MuggleNet Academia: Michelle Markey Butler’s UMaryland Class on Adaptations

On Harry Potter, adaptations, and the ‘real story’with Professor Michelle Markey Butler!


  1. Now this is my idea of a really great conversation about art, film, and literature.

    Tossing in my own two cents, ummmm, I think it’s safe to say I’m gonna disappoint everybody, yep, pretty much, yeah.

    I seem to fall or fit neatly right into the middle between Mr. Granger and Prof. Butler. On the one hand, I agree with Mr. Granger that there can be, on occasion, a danger that a movie adaptation will syphon off attention and liking for its source material. However, I agree with Prof. Butler that not all film adaptations have to be bad by default. However I think Prof. Hutcheon’s theory is a bit flawed, so I’m not as liberal in my liking for what recent movies (older ones are another matter) tend to do with their source material.

    For me, what matters isn’t how good the acting is, or concern over which actor/actress is “right” for this or that role, or what accent they may use. What I’m interested in is strictly the narrative. In other words, I tend to value the Text over any imagery or voice it might conjure up in my head. Specifically, I’m reminded of something Tolkien once said about what he called the difference between artistic “Inspiration” and “invention”.

    “Although you may feel your story to be profoundly “true”, all the details may not have that “truth” about them. It’s seldom that the inspiration (if we are choosing to call it that) is so strong and lasting that it leavens all the lump, and doesn’t leave much that isn’t mere uninspired “invention”.

    What Tolkien is talking about is an idea that was put by S.T. Coleridge, the difference between Imagination and fancy. If a work can be said to be a work of “Inspiration” (Imagination) then it has at least the possibility of being great. If, on the other hand, a film or book is a work of “invention” (fancy), then while it may be very good, that is pretty much all it can ever be, good not great.

    As for Mrs. Hutcheon’s thought, my main criticism is the effects such ideas can have on the value that’s placed on art as a whole. I’ve seen and read the work of diverse and scattered “fanboys” and girls on the net (none of them affiliated with sites like this, trust me) where a complete lack of literacy or cultural background knowledge was on display. The worst case offender was a critic who downgraded a work simply because he’d never heard of broadcaster Andy Rooney. In other words, he slammed a work of fiction just for being smarter than him. That’s a very anti-art stance, I think, and what I worry about Hutcheon’s work is that it will encourage this kind of self-centered attitude where the work art only has value inasmuch as it can serve as an extension of the self, and the various “power fantasies” that can be attempted with this kind of mindset. Such an outlook isn’t really concerned with art at all, I think, but more a kind of narrow-minded bullying attitude that pretty much leaves actual legitimate criticism behind, really.

    Still, this doesn’t shake my conviction that sometimes a film adaptation can succeed in some cases. I’m even willing to go so far as to say that I’ve seen examples (Roger Rabbit, Die Hard, Forrest Gump) that manage to surpass their meager source material (a case of uncovering “Inspiration” underneath “invention”, in other words). In all this it is the “Text” and any possible “Truth” in it, rather than any visual stimulation it offers. A good source book for my think (if it matters) is “Shakespeare and the Dramatic Popular Tradition” by S.L. Bethell. It’s a very good work, and it displays how it is the “Naturalistic” (i.e. Realist) mindset that is the real threat to art more than anything else.

    In terms of “final authority” in a text, personally, I’m hanging my hat on something C.S. Lewis once said, “Jung’s archetypes do seem to explain it.” In other words, I think it is the ideas or concepts an author is Inspired by that determine final say. I tend to believe that writers have a sort of moral duty not so much in the sense that they must teach anything, but rather that they owe it to the potential quality of any given to get the sequence of events as correct as possible, even if the meaning is missed by many and grasped by only a few.

    Looked at from this perspective, I’d argue that whether or not any given film adaptation of a book is, in fact, the same story can be determined by this simple question. Is the film able to communicate the same idea behind the archetype that Inspired the book, and hence (only as a possibility depending on the literacy of a given audience) arouse the same emotional responses as the source material despite superficial changes? It’s a tough question to ask, yet a think with a little intelligence the question of yes or no can be decided in any given case. For instance I’m willing to admit that Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is not at all the same story as Tolkien’s book because of all the changes and additions made. Jackson is more interested in spectacle and budget where Tolkien sole concern was with the story. On the other hand, films John Huston’s adaptation of “Moby Dick” or John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath” actually are the same story as the book based on the criteria of containing the same themes, enough of the same events as the book, and can provoke the same responses from an attentive audience.

    However, I also recognize that such ideas might sound elitist, even if no such intention was meant. All I’m trying to point out is the simple fact that the ability to enjoy a work of art, any work of art, whether on screen or page, requires an active (not passive) imaginative effort on the part of the audience just as much as it does the author. This imaginative effort requires, I’d argue, a wide range in both fiction and non-fiction, in particular for the building up of cultural literacy, without which suspension of disbelief may prove impossible. If a member of the audience can’t bring himself to stretch and expand their ability to simply “imagine” in this way, then the odds of that person enjoying a work of fiction are significantly less than perhaps might be expected.

    Also, are you telling me someone actually changed the HogPro Professors mind about something!? Somebody check under the beds for any Body Snatchers space pods, something ain’t right here (har)!

  2. waynestauffer says

    great comments all around!!!

    my concern with the “filmification” of literature is that viewers are satisfied with only what they see in the film and then choose not to go deeper into the literature for what they miss by only watching the film.

  3. Prof. Stauffer,

    Thanks for the relpy, first off. Second, in regards your concern about filmification, I think here it helps, at least in part, to keep in mind something Mr. Granger said.

    It does seem that the Harry Potter books really were the first time a book received a “mass media blitz” that was brought to the attention of the public at large.

    I think it helps to remember that up until that time, fiction, rather its full enjoyment and related interest in it was by and large a coterie affair, something that was mostly a limited appeal despite the large amount of history already behind it.

    The the Post-Potter publishing fallout has done is something that is potentially hopeful, yet also fraught with its share of problems. For the first time, a lot of people who have up to now had no real knowledge of literature find themselves turning toward books because of Rowling, Collin et al. This is good in the sense that a great majority are now open to fiction even as a simple “idea”.

    The problem is how to encourage this curiosity in ways that will help expand any possible intake of literature, really. Here I’m not sure how it would work except that the Nation’s schools have go their work cut out for them.

  4. waynestauffer says

    Chris, i think you’re spot on. Literature-as-commodity/franchise is pretty new. Studios learned with Star Wars back in the 1980s and the first Jurassic Park film in the 1990s how effective merchandizing could help ticket sales. And I think you’re right about HP being the first literature to benefit(?) from this.
    But this is somewhat different from film makers’ choices on what to leave out from the books and what to insert that is not in the books. These are the kinds of choices I try to explore in my literature and film class with my students.
    an additional concern I have has to do with publishers’ choices of which stories to publish–as in “this piece will likely do better at the box office and toy store than that piece, so we’ll publish it instead of the other.” i think the HP series was probably the first to take the author into the stratosphere of income from a work. Rowling earned a ton of money just on book royalties alone, then the licensing from films and merchandise (and I have purchased my share of it) took the income waaaaay over the top. how does this affect publishers’ choices?
    thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  5. Prof. Stauffer,

    In terms of how how modern marketing effects which books are published and which scripts filmed I have to go back to what I said earlier.

    I expressed the opinion that its most likely modern films won’t have care about their source material (case in point being Tonks and Lupin already married in the seventh film (part 1)). I also said I thought older films were another matter.

    I think if you go back as far as, say, the 30s and 40s, Hollywood’s Golden Age in other words, you tend to get the impression that you’re dealing with people who have perhaps a bit more imagination than most of today’s young, up and coming filmmakers. When I look at films like “Grapes of Wrath” or “The Thin Man” I get the sense that both writer director not only “know” the material but are also treating it with the proper “respect”. I think that, more than anything is what makes those old Hollywood pictures such classics.

    I also think that’s a rarity today because a lot of the value those old directors placed on story has been downgraded to a great extent. In the intro to Edgar Wind’s “Art and Anarchy” it is pointed out that the 20th century (by and large) is an age that doesn’t place any intrinsic value on art, and I think a lot of the trends we’re seeing in both publishing and the movie studios bears that out. I think fiction proper, whatever its medium, is going to have a bit an uphill climb for a awhile. This has both bad and good qualities.

    On the bad hand, a lot more mediocre material with not a lot of Inspiration behind it is going to glut the market. The one good thing is that when a genuine story does turn up, those who can tell will know it for what it is and treasure it all the more. To quote from an old John Frankenheimer movie, “Art belongs to whoever can appreciate it”.

  6. waynestauffer says

    Agreed on previous generations of film makers being already aware of the text and being respectful of it. Many interviews with this generation reveal that they had not previously heard of the text and then had to scramble to “get familiar” with it. Sorry, but “familiar” is much more superficial than “knowing.” Many of these directors are more focused on their interpretation than on being faithful to the author’s text (e.g., first Hunger Games film).

    i also agree with your point about the intrinsic value on art or art for art’s sake–seems to me that too many modern directors have some message that is driving their interpretation rather than revealing the artistry of the writer. they use the film to advance an agenda, as propaganda, rather than to tell a good story well. and because the more artistically mediocre material fits the message, it get the exposure when the artistically great material is passed over. I’m not a huge fan of dystopian fiction, but i think Lois Lowry’s Giver quartet will get short shrift as a movie set because the first film did not do well at the box office.

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