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All about adaptations

July 24, 2018 by cymaster

Think of your favourite classic tale or novel, and then try to remember the different adaptations you have read, seen or heard of it. Adaptations surround us, not just because so many great stories have been written, but also thanks to our tendency to tell and retell the stories which are significant in our lives. When you enter a cinema, a game store or a theatre, most of the films, games, plays and musicals you see will be adaptations. We  benefit from the power of these narratives not only in our personal lives but also in education. It is also fascinating to realize that some of the blockblusters of our times are adaptations of classic stories, just think of Frozen which is based on The Snow Queen, or the recent hit, A Handmaid's Tale, which is contemporary classic written by Margaret Atwood. There are more obvious adaptations like the numerous novels, contemporary re-writings, film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. For example, apart from the obvious BBC series, you will see creative and fun examples like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Bridget Jones's Diary (both based on Pride and Prejudice) or the film Clueless (based on Emma).

How can you incorporate adaptations into your language courses? Why should you do it? And how can you approach them? Let's look at some basic characteristics of adaptations. In our next post we will look at different ideas to read and learn with them in the language classroom.


When we think of adaptations, most often we focus on the film adaptations of literary classics and tales or re-tellings in different genre of text, for example a short and modernized version or a comic book retelling. However, as contemporary theorist Linda Hutcheon (2007) reminds us, there many more forms of media and genres in the playground of adaptations, and it is not a recent phenomenon. If we look back at the Victorian Era and the Pre-Rapahaelite Movement, we notice that many artists cross the boundaries of different forms of expression. Biblical and mythological stories, medieval legends and classic literary works were frequently retold in paintings and poems. Think of the story of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and you then of the painting by John Everett Millais. The transformation of a story told in one medium to another was common practice. The spectrum of these media has widened in our times, and now you can see theme parks, video games and musicals added to the long list of poems, novels, dances, songs and operas.

Ophelia. John Everett Millais, 1851. Tate Britain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What is an adaptation?

The easiest way to define an adaptation is to think of it as the transformation of a text into another medium, and doing it openly, acknowledging the existence of the original text. Just like in evolutionary biology, in cultural studies adaptation is a process and a product at the same time (Hutcheon, pp. 15-21). If we think about biological adaptation and the animal world, we can imagine how important it is for texts to be adapted in order to survive the environmental changes that surround them. This is how they can be retold and reach more viewers, readers and listeners through different forms of engagement such as narrating, performing and interacting (Hutcheon, p. 22).

We would like to encourage all teachers, learners and readers to think outside the box for a moment and consider a 'postmodern' way of approaching adaptations, and explore the differences between various adaptations. This way these re-tellings  provide even more opportunities for learning and having fun with texts.

The question of fidelity and the original text

How much should an adaptation resemble the original text? Until recently, the question of fidelity was one of the most important aspects when evaluating adaptations, as the plot was often considered to be the most meaningful and transferable part of a text (Séllei, 2017). However, theorists and practitioners now tend to focus on how various elements such as characters, mood, and underlying messages can be represented in different forms and modes of engagement. This makes it possible to select certain elements of the plot or certain features of a character, and then change or omit other elements which are less significant for the adaptor and the objective of the adaptation. These choices during the adaptation process are often seen as an act of interpretation, and they are made consciously by the creators.

So actively look for differences and similarities between the original text and its different adaptations, and think about how the form (film, painting, game or another written text) and the era (when and where the story is adapted) influence the product of the adaptation.

Intertextuality and intersemiosis

These two technical terms are important to understand the power and potential that lie in adaptations. Here, in my understanding, we need to focus on intertextuality as a never-ending dialogue between the text, its author and era, its implied meaning, its implied and actual reader as well as the various different adaptations that are based on the text. These texts talk to each other, and during these interpretative processes of adapting a story, significant elements come to surface and new meaning emerges. We all respond to the same text in a different way, both as individuals and readers of a certain cultural context and era.

Adaptation often means transferring a story from written language to the language of film, visual arts, music or games. It also means that different semiotic resources will become significant, that is the story is not only told through written words, but also spoken language, visual elements, the language of films, the sounds of music. What can be said and then imagined by the reader in a written narrative will be different from what the creators of a film or musical will share with us. If we approach these different forms of expression in an open and exploratory way, we will find fascinating topics to talk about.

You can discuss how a character is portrayed through written language, how you imagine this character, and how a similar or different representation can be seen on screen or stage. How does the director and his or her team create the character? It happens through a choice of clothes, make-up, sound, intonation, perspective, their position in space, their gestures and posture. Discussing all these elements can help your students understand the different channels we communicate through, not only in medium such as films and novels, but also in our everyday dialogues.

Famous examples of film adaptations of literary classics

Adaptations provide some scaffolding and  reassuring background knowledge that students can easily access and rely on while reading and discussing the texts. They might have already seen a film adaptation or they will be interested in them after or before reading a novel.

Click on the link below to see a list of the Helbling Reader adaptations which also have film adaptations.

In our next post we will look at classroom activities to read and talk about adaptations, and recommend some reading strategies which can help you compare original texts and their adaptations.


  • Hutcheon, L. (2014). Theory of Adaptation. Taylor and Francis.
  • Séllei, N. (2017). "Az adaptáció mint újrakódolás: A francia hadnagy szeretője könyvben és filmvásznon." (In Hungarian). (In English: Adaptation as re-coding: The French Lieutenant's Woman on paper and screen).

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