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Source: University of Toronto

New book looks at society's love of retelling storiesCarmen only one of the recurring tales

October 25, 2006

Poor Carmen. Not only does the tragic heroine of Bizet’s famously doomed opera have to die night after night in the world’s opera houses, she has to expire at the hands of her jealous lover in dozens of film adaptations, stage musicals, books and novellas by other authors who have decided to retell this story according to their own literary desires.

It is this need to retell stories that has long fascinated University Professor Linda Hutcheon of English and comparative literature and this fascination has resulted in a new book. A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2006) is a unique study of the adaptation of stories in films and operas and in such media as video games, stage shows and theme parks, spanning cultures and languages.

In fact, all but one of Shakespeare’s great plays is an adaptation – the great playwright himself "borrowed" most of his plots from plays by other writers.

"My book is an attempt to think through why it is we keep telling ourselves the same stories," Hutcheon says. "We don’t just invent new stories; we tell tales over and over again.

"So I wanted to answer two questions. First, what’s the appeal of retelling stories in different media, and, what happens when you move from one medium to another. And second, if adaptation is as ubiquitous as I think it is – and we’ve been adapting stories from earliest times – I wanted to know why is it that we always consider them inferior, that somehow there was a great ‘source’ text and everything else that came later is of lesser value."

Hutcheon points to the example of film critics who almost always consider cinematic adaptations of great literature to be inferior to the original book, as well as usually finding film versions of earlier movies just as lacking.

And Hutcheon is curious when it comes to how an original work of art crosses national borders. "In the case of Carmen I wanted to know why this particular story can be found in so many countries," she says. "What was its appeal to the later writers? How does it manage to cross cultures from the original French story about a Spanish gypsy to later adaptations that take place in Senegal, South Africa, Spain and even the southern United States?"

Sometimes the reason for adapting a great or popular work is financial gain, Hutcheon says, and sometimes ego; but often it’s because writers simply desire to try their hands at a famous story to improve and/or give their own particular perspectives.

Although some cynics believe this "age of adaptation" has come about because Hollywood producers, television executives and novelists have simply run out of ideas, there are also adaptations of song covers on today’s hit parade, video game versions of fairy tales and even rides at theme parks based on successful movies.

"If this is a major way we have historically told stories," Hutcheon says, "I wanted to know why do we not give it the credit due, why don’t we take it seriously as a mode of the storytelling imagination and why have we denigrated it?"



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