delivered with minimal shock-value. As a result, the theme of family-trauma brought on by a failed marriage and an absent father is also minimized.
However, the film adaptation’s treatment of the theme of the trauma associated with an absent father is markedly heightened, as evidenced by a look at its realization of that same moment. To begin, the movie eliminates any signal that the family restoration is a false ending. Further, it uses horror elements to enhance, highlight and foreground the difficult theme of family trauma. It should be noted that the film was produced by Nickelodeon Movies and garnered a PG rating, so it doesn’t seem that the filmmakers were trying to push out of the age demographic captured by the popular novels. Indeed, for much of the film, the adaptation shares its source’s whimsical adventure-fantasy tone. As the movie builds to a climax, it maintains a video-gamey, cartoonish, slapstick feel. In the final battle scene, the Graces have made preparations (mainly filling plastic bags with tomato sauce) to protect Spiderwick Estate in a showdown with the goblins (who look like cute if grotesque dog-sized frogs). Even when Jared (Freddie Highmore) hands his mother (Mary Louise Parker) two horror-movie butcher knives and informs her that steel both cuts and burns the enemy, she plays the moment for laughs by goggling her eyes and saying, “Good thing we’re New Yorkers.” And the tension seems all but released when the goblin infestation/siege ends with a tomato sauce explosion in the kitchen. It is then that the film brings the missing father into the story. Richard Grace (Andrew McCarthy) bursts into the destroyed house.
At that point, the scene is set for reconciliation. But far from containing the trauma of the family drama, Richard Grace’s return allows the theme of that trauma to surface fully. Richard immediately demands an explanation for the destroyed house (as well as possession of a manuscript that occasioned the battle). Jared withholds both the explanation and the manuscript until his father admits that he has a new family and will not be re-uniting the Graces. Here, the filmmakers have brought the family drama and the fantasy adventure together at the specific point of the narrative’s falling action. The trauma and mess left behind by the missing father is allowed to share the screen with the mess left behind by the goblin battle. The viewer sees both against the backdrop of a destroyed domestic space. And the effects of Jared’s adolescent trauma are given voice as he looks at his father and says, “Look me in the eyes and tell me. I just want to hear you say it.” Jared, his family and the viewer all know his father won’t be returning. The confrontation provides an opportunity for a far more in-depth thematic closure than the corresponding moment (Jared’s speech quoted above) in the novel. But what happens next takes the adaptation into an even deeper and darker psychoanalytical engagement with the family drama. Jared’s father answers his invitation for confession with, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you,” and he reaches for the manuscript, as if to change the subject. The camera shoots from behind Richard to a reaction shot of Jared, who says, “Wrong answer!” and slashes a Psycho-knife into his father’s stomach. The stabbing thrusts Jared and Richard out of frame, and the camera catches the horrified reaction of the rest of the Grace family (mother, brother, sister) as they run towards the conflict.
It is a shocking moment, a boy stabbing his father. And it serves as an actualization of Jared’s rage at his father’s abandonment. In that moment, the audience is forced to confront, in the darkest possible way, the results of a broken family, and we take our cues from the reactions of Jared’s family. Of course, Jared has not stabbed his father; he has stabbed Mulgarath, who was merely posing as his father. This quickly becomes clear, as the camera pulls back from the family’s horrified reaction and offers a privileged perspective of “Richard” transforming into the evil ogre. At that moment, the fantasy-adventure film resumes at full speed, hurtling towards its true climax. But the confrontation between Jared and his father, and the convincing and troubling false-ending, are not effaced by the inevitable happy ending. Rather, the dark tone of that deeper thematic engagement with the troubling issue of broken families continues to resonate through the rest of the film, making it as much about absent fathers and the pain they leave behind as it is about the fantastical world that exists, unnoticed, right beneath your nose.
That the film manages to deepen that troubling thematic engagement and drive it significantly further than its novel-source troubles and contradicts the fallacy that film adaptations systematically over-sanitize their treatments of the troubling themes explored by their source texts.
Black, Holly and DiTerlizzi Tony. The Spiderwick Chronicles. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008.
Dargis, Manhola. “Tested By a Picturesque Dystopia,” The New York Times, March 22, 2012.
Denby, David. “Kids At Risk,” The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.
King, Stephen. “Book Review: The Hunger Games,” Entertainment Weekly, September 8, 2008.
Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: the Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1960.
Leitch, Thomas, “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory,” Criticism 45.2 (2003), 149-171.
Lemony Sicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Dir. Brad Silberling. Perf. Jim Carrey, Jude Law. Nickelodeon, 2004.
The Spiderwick Chronicles. Dir. Mark Walters. Perf. Freddie Highmore, Mary Louise Parker, Andrew McCarthy. Nickelodeon, 2008.
Thomson, David. “Why I Hate The Hunger Games,” The New Republic, March 27, 2012.