2 minute read


Ulysses, Antigone, Quartet, Dangerous Liaisons

There is a sense in which every literary work involves some degree of adaptation. From the classical Greek tragedies, which adapted myths, to their Renaissance equivalents, through to the modernist experimentations of the twentieth century, adaptation seems to be a structural literary device. The Roman writers Terence, Plautus, and Seneca adapted the works of the classical Greek playwrights (mainly Euripides). In turn, they provided much of the source material for the plays of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. Each case of adaptation involves a complex set of relationships with the original text, ranging from interpretation and modernization to appropriation and critique. The latter is more dominant in the twentieth century, particularly with the rise of Modernism during its first few decades. Classical texts were adapted as part of Modernism's critique of the European cultural tradition, notably James Joyce's Ulysses, or in an attempt to make a statement about contemporary reality, such as Jean Anouilh's Antigone. The relationship between the source text and the adaptation is more complex when it involves a change of genre: this could be from book to opera or, more recently, from book to film. Nineteenth-century novels, in particular, seem to provide good source material for adaptations. Indeed, some scholars believe that the twentieth-century film presents the legacy of the nineteenth-century novel. The rise of cinematic adaptations has given rise to considerable theory in the area.

Adaptation seems to share some of the qualities of the term ‘intertextuality’ as it was coined by the theorists Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva. According to them, intertextuality refers to the way in which a text establishes relationships with other texts, literary or not, diachronic or contemporary, in such a way that it positions itself historically and culturally. In this sense, adaptation can comprise one aspect of the intertextual relationships that a text establishes. In the context of post-modernity where originality and the ‘new’ are no longer desirable attributes, adaptation acquires new qualities. A play like Heiner Müller's Quartet (1982) no longer presents itself as an adaptation although it is based on the eighteenth-century French novel Dangerous Liaisons by Le Clos. The same source is adapted by Christopher Hampton into a play of the same title and then transfers to the cinema. Müller's text does not reveal its sources and, in doing so, claims originality for what is essentially an adaptation. In a characteristically post-modern fashion the reworking of a text becomes such an integral part of its composition that it no longer needs to acknowledge its source. In a way this is formally accepting that any mode of writing involves a degree of adaptation, so much so that this need no longer be stated. See also post-modernism.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: 110A Piccadilly to Nelson Algren Biography