Adaptation in the Writing Classroom

By Cat Champney

(FERPA Disclaimer: students are quoted in this article. All personally identifying information has been removed. Regardless, though, the students quoted here gave written consent to use their words.)

The goal for the first few weeks of my class sound simple: define adaptation. However, that’s not really so easy. As I mentioned in my first post, arriving at a single definition for adaptation is futile and perhaps even useless. We agree on a central definition of adaptation… then what?

After watching Adaptation (2002), I had students talk about what they thought adaptation meant, to the film. What does the film tell us about adaptation, and how might those features help us define it? The film allowed us to talk about adaptation in different dimensions: how was it a theme? How was it a genre? What about a format, or medium? Some of the class dipped into some literary/film analysis, which I entertained, but we quickly focused on the rhetoric of the film and its paratexts: what can Adaptation tell us about adaptation in writing?

The following class, we discussed two online articles about the Netflix adaptation of Persuasion. After briefly recapping our previous discussion, we talked about how the two authors considered adaptation in their arguments and what specific rhetorical devices they used to signal those considerations. I selected both articles because they used somewhat inflammatory language—terms like “Fleabagification”—to provoke students’ realization of the power of rhetoric. Students quickly came to realize that both authors, in a similar way, projected certain expectations on to adaptations. Expectations, of course, quickly gave way to talking about audience and genre.

Prior to assigning the film, I was nervous to its reception. Would students be caught up in the meaning of it all, or would we be able to focus on rhetoric? Would they be able to compare a film to an argumentative essay online? Or, would it be too distracting?

Ultimately, all of these fears were unfounded. There was value in the change of medium, from the film to the online article, and the topic was met with high levels of engagement. Even if it wasn’t apparent that students had read closely, they were listening to others’ elaborations and contributing their own thoughts on the many nuances to adaptation. I took this opportunity to open the room and ask about personal connections to the material: how do these qualities of adaptation apply to our own creation and writing processes?

These questions were strategically placed. My first assignment in the course is a low-stakes diagnostic essay. I began using these when I was an adjunct instructor as a way to gauge students’ strengths and weaknesses. I explain the essays as both introductions and samples: I want students to try their best to introduce their writing to me, without the added stress of grades. Then, students and I work together throughout the semester to build on their strengths and practice their weaknesses. The prompt for the essay is intentionally basic: I ask a general question and encourage students to use a mix of course material and personal experiences to back up some sort of central claim.

For this essay, as you might have guessed, I asked, what is an adaptation? Although only a sampling, I’ve included some interesting replies:

“An adaptation is a process of change due to disruption in the environment. The world’s smallest sunflower adapted to the sidewalk by wriggling its flexible stem through the fissures in the rock. This process of tactical revision, however, extends beyond nature; when a written work is to be ‘adapted,’ it too must acquire a new set of traits—a unique demeanor and fresh commentary…” (my emphasis)

“An interesting paradox I can think of that relates to this is the Ship of Theseus… But what if, over time, every part on the boat got damaged, and replaced with a new part? Would this still be the same ship? Would it be a new, different ship with a different identity?”

“Often it depends on the context of the work being adapted, however this basic format of an adaptation requires a balance. An adaptation is the balance between the accuracy of the original work and the updating to bring modern ideas into the new pieces of work”

Other students spoke of adaptation more generally, referring to their own adaptation from high school student to college student. Though I disagree with the categorization, many of them found such personal adaptations “unremarkable”—even though they’ve build an entirely new identity. Another student created an adaptation trifecta: Nature, Literature, and Culture as three ways to “center” or ground adaptation, while others approached the question in a less structured manner, organizing their paragraphs by evidence instead.

While I think every teacher is impressed with their students’ work, I found myself struck by the variety in their responses, even using the same evidence. I was happy to see some students flat out disagree with the argumentative essays, providing counter examples like Harry Potter and other media to construct their own definitions. While it’s just a start, that was the point in this assignment: encouraging students to think about how they define adaptation and how to enter into existing conversations about it. What matters, and to whom?

The next few weeks of the semester will build on their responses to this question and their skills in discussion questions about Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde—how does this frequently-adapted novella inform us further about adaptation, and rhetoric? While there will certainly be challenges with this text, I look forward to talking about it… and reporting on it here!

Until next time!

Cat Champney is a second year PhD student and graduate instructor at the University of Delaware. She studies literary adaptation of the 19th century, with an emphasis on authorship and female gothic narratives. Prior to attending UD, Cat received her Master’s Degree in 19th Century Literature from Brooklyn College and a joint degree in English and Political Science from SUNY Binghamton. Her master’s thesis examined the absence of Scarlett O’Hara’s children from David Selznick’s film adaptation, Gone with the Wind. Prior to her current composition course at UD, Cat taught various composition and writing courses at CUNY Brooklyn College and City College of Technology. 


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