Guest Blog: Roger Shannon - Expanding Adaptations

Posted on 1 July 2011

Expanding Adaptations in Lorient, France, and in Birmingham, UK

Understanding the field of screen adaptations is a growing area of study and analysis within both the film industry and within the academic environment. This phenomenon is not surprising, when one takes stock of how speedily screen content is spreading across ever increasing platforms, multiplying, fracturing and re creating itself. Critical awareness of transmedia and creative originality is also keeping apace with this momentum of change. And, possibly as a way of responding to this promiscuity of both content and platforms, adaptation studies is itself experiencing a blossoming of new critical thinking on ideas of originality, fidelity, sources, cross media story telling, the cultural economy of adaptation etc.

Much of this, and more, was to the fore at the recent ‘Expanding Adaptations’ conference in Lorient, Brittany, held on 10 – 11 June. This was the third Screen Adaptations conference – ‘From the Blank Page to the Silver Screen’ – to take place in this part of France organised by both the University of South Brittany and the University of Paris-Diderot.

This two day annual conference is growing in stature, attracting both international renown and international participants from both the film and literary fields, as well as from the French film industry. Academic debate is mixed with screenings of famous and not-so-famous adaptations of classics and contemporary literature.

I attended at Lorient to give a talk about the screen writing of UK writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, whose films have drawn on a wide array of sources. These sources include war reporting memoirs for the film, ‘Welcome To Sarajevo’; family biographies, for the movie, ‘Hilary and Jackie’; classic novels such as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge transplanted into a Western for the film, ‘The Claim’; historical tragedies catapulted into the future, as in Alex Cox’s direction of ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’; his own own novels adapted for the screen, ‘Millions’ etc. And in the case of ‘Tristram Shandy : A Cock and Bull Story’, the nigh-on unadaptable and unfilmable. As an Executive Producer, for MIDA, on Frank Cottrell Boyce’s first film, ‘Butterfly Kiss’, also Michael Winterbottom’s directorial debut, I’ve been an admiring fellow traveller of his screen writing prowess for some time.

I first collaborated with the Lorient event in 2007, when I was invited to be their Guest Speaker. My talk focussed on the ‘Producer’s Viewpoint’ in the exchange between the book and the film. A few years previously in 2005 I had run a mini week end Festival in Birmingham at MAC Cinema themed on the relationship between film and literature. Dubbed ‘Lost in Adaptation’, this mini Festival included as speakers and attendees a host of writers, novelists, film makers, directors, producers, film funders, screen writers, development executives, script editors along with many folk interested to know more about the exchange that goes on between the book and the film, or the short story and the film etc. The week end was opened by writer/director Gurinder Chadha, who spoke about how she transformed Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ into her Bollywood version, ‘Bride and Prejudice’. The event concluded with David Lodge discussing comprehensively his adventures as both a novelist and a screen writer in the world of adaptations. Other key speakers at this week end were Helen Cross, ‘My Summer of Love’, and Jonathan Coe, ‘The Rotters Club.’

‘Lost in Adaptation’ drew extensively on the region’s rich pedigree of film and television cross and make overs. In fact, it can be argued that after the achievements of the Edgbaston born movie mogul, Sir Michael Balcon, Birmingham’s greatest contribution to the world of cinema lies in screen adaptations, most notably in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, the literary source for New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s inspired trio of films, and subsequent box office bonanza.

Providing stories for screen writers and directors to adapt is, however, one of the city’s frequently overlooked creative hot spots and one which is still giving up some tremendous heat – for example, the recent television series, ‘Thorne’, on Sky based on the crime novels of Birmingham writer and comedian, Mark Billingham, ‘Sleepyhead’ and ‘Scaredy Cat’; as well as in recent films such as ‘Toast’, the BBC/Screen WM dramatisation of Nigel Slater’s Woverhampton based childhood memoir. Both examples, drawn from television and film, are signs that this pedigree of adaptations continues in good health, and draws on the lineage established by novelists such as David Lodge, ‘Nice Work’; Jonathan Coe, ‘The Rotters Club’; and Helen Cross, ‘My Summer of Love.’

The 2011 Guest Speaker in Lorient was Professor Robert Stam, from the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Robert Stam, a specialist of cinema in its many forms, including Brazilian and French New Wave cinema, has written extensively on the theory of adaptation: Reflexivity in Film and Literature, Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, A Companion to Literature and Film, and Literature through Film: Realism, Magic, and the Art of Adaptation inter alia.

The growing reputation of the Lorient conference signals the increasing importance of adaptation studies in academic circles; academics who participated at Lorient came from Universities in Germany, USA, Holland, Ireland, the UK and France.

A Conference highlights was Dr Joyce Goggin’s paper on the film, ‘Avatar’. Titled ‘Like Pocahontas on Drugs – Avatar and Adaptation’, the paper from this Chair of English Literature at Amsterdam University imaginatively redrew the cartography of adaptation studies to map in contours of industry, technology, economy and the history of viewing technologies. Another stand out and challenging paper was the research presented by Helene Laurichesse, from the University of Toulouse, into ‘Marketing Strategies for Best selling Adaptations – Twilight etc’

Conference organisers, Ariane Hudelet and Shannon Wells-Lassagne, are concerned to expand the discussion of screen adaptations beyond the orthodoxy of book / film aesthetics, and to that end encourage a wider understanding and discussion of originality, creativity, and fidelity across the field of media, whilst also taking in the economics of adaptation underpinning the cultural transaction. Rather than limiting the discussion to the novel/film debate, adaptation studies at this conference also concerns itself with the transposition of a story from one medium into another, be it novel to film, radio to novel and film, painting to novel, film to music clip etc.

The next conference of ‘Expanding Adaptations’ will take place at the University of Le Mans, France, in July 2012 and will take as its theme – ‘Opening Pages, Opening Shots.’
click here for more details

Roger Shannon
Producer, swish Films, Birmingham UK;
Professor, Dept of Media, Edge Hill University, Nr Liverpool, UK

Prof. Roger Shannon