Adaptation in Transition: A Semiological Reassessment of the 'Fidelity' Debate.

Christophe Collard

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


Adaptations, currently the best-known example of inter-semiotic translation, more often
than not are addressed in the disingenuous terms of 'fidelity,' 'parasitism,' or 'solipsism.'
Although it seems a truism that adaptations adapt a 'text' from one discursive field to
another, such a straightforward causality conflicts with the notion of 'discursive field' in
which it is wont to occur. Moreover, the adaptation presented as adaptation loses its
referential effect when the receiver is unacquainted with the material transposed. Together
both issues - i.e. linearity and referentiality - in fact account for most of the
misconceptions about the paradoxical phenomenon that is adaptation.

Historically adaptation-criticism has been plagued by the doctrine of 'fidelity' and its baffling
references to a source text's presumed 'spirit,' which in Kamilla Elliott's seemly words
"always retains an element of je ne sais quoi" (2003). To a certain extent this is
understandable, since the cultural prestige of the acknowledged 'original' is often used as
legitimation for the new text and the medium in which it is produced. Films such as Bram
Stoker's Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) or William Shakespeare's Romeo +
Juliet (1996, dir. Baz Luhrmann) claim literary 'author-ity' and 'improvement' through
technological 'repurposing.'

Adaptation-theorist Robert Stam rightly noted that "The question of fidelity ignores the
wider question: Fidelity to what?" (2000). In the context of 'translation' into a new creation,
wholesale faithfulness to the source text amounts to nothing less than an aberration. The
migration across referential and expressive frameworks entails formal, structural, and
cognitive consequences. And whereas "a core of meaning may travel" (M-L. Ryan 2006), it
can never be captured without its techno-cultural mediation. Thus, the so-called 'spirit' of
the so-called 'source text' is destined to remain an arbitrary construction, and a reductive
one at that.

Going by the Italian maxim "traddutore = traditore" translation implies betrayal. Put
differently, the transformation of a text from one discursive field to another entails
semiological interference. In the words of Walter Benjamin, translation accordingly
appears "not ?as? a rendering of some fixed nontextual meaning to be copied or
paraphrased or reproduced; rather, it is an engagement with the original text that makes
us see that text in different ways" (1992). All the same Benjamin distinguishes the
translator (or adaptor) from the 'originary poet' by labelling his work "derivative, ultimate,
ideational" as opposed to the former's spontaneity. The contradictoriness of Benjamin's
argument constitutes another example of the schizophrenia that characterizes adaptations
in se, as well as the critical tradition.

In this paper I will therefore propose a semiological argument aimed at providing a better
understanding of the discursive mechanisms at work in adaptational practice. After all,
when adaptation is addressed as a syncretic structuring process, the selective perception
at the root of comparisons can be repurposed to conceptually functional ends.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBelgian Association of Anglicists in Higher Education Annual Conference
Publication statusPublished - 5 Dec 2009


  • Adaptation


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