October 10, 2013

CARGAS | To Adapt or Not to Adapt

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By GINA CARGAS

On Oct. 24, the much-maligned Austen Project will publish Joanna Trollope’s contemporary reimagining of Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen’s classic novel. The Austen Project will consist of six “reimagined” novels, each a modernization of Austen’s major works. The project raises the question of the validity of literary adaptations, and has been met with resistance from Austen purists and the publishing community. Opponents claim that the initiative points to the increasing Hollwoodization of literature, and that Persuasion 2.0 will be as soulless and uncreative as Christopher Nolan’s recent Superman reboot. The pushback originates in a false conviction that literature is somehow a pure, uncommercialized form and that adaptation is a new, greed-driven attempt to alter the modern bookscape.

But retellings are far from a recent development. Adaptation has long been used to reimagine classic stories, providing us with a mob of Don Juan, Odysseus and Romeo descendents over the centuries. More recently, non-Western writers have resituated classic stories in different sites and historical contexts as a form of social, often anti-colonial commentary. Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott’s Omeros told the story of an alternate Achilles living in Saint Lucia, while Minae Mizmura placed Heathcliff and Catherine in post-war Japan in A Real Novel.

Austen fatigue is one thing. Between Bridget Jones, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and a host of young adult adaptations, the “Austen with a twist” trope has gotten tired. But to claim that no one has the right to tell a reoriented version of a canonical story? The argument ignores a long literary history of adaptation and rejects any claim to value posited by an adapted work. Many of the folks affronted by the concept of an Austen modernization paint adaptation as a corporate corruption of literature’s imagined innocence. This idea of literary purity is absurd. Writing does not exist in a vacuum, but as part of a larger, monetized system of publishing in which quality does not equal publication and publication does not equal quality. Nor is the contractual side of publishing a new phenomenon; in the 19th century, Dickens, Melville and Maupassant all wrote in commercialized serial form, often paid on a per-word basis. The image of the struggling, underpaid writer is romantic, sure, but it can’t be a rule for creating successful art.

The writers selected so far also play into this corporate image of the Austen Project. Val McDermid, Alexander McCall Smith, Curtis Sittenfield and Trollope all get lumped into one of three traditionally snubbed genres — crime, detective and chick lit. While the line between literary and commercial fiction does exist, it’s important to remember that this is a fairly new invention. At the time Austen was writing, the barrier was far fuzzier, and literary success and commercial success often went hand in hand. How can we claim that Austen’s work is somehow above the inventive character-driven world Smith paints in his detective novels? How can we claim that Austen’s satirical look at 19th century courting rituals is inherently more valuable than Sittenfield’s depiction of East Coast prep school? It is undeniable that Austen modernizations are a goldmine of profit — again, see Bridget Jones’ Diary — but again, making a profit does not negate quality writing.

So is the perceived corporatization what really enrages the Elinor Dashwood faithful? It is true that these adaptations are not sold as the product of artistic innovation or a creative experiment in the dissection and reassembly of an English classic. Rather, they’re marketed as filling the need to “update” Austen to render her oeuvre more relatable. To loyal Austenites, the idea that her work has somehow lost its impact appears out-of-touch and offensive. But even casual Austen readers seem uninterested in the idea. Perhaps Austen’s work hasn’t yet reached the mythical proportions necessary to legitimize a retelling, or perhaps we are all collectively over Mr. Darcy. But the premise behind the Austen Project — contracting talented authors to retell Austen novels in a modern setting — is not in itself an invalid goal. Even if we’re bored to death of Pemberley, the claim that any text is untouchable denies the historical reality and artistic value of adaptation.

Gina Cargas is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gcargas@cornellsun.com. Gina Tonic runs alternate Thursdays this semester.

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