Adaptation as Intervention: From Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series to Contemporary Echoes

Clara Juncker

This essay on “Adaptation as Intervention” engages especially with African American painter Jacob Lawrence, who adapted his childhood stories of the Great Migration into sixty small panels with this major change in black Southerners’ lives as his story and theme. Lawrence obviously draws on literary texts with laconic, factual captions on all but a few of his panels, so that the he might reach his audience with both visual and verbal protest. Lawrence’s work also adapts sound and music, photography, cinema and political cartoons into interventionist visual art. This political commitment echoes in works by other 20th– and 21st-century artists, such as Wang Quingsong and the Electric Disturbance Theater, political artists who seek to motivate and activate audiences so as to bring about social change. Writers, visual artists or performers accordingly adapt to and influence political agendas such as migration, global labor, and discrimination.


Cet article sur l’adaptation comme intervention s’intéresse particulièrement au peintre afro-américain Jacob Lawrence qui a adapté ses histoires d’enfance sur la grande migration en soixante petits panneaux prenant ce changement majeur dans la vie des Noirs du Sud comme histoire et thème. Lawrence s’inspire évidemment de textes littéraires avec des légendes laconiques et factuelles sur la plupart de ses toiles, sauf quelques-unes, afin de toucher son auditoire avec des protestations visuelles et verbales. Le travail de Lawrence adapte également le son et la musique, la photographie, le cinéma et les cartoons politiques pour en faire des œuvres visuelles interventionnistes. Cet engagement politique se retrouve dans le travail d’autres artistes des XXe et XXIe siècles, comme Wang Quingsong et le Electric Disturbance Theater, des artistes politiques qui cherchent à motiver et à faire réagir le public afin d’encourager des changements sociaux. Les écrivains, les plasticiens ou les artistes-interprètes s’adaptent et influencent en conséquence les agendas politiques tels que la migration, le travail mondial et la discrimination.


        In her poem “Migration,” written in response to African American artist Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1940-41) and itself migrating across three pages, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon writes: “Black is an ardor./Color moving/as wholeness—yellow migrates blouse to light handle to bell green/migrates button to satchel to wall blue migrates coat to sea to night/sky—finds an order” (Dickerman and Smithgall 178). These lines of poetry capture the movement, the colors, the message and the order of Lawrence’s sixty paintings of the migration of 1,648,000 African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North. The first wave of migration occurred during WWI, when 454,000 black southerners moved North, followed by other waves, with 454,000 migrants leaving the South in the 1920s and 398,000 during the Great Depression ( To draw attention to historical discrimination and injustice, Lawrence supplemented his paintings with laconic, factual captions so as to reach his audience with both visual and verbal protest.[1] History matters, as Paul Lauter stresses in his 2007 article “Teaching Protest Literature.” But form matters also, as artists engage with new generations of readers and viewers. Saul Scott notes in “Protest Literature 101” (2009) that, faced with political oppression, “artists will often ‘say the unspeakable’ by coming at it from an oblique angle” (415). This angle may involve the “altered or amended” version of a text that the OED associates with adaptation. From Jacob Lawrence to contemporary projects, artists and academics engage with adaptations from life to art, and ultimately, they engage with adaptations from text or image to activity and activism. By including the surrounding community in their artistic endeavors, the artists hope to bring about change, to call attention to and interfere with injustice and pain. Taken just a bit further, a cultural product—literature, visual art, performance—intervenes in the social environment in which it is produced. Writers, visual artists or performers might accordingly adapt to and influence pressing political agendas, such as migration, global labor, and discrimination.

        Contemporary initiatives, in the United States and elsewhere, also seek through adaptation, further defined in the OED as “bringing two things together” for the purpose of change, to disturb or rebel against inhumanity and inequality. Lawrence’s work inspired a global endeavor among artists to insist on civil rights and visibility. Himself engaged in a project resembling that of radicals such as John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and the Farm Security Administration photographers, Lawrence served as a precursor for Thornton Dial, who in his working-class art revisited African American southerners migrating North. African American artists like Lawrence and Dial shape-shifted, so to speak, into the contemporary Chinese visual artist Wang Quingsong, who replicates their adaptations and interventions. In daring photographs and paintings, Quingsong uses representations of his own body to interfere in the politics of a rising superpower. And along the US-Mexican border, The Electronic Disturbance Theater disturbs, as is the group’s mission, preconceived notions of migration and belonging. These artists articulate in various genres—poetry, novels, photography, painting, film and music—their dissatisfaction with inequality, oppression, and censorship.

        Lawrence sought with his sixty panels, each with a caption, to insert his people into American history by representing the Great Migration. He did not himself experience this massive change in African American life, but migration stories had permeated his childhood. His parents left Virginia and South Carolina, respectively, for Atlantic City, where Lawrence was born in 1917. After his parents separated, his mother left Lawrence and his siblings in Philadelphia in 1924, until she could afford to bring her children to Harlem, where the family settled into a steadily growing migrant community (Schjeldahl 80). Lawrence explains: “I grew up hearing tales about people ‘coming up,’ another family arriving. People who’d been . . . in the North for a few years, they would say another family ‘came up’ and they would help them to get established. . .” (qtd. Gates 20; Lorensen 572). As a high school drop-out, Lawrence worked odd jobs and studied at the Harlem Art Workshop, located in the basement of what would become the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. By 1936, he had rented a corner in muralist and mentor Charles Alston’s studio at 306 West 141st Street, where prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas, would come by. After his 1938 solo exhibition at the Harlem Y.M.C.A., Lawrence participated as an easel painter in the Federal Arts Project of the Work Progress Administration (WPA). He favored epic themes, but because he was too inexperienced for mural commissions, he chose instead to paint narrative series (Schjeldahl 80). He soon produced visual histories of prominent travelers of African descent: Toussaint L’Ouverture, liberator of Haiti (1938), Frederick Douglass, runaway slave, abolitionist and orator, (1939), and Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad (1940). This work prepared him for The Migration Series. His choice of silhouettes, the anonymous figures moving through his panels featuring American land- and cityscapes, suggest his growing interest in collective history. He was, as Peter Schjeldahl writes in “Telling the Whole Story,” “The right young man in the right place at the right moment to channel, for all time, the lightning of an epochal circumstance” (80).[2]

        This right young man helped map the lives of African Americans. He shared the vision of Carter Woodson’s movement in 1926 to include black history in American history, as he himself explains: “I have always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools. . . . I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro” (Wheat 14). He sought to historicize the African American experience through his Great Migration paintings, which gave his race a new identity and visibility, both through visual and textual representations. His captions are short and direct, almost tightlipped, so as to reach a broad audience and also, perhaps, to contain his anger at the silencing of African American lives in the dominant culture and history. Jutta Lorensen sees Lawrence as “a painter who worked very consciously in the space of historical elision” (571). Lawrence wanted to adapt American history to include African American contributions, and he wanted to bring about change. In the words of the directors of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Phillips Collection, which together house The Migration Series, the work Lawrence researched and produced “was shaped by his immersion in contemporary debates about writing and giving visual form to African-American history” (Dickerman and Smithgall 7). His Migration Series introduced the first leaderless movement for civil rights to American audiences (Grossman 64).

        Lawrence’s interventionist aspirations surface not only in his choice of subject matter―the mass exodus of black southerners to the North that had drastically changed the Harlem community―but also in his adaptations. In “Fighting Blues,” Leah Dickerman quotes from a 1972 interview with Lawrence, in which he recalls the multiple strands of African American culture he encountered at Alston’s studio: “During the ‘30s there was much interest in black history and the social and political issues of the day—this was especially true at 306. It became a gathering place. . . . I received not only an experience in the plastic arts—but came in contact with older blacks from the theater, dance, literary and other fields. At sixteen, it was quite a learning experience . . . .” (Dickerman and Smithgall 16). The four divisions of the WPA cultural program—Writers, Theater, Music and Art—further inspired his formal innovations, which allowed him to increase the impact of his visual art by drawing on various political and artistic sources. His adaptations move across image to text, sound, photography and film, so as to transfer and transform.

        Panel number 1 depicts a crowd of black southerners mostly dressed in dark colors rushing to bright orange ticket counters marked “Chicago,” “New York,” and “St. Louis.” Lawrence adapts his visual image into a caption, so as to communicate with audiences through both image and text. These three cities had a chapter each in Emmet J. Scott’s Negro Migration during the War (1920), which Lawrenceread in the 135th Street library in Harlem and occasionally copied verbatim. These topographical alternatives to life in the segregated South exist only textually in the first part of his series, and they reinforce his depiction of the southern prejudice the migrants hasten to escape. Other sources of inspiration include Richard Wright, at this time Harlem editor of the communist newspaper the Daily Worker andco-authoring a guidebook to New York City sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) (Dickerman and Smithgall 15). As the language of race changed, Lawrence kept up his efforts to communicate well. In the 1990s, past eighty years of age, Lawrence revised most of the captions originally produced in 1941 in order to keep up with contemporary viewers and readers. “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes” became in 1993 “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans.” He also revised the Migration captions so that they became shorter, more succinct, to suit the pace and style of late 20th-century addressees.

        Like radical writers of the Depression era—Richard Wright, Dos Passos, John Steinbeck and others—Lawrence also sought to adapt his art to the speech of his people. The Migration Series communicates like an interactive oral performance (Lorensen 583). In many panels, the migrants discuss, listen, or read, thus emphasizing the textuality of the art work, and the political decisions involved in migration. In panel 20, three figures in the foreground and two in the background are immersed in reading a newspaper together, with mostly brown, unobtrusive space between the two groups so as to emphasize their shared activity. Lawrence stresses not only the reading but also the outcome of this engagement with text in his 1993 caption: “In many of the communities the Black press was read with great interest. It encouraged the movement.” In panel 26, two men lean on a brown fence, which fills the space of the panel, along with a blue sky and a barren tree. With the two figures centered in the panel, Lawrence highlights their dialog and interaction, also central to his caption: “And people all over the South continued to discuss this great movement.” Dickerman compares these ongoing conversations to the oral history initiatives of the FWP (19). The end result is political agitation and adaptation. Obviously, Lawrence seeks to reach his readers and viewers, to persuade them, to intervene into the historical moment they occupy together. He creates in his series a communal voice and presents the political agency of his anonymous figures, and of those they face.

        This communal voice sounds like blues and jazz. Lawrence encountered a busy, inspiriting music scene in Harlem, and the sound of African American music echoes in his works, including The Migration Series. Lawrence paints and writes with the passion and personal involvement of a jazz musician. Like a blues singer or a jazz player, he draws on intimate experiences, such as a woman cutting a slab of fatback for her hungry, emaciated son in panel 11, with the caption bemoaning that “Food had doubled in price because of the war.” Panel 6 depicts the interior of a north-bound railroad car at night, a migrant mother nursing her baby while sleeping bodies and the lack of space hint at brutal passages in the African American past: “The trains were crowded with migrants.” Regarding this panel, Jodi Roberts, Curatorial Assistant for MoMA, notes that blues singer Maggie Jones recorded the hit “Northbound Train” in 1925 (Dickerman and Smithgall 58), thus serving as a sound track of sorts to Lawrence’s painting.

        Other jazz or blues recordings also involve experiences suffered and endured. Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” recording in 1939 may resonate in its protest and its silences with panel 15. In this painting a forlorn—even abject—isolated figure sits bent over, literally on the edge of a brown diagonal line that creates disturbance and discord. An empty noose, hanging from a single brown tree branch, occupies the center of the panel, surrounded by pastel blues and streaks of light brown, suggesting, perhaps, more trees and more lynching in the South. As in blues and jazz, sung or performed by African American artists, captions suggest with repetitions and variations the migration experience: “The trains were crowded with migrants” (panel 6), “The migration gained in momentum” (panel 18), “The migration spread” (panel 23), “The migrants arrived in great numbers” (panel 40), “The migrants kept coming” (panel 60). The distinctive colors of the paintings, such as bright yellows, reds and blues, repeated and varied, parallel the prominent meters and the syncopated rhythms of jazz.

        The many repetitions of “the migrants kept coming” and the concluding panel 60, in which the migrants confront the viewer, reinforce the orality of Lawrence’s project and the audience “you.” The migrants transform, in a sense, the viewers into listeners, as if they were a gathering of preachers calling out to congregations, a gospel choir or maybe a silent, attentive club audience. Overall, this orality links up with folk tales and oral modes of communication within African American culture, such as call and response. Both the sounds and the silences of the Migration panels perform the lived and felt African American experiences. Lorensen elaborates: “The last panel shows that the Migration Series is not only interested in telling a story, narrating the events or ‘causes’ of the Great Migration, but interested as well in linking them to the viewer/reader. This culmination has been adumbrated by the ‘migration refrains’ throughout the narration” (583). The sixty panels suggest a community come together, improvising and negotiating an artistic and political agenda as they move along.

The simplicity and directness of Lawrence’s work parallel the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, who also documented the lives and hardships of poverty-stricken Americans during the Great Depression. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), with photographs by Walker Evans and text by James Agee, came out in 1941 and, like Lawrence’s Migration panels, this book escapes traditional genre conventions. Apart from Agee’s rhapsody and lyricism, which echo Lawrence’s soundscapes, Evans’s straight-on photography gives to his poor Alabama sharecroppers the dignity and humanity they share with the migrants. In panel 25, the green curtain amidst the rough, brown boards of Lawrence’s abandoned sharecropper’s cabin suggests the efforts of its former inhabitants to decorate the narrow space. In Evans’s photographs, the sharecroppers’ cabins show similar efforts at owning and humanizing their space, and their lives, with paper lace or newspaper clippings used for decoration. The child labor in Agee and Evans’s fields—especially the ten-year-old Maggie Louise Gudger picking cotton—recurs in panel 24, in which African American children work in the fields and carry loads so heavy that most cannot stand up straight. Lawrence’s caption connects this obligatory field labor to the lack of educational opportunities: “Their children were forced to work in the fields. They could not go to school.” Both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Migration Series rely on images for attention, and for intervention.

        Dickerman writes that “enthrallment with FSA photo-culture was strong in Lawrence’s circles” (22). In early 1940, Charles Alston traveled South posing as an FSA photographer and used photos taken in the South for paintings such as “Tobacco Farmer” (1940). This painting depicts a black southerner, dressed in overalls and a blue shirt, in front of a simple barn, with a glimpse of the surrounding fields that make up his world. It helps explain his grim facial expression, and it echoes strongly Evans’s frontal shots of white Alabama sharecroppers taken just a few years earlier. Another of Lawrence’s mentors, Richard Wright, published Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States in 1941, with his own and FSA-produced photographs that often resemble a Lawrence panel, both in subject matter and technique (Dickerman and Smithgall 22-23). Wright’s captions are as simple, rhythmic and collective as those in The Migration Series: “We labor in farm factories” (82) and, across two pages “We sleep…” (84) … in wooden barracks” (85). Accompanying a photo of Chicago’s South side, Wright states in his caption: “The streets claim our children” (139). Like others in his circle of artists, Lawrence employed the media favored by his audience and thus adapted his interventions to contemporary platforms especially suited for political persuasion.

        Politicized or radical writers such as John Dos Passos also drew on cinema to reach an audience. In “Grosz Comes to America,” published in Esquire magazine in 1936, Dos Passos wrote: “From being a word-minded people we are becoming an eye-minded people” (105). Both Dos Passos and Lawrence had learned about Sergei Eisenstein’s montage techniques, the former from a trip to Russia and Lawrence from Jay Leyda, assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art (Dickerman and Smithgall 23). Leyda had studied with Eisenstein for three years before he joined MoMA and became a leading figure in Russian avant-garde cinema studies. Dickerman writes that the repetitions of people, metaphors and motifs in Lawrence’s panels constitute a “rhythmic intersplicing of congruent bodies of images, the juxtaposition producing both aesthetic and ideological meaning.” The Migration Series “resembles nothing so much as Eisenstein’s montage: the Soviet filmmaker’s cutting back again and again to the baby carriage to the thrilling Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin is the most famous example” (23). Dos Passos concludes about his own eye-mindedness: “in spite of my early training I tend to take a painting visual end first.” His privileged class and race position aside, he describes to a degree the younger Lawrence’s inspiration and project: “I think something of the sort has happened to many Americans of my generation, and even in a greater degree to the generations younger than us [sic], so that an appetite and a taste for painting is growing up in this country very fast. Display advertising and the movies, though they may dull the wits, certainly stimulate the eyes” (105). Lawrence’s sixty panels work together as a movie sequence, with one frame following the next, and he uses linearity, repetition, juxtaposition, cross-cutting and montage to tell his story as compellingly as a film audience might expect.

        Also, political cartoons have left their marks on Dos Passos’s and Lawrence’s (African) American epics. Dos Passos cites as his inspiration for his U.S.A. trilogy George Grosz, with his focus “not in the studio or in the metaphysics of color but in the everyday life as he saw it of men and women sleeping, dressing, eating, going to work, drinking, making love, and in their dreams and their wants.” Dos Passos concludes about Grosz: “He was a satirist and a moralist” (131). The same may be said for Lawrence, who used the satirical forms of the political cartoon to depict the white authority figures suspended above, and often violating, the everyday lives of his African American protagonists. Like Grosz and Dos Passos, Lawrence inspired, and initiated, contemporary debates about justice, democracy and equality. In Dos Passos’s words, “a satirist is a man whose flesh creeps so at the ugly and the savage and the incongruous aspects of society that he has to express them as brutally and nakedly as possible” (131). This naked approach suited the media of Lawrence’s time and landed The Migration Series in Fortune magazine, with four spreads and twenty-six images. His art intervened, as the Fortune editors knew. Lawrence knew it also:


I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing. They had to liberate themselves without any education. Today we can’t go about it in the same way. Any leadership would have to be the type of Frederick Douglass. . . . How will it come about? I don’t know. I’m not a politician, I’m an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about. (Wheat 14)


        Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, Lawrence reverberates in literary and visual efforts to influence American and global audiences. As Lawrence revised his Migration captions in the 1990s, another artist, Thornton Dial, revisited his subject matter, the African American migration from sharecropping and cotton fields in the South to urban assembly lines in the North. Dial assembled paintings such as “Heading for the Higher-Paying Jobs” (1992) from scrap metal, carpeting pieces and other waste products found in post-industrial Bessemer, Alabama, thus adapting waste to art. Dial put these materials to new use so as to point to the discarding of African American lives and futures, from the civil rights movement to the contemporary financial displacement of the African American work force. Amidst critical discussions of the market and museum attraction to “outsider” or self-taught artists of color over formally trained ones, New York’s Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art jointly exhibited Dial’s assembly paintings and sculptures in 1996; the Whitney Biennial included him in 2000 (Doss 234; Conwill [2]). Dial brought about change not just in making waste and junk serve new functions. Like Lawrence, he also gave visibility to African American folk art and its practitioners. These artists—and their causes—slowly entered dominant cultural institutions and cultures, in the process empowering the African Americans who did not manage to tell—or show—their stories.

        This adaptation of traditional forms and materials to new uses occurs as well in global settings, where protest takes on various shapes. In China, visual artist Wang Quingsong adapts his own body to various political interventions, all calling attention to the lack of freedom and the conformity and materialism of Chinese society. In one self-portrait, he appears with long, wild hair standing straight from his skull, empty patches in between these electrified locks, as if he has torn from his head at least half of his hair strands. His attention-grabbing hair may suggest the creativity inside his brain, as if his imagination is transforming his hair into electric wires. At the same time, his photograph also suggests pain—as in tearing one’s hair—and horror, as if he cannot bear to participate, or to watch, what is outside the frame.

        In other paintings, Quingsong is on life support, the artist now disguised as a university professor sitting down in the middle of a classroom crowded with sleeping students at their desks, each surrounded by tall piles of closed books. The many slogans on the wall, some in English for global audiences (a protest against intellectual colonization?) suggest the brainwashing or mindlessness of Chinese education (“Follow You” 2013). As Quingsong states about his paintings in university settings, “I am talking about the education problem in China. Knowledge is taught but not learnt by many people who fail to understand the real meanings. They don’t know the meaning of studies. They study for their parents, for their grandparents, but never for themselves, for the love of knowledge itself. Therefore, we see so many students trash their books after examinations” ( To protest the Chinese lack of critical thinking, Quingsong appears in “Thinker” (1998) as a praying monk in lotus position, but with a Macdonald’s logo tattooed on the skin of his chest. Drawing on a Buddhist heritage that has gone sour, his tattoo of an American chain brand suggests the commercialization and superficiality of contemporary China. Like Jacob Lawrence, Wang Quingsong uses adaptation to get his messages across and rewrite the official histories of his nation. From painting to body, from text to tattoo, he changes his medium of protest so as to engage his audiences in innovative ways. Quite a few viewers have studied the students in “Follow Me” up close, to figure out what this new medium might be: A painting? A photograph? A happening? A theater performance? A cartoon?

        On the North American continent, adaptations proliferate. The Electronic Disturbance Theater operates along the US-Mexican border by handing out second-hand mobile phones with GPS to illegal immigrants from South America. In the description of this project, “The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT),” the group writes: “Its software aspires to guide “the tired, the poor,” the dehydrated—citizens of the world—to water safety sites. Concomitantly, its platform offers poetic audio “sustenance.” This “poetry in motion” adaptation establishes a “global poetic system” and a grassroots interventionist practice. The project activates sound, images, words and movement across human sensory apparatuses. It aims to have audiences walk with cellphones, so that they may experience from afar the hope and hardships within immigrant bodies, who take steps towards better lives along with those watching and experiencing from their phones, their computers, or from exhibits of various kinds. As the website announces, the tool won the “Transnational Communities Award” in 2008, an award funded by the Endowment for Culture Mexico-U.S., and it also won awards from the University of California, San Diego Center for the Humanities. Some years before Donald Trump took office, a development for disruptive art along the US-Mexico border already seemed urgent. Glenn Beck, conservative author and radio host, declared the Transborder Immigrant Tool “a gesture that potentially ‘dissolved’ the U.S. border with its poetry” (, a change that opponents of Mexican wall construction would undoubtedly welcome.

        As a part of the Poetry Suite accompanying the 2015 MoMA exhibition of The Migration Series, Terrance Hayes started off his “Four Premonitions of Migration” poem by inserting Lawrence’s work into contemporary debates about police killings of black Americans:


To grasp the inextricable ghosts riding you

Into an inexplicable future, you must place your lips

To panel thirteen until you taste something human

In the colors of the dirt. To suit present life

You must revise “The crops were left to dry and rot.

There was no one left to tend them,” to read:

“The cops were left to cry and shoot. No one was left

To defend them. . . .”


His poem begins a conversation with Jacob Lawrence’s art and intervenes through genre- and other border crossings in contemporary racial topographies and ideologies. Hayes zooms in on panel 13 for many reasons. The panel depicts a barren landscape, with brown, naked trees to the left and a multi-colored, abandoned field anchoring the panel at the bottom. Most of the panel is covered by sky, pastel brown and blue, to set off an orange-reddish sun baking from above, with uninterrupted rays downwards. A cloud formation in a darker blue, with whitish areas below, suggests the ghost-like presence that Hayes identifies—the ghosts of southern history and black laborers and migrants’ lives. As in southern landscapes described throughout southern history, the black southerners are present through their absence—the historical elision Lawrence sought to fill. Hayes goes on a similar mission through his poem, which calls for physical contact between artwork and audience—a sensory journey that might enable identification and human response: “you must place your lips/To panel thirteen until you taste something human….” The panel caption lends itself to Hayes’s project: with the substitution of “cops” for “crops,” he signifies on Lawrence’s words and brings together the deadly forces of African American lives, then and now.

        In June 2015, Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-American novelist, reacted strongly to the sixty Migration panels, all exhibited together at MoMA. The connection she describes is as close as in Hayes’s poem. Danticat felt “glued” to Lawrence’s silhouettes, which “heartbreakingly” showed “black bodies in motion, in transit, in danger, and in pain” (2). She had just made it through the week of the Charleston murders in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and she longed for the community of Lawrence’s migrants, “for their witness and fellowship” (2). So, Lawrence’s adaptations from life to art continue to inspire and to comfort. Schjeldahl adds: “As with much world-changing art, you can feel that ‘Migration’ is the invention less of an individual artist than of the artist serving as an instrument of invisible, urgent powers.” He also notes that “Lawrence continued to make excellent paintings and prints to the end of his life” (Schjeldahl 82). The young Harlem resident began his artistic and political journey with African American icons and the anonymous migrants during WWI through the Great Depression traversing his signature panels. His interventionist agenda traveled across genres—painting, writing, photography, music, cinema and cartoons—in order to reach the audiences he sought to activate. The recent exhibitions, debates, publications and adaptations of his work suggest that he succeeded, though the problems he took on, like the migrants, keep coming.


Works Cited

“Adaptation.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 15/08/17.

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1941. New York: Mariner Books, 2001. Print.

“Carter G. Woodson Biography.” Web. 10/04/17.

Conwill, Kinshasha Holman. “In Search of an ‘Authentic’ Vision: Decoding the Appeal of the Self-Taught African-American Artist.” American Art 5.4 (Autumn 1001): 2-9. Print.

Dickerman, Leah and Elsa Smithgall, eds. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. Reprint edition, 2015. Print.

Dos Passos, John. “Grosz Comes to America.” Esquire 6 (September 1936): 105, 128, 131. Print.

Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Danticat, Edwidge. “Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain.” The New Yorker June 22, 2015. Web. 18/05/18.

Electronic Disturbance Theater. “The Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Web. 30/07/18.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “New Negroes: Migration and Cultural Exchange.” Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Ed. Elizabeth Hutton Turner. Washington, DC: Rappahannock P, 1993. 17-21. Print.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.Print.

Hayes, Terrance. “Four Premonitions of Migration.” 2015. Web. 15/05/18.

Lauter, Paul. “Teaching Protest Literature.” The Radical Teacher 79 (2007): 8-12. Print.

Lorensen, Jutta. “Between Image and Word: Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series.’” African American Review 40.3 (Fall 2006): 571-86. Print.

Museum of Modern Art. “One Way Ticket.” Web. 10/05/18.

Quingsong, Wang. Official Webpage. 19/04/18.

Saul, Scott. “Protest Literature 101.” American Literary History 21.2 (Summer 2009): 404-17. Print.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Telling the Whole Story: Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series.’” The New Yorker (April 20, 2015): 80-82. Print.

Wheat, Ellen Harkins. Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-1940. Hampton: Hampton University Museum, 1991. Print.

Wright, Richard. Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States. 1941. London: Lindsay, Drummond, 1947. Print.


The Author

Clara Juncker (Ph.D. Tulane University) is Associate Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. She has published widely in the United States and Europe on Transnational Studies, 19th– and 20th-century American Literature, African American Studies, Film and Literature, Southern Literature, Gender Studies, and Literary Theory. Her books include Trading Cultures: Nationalism and Globalization in American Studies (2002), Through Random Doors We Wandered: Women Writing the South (2002), Transnational America: Contours of Modern U.S. Culture (2004), Circling Marilyn: Text, Body Performance (2010) and The Transatlantic Sixties: Europe and the United States in the Counterculture Decade (2013). 



[1] Lawrence’s paintings can be accessed here:

[2] Another version of this paragraph appeared in Southern Exposure: Essays Presented to Jan Nordby Gretlund. Ed. Thomas Ærvold Bjerre, Clara Juncker, and David E. Nye (Odense, Denmark: The Department for the Study of Culture, 2017), 15-16.

N°2 | “Things seen and done otherwise”: Adaptiveness and the Dynamics of Difference in A. S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia


Peter Merchant


“Double vision,” defined as an awareness “of things seen and done otherwise,” permeates A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, first published in 1992. The fact that its hero is a returning traveller, and an expert on insect behaviour, makes for connections which work both interculturally and across species. The novella’s acknowledgment of a number of precursor texts prompts us continually to refer Byatt’s writing back to the work by others that it artfully reimagines. Finally, Morpho Eugenia sets up an intersemiotic encounter between fiction and film; for a cinematic version was part of the author’s original conception and became a reality just two years after publication. This essay accordingly attempts a comparative treatment of a text whose techniques are themselves comparative. It explores the making of anagrams, through which existing elements are suggestively redisposed, as a parallel to the adaptive impulse and the adaptive act.


La novelette Morpho Eugenia de A. S. Byatt, publiée pour la première fois en 1992, est imprégnée de la “double vision”, définie comme une prise de conscience “des choses vues et faites autrement”. Le fait que son héros soit un voyageur de retour et un expert du comportement des insectes crée des liens qui fonctionnent à la fois entre les cultures et les espèces. La novelette laisse deviner des liens avec un certain nombre de textes précurseurs et incite continuellement le lecteur à se référer à ces intertextes brillamment réimaginés. Enfin, Morpho Eugenia organise une rencontre intersémiotique entre la fiction et le cinéma, car Byatt avait à l’esprit une version cinématographique lors de la conception originale de ce texte, adaptation qui a été réalisée deux ans seulement après la publication. C’est pourquoi le présent article tente de traiter de manière comparative un texte dont les techniques sont elles-mêmes comparatives. Il explore la réalisation d’anagrammes, à travers lesquels les éléments existants sont redisposés de manière suggestive, en parallèle avec l’impulsion adaptative et l’acte adaptatif.



        A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, which in her 1992 volume Angels and Insects appeared alongside The Conjugial Angel, opens with its hero newly returned to nineteenth-century Britain from his travels in South America. We find him physically “constricted,” inside a dress suit borrowed for a ball, but with mental horizons so expanded that he “remembered a festa on the Rio Manaquiry, lit by lamps made of half an orange-skin filled with turtle oil” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 3), and moreover “remembered being grabbed and nuzzled and rubbed and cuddled with great vigour by women with brown breasts glistening with sweat and oil, and with shameless fingers” (7). “Nothing he did now seemed to happen without this double vision, of things seen and done otherwise, in another world.” (7)

        Such “double vision” soon emerges as a resource in which Byatt’s novella is doubly invested. The immediate means of building it in is the intercultural awareness of the hero himself. Simply because he is a returning traveller, all that he experiences back in Britain comes accompanied by a recognition of—as T. S. Eliot put it—“other kinds of experience which are possible” (Eliot 111). That same habitual reference to an indelibly implicit “otherwise” is then transmitted to the reader. The threading through the narrative of the research into insect behaviour which several characters are pursuing invites us to engage in a continual comparison of their world with the ant world. The novella’s discreet homage to a number of precursor texts, taken largely from the nineteenth century, prompts us in addition to compare Byatt’s writing with the work by others which it artfully reimagines. Potentially, too, Morpho Eugenia makes the reader party to an intersemiotic translation of the written into the visual; for the film version which Byatt had in mind from the outset—having by her own account “always seen this tale as a film” (“Architectural Origins” 104)—was shot in the summer of 1994, within two years of the work’s initial appearance in print. The adaptation lent a further layer of irony. A novella that chronicles a coming to terms with the adaptability of life forms, as Darwin’s account of the successive modification of species collides for the hero’s host with the old idea of a divine Designer (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 33), was ministering now to discoveries by its readers about the adaptability of literary texts.

        One work with which Morpho Eugenia is both comparable and contemporary is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, first staged at London’s Lyttelton Theatre in April 1993. Byatt’s novella and Stoppard’s play enjoy a kind of Darwinian kinship, as analogous but separate organisms arising at the same historical juncture and within the same cultural ecosystem. With Arcadia touching upon thermodynamics and chaos mathematics, while Morpho Eugenia is tethered to entomology and the post-Darwinian controversies, an extraordinarily eclectic impulse runs through each and corresponds to the intercontinental reach of the action (out as far as the Amazon in Morpho Eugenia, and Martinique in Arcadia). On the historical level both works connect the 1990s to the nineteenth century, and in each case the point of entry into the past is provided by a young scholar’s stay in a country house. Stoppard’s play puts Septimus Hodge into Sidley Park as a private tutor; and Byatt’s novella sends the scientist-explorer William Adamson, his head filled with foreign bodies, to Bredely Hall, where a foreign body is exactly what he will be. William’s call to Bredely comes, however, some fifty years after Septimus’s summons to Sidley; for, where Stoppard’s setting is Georgian, Morpho Eugenia is steeped in all things Victorian. The terminal dates of the action, which begins a few months after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and ends a few months after the 1863 publication of Kingsley’s Water-Babies, in fact serve to signal one part of the novella’s literary pedigree and to measure two of its principal preoccupations: with Victorian evolutionary theory and with the form of the fairy tale.

        Although the reader is not to know whether William Adamson—who ends by expelling himself from Bredely Hall and returning to the rainforest—lives happily ever after, his beginnings are more straightforward. Byatt herself has traced her hero back to his origin by identifying him as a character “based on Bates and Wallace” (Byatt, Histories 79). William’s background in Brazil and butterflies is borrowed from Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, with the latter also bequeathing the calamity of his shipwreck on the voyage home and even donating his initials. A discreet transposition of these turns A. W. into W. A. and allows William, “because . . . he named the insects in the tropics,” to become Adamson, “the first man in the first Garden” (Byatt, Histories 81, 117). The resulting fictional composite can be projected by Byatt both as a second Adam, born of the Bible and of Milton, and as an eminently recognisable representative of mid-Victorian man, part “Amazonian naturalist” and part “Darwinian agnostic” (Byatt, Histories 79, 118.) Against him Byatt pits the man trying to reconcile Darwin with Design: Harald Alabaster, the clergyman naturalist who rules at Bredely Hall and who himself is ruled by his curiosity about creation. Harald is “one of those entomological aristocratic Victorian parsons with Doubts who contributed so much to science” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104). What he needs from William is on one level specialist help with his collection of specimens, on another level a type of gladiatorial combat. As he seeks to preserve what he can of the old order, by defending the territory to which Darwin has forced theology to retreat, Harald relishes the opportunity that William’s arrival affords to test his ideas in the crucible of debate.

        The ten years that William has spent in South America, together with the keen eye for structural similarities and differences that his scientific training has developed in him, impel him at every turn to compare the world which he has just left behind with the world into which his invitation to Bredely Hall has now brought him. While he was abroad, home-thoughts as vivid as Robert Browning’s would come thronging: “I was haunted by an image of an English meadow in spring. . . .” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 30). After his return, whenever he takes in the sights of Bredely Hall he finds himself by the same token thinking of Brazil. The one appears an adaptation of the other. Sometimes parallels of analogy come “pok[ing] their way through the curtains of his inner eye” (63), as when he looks at some “very fine Gothic fan vaulting” and thinks “of . . . palms towering in the jungle” (7). Sometimes what strike him are parallels of contrast: “He felt he was doomed to a kind of double consciousness. Everything he experienced brought up its contrary image from out there” (24). In Brazil William moved among “olive-skinned and velvet-brown ladies of doubtful virtue and no virtue” (5), but the Alabaster daughters to whom William’s work for Harald introduces him—Eugenia, Rowena, and Enid—seem of another substance altogether, as smooth and as precious as the family name suggests: “They were all three pale-gold and ivory creatures…” (4).

        Eugenia, Rowena, and Enid have two half-brothers, Edgar and Lionel, and at least five other siblings who, confined to the schoolroom and the nursery (22), are still at the larval stage. Increasingly, as its size and extent are revealed, the Bredely household comes to mimic the ant colonies which “his ruling passion, the social insects” (10), has led William to research. In the Alabaster family, indeed, this scholar specialising in the dynamics of coexistence and co-operation within specific defined communities would seem to have a subject made to his hand. Not only is there material for study in what turn out to be the tangled interactions of the family members themselves, but William’s own arrival at Bredely Hall will soon set the entire family unit adapting to the presence in their nest of an alien interloper, a stranger different from themselves in both background and values. Another potential series of comparisons arises, linking the Alabasters not with the peoples of the Amazon but with ants and butterflies. A woodland society consisting of ant colonies is chronicled in a text-within-the-text entitled “The Swarming City” (108-16). The principal observers of that woodland society, William himself and Matty Crompton, are annexed loosely to the Alabaster family; and within the hierarchy of Bredely Hall—which can include “various dependent spinsters of various ages,” and “visiting young men” (22)—they occupy a position beneath the queens but above the workers, envisaged by Byatt as “scurrying . . . in honeycombs of corridors” like “female worker ants carrying honeydew and larvae” (“Architectural Origins” 104). Consequently, once the story starts to move back and forth between the buzzing interior of Bredely Hall and the Swarming City that stands in its grounds, a dual perspective opens up whereby the human family and the ant colonies are, in the words of Tatiana Kontou, “arranged together in the narrative to create a double vision of natural and social evolution” (Kontou 126). As in The Insect Play by the brothers Čapek (1921), the insects become interesting both in their own right and for the running commentary that they appear to offer on human behaviour. The kinds of connection suggested may be deceptive, for—as William himself avows—“Analogy is a slippery tool” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 100) which occasionally throws up an “[i]rrelevant” (63) or “specious” (89) resemblance; but they are also illuminating about “human societies” and “human warfare” generally (38, 95), as well as very revealing about the Alabasters alone. Even as the novella resists them it none the less admits them.

        The inset account of the ant colonies is in any case destined to impinge upon the main narrative enclosing it, since it holds an important clue to the shocking dénouement to which the frame story will lead us. That “the female is the object of desire of all males” holds at Bredely Hall, as Sally Shuttleworth points out (Shuttleworth 264), no less than in any insect colony. Just as polyandry is suspected in the Ant Queen (Byatt, “Morpho” 101), so it emerges after William has married her that Eugenia, the eldest of the Alabaster daughters, has a concurrent sexual relationship with her own half-brother Edgar. William, who thought he was marrying a butterfly, “discovers too late that he has married the Queen ant by mistake” (Cheira 135). In the ant world, relatedness between the queens and the males is no bar to mating. The same house rules apply at Bredely Hall. The Alabaster family “had always been very pure-blooded” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 22) and “love each other very much” (8), in all too literal a way. William’s discovery of this brings the novella to its catastrophe, and puts Morpho Eugenia squarely in the middle of the steady stream of English-language narratives of sibling incest, running from 1969 to 2015, which a recent study has uncovered (Kokkola and Valovirta 139).

        By the time Eugenia admits to William that Edgar has been sleeping with her “[s]ince [she] was very little” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 150), it has become possible to see Bredely Hall not just as an ant colony writ very large but as a little epitome of English history. The fact that Edgar was installed as monarch a hundred years before the first William came to the throne should have warned Eugenia’s husband that Eugenia’s half-brother was earlier in line than himself. On the other hand, Harald Alabaster should have known that the theology whose truths he is trying to retexture cannot hope to match the new science which he has invited into his home; this is a contest in which Harald will be the loser, and William the conqueror. The mere names suffice for the post-Darwinian controversies to be represented here as a mid-Victorian re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. The “double vision” of Morpho Eugenia is at this point juxtaposing the 1860s with the 1060s, as well as Britain with Brazil and Bredely Hall with the “Swarming City” of ants. The characters are conceived and developed in terms of events which took place eight centuries before their time. “The Alabasters are the Anglo-Saxons” (Byatt, Histories 81), and must bow to the fitter overseas invader, the better adapted power that comes in and takes over: “I decided quite early to make my hero an Amazon explorer … I called him William and the old collector Harald out of a blatant reference to Scott’s historical vision of old and new rulers, Saxon and Norman” (Byatt, Histories 117). It is as if Victorian evolutionary theory were being anachronistically applied to Ivanhoe, in order to ask whether certain species such as the Normans are better equipped for survival than other species such as the Saxons. Questions of adaptation, therefore, are placed firmly on the novella’s agenda.

        The novella’s method, meanwhile, announces itself no less emphatically as entailing—on multiple occasions—a delineation by negatives. As Britain serves to call Brazil to mind, because “[e]verything . . . brought up its contrary image” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 24), so similar leaps are made which (for instance) link those gathered at Bredely Hall to the Normans and Saxons, or the Alabasters to the ants. The more “blatant” the category transgression, in each of these yokings together, the more vivid the bringing up, and the more profoundly the pictures evoked alter our notions of the things that evoked them. “Things Are Not What They Seem,” the title of one of the nested narratives that Morpho Eugenia accommodates (119–40), is in that sense also a truth which on every level Morpho Eugenia embodies. Throughout the larger narrative in which Matty Crompton’s playful tale is embedded, it applies in matters both great and small. Not only does William twice point to a capacity for mimicry in butterflies, which allows them to mask their true natures (20, 141), but the initial emergence of every butterfly already marks an astonishing transformation of what it once was. “Transfiguration,” says Harald, “is not a bad thing. Butterflies come out of the most unpromising crawling things” (49). The text of “Things Are Not What They Seem” highlights the “transfiguration” (133) of caterpillar into Puss Moth. Matty herself is destined for a metamorphosis. She has appeared drably devoid of sensuous promise—in Byatt’s own words, “a sexless worker” (Byatt, Histories 120)—but, when she comes to speak the same line that she turned into the title of her tale, “Things are not what they seem” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153, 119), it suggests that there is more than meets the eye not just to Edgar and Eugenia but to Matty Crompton too. She loosens her hair and draws herself up to the full height of her name: “’My name,’ she said, ‘is Matilda.’” (157) Their shared scientific enterprise then sees William the Conqueror and the newly transfigured Queen Matilda sailing together into the wide blue yonder, while “their blood swims with the excitement of the future” (160).

        Implicit in the note of expectancy on which the novella therefore concludes are the reader’s expectations of a fairy-tale ending. From the very beginning, in fact, much in Morpho Eugenia has been redolent of fairy-tale magic. The same Arabian Nights tale of Camaralzaman and Princess Budoor which later featured in the title story of Byatt’s 1994 volume The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye makes a contribution here too, as the first of the miniature narratives embedded in the text. On this occasion it is evoked only by fleeting allusion, however, and the reader must reconstruct the tale from the single line into which William’s journal has compressed it: the Prince’s “I shall die if I cannot have her” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 13–14). With pen in hand, in the early hours of the morning, and with Eugenia on his mind, William recalls that impassioned vow and reaffirms it three times before cockcrow. In doing so he is also bringing up, or inviting us to recall, the line—first penned in this same year, 1860—into which Elizabeth Gaskell would distil the essence of her novel Sylvia’s Lovers (1863): “Give me Sylvia, or else I die” (Gaskell 117). Gaskell draws the character to whom the line is given, Philip Hepburn, as a stolid Yorkshireman, “brought up among the Quakers” (117) and serving in a shop. Overwhelmed, however, by feelings for whose intensity the echo of Rachel’s “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30.1) is left to vouch, he abandons his principles and deceitfully prises Sylvia away from the jolly sailor, Charley Kinraid, who has captured her heart. Byatt’s William, another Yorkshireman whose father “was a successful butcher and a devout Methodist” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 9), seems somebody just as unlikely to suffer life-threatening romantic agony as Gaskell’s Philip; but he is just as unlucky in his choice of romantic object, since Sylvia has given her affections to Kinraid and Eugenia continues to give herself to Edgar. Through replicating the triangular tensions of Gaskell’s novel, Byatt’s novella affords an intriguingly complex example of adaptation by reminiscence in which the Arabian Nights tale that impinges on both works without being named by either becomes a missing link between Sylvia’s Lovers and Morpho Eugenia. This double alignment is typical of the novella’s interest in creating congruence both with the texts that it incorporates into itself and, crucially, with the defining texts of the historical period in which the novella itself is set. For that reason Morpho Eugenia is characterised throughout by the imaginative reworking of nineteenth-century antecedents.

        The novella’s Victorian setting does not in fact exclude texts of an earlier date. William summons up Coleridge (116) and Ben Jonson (66); and Matty, as well as using “a wonderful sonnet by poor mad John Clare” (104), quotes from Keats’s “Belle Dame sans Merci” (152) and from Milton’s Paradise Lost (31, 79–80). Appropriately enough, however, the allusions in Morpho Eugenia tend to concentrate on work written during the lifetimes of Matty and William themselves. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, prominently present in “The Conjugial Angel” as well as in Morpho Eugenia, is quoted here by both William (59) and Harald (87-89). Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad” also features (78-79). Victorian novels are prime providers of material too, with several sources other than Sylvia’s Lovers and several suppliers other than Elizabeth Gaskell turned tellingly to account. Interwoven with the traces of Philip Hepburn in William, for example, are traces of the scientist traveller, Roger Hamley, whom Gaskell put at the centre of her final novel Wives and Daughters (1864–66) and of the drawing master, Walter Hartright, who in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60) was engaged to help with a collection not of specimens but of drawings. Matty Crompton’s metamorphosis into Matilda gives the character similarly divided affinities; she both “suggests Miss Matty . . . in Gaskell’s Cranford” (Sturrock 102, note 4) and, on Byatt’s own authority (“Architectural Origins” 104), “nurses the fire of Jane Eyre.” The naming of the first pair of twins born to Eugenia after David Copperfield’s two wives, Agnes and Dora (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 70), measures the extent to which Morpho Eugenia reproduces classic Victorian fiction.



        These observations as yet are preliminary, rather than conclusive. The hope is that they may lead in the third and final section to firmer findings both about Byatt’s novella in particular and about the general condition, adaptiveness, which it inherits. Morpho Eugenia constitutes a perfect test case because it can be studied initially as interacting with various precursor texts to which it attaches itself through overt or oblique allusion and then, when its own turn comes, as interacted with by a single significant successor. That study can most properly and profitably be resumed after a few moments spent considering, in this second section, how best to understand and characterise the relationship that two texts enter into when one of them derives from the other. It is the kind of relationship most influentially described, perhaps, by Gérard Genette. For him, any pre-existing works which provide the basis for some newer work, “and upon which [the latter] is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary,” are its “hypotexts” (Genette 5). In so far as William Adamson’s story is grafted onto Philip Hepburn’s, for instance, Morpho Eugenia has a “hypotext” in Sylvia’s Lovers; and Byatt’s novella can, by the same token, be treated as a “palimpsest.”

        John Holloway, however, in his essay “Supposition and Supersession: A Model of Analysis for Narrative Structure” offers an alternative account of the grafting process. The essay is essentially an attempt to outline what occurs in the mind of the reader while that external sequence of cause and effect which we commonly think of as the plot of a story unfolds. Events at the outset will generate a certain set of suppositions; but when succeeding sections of the narrative disconfirm the hypotheses which we have formed, or cause them to come true in an unforeseen way, supposition is superseded. The argument advanced here, and the terms that it uses, could apply equally to acts of adaptation. The “dexterous resumption and modulation” (Holloway 49) of readers’ expectations is just as prominently involved in these. In so far as after we have taken our bearings by material likely to be familiar we realise that we are in fact in another place, the experience is again one of being whisked from the recognition of an apparently predictable pattern to a revelation of unpredicted difference. When an author reworks or refers to a precursor text but does not develop the materials found there quite as the surface resemblance has led us to anticipate, there may be moments of pleasurable surprise when—in Harald’s words—“[b]utterflies come out.”

        Nothing in any of the many hypotexts which are absorbed into Morpho Eugenia better illustrates expectation exceeded and supposition superseded than, from Paradise Lost, Milton’s “High on a throne” opening for Book II. In Matty Crompton’s copy of the poem, this passage might directly face the lines from the end of Book I that she has committed to memory (Byatt, “Morpho” 79–80). The passage is a supersession—or (as is signalled by the first verb in the Book) an outshining—of visions such as Ezekiel’s, setting God on a heavenly throne which seemed made of sapphire stone (Ezek. 1.26). Milton’s “dexterous resumption or modulation” of these sources surprises, of course, by enthroning Satan rather than God:


High on a throne of royal state, which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,

Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand

Show’rs on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,

Satan exalted sat. . . . (Milton 110)


In his Dunciad, however (three-book version, 1728-29; four-book version, 1742–43), Alexander Pope would subsequently spring a surprise of his own, ensuring that the dislodgement of Milton’s Satan could be effected with remarkably little fuss:


High on a gorgeous seat, that far out-shone

Henley’s gilt tub, or Fleckno’s Irish throne,

Or that where on her Curls the Public pours,

All-bounteous, fragrant Grains and Golden show’rs,

Great Cibber sate. . . . (Pope 736)


Pope’s Cibber, in the four-book Dunciad, is slotted into the place which previously belonged to Theobald: “Great Tibbald sate” (Pope 371). But really it is Milton’s Satan that both men are supposed to supersede. Cibber does so here by assuming the same position on the shining throne, as well as precisely the same position at the beginning of the poem’s second Book (that is, perched over line 5). Meanwhile, in his dazzlingly indecent variations on the Miltonic original, Pope mischievously misconstrues the golden showers as the sort that might be poured from a slop-bucket or chamber-pot over a piratical publisher in the pillory. The witty rearrangement which results is perfectly in accord both with Linda Hutcheon’s definition of adaptation as involving “an acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works” (8) and with John Holloway’s view of supersession as entailing the “dexterous resumption and modulation” of a precursor or precursors.

        That Cibber’s predecessor in his “gorgeous seat” was Satan is signalled not by any phonetic connection between the two names themselves—such as does the trick when E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime (1975) takes the eponymous hero of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (1810) as the foundation for his character Coalhouse Walker—but by the obvious parallels which Pope packs into all that surrounds them. Once Pope’s reader has recognised the lines on Cibber as replicating the syntactic structure which Milton’s description of Satan inhabited, the link is fastened. Pope imitates Milton by shadowing his sentences but within that framework of sameness substituting some words which are different. His own lines at the start of the 1742–43 Dunciad, “The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings / The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings, / I sing,” would be imitated in identical fashion in Crabbe’s 1775 poem Inebriety: “The mighty spirit, and its power, which stains / The bloodless cheek, and vivifies the brains, / I sing” (Crabbe 35). Oscar Wilde’s reputed epigram on inebriety, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes” (Pearson 192), likewise retains the shape of its precursor—the preachy platitude “Drink is the curse of the working classes”—but in doing so applies a savagely subversive internal variation. The opportunity to refresh a stale sentence simply by switching its subject plainly presented Wilde with the type of temptation of which he could get rid only by yielding to it.

        The shuffled words of the epigram, “Work” replaced by “Drink” and “drink” by “work,” contain clues to the techniques of rearrangement deployed in “Morpho Eugenia”; and the tinkering that went on between Milton, Pope and Crabbe suggests that even shuffles so slight as A.W. for Alfred Wallace into W.A. for William Adamson can produce very decisive transformations. Pope, above all, shows such delicacy of touch that it is often only letters, rather than whole words, which he needs to rearrange. The passage on Cibber is a case in point. In an opening line made entirely out of Milton’s materials, except that “which” has become “that” and “gorgeous East” has become “gorgeous seat,” Pope moves the first of the consonants in “East” to the front of the word in order to create a parodic version of Satan’s throne, perfect for the dauphin of Dullness that is “Great Cibber.” (He also establishes the alliterative sequence, G for “gorgeous” and then S for “seat,” which is to return with a vengeance in “Golden show’rs.”) At the end of the sentence he repeats the manoeuvre, this time retaining the consonantal pattern of the “seat” that came from Milton’s “East” but adjusting the vocalic infill in such a way as to advance from “seat” to “sate” and so conjure up the sitting, or squatting, Cibber. Pope’s neat anagrammatic twists on Milton become ways for him to turn the light of Paradise Lost into the darkness of The Dunciad, a poem in which (since its subject is the extinguishing of wit) “Darkness strikes the sense no less than Light” (Pope 553). They are also miniature models of all that adaptation implies. Just as anagrams revolve the letters of words in order to make from them other words, so adaptation rotates the elements of a precursor text in the knowledge that something very different may result.



        At a critical point in the action of Morpho Eugenia, shortly after William has discovered Edgar in his wife’s bedroom, revelation comes couched in anagrams. There are alphabet cards in the parlour, and a word-making game which—like the automatic writing in “The Conjugial Angel”—creates just the conditions needed for meaning and non-meaning to meet (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 152–53). William is dealt the letters PHXNITCSE. He does not at first spot the SPHINX he has been handed, any more than he could see Eugenia as the lethal setter of sexual conundrums that she is, and this oversight costs him his chance of “getting rid of the dangerous X” in a triumphant extraction of the word to which the entire novella is seen by Dirk Vanderbeke as a kind of cryptic clue: “Das ausgelassene Wort ist natürlich SPHINX” (Vanderbeke 436). The word omitted or elided can be no other, that is, than SPHINX. Instead, what William passes on to Matty is a word that more straightforwardly sums up his recognised “ruling passion”: INSECT. She then pointedly rearranges it as INCEST, with the comment “Things are not what they seem” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153). Not only will the suppositions to which William has subscribed about Matty—“She was dry, was Matty Crompton” (105)—very soon be superseded, but all of his expectations concerning Eugenia and what she stood for are already completely confounded. He should have heeded the warning signs that were there to be seen when the first two twins were born: “They don’t seem to resemble me at all” (71). Three further children then also turned out true to type, as “perfect little Alabasters—I only very rarely catch glimpses of myself in their expression” (106). All five may have been fathered not by William the insect expert but by Edgar the incest expert. As Sally Shuttleworth observes, “Harald Alabaster’s sermon on love which begins ‘with the natural ties between the members of the family group … the closeness of brothers and sisters’ . . . becomes, in the light of subsequent revelations, an exposure of the incestuous dynamics which lay at the heart of Victorian ideologies of the family” (Shuttleworth 265). The anagram takes us at a stroke from INSECT and the inner story of the ant colonies to INCEST and the frame story of the Alabaster family, dominated now by an explosive secret. It therefore instantly fastens that connection between its ostensible or “supposed” subject and its actual but veiled subject that operates the whole narrative. Out of the chrysalis of the story we thought we were reading, about insects or about the post-Darwinian controversies, comes a story which we probably failed to foresee.

        Byatt’s anagrammatic play, like Pope’s, accompanies an act of adaptation so bold that the adaptation qualifies as a second piece of significant imaginative creation. While Pope modifies Milton, the “dexterous resumption” in Byatt’s case is of a scene in Nabokov’s Ada:


Ada asked her governess for pencils and paper. Lying on his stomach, leaning his cheek on his hand, Van looked at his love’s inclined neck as she played anagrams with Grace, who had innocently suggested “insect.”

“Scient,” said Ada, writing it down.

“Oh no!” objected Grace.

“Oh yes! I’m sure it exists. He is a great scient. Dr. Entsic was scient in insects.”

Grace meditated, tapping her puckered brow with the eraser end of the pencil, and came up with:


“Incest,” said Ada instantly.

“I give up,” said Grace. “We need a dictionary to check your little inventions.” (85)


The matching moment in Morpho Eugenia is done without dialogue:


William . . . found himself able to present Matty Crompton with INSECT . . . Miss Crompton, her face heavily shadowed in the lamplight, gave a small snort of laughter at this word, considered it for some time, rearranged the cards, and pushed it back to him. . . . There it was, lying innocently in his hand. INCEST. He shuffled the evidence hastily, looked up, and met the dark intelligent eyes. (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153)


A simple juxtaposition of those two passages is all that is needed to reveal in Matty’s anagram the “intertextual reference to Nabokov’s Ada” to which, as long ago as 1998, Sally Shuttleworth very persuasively pointed (Shuttleworth 264, note 22). Ada made the same word from the same letters; on each occasion the context is incest between sister and brother, brought out of the shadows into the open; and, thanks to Nabokov’s lifelong interest in butterfly taxonomy, Ada is no less liberally laced with lepidoptera than Morpho Eugenia.

        Had the big-budget film adaptation of Ada which apparently was mooted (Mazierska 1) ever been made, it would have left the respective life cycles of Nabokov’s novel and Byatt’s novella looking very similar too. Morpho Eugenia in fact promptly crossed from page to screen, enjoying a far faster transition than Byatt’s 1990 novel Possession. Having been shot in the summer of 1994, the film version competed at Cannes in May 1995, went on general release in the UK (with an 18 certificate) in December of that year, and became available as a Film Four video release in May 1996. Throughout that journey, however, it travelled under a different name: not Morpho Eugenia (which might have been met with general incomprehension) but the title, Angels and Insects, that Byatt had given to the volume as a whole. The rebranding of Morpho Eugenia as Angels and Insects—like Whit Stillman’s rebranding of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan in his 2016 film Love and Friendship—simply substituted for the original title an alternative and closely associated title, also of the author’s own devising, which more plainly indicated the areas that the action would explore. A certain demonstrable proximity to the source is therefore preserved, while allowance is made for adjustments of which the rearranging of letters in the game of anagrams seems an apt emblem. Having itself reimagined the Victorian narratives that in one way or another it brought up, Byatt’s novella was open to the sort of reimagining on which Belinda and Philip Haas as the two screenwriters, and the latter as director, would now embark. A story which is partly about relocation, with William leaving the Amazon behind him to arrive at Bredely Hall, is itself transposed to a different medium; and there it comes to illustrate, not from the natural world but in the world of art, the very processes of development and variation that fascinate its hero.

        If Tennyson’s In Memoriam can be trusted as a compendium of its concerns, the mid-Victorian generation with which Byatt deals in Morpho Eugenia agonised over the volatility of things that “flow / From form to form” (Tennyson 973). No such misgivings attached, at least on the author’s part, to the transition which Morpho Eugenia made from print to film: “I felt none of the usual novelist’s anxiety about film spoiling something made of words, because I had always seen this tale as a film…” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104). Even at the point of its initial conception, Morpho Eugenia was a readily transformable text, and ripe for film adaptation. Its transference to the medium of film of course threw up challenges too. In so far as the text with which they were working refracts Victorian material through a twentieth-century sensibility, Belinda and Philip Haas found themselves (like Harold Pinter in his French Lieutenant’s Woman screenplay) adapting what was already an adaptation. The need to reckon with that knowledge of the book which some who saw the film would inevitably be bringing in, much as William carried his memories of English meadows into the Amazonian rainforest, was bound to pull the screenwriters in one direction; but the conventions of the narrative fiction film would pull them in another, towards the sort of realism from which the novella had worked itself free. In the event they steered a thoughtful course between fidelity to the source and obedience to the mechanics of the medium. Their film version took the story along the same trajectory as the novella, and sacrificed as few of its strands as possible; but it foregrounded some parts of the content more than Byatt herself had done, and made them meet more crunchingly. The first mention of Darwin is moved out of the privacy of Harald’s study into the dining-room where the other Alabasters have also gathered. The tension between William and Edgar is more palpable and becomes evident at an earlier stage. The convergence of the human and insect worlds is underscored at the level of costume design; skirts resemble butterfly wings, and in one scene the dress which Eugenia wears is yellow with black stripes, as if to make her into a human wasp. The connections and comparisons between Brazil, Bredely Hall and the “Swarming City” are emphasised by cross-cutting.

        In this way the screenplay manages to make manifest what had been latent in the novella, where necessarily things were “seen and done otherwise,” and to capture the kind of complexities that literary texts less easily reach. Byatt indeed anticipated as much: “My idea for the film was that the screen would be able to interweave the images of the two communities—ants and people—so as at once to reinforce the analogy and to do the opposite—to show the insects as Other, resisting our metaphorical impositions” (Byatt, Histories 116-17). She not only endorsed what the screenplay attempted but contributed crucially to its development: “The Haases wrote a script both dramatic and intelligently embodying the ideas. We worked together. The project took on life” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104+). The dangers that always attend upon adaptations were thus averted. Just as insects “are all at their most vulnerable at the moment of metamorphosis,” according to William, and at that time “can be easily snapped up by any predator” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 53), so any book which becomes subject to intermedial reworking is correspondingly at risk. It must rely on the scenarist being sufficiently attuned to the source material not to cannibalise it completely. The London Times film reviewer in fact wondered whether the Haases had taken attunement to the point of subservience, for Angels and Insects had to him “the feeling of a film fettered by literature”; but he also found it a “handsome and intelligent” piece of film-making (Brown). The novella’s potentially difficult migration to another medium had, in the end, been sympathetically managed. In the words which Byatt had given to Harald, “Transfiguration is not a bad thing” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 49). And nor, on this occasion, was the “transmodalization” (Genette’s term) that saw Belinda and Philip Haas turn A. S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia into the film Angels and Insects. Their film stands as a fitting and felicitous treatment of a work which itself reflects on acts of adaptation and is keenly conscious of its own adaptive potential.


Works Cited

Angels and Insects. Screenplay by Belinda Haas and Philip Haas. Dir. Philip Haas. Playhouse International Pictures in association with the Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1995. Film.

Brown, Geoff. “Romancing the Stonefaced.” Times 7 Dec. 1995: 37. “The Times” Digital Archive 1785–2011. Web. 11/09/2017.

Byatt, A. S. “The Architectural Origins of a Provocative Film.” Architectural Digest 53.4 (1996): 100-08. Print.

—. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories. London: Chatto and Windus, 1994. Print.

—. Morpho Eugenia. Angels and Insects. London: Chatto and Windus, 1992. 3-160. Print.

—. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto and Windus, 2000. Print.

Cheira, Alexandra. “Neo-Victorian Sexual De[v/f]iance: Incest, Adultery, Breaking the Virginity Taboo and Female Sexual Agency in A. S. Byatt’s ‘Morpho Eugenia.’” Neo-Victorian Studies 9.2 (2017): 126-53. Web. 10 Sep. 2017.

Crabbe, George. A Selection from George Crabbe. Ed. John Lucas. London: Longmans, 1967. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “The Sacred Wood” and Major Early Essays. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Sylvia’s Lovers. Ed. Nancy Henry, with other critical material by Graham Handley. London: J. M. Dent, 1997. Print.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Foreword by Gerald Prince. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Print.

Holloway, John. “Supposition and Supersession: A Model of Analysis for Narrative Structure.” Critical Inquiry 3.1 (1976): 39-55. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda, with Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Kokkola, Lydia, and Elina Valovirta, “The Disgust that Fascinates: Sibling Incest as a Bad Romance.” Sexuality & Culture 21.1 (2017): 121-41. Print.

Kontou, Tatiana. Spiritualism and Women’s Writing: From the Fin de Siècle to the Neo-Victorian. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Mazierska, Ewa. Nabokov’s Cinematic Afterlife. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Alastair Fowler. Rev. 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson, 2007. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1969. Print.

Pearson, Hesketh. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London: Methuen, 1946. Print.

Pinter, Harold. The Screenplay of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Foreword by John Fowles. London: Jonathan Cape, 1981. Print.

Pope, Alexander. The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John Butt. Corrected ed. London: Methuen, 1968. Print.

Shuttleworth, Sally. “Natural History: The Retro-Victorian Novel.” The Third Culture: Literature and Science. Ed. Elinor S. Schaffer. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1998. 253-68. Print.

Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. London: Faber and Faber, 1993. Print.

Sturrock, June. “Angels, Insects, and Analogy: A. S. Byatt’s ‘Morpho Eugenia.’” Connotations 12.1 (2002 / 2003): 93-104. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. The Poems of Tennyson. Ed. Christopher Ricks. London and Harlow: Longmans, 1969. Print.

Vanderbeke, Dirk. Theoretische Welten und literarische Transformationen: Die Naturwissenschaften im Spiegel der ‘science studies’ und der englischen Literatur des ausgehenden 20. Jahrhunderts. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2004. Print.


The Author

Peter Merchant is Principal Lecturer in English at the School of Humanities of Canterbury Christ Church University, in the UK. His recent works include the first critical edition of F. Anstey’s The Statement of Stella Maberly, which includes various related manuscripts (Valancourt, 2017), and a collection of articles coedited with Catherine Waters entitled Dickens and The Imagined Child (Ashgate, 2015). He has also contributed to the following volumes: Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity (dirs. Gibson, Trower and Tregidga, Routledge, 2013) and Home and Away: The Place of the Child Writer (dirs. Owen and Peterson, Cambridge Scholars, 2016).

N°2 | The Amazing Transformation of William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson into Southern Poetry

Ineke Jolink


Conscient de la qualité du recueil de poèmes Mississippi Vistas de Louis Daniel Brodsky, écrivain du Missouri (Etats-Unis), le Professeur James W. Silver l’a défini comme l’hommage intellectuel le plus approprié au créateur du Yoknapatawpha. Dans ces poèmes, des personnages bien connus des romans et des nouvelles de William Faulkner sont évoqués, notamment Addie Bundren, le prêtre Whitfield, Gowan Stevens, Miss Temple Drake, Miss Emily Grierson, Quentin et Caddy Compson, ainsi que, dans la quatrième partie “Rowan Oak et les fantômes de Yoknapatawpha”, l’auteur lui-même accompagné de sa femme—le somnolant William et la douce Estelle. Cet article se concentre sur l’un de ces poèmes, “Triangle Eternel” ; j’analyserai les moyens narratologiques, poétiques et linguistiques mis en œuvre par Brodsky pour évoquer le moment précis de l’apparition du fantôme d’un personnage sudiste que le lecteur ne peut oublier.


In the collection Mississippi Vistas by the Missouri poet Louis Daniel Brodsky, of which James W. Silver said that they “may well comprise the most appropriate intellectual tribute ever made to the creator of Yoknapatawpha,” such well-known characters from William Faulkner’s novels and short stories as Addie Bundren, the Reverend Whitfield, Gowan Stevens, Miss Temple Drake, Miss Emily Grierson and Quentin and Caddy Compson are called up, in addition to the author himself and his wife—“sleepy William, sweet Estelle”—in the fourth part of the collection : “Rowan Oaks and the Ghosts of Yoknapatawpha.” This article focuses on one of these poems, “Eternal Triangle,” discussing the different narratological, poetic and linguistic devises that Brodsky uses to evoke the precise moment of apparition of the ghost of this Southern character we cannot forget.


        The writer William Faulkner himself, as many critics portray him, could at times be a pretty “spooky” character. In their little-known book Our Neighbor, William Faulkner, for instance, two aspiring writers from Faulkner’s home town of Oxford Mississippi, Charles Nelson and David Goforth observe: “he [Faulkner] has almost completely cut himself off from any normal trafficking with the town, a fact which indicates that he is not an integral part of it and never has been. Even if he let down his drawbridge he would still be an abnormality” (8). They continue by presenting the figure of the writer in terms of gothic apparition and evanescence: “We have seen him walking late at night through unlighted alleys . . . We have seen him appear suddenly on the street in the middle of the day, looking neither left nor right but straight ahead, then walk unnoticed by all he passes out of sight” (12). What is more, being “afraid to get too near the ante-bellum home of the writer in Oxford, Mississippi,” Faulkner’s young neighbors recognize in themselves the “strange fascination of a moth for a light, yet witnessing the fear the insect lacks” (15). This way the young men clearly identify their sensibilities as gothic, positioning themselves within the most gothic of liminalities, on the threshold between fascination and fear.

        As I have argued elsewhere (“Haunted Borderlands”), to me the Gothic is above all a genre of the in-between, a genre exploiting different types of liminality. Indeed, one may mention as typical gothic characters the ghost, who is between life and death; the werewolf, between man and animal; Frankenstein’s monster, between animal and machine, but also the mulatto, between black and white, in what is known as the “southern gothic”; the cross-dresser or the trans-sexual, between male and female, as well as the adolescent, between child and adult, the source of the “délire de toucher” that Freud mentions in “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence.” Then there is, of course, the liminal setting of the Gothic. First of all, as far as time is concerned: the gothic story tends to take place at dusk, between day and night, at mid-night or “late at night”—in the quote about Faulkner—in any case, between one day and the next; or at the winter solstice, between the disappearance of the sun and its re-appearance. Secondly, as regards place, the gothic story tends to take place in hallways or on thresholds, that is, between one room and another; or on porches, balconies or verandas, in other words, between inside and outside, between private and public. Finally, there is also the affect of the Gothic: liminal states of being and sentiments that are aroused in characters and that are, more often than not, communicated in some way to the reader: the in-between of the real and the unreal, of reality and dream, of consciousness and unconsciousness, of madness and sanity, and always, of fascination and fear, again as in the Faulkner example above.

        The “spookiness” that was attributed to Faulkner himself rubs off, we could say, on his characters. To understand this, we have to remember first of all how important his characters were to the writer. In fact, he saw them as real, as real as his fellow Oxfordians; to quote Faulkner himself, as “people I had known all my life in the country I was born in” (Faulkner at Westpoint 96f). This goes as far as fellow Oxfordians feeling implicated and annoyed, recognizing themselves or their families in stories that were often far from flattering, having such themes as mental retardation, incest and suicide. Nelson and Goforth write, in any case: “you can still see the Vardamans and the Bilbos and the Dewey Dells—if you look hard enough on a Saturday afternoon” (10). Indeed, Faulkner saw his characters as “flesh and blood people that will stand up and cast a shadow” (Faulkner in the University 47). For all the reality that these words are meant to convey, a certain gloominess—a “gothic spookiness”—nevertheless creeps in with this predicate: “cast a shadow.” And, of course, we are instantly reminded of Quentin Compson’s struggle with his shadow in The Sound and the Fury, the shadow that he tries to trample “into the concrete” (109); to tread “into the pavement” (115) or to trample “into the dust” (128). Indeed, Quentin wants to turn himself into a ghost, a phantom, by eliminating his shadow. This symbolic act, on the day of his suicide, places him clearly within the gothic liminality of life and death. But that is not all, the disturbing fact that, as a first-year student at Harvard, he is still a virgin places him in the interspace between child and adult, while his untruthful confession to his father that he committed incest with his sister Caddy positions him on the border between guilt and innocence. And then there is, of course, what we remember from Absalom, Absalom!: Quentin’s gothic relationship to time, his very body “a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts,”; an “empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names” (9)

        The fact that we have moved here from the novel The Sound and the Fury of 1929 to the novel Absalom, Absalom! of 1936 brings me to a last point with regard to Faulkner’s assessment of his characters: their existence independent from the author and the text that created them. As the writer puts it, “there is always a point in the book where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job” (Lion 244). Again, a certain “spookiness” is introduced, in this case through the phrasal verb “rise up.” Indeed, becoming independent of the writer, the character, like a ghost as it were, crosses the borders between text and life, between fiction and reality, leaving the writer, as Faulkner said, “to trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does” (Faulkner at Westpoint 111). That this can go beyond the borders of the particular book is clear when on another occasion Faulkner argues: “when the book is finished, that character is not done, he still is going on at some new devilment that sooner or later I will find out about and write about” (Faulkner in the University 78). Quentin Compson is, indeed, a good example of such a character.

        First of all, a Quentin-like character—a sort of proto-Quentin—appears in a small handwritten booklet, beautifully illustrated, called Mayday[1] that Faulkner presented in 1926 to the young woman he was in love with at the time, Helen Baird. Indeed, this Quentin avant-la-lettre by the name of Sir Galwyn, is, like Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, mesmerized by a girl “with shining hair,” like Quentin passes a last solitary day “travelling restlessly” (27) and also drowns himself in a river. Then, the character appears, of course, under his own name, Quentin, in the novels The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, and Absalom, Absalom!, of 1937, as well as in the short story “That Evening Sun,” published in 1931. Taking these Quentins as one and the same figure presents both a challenge and an opportunity, and most critics who have pondered the issue seem to agree that our interpretation gains in complexity and richness if we do so. Of these Waldemar Zacharasiewicz, in his article “The Resurrection of Characters,” discusses Quentin Compson as an example of the character who remains alive between different works by the same author (309), while Estella Schoenberg’s Old Tales and Talking: Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Related Work, provides a time-table that convincingly shows, at least, the interlocking of history in the two novels. As we know, Faulkner started the whole history of the Compson family, known from The Sound and the Fury and later work, with an image that had haunted him and would continue to do so: that of a little girl climbing a pear tree, showing her brothers below the bottom of her muddy drawers.[2] It is this obsessive image, fraught with gothic notions of purity and sin, innocence and guilt, that links the character and the author. Faulkner, in any case, says that Quentin committed suicide because of his sister’s pregnancy.[3]

        Faulkner’s characters, then, have certainly haunted other writers, as cases of pastiche and several accusations of plagiarism show.[4] Here I have chosen to pinpoint and discuss the moment of Quentin’s apparition in a poem from 1975 from the collection Mississippi Vistas by the Missouri poet Louis Daniel Brodsky. James W. Silver said of the poems collected here that they “may well comprise the most appropriate intellectual tribute ever made to the creator of Yoknapatawpha,” William Faulkner.[5] In these poems, such well-known characters from Faulkner’s novels and short stories as Addie Bundren, the Reverend Whitfield, Gowan Stevens, Miss Temple Drake, Miss Emily Grierson and Quentin and Caddy Compson are called up, in addition to the author himself and his wife—“sleepy William, sweet Estelle”—in the fourth part of the collection “Rowan Oaks and the Ghosts of Yoknapatawpha.” The poem that I will focus on is called “Eternal Triangle” (51), and consists of 4 stanzas of 9 lines each:


Eternal Triangle


Louis Daniel Brodsky, 1975


         1.      Lilac heather, oleander, crepe myrtle

         2.      Decorate this lost day

         3.      Disappearing through magnoliaed twilight

         4.      Into an ante-bellum evening

         5.      Draped with wisteria and honeysuckle vines.

         6.      Their sweet lingering scents

         7.      Mingle with whiskey sours

         8.      That transport my mind

         9.      Towards a timeless watery vortex.


         10.    Through a carnival glass snifter

         11.    I witness Quentin pass

         12.    Down murky fathoms of the Charles River

         13.    Weighted with six-pound flat irons

         14.    Tied to ideas of pride

         15.    Conceived in shame

         16.    Obsolescent, obsessive, and incestuous

         17.    His drowning confounds me;

         18.    I see his pain in my ears


         19.    Rising inside tiny gurgling bubbles

         20.    Ballooning to the surface

         21.    Like off-key carillon bells

         22.    Transposing old tunes to cacophonies.

         23.    As they go further out

         24.    Their overtones diminish to kisses

         25.    Dripping from his wizened lips

         26.    Reaching to touch his sister

         27.    Before she races from his bursting veins.


         28.    She withstands the pressure;

         29.    His empty admission,

         30.    Conceived to vindicate her unblessed soul,

         31.    Is swallowed whole by a trout

         32.    Skimming for flies in a near-by stream.

         33.    Now I alone exist

         34.    To interpret the persistent echo

         35.    Of the feisty little girl in muddy drawers

         36.    Begging me to take her home


We see that, in the first stanza, an atmosphere is created which contains many gothic elements. Indeed, the poem is set in the classical gothic in-between of “twilight” (line 3), of not quite day and not quite night. At this moment, the day is “lost” (line 2), that is, it has somehow entered a no-man’s land between existing and not existing, disappearing into the liminality of present and past. Situated between the now of the poetic utterance and the then of “an ante-bellum evening” (line 4), it echoes the famous phrase that Faulkner put in the mouth of Judge Stevens, in Requiem for a Nun: “the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

        Flowers and their scents play an essential role here, as there are heather, oleander, myrtle, wisteria and finally honeysuckle. This last flower is, of course, one of the central symbols of the novel The Sound and the Fury, connecting the “curling flower spaces” through which Benjy laments the disappearance of the sister Caddy, on the first page of his section, to the smell of Caddy’s awakened sexuality, which precedes her disappearance, as reported in Quentin’s section. The “sweet lingering scents” (line 6) of these flowers next create an olfactory borderland of past and present, their then mingling with the now of whiskey sours being drunk on a summer’s night in Oxford Mississippi. Thus, at the same time, a liminal space between Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha county, and Oxford, Lafayette county, is created; in other words, a borderland between fiction and reality. The liminality of doubled intoxication—that of flower scent and alcohol—creates, in the last line of the first stanza, the dizzying effect of a “vortex” (line 9). The adjective “watery” attributed to the noun is, of course, rich in associations: from Benjy’s tears to Caddy’s muddy drawers in The Sound and The Fury, and to her being “wet to the waist” in the short story “A Justice.” Having his mind transported towards this vortex, the poet himself is being dragged down into this complex of liminalities: between here and there, between then and now, and between fiction and reality, claustrophobically, as in a whirlpool, without being able to escape.

         The whiskey glass working as a lens, the poet now focuses on the essential scene, while creating a tripling of spatial in-betweens: that of the cities of Oxford, Jefferson, and Boston. It is in this atmosphere, bursting with gothic liminalities, that the apparition of Quentin takes place. Not only his appearance but also his evanescence, as it is clear that the drowning Quentin Compson floats by in the Charles River, that is, he passes. I propose that we look a little closer at the way in which this apparition and evanescence is created linguistically in the second line of the second stanza (line 11): “I witness Quentin pass.” This linguistic structure is a type of attributive clause that is called a small-clause. It can be seen to consist of a verb of perception, here the verb witness, and a complement in the form of a bare infinitive, here the verb pass, or a progressive, as in “I witness Quentin passing.” Here the more ceremonial simple present tense seems, in fact, appropriate.

        The small-clause is special because it includes no truth judgment on the part of the speaker (van der Leek). That is to say, it conveys the experience of witnessing “raw,” without any intellectual mediation. This becomes clear if we compare the linguistic form chosen here with those using the other forms of attributive clause: the toinfinitive clause, the howclause and the thatclause respectively. Indeed, the poet might have said:


I witness Quentin pass. (this is the smallclause chosen here)

I witness Quentin to pass / or I witness Quentin to be passing. (the toinfinitive)

I witness how Quentin passes / or how Quentin is passing. (the howclause)

I witness that Quentin passes / or that Quentin is passing (the thatclause)


In this order, the utterances convey an increasing sense of intellectual mediation or epistemic evaluation. That is to say, the different options, here, run from no use of independently existing knowledge whatsoever, in the smallclause, to the full inclusion of it in the thatclause.

        The semantics of the specific mental activity verb must, of course, allow for this “sliding.” This is why the smallclause cannot be used with a mental activity verb like know, conclude or understand, which are intellectual activity verbs including a truth judgment. Indeed, one agrees on the ungrammaticality of the sentences


I know Quentin pass.

I conclude Quentin pass.

I understand Quentin pass.


In fact, it seems that the verb witness focuses more on a direct experience than on an intellectual, reflective one. In other words, its semantics are not in accordance with the semantics of the that-clause, which are steeped in intellectual mediation. It is this kind of contradiction that makes the phrase combining them—the verb witness and the attributive that-clause—ungrammatical.

        The smallclause, because it focuses exclusively on “raw” experience, is used with great effect by writers to depict states of limited, disturbed or altered consciousness—when intellectual mediation is underdeveloped, degenerated or temporarily dysfunctional—such as those connected with mental retardation, mental illness, situations of extreme mental stress and dreamlike, hypnotic and hallucinatory states, as well as alcoholic intoxication. As I have shown elsewhere (see works cited), great writers, such as Henry James and James Joyce and also Faulkner, use the smallclause this way. Faulkner uses the linguistic structure, for instance, to depict Joe Christmas’s state of mind when he tries to flee the mob that wants to lynch him in Light in August, as well as, in a most complex way, to make clear Rider’s grief after the death of his wife in the story “Pantaloon in Black,” in the collection of stories, Go Down, Moses. But it is especially Quentin Compson’s hallucinatory state of mind on the last day of his life that is conveyed through smallclauses. It seems only right, then, that the poet, who had his mind transported towards the gothic border-space of the “watery vortex,” is seen to inflict a hallucinatory state upon himself, a state in which, indeed, his ghost can appear by means of the small-clause.

        The whole second stanza fleshes out this hallucination, attributing to the passing ghost of Quentin the qualities that we recognize from The Sound and the Fury—the “obsolescent, obsessive, and incestuous” sense of pride that covers up the shame over his sister. And, carrying the story beyond the situation of the novel, the flat-irons Quentin was still carrying around there are now finally put to use to help him drown. The poet’s hallucinatory state is next expanded through a complex smallclause construction beginning in the last line of the second stanza and continuing through enjambment into the whole of the third stanza. This begins with the extraordinary sentence “I see his pain in my ears” (line 18), in which the poet does not just identify with Quentin’s ghost but does so in a clear case of what I would like to call compassionate synesthesia. Synesthesia, the perception of one sensory organ by means of another, is characteristic of new-born babies. It can continue to exist in mentally retarded people, as Oliver Sachs has so beautifully shown it in his book The Man Who Took His Wife for a Hat, and as Faulkner showed it so beautifully in Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury, or it can re-appear in cases of mental aberration, psychosis especially, such as in Quentin’s section in the same novel.  

        This astonishing expression of compassionate synesthesia—“I can see his pain in my ears”—is then used in a series of small-clauses that sustain the hallucination and therefore the continuing presence of Quentin’s ghost.


I can see his pain… rising…

I can see it ….. inside bubbles ballooning…

I can see them … like carillon bells transposing…


After this, the complex of smallclauses with their triple raw perception is finished. This is the moment of the fully established hallucination, where the hallucinated subject is accepted as real, where he is allowed a presence independent of any observer and where simple present tenses are therefore used. Psychiatrists refer to this stage as psychosis-peace, where the hallucinating subject is no longer between two worlds—the real and the unreal—but has fully entered what the outside world calls unreal, but which he experiences as real.

        It is this moment that turns Quentin from a ghost into a presence, a presence whose lips, wrinkled from being in the water, drip with kisses that are the final result of the bubbles in which his pain was contained. We have here, by the way, a distinct reference to the novel again, to Dilsey’s section, where the black priest calls up the presence of Jesus as well as “still another, without words, like bubbles rising in water” (296). Likewise, in the next image, the sister resisting the pressure—bursting from Quentin’s veins just before his kisses can reach her—is a ghostly echo from The Sound and the Fury, a moment in which the symbolic merging of Quentin and Caddy’s blood takes place. Indeed, this occurs when Quentin is hit in the face by a friend at Harvard and suffers a nose-bleed. In a fully realized hallucination, Quentin’s blood, here, merges with that of Caddy at a remembered moment when she had lost her virginity to her boyfriend and the highly disturbed brother devised a suicide pact as the only way out, applying pressure to her throat with a knife. Resisting him, Caddy then put his hand against her throat. Quentin relives the situation:


I felt the first surge of blood there it surged in strong accelerated beats

. . .

her blood surged steadily beating and beating against my hand

It kept on running for a long time, but my face felt cold and dead… (162)


Obviously, the pronoun it in the last sentence does not refer to Caddy’s blood, as it should grammatically speaking, but to Quentin’s. In this hallucinatory scene, then, some kind of incest occurs; in other words, in Quentin’s delusion his sister’s blood, pulsing under his hand, flows together with his own blood as it runs down his face.

        The image in this last stanza is the poet’s hallucinated superposition of little Caddy’s muddy drawers in The Sound and the Fury, of Caddy’s being “wet to the waist” in “A Justice,” of the wetness of Caddy’s first sexual experience, again in the novel, and of her bursting from Quentin’s dying veins, while he drowns in the Charles River, in the poem. As in The Sound and the Fury, the last thing left of the young man is his “empty admission” (line 29) that he committed incest with his sister, which is insubstantial and useless, “swallowed whole” by a trout (line 31), again a reference to Quentin’s last day in The Sound and the Fury. With this, the presence is gone.


        I hope that I have been able to show that, initiated by the intoxicating atmosphere of flowers and whiskey—and flooded by images of Faulkner’s little girl—the poet has intuitively known to use a series of smallclauses to call up the hero that he could merge with. But neither Faulkner himself nor his alter-ego Quentin Compson any longer being there, it is the poet himself, merged with the ghostly Quentin in the watery vortex of romantic intoxication, who must bear the “persisting echo” (line 34) of “that doomed little girl,” as Faulkner called her (Blotner 211): “the feisty little girl in muddy drawers / begging me to take her home” (35-36). This, of course, is the eternal triangle that the title talks about. The image will stay with the poet, like it stayed with Quentin, like it stayed with Faulkner himself, and, we should ass, like it will stay with all readers of Faulkner’s masterpiece.


Works Cited


Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.

Bockting, Ineke. Character and Personality in the Novels of William Faulkner: A Study in Psychostylistics. Lanham, Maryland: UP of America, 1995. Print.

—. “Mind Style as an Interdisciplinary Approach to Characterisation in Faulkner.” Language and Literature 3.2 (Spring 1994): 157-74. Print.

—. “Haunted Borderlands: Gothic Liminality in Texts of the American South.” Dynamics of the Threshold: Essays in Liminal Negotiations. Eds. Jesús Benito and Ana Manzanas. Studies in Liminality and Literature 5. Madrid: The Gateway Press, 2006. 39-54. Print.

—. “Linguistic Aspects of Theory of Mind: The Example of William Faulkner’s Disturbed Characters.” Theory of Mind and Literature. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2011. 175-87. Print.

Brodsky, Louis Daniel. Mississippi Vistas. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1983. Print.

Claus, Hugo De Metsiers. Brussel: Manteau, 1950. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom! Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. As I Lay Dying. 1930. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. Faulkner at West Point. Eds. Joseph L. Fant and Robert Ashley. New York: Random House, 1964. Print.

—. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958. Eds. Frederick L. Gwyn and Joseph L. Blotner. Charlottesville: The U of Virginia P, 1959. Print.

—. Go Down, Moses. 1942. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. Eds. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. Lincoln: The U of Nebraska P, 1980. Print.

—. Mayday. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978. Print.

—. Requiem for a Nun. 1950. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

—. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. New York: Vintage, 1951. Print.

—. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. Ed. David Minter. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1994. Print.

—. These 13. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1931. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental lives of Savages and Neurotics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1989. Print.

Gorp van, Dorien. “A Comparative Study of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Graham Swift’s Last Orders.” Doctoral Dissertation defended at the University of Gent, Belgium, May 2007. Print.

Leek van der, Frederike C. “Significant Syntax: The Case of Exceptional Passives.” DWPELL 27 (1989): 1-28. Print.

Nelson, Charles and David Goforth. Our Neighbor, William Faulkner. Chicago: Adams Press, 1977. Print.

Sachs, Oliver. The Man Who Took His Wife for a Hat. London: Pan Books, 1986. Print.

Schoenberg, Estella. Old Tales and Talking: Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Related Work. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1977. Print.

Zacharasiewicz, Waldemar. “The Resurrection of Characters: Aspects of Interconnected Narratives in North American Fiction.” Tales and Their Telling Difference: Zur Theorie und Geschichte der Narrativik: Festschrift für Franz K. Stanzel. Heidelberg: Winter 1993. 295-317. Print.


The Author

Ineke Jolink holds doctoral degrees from the Universities of Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Montpellier (France). She has taught at universities in the Netherlands, Norway and France, and she was a full, tenured professor at the Catholic University of Paris, where she was Head of the English Department and Director of the Masters program “Textes, représentations et cultures anglo-saxonnes.” Her publications include articles on various aspects of the American South, ethnic literatures, travel-narrative, autobiography, literary stylistics and pragmatics, and cognitive science and literature, as well as a book-length study of the novels of William Faulkner, entitled Character and Personality in the Novels of William Faulkner: a Study in Psychostylistics.


[1] In his introduction to Mayday, Carvel Collins argues that although The Sound and the Fury was not published until 1929, Faulkner was already thinking of writing about a “formally well-to-do family” with “a daughter who got in trouble and left home, a mentally defective son, a son who committed suicide, and one who was ‘a sharper’ in Paris in 1925” (25), that is, some time before he wrote the nouvelle for Helen Baird.

[2] “The only thing in literature which would ever move me very much: Caddy climbing the pear tree to look in the window at her grandfather’s funeral while Quentin and Jason and Benjy and the negroes looked up at the muddy seat of her drawers” (227). Introduction to The Sound and the Fury. Reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition.

[3] This is a problem shared by another character who is very close to Faulkner’s heart, Darl Bundren, who, in As I Lay Dying, faces another type of death, being sent to the insane asylum at Whitfield.

[4] There are at least two clear cases of plagiarism connected with these two novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Indeed, the sixth novel of the British author Graham Swift, Last Orders, which won the Booker Prize in 1996, has been seen as a case of plagiarism of Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying. Darl Bundren is represented, here, by the character Ray “Lucky” Johnson. The question of plagiarism or pastiche is the subject of thesis called “A Comparative Study of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Graham Swift’s Last Orders” by Dorien Van Gorp defended at the University of Ghent, Belgium in May 2007. Van Gorp notices, apart from parallels in characterization and structure, the presence of three types of typical character in both novels: the chapter narrated by a deceased person, the chapter in which the lines are numbered and the one-sentence chapter. In addition to Swift’s Last Orders, there is the case of the Belgian writer Hugo Claus and his 1950s debut novel De Metsiers (translated into French by Marie Hooghe as La Chasse aux Canards (1953), into English as The Duck Hunt (1955), into Japanese as Kamo-ryo (1957) and later, in England, as Sister of Earth (1966). Claus’ editor had asked him to write an American-type book, which the author did in three weeks, calling it a “near-pastiche” without divulging what his model had been (even if he dropped the names of Faulkner and Coldwell). Critics have often argued its “closeness” to As I Lay Dying, but recently its great indebtedness to The Sound and the Fury has been demonstrated by the critic Hans van Straten, who calls it “plagiarism, but brilliantly done” (my translation).

[5] Malcolm Cowley, on the back-cover of the book, admires “their firm design as a whole,” while Lewis P. Simpson talks of “a passionate and revealing confrontation over a period of years between a Missourian of Jewish heritage […] and the past and present dominion of Mississippi, literary and actual.”

N°2 | A Very Bad Santa: Adaptation as Cultural and Linguistic Dissolution in the Translations of Le Père Noël est une ordure


Corinne Oster


The contemporary Western world has been the site of intensive and inegalitarian exchanges between languages and cultures, that translation has been fundamental in shaping. Remakes may be considered as specific types of translation marked by both cultural and linguistic interpretation of previously released or published works, while subtitled versions of films offer a closer “translation”of the original into target cultures and languages. Yet many of these attempts at transferring culture have failed, as demonstrated by one of the most significant failures: the remake and the audiovisual adaptation of well-known French play and film Le Père Noël est une ordure for the American and British markets. Analyzing specific features in each of the currently existing versions of the text makes it possible to look at questions of cultural adaptation and linguistic equivalence.


Le monde contemporain est un site d’échanges tout aussi intensifs qu’inégalitaires entre langues et cultures, que la traduction a fondamentalement contribué à façonner. Les remakes peuvent être considérés comme un cas de traduction spécifique, marqué par l’interprétation culturelle et linguistique de films originaux. Les films sous-titrés quant à eux offrent une traduction plus “proche” d’un original dans la langue-culture cible. Pourtant, force est de constater que nombre de tentatives de transférer la culture échouent, comme l’illustre un de ces échecs les plus patents : le remake et l’adaptation audiovisuelle du film (et pièce de café-théâtre) célèbre Le Père Noël est une ordure, pour les marchés américain et britannique. L’analyse de quelques dispositifs spécifiques dans chacune des versions existant actuellement de ce texte permet d’examiner certaines questions d’adaptation culturelle et d’équivalence linguistique.


        An often-repeated assumption is that the increasing globalization of the Western world has made it easier to adapt cultural products from a source culture to a target culture, and that Western cultures are currently going through a form of universalization which, due to the diversity of languages, partly takes place through translation.

        To be specific, the Western world has been the site of intensive—and inegalitarian—exchanges between languages and cultures, and translation has been fundamental in shaping these linguistic and cultural exchanges, while translation studies, for their part, have been a crucial tool for analyzing and understanding them. Lawrence Venuti has stated that (successful) translations throw bridges between cultures and create new communities that can gather around the translated text (477). Failed translations, however, can be very instructive in identifying the mechanisms at work in this type of transfer. Failed translations and/or adaptations do exist, and they are bound to happen when two cultures fail to communicate properly.

        In 2011 in France, one out of six published books—and one out of three novels—was a translation (Pelletier), and on the French film market, American films ususally perform better than French ones in cinemas (CNC).[i] This apparent homogeneization of culture, however, does not go both ways. On the American market, “[f]oreign-language films [currently] represent less than 1% of the domestic box office [“at a time when Hollywood movies account for 63 percent of the global box office”]” (Rickey; see also Miller). This blatantly inegalitarian transfer naturally raises the question of the hegemony of English (and mostly American English) as the great equalizer of Western popular and literary culture (there is a similar trend with the general linguistic transfer between English and other languages).[ii]

        It is crucial, then, to understand that many French cultural products, seemingly produced in similar cultures, may not be as transparent as their American counterparts seem to be for French people. The case of American remakes of French films is quite revealing in this respect. These adaptations (which can be identified as a form of translation) are what translation theorists would call target-oriented equivalents of French films (resembling in great part what George Mounin described in his study of the 18th century’s “Belles Infidèles”), transposed into the American target language and culture. And, more often than not, these adaptations have merely been pale reproductions of the originals—in part because they are often conceived as short-term consumer products with a limited distribution lifespan.

        There are, however, more fundamental reasons for a failed translation or adaptation, which will be illustrated here through a particular case of cultural transfer: the two existing “translations” of a staple of French comedy: Le Père Noël est une ordure, a work that became famous first as a play in 1978, then as a movie in 1982. The movie and the filmed theater performance still air on French television every year during the holiday season, and although a subtitled version of the film exists, it has never been released in the US or in other English-speaking countries through domestic distribution networks.[iii] A US remake of the film, Mixed Nuts was released in 1994, transposing the diegesis of the original movie into a target American culture (Los Angeles, CA) and experiencing a thorough failure.

        We should keep in mind that the main types of film transfer (remake, dubbing and subtitling) pose distinct problems: on the one hand, remakes deal with the global, semiotic adaptation of an original “text-image” while dubbing and subtitling retain most of the original text-product, and attempt to translate its language within the constraints inherent to dubbing (lip syncing) or subtitling (a short, written text embedded within a moving image).

        This article will first study the translation/adaptation of culture in the remake of Le Père Noël est une ordure, focusing on the reasons for its very existence and analyzing the translation/transfer of humour and of cultural and social class markers—which are crucial in each of the film versions. I will attempt to analyse the reasons for the failure of the adaptation and discuss the concept of “translatability” of such a cultural product. The article will then look, from a micro-structural perspective, at some of the translation strategies present in the subtitles of the French DVD release for international viewers in order to assess the translation of these markers on the textual level. The conclusion will open on the role of English as a hegemonic language when translated texts come from a language and culture with a less central position.


        Translation studies, more specifically what has been termed the “cultural turn in translation studies” (which started with Susan Bassnett and Andre Lefevere at the beginning of the 1990s) insist on the role of culture in the translation process and advocate a cultural, social and political reading of the circulation of translations across the world. These tools have been instrumental in explaining how rewritings, whatever their form, are often manipulated to achieve various goals, whether economic or ideological.

        Remakes, or film adaptations, are a specific type of translation in the field of translation studies, which have traditionally worked within a dichotomy based on two general strategies: source-oriented, and target-oriented translation. This dichotomy was already present in the writings of Cicero or Saint Augustine, who discussed the difference between translating “a word for a word” and “an idea for an idea.” “Word for word” strategies insist on preserving the (often sacred) character and form of the source text in order not to taint it—often at the expense of readability and accessibility by the target reader—while the translation of “an idea for an idea” consists in prioritizing meaning over form, adapting it for the target readership in various degrees. Although it could be tempting to associate subtitling with source-oriented translation strategies and remakes with target-oriented strategies, this opposition remains somewhat theoretical. In the field of written translation, most published translations are target-oriented. But it also allows us to consider a particular policy regarding the importance of the source text: the process of preserving the foreign nature of a text for a target readership or audience (what Venuti terms “foreignization”) is considered by theorists such as Lawrence Venuti, Walter Benjamin, Antoine Berman, or Friedrich Schleiermacher as a fundamental strategy as the preservation of a source culture/language in the target culture/language also allows the latter to evolve and develop through supplementing the existing language/culture with the new one.


Remakes, or adaptations (the word is also used in the field of translation), can be considered as a type of target-oriented translation because they conform to strategies of domestication of the original into the target culture. Just like Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt’s Belles Infidèles, they are loosely inspired by original (audiovisual) works and transformed in order to fit within a different target market and culture. Remakes are not just a matter of linguistic transfer, in which case we could just have a dubbed or subtitled film. They are full cultural transfers in which characters and situations are transposed into a whole new environment (usually the United States), erasing the original location and culture.

        These new cultural objects are not new in the history of translation. Early translators adapted Greek tragedies into Latin, but also into their home culture to make them fit into their environment. In the 17th and 18th century, French writers/translators adapted the works of ancient authors from Rome or Athens and made them “fit” for French audiences, i.e. conform to French taste and mores. During the fascist regimes of the 20th century, the predominant translation strategy consisted of adapting foreign works into the target culture, relocating them into their country and cities. In France, some genres, such as children’s literature, have also been notoriously domesticated and have often transposed their plots and settings into local cultures.[iv] However, this over-adaptative translation trend has slowly lost ground: translators now tend to keep elements of the source culture in their translations, and many rewritings (logically, according to Antoine Berman, as the target text or author becomes better known in the target culture after a first translation) tend to grant greater importance to the original. What is now an obsolete kind of transfer for most literature does not hold for cinema, however, as remakes, whether synchronic or diachronic, have been a staple of Hollywood business since its birth at the end of the 19th century, and are still marked by the cultural, linguistic and semiotic re-interpretation of previously released works.


In his book, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame, André Lefevere reminds us that every act of translation takes place within the constraints of ideology:

Translation is, of course, a rewriting of an original text. All rewritings, whatever their intention, reflect a certain ideology and a poetics and as such manipulate literature to function in a given society in a given way. Rewriting is manipulation, undertaken in the service of power, and in its positive aspect can help in the evolution of a literature and a society. (vii)


Even though Lefevere and Bassnett’s statement concerns literature, it can apply to cultural products such as films, and certainly to the rewriting of Le Père Noël est une ordure, whose ideological content, beneath the entertainment, can be clearly identified. The plot is just a pretext for comedy: Le Père Noël… takes place on Christmas Eve in the offices of a friendship hotline invaded by shady characters. Set in the early 1980s, it is transgressive on many levels. The protagonists are anti-heroes with whom the audience can hardly identify (a homeless drunk who beats his illiterate, pregnant girlfriend; two stuck-up, condescending Catholic volunteers who belittle the very people they are supposed to help; a depressed and duplicitous transvestite, a Yugoslav immigrant who keeps bringing his neighbors disgusting local food specialties…), yet it is also a scathing, politically incorrect criticism of the goody goody moral rigidity of well-meaning French Catholic society. Stuck somewhere between the progressive, post-1968 opening of popular culture and the conservative, traditional French society of the time, it is deeply anchored in French late 1970s culture and has thus become a fixture of both French comedy and “café-théâtre,” a popular form of entertainment that was highly successful with mainstream audiences (many “café-théâtre” performances were also filmed for television).

        In 1994, Hollywood produced a remake of the film ,which was released twice within a year, first under the title of Lifesavers, then Mixed Nuts. Both releases did not succeed in attracting audiences in spite of a prestigious cast that featured many great names of American comedy (Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Rob Reiner, Juliette Lewis…). The film, rated PG13, was a commercial failure under both released titles and went straight to video everywhere.

        The first official subtitling of the original film was released with the DVD produced by French group Studio Canal in 2005, 23 years after the film’s first release. There is no dubbed version of it, partly because English-speaking audiences are reluctant to watch dubbed films, and in part because the attractivity of the film abroad was considered as very limited for budgetting a dubbed version. The subtitled video is available in English only and the subtitles were made by a native French translator, which is unusual since translators mainly translate into their native languages. It is only available on the European market—mostly in England—, and to my knowledge, there is no plan to release it on the American market.[v]

        Obviously, both of these attempts at circulating the film outside France through adaptation or translation have failed. Let us examine the transformations made by Hollywood (remake) and by the French translator (subtitling).


The Film Remake

        In Encore Hollywood, Lucy Mazdon reminds us that “The act of remaking the films and the various ways in which they are received should be seen as related components of a wider process of cross-cultural interaction and exchange” (1-2). I shall therefore attempt to determine the nature of this cultural transfer (if there is indeed such a thing), and what within the source text (Le Père Noël…) determines cultural interaction and transfer into the target text (Mixed Nuts).

        Just like in Le Père Noël…, Mixed Nuts takes place on Christmas Eve in the offices of a friendship hotline that is invaded by unlikely and uninvited characters. The plot of the two movies is almost identical. Most of the dialogues, jokes and situations have been preserved, even if we can note a few omissions (a famous scene in which Zézette, the illiterate pregnant woman, attempts to fill in a social security form has, for example, disappeared from the US adaptation).

        Following a domesticating agenda, the location of the film has been transferred to California, and the American characters, although inspired by the French originals, have undergone significant modifications, especially concerning social class. Zézette, now Gracie (Juliette Lewis), no longer lives in a caravan by the highway with her violent, alcoholic and criminal partner, but runs a used clothing store by the seafront with her boyfriend Felix, a painter who tries to make it in the art world. Poor Yugoslav immigrant Preskovich has been replaced with a student in creative writing (Adam Sandler), whose recurring joke consists in playing the ukulele in just any situation. An evil landlord has been added to the cast, as well as a mysterious “seaside strangler.” The other characters of the original film/play, all dumb, narrow-minded and mean-spirited, have been replaced with imperfect yet good-hearted heroes a (young) American audience can identify with, and on whom the inevitable love stories and happy ending will focus.

        As a result, the provocation and dark humor of the original film have mostly been erased, both lexically (there are no more obscenities) and culturally. The reference to “café-théâtre,” implicit in the filmed version of the play, has also disappeared since most American audiences cannot identify this very French aspect of French culture. Because of the PG-13 rating (targeting families and thus ensuring the highest possible number of tickets), nothing has been left of the original political incorrectness—a notion that is undeniably imbedded in US culture (let’s just mention films such as Sixteen Candles and many teen movies of the 1980s, the films by the Farrelly Brothers, including There’s Something about Mary, released in 1998, just a few years later), as well as cartoons such as South Park, The Simpsons, Daria, or Family Guy. The humour in Mixed Nuts targets the widest possible audience and is supposed to comfort viewers rather than upset them. The representation of social class works to that end: because Hollywood did not want to make gratuitous fun of illiterate homeless people and immigrants, the precarious US population has a future: as artists, writers, wives and mothers. Following the same logic, their death has been ruled out. At the end of the original French play, a gas explosion kills all the characters and annihilates any attempt at a cathartic resolution, one way or another. The end of the French film, although it does not go as far, shows the characters feeding the dead body of a random and innocent elevator serviceman to the animals at a zoo. The end of Mixed Nuts settles all of the uncertainties the plot has created: a final nativity scene shows the birth of Gracie’s child among general bliss, and the seaside murder mystery is resolved, absolving in the process the seemingly gratuitous killing of the random character—who happens to be the serial killer (a resolution which works quite smoothly in a country that endorses the death penalty). What takes place is thus what has been called “normalization” by translation theorists—a frequent phenomenon in translation (if not so obvious), which here has been pushed to its extreme limits, reminding us of Baudrillard’s simulacrum (a copy without an original). What has been created with Mixed Nuts is a product made to fit cultural norms and enact traditional Hollywood propaganda about the pursuit of happiness—a complete misinterpretation of the original film which can be remembered, consciously or not, as an acerbic criticism of fake good sentiments.

        In Le Père Noël…, the plot is also a pretext for the dialogues, refined throughout the multiple performances of the play, both in terms of text and acting. These dialogues have a heavy cultural charge which is lost when adapted into English. The thick texture of the text, its “essence” (as Benjamin might say), or its “poetics” (Meschonnic) have been erased in the process of adaptation and translation.

        Finally, the success of Le Père Noël in the original French is based on the principle of repetition (repetition of the film throughout the years, repetition of the dialogues among fans), which have fostered the creation of a common culture around the film/play. Lucy Mazdon, talking about Austin Powers and James Bond, notes the tendency of contemporary cinema to include intertextual references as a source of audience satisfaction: “The bricolage of post-modernism has become a feature of many recent [Hollywood] films. Indeed, the ability to recognize ‘quotations’ and references has become an important feature of contemporary viewing practices and a rich source of audience pleasure” (qtd. in Durham 8). This repetition as a pleasure principle also applies to the multiple viewings of the French movie, which both strengthen its comedy value and the feeling of belonging to a community.

        It seems that what Lucy Mazdon identifies in remakes as “components of a wider process of cross-cultural interaction and exchange” (1-2) does not apply to Mixed Nuts: the exchange is very limited as there is no remaining trace of any of the multiple layers of French culture in the target product, an “ugly infidel” that seems to be a good illustration of the failure of the here omnipresent domesticating process of translation, and a confirmation of Walter Benjamin’s theory according to which meaning is not what is essential in translation. What we have here, rather, as he wrote in 1923, is “the inaccurate transmission of an inessential content” (16).



        Is the subtitling of Le Père Noël a more “faithful” translation of the original film? When compared to a remake, the strategy of translating a film with subtitles is closer to Venuti’s “foreignizing” strategy since it aims at preserving the film within its cultural and linguistic context while providing limited access to its meaning: subtitles are usually short, viewers still have direct access to the original language and setting, and they are made to watch and listen to unfamiliar images and words while reading the subtitles.

        Subtitles are complex devices that have a specific status in translation and are subject to specific restrictions: in terms of length, speed, coherence with the audio and video text. They also have to take extra-linguistic elements into account (setting, sound, light, movement—camera and characters…). With these constraints in mind, which can also be used as tools to help translators through strategies of compensation, subtitles should still take into account the stylistic aspects of the text as much as the meaning it conveys. The text of Le Père Noël, as mentioned earlier, has a specific status in that its script has been carefully crafted and partly conditioned by audience reception through the multiple performances of the play. It could also be argued that it is an illustration of the French tradition of quality dialogues represented, for example, by the texts of scriptwriter Michel Audiard whose lines are also part of French popular culture heritage. It is noteworthy that the text of the play was finally published by Actes Sud in 2000. It would thus seem essential for the translator to account for this, even though the format of subtitles renders the task particularly arduous.

        This analysis will be based on the official series of subtitles,[vi] sorted into different categories: (1) Cultural references, (2) Slang, (3) Accent and “broken French”, (4) Wordplay, (5) Compensations.


Cultural References

        Paul Bensimon says that cultural elements tend to resist the translation process (10), which seems to be proven by the remake of Le Père Noël… As for subtitles, Teresa Tomaszkiewicz lists a number of strategies to translate cultural references in film dialogue and turn them into subtitles (these categories can overlap in some cases; qtd. in Pettit 45).

  • (1) Omission, whereby the cultural reference is omitted altogether.
  • (2) Literal Translation, where the solution in the target text matches the original as closely as possible.
  • (3) Borrowing, where original terms from the source text are used in the target text.
  • (4) Equivalence, where translation has a similar meaning and function in the target culture.
  • (5) Adaptation, where the translation is adjusted to the target language and culture in an attempt to evoke similar connotations to the original. Strictly speaking this can be considered a form of equivalence.
  • (6) Replacement of the cultural term with deictics, particularly when supported by an on-screen gesture or a visual clue. (This category is the only one that is different from the traditional translation categories used in general translation)
  •  (7) Generalisation, which might also be referred to as neutralisation of the original.
  • (8) Explication, which usually involves a paraphrase to explain the cultural term.


        As the chart below shows, subtitles for cultural references tend to be generalized / neutralized: bar tabac, bûche, Fleury-Mérogis have all been replaced with their hyperonyms: party, dessert, jail. One reference is missing: les lépreux de Jakarta have simply become lepers, and Kissinger is used as an equivalent for Albert Simon, an old weather forecaster unknown outside of France, whereas the translator borrows the name of the restaurant, Castel, supposed to remind viewers of high-class French food culture. Naturally, all of these strategies also work within the length requirement for subtitles. The effect of the subtitles, whose “poetics” disappear in translation (partly compensated, though, by the existence of a visual invariant), is merely the translation of meaning while erasing most of the cultural elements in the process.

Cultural references:

Et un bar-tabac qui ferait réveillon en bas de chez vous? Couldn’t you go to a party or something ?  
Et en plus je n’aime pas la bûche. I hate dessert anyway.
Oui, c’est le Noël de Fleury-Mérogis. Yes. To people in jail.
J’ai presque fini les gants pour les petits lépreux de Jakarta I’m almost done with the gloves for the lepers.
Moi-même j’ai fait la connaissance d’Albert Simon. Take Kissinger
J’ai rendez-vous pour le réveillon chez Castel. I have a table waiting at Castel’s  


Slang, Sociolects and Broken Language

        A notorious feature of the original film is the language used by the characters. Pierre, Thérèse, Mme Musquin and Katia speak proper, sometimes very conservative, French, while the language register of Félix and Josette is supposed to mimic that of the lower classes. In addition, the characters sometimes use broken French which is used to create comedy through unwanted puns and plays on words.

        In her analysis of slang in the American film derived from the South Park series, Maria Jesus Fernandez insists that it is crucial to preserve the equivalence of meaning between languages when translating insults and slang:


The attraction of South Park lies in its political incorrectness taken to the highest level. However irritating some viewers may find the film’s reliance upon taboo language, it is essential that the translation of swearing be effective in order to retain the integrity of the film. If the translation is too literal or ineffectual, particularly if it tones down or masks the original text, the result will sound artificially distanced and the comic impact lost. (214)


This is perfectly valid for dubbing. However, we know that hearing slang shocks less than reading it, and subtitles have to take this element into account so as not to hurt the reader’s sensitivity. Authors of subtitles therefore tend to normalize slang and familiar language when they write. Even if compensation strategies may be used, loss is unavoidable.

        At first sight, it seems, however, that usual neutralisation strategies have not been enforced. Slang and profanity are often preserved, and have been used systematically to replace every occurrence of familiar language. One hypothesis to explain this choice is that the author of the subtitles Memni, a French translator, is aware of the importance of preserving this aspect and decided that profanity should be preserved. However, another explanation is that native French speakers often underestimate the need for toning down (written) slang when translating it into a target language which is not their own.

        That being said, we can see that lexicalized collocations (sac à vin, tête d’hareng, tête de veau, pauvre type…) have been replaced with more vulgar equivalents that do not belong to the original language register. This is what we could call “adaptation-amplification” of the original text (as far as language register is concerned). Fabrice Antoine argues that such adaptations are legitimate when lexicalized phrases have aged and are “cumbersome” because they no longer correspond to what the reader/audience would understand today (15), even though, the awkward, dated quality of these expressions is what the French audience appreciates. But the “adaptation-amplification” also comes with a less rich vocabulary (as these amplifications are also normalisations and lexical neutralisations), and while the original dialogue can compensate in part for this loss, a non-French speaker will have a hard time making the difference between familiar language and slang as it is used in the subtitles. The following examples show unusually vulgar English language translations for French slang, as well as “literal” equivalents for vulgar phrases and expressions.



La connasse de SOS ? That cunt from SOS ?
Tête d’hareng ! Fuck off, you scumbag !
Sac à vin ! You sonovabitch !
Casse-toi tu pues ! Go away you asshole !
M’approche plus, tête de nœud ! Get back, you prick !
Tête de veau ! Fuckface !
Je t’encule, Thérèse ! Je te prends, je te retourne contre le mur… Well, Therese, fuck your ass, fuck your cunt…
Je t’encule Josette, tu me baises et je te retourne, je te rebaise et tu me suces, tu m’entends, Josette ? Fuck you Josette !
Mais avec quoi tête de nœud ? Fous moi la paix, four à merde ! Screw you, fuck you, you cocksucker !
Encule-toi tout seul, espèce de malpoli ! Go fuck your own shitty asshole, motherfucker !
SOS mon cul, vieille ???! Je te pète la roulette, peau de couille I’ll burst your asshole cuntface !
Vous en étiez à « peau de couille ». Que se passe-t-il ensuite ? You stopped at ‘cuntface,’ I believe. What comes after that ?
Qu’est-ce qu’elle me dit la mongolienne ? What did that freak say ?
Tu vas voir ce que j’en fais de ta feuille pauv’ conne, va ! See that form, you bitch ?
Je vous conchie ! I piss on you !
Ta gueule Miss Monde ! Tu bouges pas, tu restes là. Stay put, Miss Universe !
Pierre, ils ont aussi buté le travelot! Hey, they bumped off the queen too !


Accents and Broken English (Preskovich / Zézette)

        Preskovich, the Yugoslav immigrant, and Zezette, the illiterate homeless young woman, both speak in broken French, lexically and syntactically. Preskovich’s lines are all characterized by missing determiners (j’ai pris travail de nuit, c’est petite douceur) or truncated sentences (je suis monté pour me joindre ), supposedly syntaxic calques for the structure of slavic languages. Subtitles have neutralized all of this wording and turned his speech into grammatically correct sentences, strategically counting on the audible accent of the character on screen to convey other forms of displacement.

        Josette’s (and Félix’s) speech is mostly characterised by improprieties, often made up by the authors with wordplay (ton tricot de porc / ton tricot de corps, il m’écrase la pomme des dents / la pomme d’Adam). But there are also barbarisms and lexical creations, or vocabulary used out of context (kiki). The subtitles use two general strategies to deal with this: neutralization (kiki becomes dick—a neutralization-amplification) and adaptation (Adumb’s apple / D-shirt), cleverly playing on what Rudy Loock has termed “visual dialect,” i.e. misspelling a word otherwise pronounced normally and using the written misspelling to convey the implied meaning.


Accent & broken language:


1/ Preskovitch :

J’ai pris travail de nuit. I work on the turnpike at night.
C’est petite douceur. It’s so sweet
Non mais c’est vacances aujourd’hui. Je vous ai apporté “doubitchous”. Not at all, I’m off tonight. I’ve brought you some “dubbiccu”
J’ai entendu des pétards, je suis monté pour me joindre. I heard firecrackers. I came for the party.
Je suis passé vous chanter un assortiment. Ca peut vous délecter. I thought I’d sing some folksongs… You’d love them.
Je vous présente toutes mes confuses. Please ex… confuse me.
Non, c’est « kloug ». No, it’s « klug ».


2/ Zézette / Félix* :

Y’avait ton slip et ton tricot de porc, qu’était à bouillir. Your underpants and your D-shirt, you dumb ass!
Il m’écrase la pomme des dents! You’re squeezing my Adumb’s apple.
J’ai les jambes en coton-tige. My legs feel like Q-tips.
Thérèse c’est ma bienfaiseuse. Therese is my benefactoress.
Jprends mes clipes et mes clopes et jme tire d’ici. J’en ai ras l’bol de c’gourbish. I’m splitting. I’m through with this rabbit shithouse.
C’est pas moi qui m’dispute, c’est lui. He started it.
*Ca m’a sanctionné le tendon. It cut a tendon.
*J’ai même essayé d’intenter à mes jours. I even tried to kill myself.
Tu crois qu’il a un gros bazar? Think he’s got a big one ?
Un gros kiki! Parce que Félix il a un très gros kiki. A big dick! Felix has an enormous dick.
Faut vider le déchargeur! Better empty the magazine !
Eh ben tant pire! Tough shit!



        Because of the nature of linguistic equivalence, translating wordplay within the framework of subtitles can be perceived as an additional constraint. Yet, Henrik Gottlieb suggests that it is not, because non-verbal elements can contribute to the solution.[vii] Translating this type of humour is thus not more difficult in audiovisual texts than in regular texts. Yet it is not always easy to do so.

        Below is a short list of “proverbs” (real or invented) and plays on words found in Le Père Noël… The intended effect is usually comedy, and the subtitler has opted for various strategies, which, however, often tend to neutralize the original. A few strategies of compensation can be identified here and there: Black clouds always have a silver lining (a confusion between Every cloud has its silver lining and Black sheep?) In Chaque pot a son couvercle, and with avec brio (with gusto) the translator opted for an (almost) literal translation that respects the intended effect as in the first case, the transformation from a dead metaphor to its literal meaning is what conveys the absurdity and the humour of the phrase, and as the play on words can be preserved in the second one.

        Other lexical creations have been normalized when literal translation was really impossible. The rhyme of Homme en retard, liaison dans le tiroir, for example, has disappeared and only the meaning of the sentence (lateness means deception) remains, dropping the comic function of the sentence. In other cases, the loss is more problematic because most of the lexical creations serve as markers of social class. Most of these examples come from the characters of Therese, the stuck-up Catholic bourgeois woman, and from Zezette, her “evil double.”



1/ Proverbs (real or invented):

Homme en retard, liaison dans le tiroir. With them, lateness means deception.
Vous êtes dans une mauvaise passe, mais le bout du tunnel n’est peut-être pas si loin. Black clouds always have a silver lining.
Jeu de mains, jeu de vilains. You hooligan…
Chaque pot a son couvercle. Every jar has its lid.
Il y a un temps pour prendre ses aises, et un temps pour prendre sur soi. Now you have to face up to your responsibilities.  


2/ “Creations”:

Ben oui on vous demande de répondre par oui ou par non, alors ça dépend, ça dépasse. You have to answer “yes” or “no”. “Depends” is too long.
Éboueux ça vous va ? Eh dites donc, pourquoi pas ramasser les poubelles tant que vous y êtes ? Garbage collector ? You’re crazy or what ? He hates collections.
Vous avez qu’à mettre burelier. How about « officiant » ?
Celui qui travaille dans les bureaux. Officiant! Working in offices!
Ah oui, vous voulez dire buraliste ? You mean clerk ?
Mais non, buraliste, ça bosse dans un tabac Come on, clerks work in churches!
Franchement, vous m’avez décrit cette soirée avec brio. Avec qui ? Non, avec personne, avec brio, c’est une expression qu’on emploie. Frankly, you depicted the scene with gusto. With whom? Nobody… Gusto! A figure of speech
Je ne vous jette pas la pierre, Pierre, mais j’étais à deux doigts de m’agacer. I’m not blaming you, Pierre, but I almost got upset.
Je n’aime pas dire du mal des gens, mais effectivement, elle est gentille. I hate to speak ill of people. Such a nice person indeed!
C’est fin, c’est très fin, ça se mange sans fin. Exquisite… No need to be hungry.  
Que Pierre n’ait pas une horloge dans le ventre, je vous l’accorde. Mais de là à lui prêter une liaison… I must admit that Pierre is not very… punctual. But to suspect him of deception…
C’est une petite très courageuse qui a toujours fait face à l’adversité avec beaucoup de dignité. She’s fighting adversity with great dignity.  
La douleur m’a fait dire des choses extrêmement grossières que je ne pensais pas, cela va sans dire. I said such awful things… I didn’t mean them, of course.
Je vais les remiser par devers moi. I’ll store them away.
Nous avons la gentillesse de vous recueillir et vous téléphonez dans les « Dôm Tôm » ! Calling long-distance is the way you thank us ?
Félix est un garçon charmant, certainement bourré de qualités. I’m sure Felix can be nice.
Figurez vous que Thérèse n’est pas moche, elle n’a pas un physique facile. Hey, Therese is no donkey! She isn’t exactly a classic beauty…



Finally, compensation is used for some occurrences that otherwise would have been lost in translation: recurring sexual allusions replace these untranslatable phrases.

Compensations :

Mon beau-frère est terriblement à cheval. My brother-in-law is so terribly stiff.
Plus fort… [scène de la baignoire] Harder
Oui je suis là. [scène de la baignoire] Right here.
– Il faudrait décrocher le combiné
Oh oui, il faudrait décrocher [idem]
– We should take it off the hook
– Oh yes, take it off… If people call…

[scène de la baignoire]

Right here.

– Il faudrait décrocher le combiné.

Oh oui, il faudrait décrocher. [idem]

– We should take it off the hook.

– Oh yes, take it off… If people call…


Conclusion and Proposals:

        This brief analysis highlights the problem of equivalence from French into English, and from French into American English in particular. On a macro-structural level, the analysis raises questions of cultural adaptation, while on a micro-structural level, the remake, and mostly its subtitling for the British market, bring up some problems of linguistic equivalence. As far as the subtitling into English is concerned (which is not a native English subtitle), what we clearly have is an independent “made in France” translation for a narrow British / European market of French film enthusiasts, and the subtitles probably have not been proofread for TV viewing, as they would not have passed the barrier of institutional censorship. The author of the subtitles attempted to preserve the irreverent character of the text (through the heavy use of slang, in particular) but what prevails is still a strategy of normalization, as many of the funny or problematic occurrences don’t really have English equivalents. The film remake has tried to make a popular French film accessible for a US audience, but it has obviously missed its target by turning it into the equivalent of a family movie, privileging a plot without much interest at the expense of the form in the source text. In light of the idea that the success of the original film was reinforced by a “pleasure principle” on the part of regular French viewers, it seems to me that the best equivalence that can be found for this type of cultural product is to be found in sitcom, in which plot is secondary and success is based on the repetition of various situations with the same characters.

        Finally, I wish to insist on the non-egalitarian character of the cultural and linguistic transfer of film and comedies between Europe / France and the United States. The role of English as a hegemonic language has certainly helped to shape a particular type of reception for Hollywood products, generally well-received in our country. On the other hand, as shown in part by import and export figures for French and English language works across continents, it seems very difficult to faithfully adapt a text coming from a culture and language with a less central position (and let us note that British films are even less successful than French ones in the United States, regardless of the language issue). These conclusions can also be read with the tools of translation studies. The original text is unreachable in translation, and maybe even more in this particular type of adaptation, due in part to the institutional and cultural context. However, maybe we should rejoice at the thought that there is such a thing as resistance to uniformisation, and be on the lookout for more faithful equivalents to seemingly “unique” works.


Works Cited

Primary sources

Le Père Noël est une ordure. Directed by Jean-Marie Poiré. Trinacra Films, Films A2 & Les Films du Splendid, 1982. 87 minutes. DVD with English subtitles: Studio Canal, 2003.

Le Père Noël est une ordure. Directed by Philippe Galland. (Filmed play, recorded for television at the Théâtre du Splendid), 1979. 90 minutes. Film.

Collectif. Le Père Noël est une ordure. Arles: Actes Sud, 1998. Print.

Mixed Nuts. Directed by Nora Ephron. Sony Pictures, 1994. 97 minutes. Film.


Secondary Sources

Antoine, Fabrice. “Argots, langue familière et accents en traduction.” Cahiers Elextra 31. Lille: Université Charles-de-Gaulle, 2004. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. 15-25. Print.

Bensimon, Paul. Palimpsestes 11 – Traduire la culture. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998. 9-14. Print.

CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée). “Fréquentation des salles de cinéma : 200,5 millions d’entrées en 2018.” Web. 15/05/19.

Durham, Carolyn. Double Takes: Culture and Gender in French Films and Their American Remakes. Hanover: UP of New England, 1998. Print.

Fernandez, Maria Jesus. “The Translation of Swearing in the Dubbing of the Film South Park into Spanish.” New Trends in Audiovisual Translation. Ed. Jorge Dias Cintas. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009. 210-25. Print.

Gottlieb, Henrik. “‘You got the Picture?’ On the Polysemiotics of Subtitling Wordplay.” Traductio: Essays on Punning and Translation. Dirk Delabastita. Namur: St Jerome Publishing & Presses Universitaires de Namur, 1997. 207-32. Print.

Lefevere, Andre. Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London/New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Look, Rudy. “Koman traduir l’inovassion ortografik: étude de ka.” Palimpsestes 25. Inscrire l’altérité: Emprunts et néologismes en traduction. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012. 39-65. Print.

Mazdon, Lucy. Encore Hollywood: Remaking French Cinema. London: BFI, 2000. Print.

Miller, Toby. Global Hollywood. London: BFI, 2001.

Mounin, Georges. Les Belles Infidèles. 1953. Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1994. Deuxième édition. Print.

Pelletier, Geoffroy. “Les chiffres de la traduction.” SGDL (Société des Gens de Lettres). Web. 05/06/19. Pettit, Zoe. “Connecting Cultures: Cultural Transfer in Subtitling and Dubbing.” New Trends in Audiovisual Translation. Ed. Jorge Díaz Cintas. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009. 44-57. Print


[i] CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée). “Fréquentation des salles de cinéma : 200,5 millions d’entrées en 2018.”

[ii] The question of the hegemony of English is thoroughly explored in Spivak.

[iii] The French DVD, released by Studio Canal in 2005, does contain English subtitles for international diffusion in zone 2 countries (i.e. European countries), but its distribution in the UK has remained marginal.

[iv] For example, the protagonists of the French translations of The Famous Five (Le Club des Cinq) all have French names and live in Brittany.

[v] From a commercial point of view, Lucy Mazdon notes that Hollywood’s strategy is often to buy the rights to a foreign film and to make sure that the original is not released before the remake in order to short-circuit the original film’s international release.

[vi] I had access to two different subtitles: the official subtitles by Paul Memmi for Studio Canal (2005, i.e. over 20 years after the film’s original release), and an unnamed fansub.

[vii] “[…] rather than rather than complicating the successful translation of wordplay, the non-verbal elements creating the basis of much wordplay in television may indeed act as part of the solution. Thus, translating wordplay in an environment as semiotically complex as a satirical television programme is probably no more difficult that translating wordplay in the ‘words only’ environment of (say) a satirical novel. Although successful subtitling of some of the wordplay found on TV demands media-specific awareness, in the final analysis the overall quality of the outcome depends on the talent of the subtitler” (Gottlieb 207).

N°2 | The Biblical Story of King David Revisited By Joseph Heller in God Knows and Madeleine L’Engle in Certain Women

Anne Frédérique Mochel-Caballero


God Knows (1984) by Joseph Heller and Certain Women (1992) by Madeleine L’Engle are two American adaptations of the Biblical story of King David. The first is presented as written by the man himself. The second is the contemporary tale of an actor named David Wheaton who is fascinated with the Biblical character and whose life in some ways resembles that of King David. The two novels differ in tone and style, yet they also have much in common. Both stories depart from the original in letter and sometimes even in spirit. Nevertheless, they both bring the Biblical text to life in a unique way.


God Knows (1984) de Joseph Heller et Certain Women (1992) de Madeleine L’Engle sont deux adaptations américaines de l’histoire biblique du roi David. La première est présentée comme écrite par l’homme lui-même. La seconde est un récit contemporain d’un acteur appelé David Wheaton, fasciné par le personnage biblique et dont la vie ressemble par certains aspects à celle du roi David. Le ton et le style des deux romans sont différents mais ils ont aussi beaucoup de points communs. Les deux histoires s’éloignent du texte original en ce qui concerne la lettre et parfois même l’esprit. Néanmoins, elles rendent le texte biblique vivant d’une manière unique.


        God Knows (1984) by Joseph Heller and Certain Women (1992) by Madeleine L’Engle are two American adaptations of the biblical story of King David. Both are retrospective: an aged David reminisces about his life, constantly moving between past and present. But, at first sight, the two narratives seem to take an opposing view with regard to almost every other aspect. The former is presented by the autodiegetic narrator as an account coming straight from the ancient king himself. The latter functions as an analogy: it is a contemporary tale about an actor named David Wheaton who is fascinated with the biblical character and whose life in some ways resembles that of King David. The adaptation of the biblical story is thus achieved using two very different techniques and the way it speaks to the contemporary reader is also dissimilar. Each book focuses on one particular event in the story of David upon which the whole novel hinges.

        In Certain Women it is the rape of David Wheaton’s granddaughter, Emma, by her half-brother Billy[1] and in God Knows it is the death of David and Bathsheba’s baby. As a Christian woman, L’Engle chose to put the emphasis on the female characters in her story and to tell it from their perspective. Even if the third-person narrator is omniscient in Certain Women, the focalization is internal: the reader views the events through the eyes of Emma Wheaton. Therefore the suffering caused by the rape is put into relief, although Emma does not allow herself to be overcome by bitterness. In God Knows, however, the narrator expresses strong anger and resentment because of the child’s death viewed as God’s punishment for David’s sin. Heller seems to be showing the reader what his own reaction would have been in David’s situation[2]: consequently, the contrition expressed in the Bible disappears and revolt is put forward instead. The two books also differ in tone. Heller’s novel characteristically resorts to irony, derision and coarse humour, giving it an iconoclastic flavour absent from Certain Women. Yet, in spite of those differences, the two novels have much in common. Both authors raise a number of serious philosophical and theological questions about the meaning of life, the role of God, and both tackle the themes of love and death with emotion that is not less potent for being hidden beneath the surface in God Knows.


Adaptation in God Knows and Certain Women: Midrash v. Analogy

        According to Linda Hutcheon, adaptations are omnipresent in our culture because of the pleasure they provide which comes “from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (4). She compares adaptation to translation and states that, just as literal translation does not work, there can be no literal adaptation (16). She writes that “proximity or fidelity to the adapted text should [not] be the criterion of judgment” (6) as it tended to be in the past. She defines the process of adaptation as “creative reinterpreting and palimpsestic intertextuality” (22). Among the tools used by storytellers, she mentions the following: “they actualize or concretize ideas; they make simplifying selections, but also amplify and extrapolate; they make analogies; they critique or show their respect” (3).

        Certain Women totally fits Hutcheon’s description of an adaptation. It is inspired by the biblical text but several times in the novel (126, 350), the characters themselves point out that there is no strict parallelism between the destinies of the two Davids. For example, Nik tells his wife, who has just revealed to him that she has been raped by her half-brother: “you’re not a twentieth-century equivalent of Tamar. Sure, I can see parallels, but there’s no preordained necessity [….] free will, Emma, sweetie, not predestination” (224). In The Rock That is Higher, Madeleine L’Engle described how she failed at her first attempt to adapt the story of King David into fiction and how she turned to a contemporary version instead:


I had started out to write a novel about King David’s eight wives, and I realized fairly quickly that I could not put myself completely into the bodies and minds of women who lived approximately three thousand years ago in a culture completely different from ours. I needed a twentieth century point of view. What happened was that my twentieth-century cast took over, and the story of King David became a play that Nik Green, one of the twentieth century characters, was writing. It didn’t mean that I had to live any less with King David and his wives […] but that the story and its marvellous truth was being approached from a different perspective. (16)


        While a claim to be faithful to the original can be found neither in the text nor in the metatext of Certain Women, at the other end of the scale, God Knows claims to be even more authentic than the source itself. Throughout the narrative, David comments on the way his story is reported in the Bible, sometimes complaining about how he is depicted in it: “I hate Chronicles. In Chronicles I am a pious bore, as dull as a dishwasher and as preachy and insipid as the self-righteous Joan of Arc, and God knows I was never anything like that” (9). At other times, he states that he will establish the truth about the way a certain event really happened. For instance, when he describes his battle against Goliath, he writes: “If you want to believe what you heard, I halted along the way to choose five smooth stones out of the brook. That was just for show. Any slinger worth his salt always carries his stones with him, and as I knelt with my knees in the water, I was unobtrusively removing two from the leather pouch at my waist […]” (97). The expression of the title “God knows,” found all along the novel, is his way of saying “this is what I’m telling you and you can believe me.” He rarely openly contradicts the Biblical narrative but mostly resorts to “midrash.”

        This concept has been used by many critics to describe the relationship between the Bible and its rewritings (Carruthers 259). It originally referred a form of rabbinic literature interpreting or commenting on a biblical text in such a way as to clarify a point or illustrate a principle. Midrash often fill in gaps left in the narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. Harold Fisch is one of the critics who refer to novelistic rewriting as midrash and he states that “the result is something between interpretation and a new invention, for biblical narratives, by virtue of their polyphonic character, as well as their pregnant silences, are particularly suited to beget other narratives” (18). To him, rewriting necessarily involves filling in the gaps of what is not said in the original text.

        In God Knows, Joseph Heller constantly uses the technique of filling in the gaps and reading between the lines, thus “amplify[ing] and extrapolat[ing]” (Hutcheon 3), as in the following example, where the first sentence is a direct quotation from the Bible and the rest is commentary: “‘But I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, […] the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defiled.’ My voice was filled with righteousness. Ask me to this day what I thought I was talking about when I said ‘Lord of hosts’ and I still will be unable to tell you. I have many phrases whose meaning is likewise unintelligible to me but rhetoric is rhetoric” (99-100).

        Joseph Heller goes further than most authors rewriting Biblical stories. He uses midrash to the point of often contradicting the original text, thus challenging the reader’s certitudes. One of the most unexpected examples is when he makes Solomon, popularly known as the wisest man on earth, an idiot, a cheat who got the best of his legendary sayings from David himself and who only acquired wisdom after he had become king because he asked God to grant it to him (317). This does not contradict the original text per se, but it is highly ironic and comical. Along the same lines, David disputes the modern definition of a Philistine[3] by explaining that they were in reality a refined and cultured people (41). He also debunks the idea that the biblical David was a very pious person, stating that he was full of conceit when he attacked Goliath as a youth (21) or that he was not really furious when the Amalekite announced Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, but secretly pleased at receiving the crown and arm bracelet from him (35). Again, since he is referring to inner feelings, he cannot be accused of openly contradicting the original story.[4] He uses the argument of a discrepancy between words and thoughts even in the case of the most important transformation of all: Heller’s David constantly harps on his refusal to repent after having committed adultery and murder and on his lasting anger against God as a consequence of his baby’s death. To the reader who is familiar with the Biblical character, this change feels the most heterodox because there is clear evidence in the biblical text that David deeply regretted what he had done[5] and that he carried on worshipping God to the end of his life[6]: but if the narrator of God Knows is to be believed, it was just pretence (369).

        The Biblical hypotext is literally present in both novels. In Certain Women it takes the form of direct quotations, for example in the paratext, at the beginning of each chapter, or when one of the characters refers to the Bible (169, 302). In those examples, the text is in italics or in brackets to make it clear that it is a quote. In another example, the words are spoken directly by a character: “Adair laughed ruefully. ‘Poor little Inez. She’s all legs and knobbly knees and elbows. We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts’” (138). Even if there are no quotation marks in that example, the source is easily identifiable first to the attentive reader by the archaic “hath” and then in the next line, by Emma’s answer, explicitly mentioning the Song of Songs. The Bible is also referred to by the characters who read it, preach on it or discuss it on numerous occasions. Finally, there is an intermediary level between the contemporary re-writing and the biblical text itself: it is the unfinished play written by Nik on the story of King David, attempting to do what Madeleine L’Engle could not do and ultimately also failing. The play, which is supposed to tell the story from the perspective of David’s wives, is frequently read aloud by the characters and is a means for the reader who is not familiar with the biblical story to have access to it.

        In God Knows there are more direct quotations than in Certain Women but they are interwoven with the narrative with no quotation marks. However they are easily recognisable because of their style. Indeed, the quotes are taken from the King James Bible and sound very archaic compared to the rest of the text, as in the following example: “‘What shall be done by the king […] to the man that killeth this Philistine and taketh away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’/ ‘Who the fuck are you?’” (92-93).[7] “The frequently abrupt disjunction between the familiar high sentences of the scriptural material and the ‘rude noises’ of the vernacular obscenities and wisecracks” is described by Stephen W. Potts as “the most insistent comic and thematic device in this novel” (99). He asserts that “[s]ince Catch 22, one of the hallmarks of Heller’s work has been the sharp contrast between the often serious matter and the comic manner, a characteristic traditionally central to dark humor” (99).

        Actually, the whole question of intertextuality is dealt with in a playful way in God Knows. It is not just the biblical text that is quoted without indication of origin. Indeed, the novel is peppered with quotations from writers and poets of all periods and styles like Jonathan Swift (247), Robert Burns (310), Lord Byron (237), Charles Dickens (222) or Kafka (120). There is even a whole poem by Shelley, “Ozymandias of Egypt,” in direct speech, presented by David as “another crack at instructing” his son Solomon (317). After a while, the reader finds himself caught up in a tacit game of trying to spot the unidentified quotes. The most frequently quoted author is Shakespeare (100, 170, 189, 207, 228, 269, 364, 433) and it is ironically funny, since David constantly claims to be a true poet and creator and accuses both his son Solomon and Shakespeare of having copied him, calling the latter an “unscrupulous plagiarist” (89). In one sentence, he criticizes Shakespeare, for having “pilfered from Plutarch too, as well as from Saul and me” and in the next, he shamelessly quotes from Macbeth without citing his source: “stupid plots cluttered with warm bodies and filled with sound and fury and signifying nothing” (188-89).[8] He also complains that Solomon got all his Proverbs, his Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes from his father David while at the same time admitting that he himself stole the idea for his celebrated Psalm 23 (349) and several other psalms and proverbs from Bathsheba after telling her she was useless at writing: “‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ […] ‘Are you crazy? How fantastic can you get? That’s crap, Bathsheba, pure crap. Where’s your sense of metaphor?’” (348).

        Although it is not treated humorously, the idea that David might have provided inspiration for Solomon’s Song of Songs is also mentioned in Certain Women (208). Besides, Emma suggests to her husband that one of David’s wives might have authored part of his writings. She is thinking of Abigail rather than Bathsheba: “[…] she’s intelligent and creative. […] why couldn’t Abigail have made up some of the Psalms and taught them to David?” (169). Madeleine L’Engle regretted that “The God of Scripture is seen through male eyes (Jacob, Moses, David), so what we are given is only a partial vision of God” (Rock 27) and we can infer that this was part of her effort to re-establish a certain balance. With that example, we can see that she also resorted to the midrash technique even if she did not use it as abundantly as Heller.

        Both authors turn to the biblical text for inspiration, frequently quoting from it, while at the same time mixing it with their own writing and interpretation. By choosing a contemporary setting, L’Engle departs from the original text—and consequently from the events which inspired it—in a more obvious way than Heller, being “one step further away from real life as a representation of a representation” to use Kamilla Elliott’s phrase (162). However, in reality, David’s claim that he is more faithful to the facts than the source itself is, again, to be understood ironically since the source was to Heller, as it is to us, the only document available to learn about the facts. Heller himself referred to his inability to write a “realistic novel” in an interview: “I can’t deal with facts comfortably. […] In all my novels I try very hard not to let the facts get in the way of the truth” (Swaim). Thus, we can conclude that there is just as much “creative reinterpreting” (Hutcheon 22) in God Knows as in Certain Women.


How the Characters are Made to Come to Life

        Agreeing with Harold Fisch that “the Western imagination cannot escape [the Bible] but neither can it accept it unaltered” (viii), Madeleine L’Engle felt that she needed a twentieth century point of view to be able to reach out to her public. To help the contemporary reader identify with her characters, she chose to leave out some of the more shocking events in King David’s life: consequently David Wheaton does not murder a man to be able to marry his widow, and Abishag, the young virgin who sleeps with the old king to warm him becomes Alice, a mature doctor who looks after him and is legitimately married to him through her own choice, as were all his previous wives. Although two of his sons fight and die as soldiers in World War II, David Wheaton himself does not take part in any wars and the killing of the giant Goliath is merely metaphorical (3). There are constant nods to the original story but in order to suit a contemporary audience and a Western culture, some events or practises that could be perceived as disturbing or unrealistic are left out.

        Certain Women came out in 1992 but the story is principally set in the sixties, when David Wheaton is eighty-seven, and there are frequent analepses corresponding to his past life so the time span covered by the novel broadly corresponds to the first part of the twentieth century. Therefore the questions of the suffering of the innocent (260) and of the possibility of fighting a just war (145) are raised by the characters in reference to the Second World War, making them seem more relevant to the reader.

        In God Knows, all the shocking parts of the biblical narrative are included, and even developed and magnified to create humour. For instance, the story of David being asked to bring a hundred foreskins of Philistines as a dowry to marry Michal is told in just seven verses in the Bible (1 Samuel 18, 20-27) but goes on for ten pages in God Knows (168-78). Heller insists on David’s boyish eagerness to perform his task and even more on the Philistine women’s wailings when they recognize the foreskin of a certain Urgat who appears to have been a favourite among them.

        Despite the apparent lack of effort to try and make the story more palatable, it feels very contemporary and the reader is able to identify with David. To achieve that, Heller employs a device he had started using in Catch 22: he resorts to anachronisms. Just to give a few examples, not only does David use modern American slang and swearwords like ‘motherfucker’ (90), or “you bet your ass” (239), he also has extended geographical and historical knowledge of the twentieth century world. He compares his kingdom to the American states of Vermont and Maine (329), mentions Beverly Hills (56), London (16), Versailles (285) and Scandinavia (172). He refers to the Middle-Ages (311), to the discovery of America, to concentration camps, capitalism, fascism and communism (330-1). He mentions Cinderella (46) and at one point, he parodies a Disney song (175). He is acquainted with orthodontia (62), psychoanalysis (52, 265), miniskirts (35) and the pill (267) and is even aware of the fact that some of the things he mentions have not been invented yet (350). He uses a lot of Yiddish words like “shtupp,” “schmuck” (360), “schvantz,” “teivel,” “naar,” (420) and mentions “kasha varnishkas” (224), a popular Ashkenazi Jewish dish. He is also familiar with the New Testament, which he quotes several times (220, 289, 367). He goes so far as to ludicrously amalgamate Jesus and Marie-Antoinette by quoting them both in the same sentence: “Let them eat cake,” he said calmly. “Man does not live by bread alone” (315). The protagonist is an ancient king but his references are those of a twentieth-century American Jew, just like Heller himself. The anachronisms are so frequent that they make the world described in the novel seem familiar to the reader.

        The biblical text is very simple and narrative and often the feelings of the characters have to be guessed. For instance, in the story of the meeting between David and Abigail, we can deduce from the text that it was love at first sight since David asked her to marry him as soon as he learnt her husband was dead, but Joseph Heller chooses to spell things out in order to make the story come to life: “For the longest time I could not move my gaze from her face. Then I could not take my eyes off her tits. I felt my member harden and begin to stand out” (249). It is all the more unexpected and amusing because it comes after a long passage where the Biblical text is quoted almost verbatim, although without quotation marks, as is Heller’s custom.

        As Robert Merill noted, in God Knows, David is presented as “less perfect… far less pious,” “far more human” (115) than in the biblical text so it is easier for the reader to identify with him. Once more, the two authors do not use the same strategy but the result is the same: the characters feel, at least to a certain point, close to their readers.


Two Emotional Narratives Dealing With Eros and Thanatos

        The central figure of both narratives is a very old man on the verge of death and who had a particularly rich love life. Love and death are central themes in both novels.

        In Certain Women, they are treated very seriously as the reader is made to feel Emma’s sorrow at the idea of parting with her father, but also the pain caused by her rape and the aching of being currently separated from her husband Nik. Yet, the tone of the novel is not pessimistic. Mirroring L’Engle’s own experience,[9] Emma and her family acquire a certain wisdom through their sufferings and learn to deal with them. Thus, the conversations they have are full of sage reflexions on the importance of friendship (160), the acceptance of death (190), and the possibility of learning from mistakes (337).

        Though more humorous, “like all truly grand comic novels, God Knows is ultimately sad,” as Mordecai Richler wrote in The New York Times. Indeed, David is anxious about his coming death and especially about losing his strength and abilities. The former celebrated warrior and lover keeps regretting that he finds himself incapable of making love to Bathsheba one last time. As Heller stated, “[w]hat there is in all my books, part of the central consciousness, is a philosophical despair on the inevitability of age, of ageing, and dying” (Craig 148). David is also described as a doting father who was atrociously hurt when his son Absalom betrayed him and even more when he was killed (255). And of course he never recovered from the death of his baby boy. Although the tone is slightly more jaded, words of wisdom sounding very similar to the ones spoken by the characters in Certain Women can be found in God Knows: “[…] just as the person who wants praise will never be satisfied with praise, the person who wants love cannot be satisfied with love. No want is ever fulfilled” (105).[10]

        Both Davids were accused of being dislikeable. L’Engle’s David can be perceived as self-centred, but he admits towards the end of his life that he made many mistakes: “I have been a selfish bastard all my life. I’ve done what I wanted, even when it’s hurt other people” (291). On the surface, he seems not to care about God. Yet we learn that the reason he does not take communion when he goes to church is that he believes himself “to be unworthy” (61): “I’m just a foolish old man, suddenly remembering how often I’ve forgotten God. And David never did that” (83).

        Heller’s David is arrogant and self-righteous. However, those traits are so grossly exaggerated that they become unrealistic and laughable, for instance when he claims to have invented all the best poems and music in the world (198). He always pretends to know better but, several times in the narrative, it is obvious to the reader that he is mistaken. The most hilarious example is when he accuses Solomon of having preposterous ideas because he has advised him to hide his writings in a cave by the Dead Sea in order to preserve them for future generations, which is of course a reference to the famous Qumran scrolls which came to us precisely thanks to that means (234). It could be argued that the stepping back is done at his expense in order to make fun of him and that the character is still obnoxious. Yet despite all his ranting, complaining, boasting, David appears to be a very lonely character, who wants, most of all, to be loved. Throughout the novel, he speaks very disrespectfully of God, often accusing and insulting him, sometimes even doubting his existence, but his very last words—I want my God back; and they send me a girl (447)—seem to suggest that ultimately, there is a spiritual longing in him.[11] Just like David Wheaton, he is helpless and feels the need to protect himself from pain. Unlike L’Engle’s David, he uses coarse jokes and dark humour as a means to “[distance] and [control] the emotional desolation” he experiences (Craig 153). Although he is a complex and contradictory character, he is also a suffering human being and as such, he awakens the reader’s sympathy.


        Apart from drawing from the same source of inspiration, the two novels have a lot in common as this paper has endeavoured to show. Incidentally, they also had a similar journey. Their authors, who were almost the same age,[12] became famous at the same time, after publishing their first work, which turned into a bestseller, though not without some struggle in both cases: Catch 22 came out in 1961 and A Wrinkle in Time in 1962. God Knows and Certain Women were both written several years later, they were criticized[13] and unfavourably compared to their predecessors.[14] The two novels are not without faults. It can be noticed that they were accused by the critics of having the same shortcomings, namely of sometimes being heavy-handed and a bit long and repetitive.[15] Nevertheless, they are both thought-provoking and bring the biblical text to life in their own unique way.


Works Cited

“Book Review: Certain Women, by Madeleine L’Engle.” Publishers Weekly, September 28, 1992. Web. 15/09/2018.

Carruthers, John. “Literature.” The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture. Ed. John F. A. Sawyers. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Print.

Craig, David M. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Heller’s Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. Print.

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel / Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Fisch, Harold. New Stories for Old: Biblical Patterns in the Novel. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1998. Print.

God Knows by Joseph Heller.” “Kirkus Review.” Sept. 15, 1984. Web. 12/08/2018.

Heller, Joseph. God Knows. 1984. London: Black Swan, 1985. Print.

—. “Wired for Books.” Interview by Don Swaim. September 19, 1984. Web. 18/08/2018.

—. Conversations with Joseph Heller. Ed. Adam J. Sorkin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. 1993. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art. New York: Bantam Books, 1982. Print.

—. Certain Women. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.

—. The Rock that is Higher. Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1993. Print.

Merill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Print.

Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. The Milford Series, Popular Writers of Today, second edition, vol. 36. Borgo Press, 1995. Print.

Richler, Mordecai. “He who laughs last.” New York Times, September 23, 1984. Web. 15/05/2018.

See, Carolyn. “Book Review: L’Engle Hero Harps on King David: Certain Women, By Madeleine L’Engle.” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1992. Web. 14/05/2018.

Severo, Richard and Herbert Mitgang. “Joseph Heller, Darkly Surreal Novelist, Dies at 76”. New York Times, December 14, 1999. Web. 15/05/2018.


Anne-Frédérique Mochel-Caballero has a Ph.D in English literature from the University of Picardy Jules Verne, where she also teaches. She is the author of L’Évangile selon C. S. Lewis, Le dépassement du masculin / féminin dans la quête de Dieu (Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2011), a study of gender in the works of C.S. Lewis. She is interested in children’s literature (particularly fantasy), in representations of the masculine and feminine in literature and in biblical intertextuality.



[1] In the Biblical text, David’s daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13).

[2] In an interview with Don Swaim, Heller said: “David would not have spoken that way. I would have spoken that way.” 

[3] According to the Oxford dictionary, a Philistine is “a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Oxford UP, 2017. Web.

[4] He almost never does it. The only real exception seems to be when he claims that he has black hair (103): David is described as being fair-haired in 1 Samuel 16, 12.

[5] For instance in Psalm 51, a prayer written by David specifically to ask God for forgiveness “after he had gone in to Bathsheba” (King James Bible, Ps 51, 1).

[6] 2 Samuel 23 1-7, 16-17; 2 Samuel 24, 10; 1 Kings 1, 18; 1 Kings 2, 3-4.

[7] The first part of this passage is a word-for-word quote from 1 Samuel 17, 26.

[8] “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and furySignifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, verses 26-8).

[9] In Walking on Water, L’Engle wrote how her suffering as a lonely child and, later, her failure to publish her first book, though bitter experiences, had taught her “a lot of valuable lessons” (58).

[10] L’Engle’s phrasing is almost analogous: “Nobody’s needs are ever met. I do know that” (CW, 160).

[11] Heller saw himself as an agnostic (Conversations 75), but in an interview with Don Swaim, Heller said about God Knows: “It’s not an atheistic book; it’s not even an agnostic book.”

[12] L’Engle was born in 1918 and Heller in 1923.

[13] For Certain Women, see for example Carolyn See’s book review in the Los Angeles Times. For God Knows, see Kirkus Review and Potts 101-04.

[14] Told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller famously responded, “Who has?”(Severo and Mitgang). Certain Women was described by Publishers Weekly as a “disappointing novel by the Newbery Award-winning CK author of A Wrinkle in Time.”

[15] Concerning God Knows, Potts mentions “redundancy and length” among the issues which surface most frequently in negative reviews of the novel (101). A review in Publishers Weekly describes Certain Women as “heavy-handed.”

N°2 | “Look Homeward, Angel”: Re-Interpreting “the buried life” for the Stage

Amélie Moisy


This article examines Ketti Frings’ play “Look Homeward, Angel” (1957) as a re-interpretation of the novel Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life (1929), by the American novelist Thomas Wolfe, failed playwright and adaptor. Frings seems to have focused on the notion of “buried life,” central to Wolfe’s work, as she condensed the storyline, developed some aspects, invented scenes, and changed some outcomes. Her work is a re-creation that ultimately proves wrong the clichés on adaptation identified by Linda Hutcheon, for it conveys some of the intimacy in point of view, the interiority, time relations, and other “untranslatables” of the novel. The reception of the play is examined; a critical and popular hit in 1957, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a musical and two TV movies. The article considers the (still widely produced) play as an introduction to Wolfe’s life and work.


Cet article étudie l’adaptation scénique de Ketti Frings du roman de Thomas Wolfe Look Homeward, Angel : A Story of the Buried Life (1929) en tant que réinterprétation de l’œuvre du romancier américain, dramaturge raté qui pratiquait l’adaptation. Dans “Look Homeward, Angel” (1957), Frings semble avoir retenu la notion de “vie enfouie” pour concentrer la diégèse, développer d’autres aspects, inventer des scènes et modifier des dénouements. Sa pièce est une recréation qui dément les clichés sur l’adaptation identifiés par Linda Hutcheon en ce qui concerne le point de vue, l’intériorité, le passage du temps, et d’autres éléments “intraduisibles”. L’article décrit la réception de la pièce en 1957 ; elle remporta le prix Pulitzer et fut adaptée en comédie musicale et deux films pour la télévision. La pièce, souvent produite aujourd’hui, peut être envisagée en tant qu’introduction à la vie et l’œuvre de Wolfe.


        The American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was a failed playwright when he published his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, subtitled A Story of the Buried Life, in 1929. Ketti Frings (1909-1981), born Katherine Hartley, was a journalist and writer who had had a play on Broadway. Her work had been adapted for the screen, and, as a screenwriter, she had adapted novels such as Jane Eyre (1943) and plays such as William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba (1952). In this article, I look at what instances of adaptation in Wolfe’s novel become in Ketti Frings’ 1957 play “Look Homeward, Angel.” It will appear that the “buried life” was a key concept for both novelist and playwright, though they used different techniques to make it perceptible. I examine how Frings’ changes give a concentrated impression of “buried life,” and how her “comedy drama” proves wrong the four main clichés on telling versus showing identified by Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Adaptation, in order to better appreciate its merits as “a (re)interpretation and (re)creation,” to quote Hutcheon’s definition of an adaptation. Finally, I give an account of the reception of the play.


Wolfean Adaptation: Scope

        Frings was dealing with an author who was an adaptor, and had been adapted. Wolfe had studied playwriting at the University of North Carolina and at Harvard. He never had a play produced off campus as he found it difficult to keep to the necessary condensation of drama—he explained that “Welcome to Our City,” for example, with 32 named characters, did not deal with any specific problem because it was meant to reflect “a certain civilization, a certain society. I am content with nothing but the whole picture.” He intended one day “to write a play with fifty, eighty, a hundred people—a whole town, a whole race, a whole epoch” (Nowell qtd. in Donald 98). Instead, he adapted some playwriting techniques to his novel on his home town, in which he reworked true incidents, interspersing dialogue with stage directions, but commenting upon the action at leisure, too. As the groom Hugh Barton’s mother is “taken with a violent, a retching sickness” during the Gants’ daughter Helen’s honeymoon, for example, Helen is shown taking over the sick woman’s care against her will, much as she tends to Eliza’s boarders against her will in the play:


“Hel-en! Oh Hel-en!” Mrs. Barton’s voice came feebly in to them.

“O gotohell!” said the girl, sotto-voce. “Urr-p! Urr-p!” She burst suddenly into tears: “Is it going to be like this always! I sometimes believe the judgment of God is against us all. Papa was right.”

“Pshaw!” said Eliza, wetting her fingers, and threading a needle before the light. “I’d go on and pay no more attention to her. There’s nothing wrong with her. It’s all imagination!” It was Eliza’s rooted conviction that most human ills, except her own, were “all imagination.”


“All right! I’m coming!” the girl cried cheerfully, turning an angry grin on Eliza as she went. It was funny. It was ugly. It was terrible. (LHA 386-87)


And Wolfe readapted the novel into other forms. He was always to adapt fact into his fiction, always to take excerpts from the novels he was working on to market as short stories, first on the advice of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and later with the help of his agent, Elizabeth Nowell. His first short story, “An Angel on the Porch,” taken from the novel, was published before it.

        The “Look Homeward” title lifted from Milton’s “Lycidas” suited this adaptation of stories of Wolfe’s family and neighbors in the South of the USA. The subtitle, A Story of The Buried Life, has many meanings. Wolfe was inspired by Freudian theories on the importance of the formative years to write about his alter ego, the sensitive Eugene Gant, growing up in Altamont. Moreover, the phrase was an adaptation of the notion expressed in Matthew Arnold’s poem, “The Buried Life”:


But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course…

(“The Buried Life” 46-50)


        This secret life is the consciousness Wolfe’s characters repress in their everyday business, while questioning in their hearts the course of their existence and the human condition in general. The characters’ lives are also buried in the small town, encompassed by hills, and though many of the characters have dreams, as Janet Savage Blachford has pointed out, only Eugene will “spend [his] fire and restless force” positively.

        Finally, as early as the liminal prose poem, Wolfe introduces the idea that man on earth “remembers speechlessly” a happier preexistence, after which life on earth is a “prison,” and references to the Golden Age recur throughout the book and give it a mythical dimension typical of modernism. The characters have an epic greatness, from the father, W.O. Gant, who is a “Hammer hurling Thor” (286) and the mother, Eliza, who is Avarice personified, to the older brother, Ben, who walks the earth “like Apollo […], trying to recapture the music of the lost world” (557), on a quest similar to Eugene’s.

        The novel Look Homeward, Angel is “organic” rather than synthetic in form; it has over 200 named characters and most editions run over 600 pages. It is famous for its Whitmanesque catalogues seeking to render the sum total of Eugene’s “multiplex” sensory experiences (84), and passages of lyrical prose built up in incremental repetition, inspired by the Romantic poets, as in the passage where Eugene visits Ben’s grave, with its variations on “the leaves were quaking […] Wind pressed the boughs; the withered leaves were shaking” and Wolfe’s “ghost, come back again” motif (578, 581-83). After Wolfe’s death, some passages from his work were published as separate stanzas or, with line breaks, as free verse—in The Face of a Nation (1939)and A Stone, a Leaf, a Door (1945).


Frings’ Adaptation: Concentration

        Although Frings was no Wolfe scholar when she began work on the play for producer Kermit Bloomgarten in the spring of 1957, she brought to the task of reinterpreting Look Homeward, Angel for the stage both a talent for concentration and sensitivity to the Wolfean spirit, as she makes the buried life apparent. Frings had to reduce the scale of the work and the epic nature of the characters; she cut the subtitle and references to preexistence that suggest an alternative to life as a prison, but the characters are concerned with escape—from family ties, and especially from a manipulating mother, as well as escape from the small town and sordid boarding house. She confided in an interview that she re-read the novel several times, but “didn’t read anything else about Wolfe or by Wolfe that might confuse [her]” (Dedmond 44). Visiting Wolfe’s mother’s boarding house, she came away with a feeling for Wolfe’s intense loneliness, which she strove to keep as a central impression, the “buried life” of a play that hinges on, Frings stated, the moment in which the character loses his “blind spot”. Eugene, who has always suffered from a sense of loneliness, abandoned by his girl and having lost a beloved brother, realizes that he must stand alone, no longer tied to his brawling family. To guide her in limiting the action, Francis Dedmond relates,


Mrs. Frings looked for what she called “the point of not-blindness.” “In a play,” she said, “the protagonist should have a blind spot about something. When that blind spot is removed for him, the play is over.” Eugene’s blind spot, she argued, was “the feeling that he must accept the embraces of his family and be bound by ties of family love.” The moment of not-blindness she found in Eugene’s conversation with Ben’s ghost at the end of the novel. “Where, Ben? Where is the world?” Eugene asked. “Nowhere,” Ben said. “You are your world.” Once she found that moment, Mrs. Frings was able to condense the play into a three-week period surrounding Ben’s death. (“Problems” 44-45)


To add to the impression of confinement, Frings restricted the action to Eliza Gant’s Dixieland boarding house and W.O. Gant’s marble shop. Jo Mielziner, who had recently done the stage design for “Death of a Salesman,” arranged a set of a house around which everything was concentrated. It enabled the scenes to flow into one another without stopping. In a step away from literalism, the upstairs scenes were situated downstairs, the shift from the lower level to the bedrooms being made by a revolving stage built inside the living room. The set made simultaneous scenes possible: thus Ben could be seen dying while his mother wrung her hands in the kitchen. The entire house moved forwards and backwards, so that scenes could be played in front of it as well. Mielziner used projections to reinforce the desired atmosphere (“Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Angel’”). What is more, Frings restricted the number of characters to only one of Gant’s cronies, the doctor and the town madam besides the family and the boarders. As in the novel, where all of the characters have a buried life, Frings makes it clear, although she simplifies their longings, that they all want to escape in one way or another: brother Ben to the war in Europe, sister Mabel to stop waiting on boarders, her husband Hugh Barton to a house of his own and a better job, old man Gant to leave his wife Eliza and travel, Eliza to a fine property, the young boarder Laura from her fiancé, Eugene with Laura to end solitude, and, when she leaves him, to university. Again, only Eugene will prevail. As Frings has W.O. Gant prophesy, “You’re going to bust loose, boy—you’re going to bust loose, all over this dreary planet!” (89)


The Playwright’s Hand: Adding for the Gist

        Frings adapts Wolfe’s work into various sub-plots that highlight inner experience and the buried life. She insisted on the strong tie between Eugene and Ben from the beginning, opening on a prose poem that Eugene is writing about his mysterious older brother, which she adapted from the novel—“His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light…” (“LHA” 6, LHA 165). She developed the character of Ben so that his loss takes on its full significance, and when only his voice remains, declaring the famous inner-life affirming “You are your world,” Eugene understands that he must live alone (91). Inner life is made clear as she develops the love affair between Eugene and Laura James, making motives apparent. Eugene is ready to forfeit college for marriage and an end to solitude: “You are my world, Laura. You always will be. Don’t let anything destroy us. Don’t leave me alone. I’ve always been alone” (53). And Laura explains why she leaves Eugene: “The thought of marriage frightened me. I told my fiancé I needed time to think it over. I fell in love with Eugene […] He needs the whole world to wander in—and I know now that I need a home” (81). Frings made Eugene’s going to the University at Chapel Hill depend on Gant selling his shop, then made Eliza refuse to let that sale go through for fear that they would both leave her, and finally made her the means of Eugene’s going as she decides to sell some of her own precious property to save her baby from Laura’s clutches. In these episodes, Frings shows the undercurrents of feeling in the characters. She modified the most famous episode: the angel statue in Gant’s shop is not sold to his friend the madam, as in the short story and novel, but reserved for his own grave, suggesting that long-buried ideals still guide the characters: “… as I looked at [this angel’s] smiling face, I felt, more than anything in the world, I wanted to carve delicately with a chisel. It was as though, if I could do that, I could bring something of me out onto a piece of marble” (51). She changed the behavior of the characters, making Tarkinton, Gant’s neighbor but no friend in the novel, his associate in alcoholic excess, and presenting the town madam as less distinguished than in the book, were she was so regal as to be called Queen Elizabeth: in the play, both sing bawdy songs with Gant. And Frings created new scenes from existing ones, transforming Eugene’s vain attempts to bring down the house when Laura leaves in the novel into a rampage as Eliza and a gleeful Gant start to tear down the boarding house when Eugene is about to leave, giving free rein to their hatred of it.

        Though this last scene, in particular, is “good theater,” Frings does not indulge in overdramatic “showing.” In an opening night review, Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, praised the play and the performances whose “varied tempos” had the “mark of truth.” Looking at some of the variations within the play proves wrong the four clichés Linda Hutcheon lists regarding adaptation, and telling versus showing. In what follows, I do not take the terms “telling” to mean narrative prose, or description, and “showing” to mean all dramatic devices, including dialogue, as is sometimes the case. I follow Hutcheon’s practice of considering that the use of language is “telling” and visual or other effects are “showing.”


Intimacy and Distance in Point of View

        The first cliché, according to Hutcheon, is: “Only the telling mode (especially prose fiction) has the flexibility to render both intimacy and distance in point of view” (52). In Wolfe’s novel, the point of view alternates between third person omniscient, with some passages reading like account books (194-97), and episodes of stream of consciousness, for both of the parents and Eugene. At the end, the reader understands that the ironic or lyrical narrative voice is that of the adult Eugene, looking back on his youth.

        As Manfred Jahn writes, focalization and narration have a place in drama, whether printed text or performance, at the level of the stage directions and arrangement of scenes, and of the character who seems to be presenting the play (9). Frings’ decision to have Eugene writing alone at the start, and Eugene alone on stage again at the end seems to make him the central consciousness of the play, as in the book, though he is not its explicit narrator. Frings also conveys the intimate thoughts of the other characters, like Gant’s “Why here?” of the novel (“And like a man who is perishing in the polar night, he thought of the rich meadows of his youth: the corn, the plum tree, and ripe grain. Why here? O lost!” [15]) that is transformed into the following lines in the play: “Why am I here, now at the rag end of my life? … But why here? Why here?” (39). Yet she does not seek to be sociologically realistic with scenes of account-book factuality, but rather keeps the audience conscious of the characters’ buried inner life. And drama permits revelation in ways that print does not: whether the characters are dispassionate or revealing, intimate thoughts can be perfectly conveyed by showing, as stance, gestures, tone, volume, mimics are all signs that contribute to what Patrice Pavis calls the vectorization of meaning in a performance. He feels, like Eugene Barba, that spectators are “capable of following or accompanying the actor in the dance of ‘thought-in-action,’” of perceiving “the body of the performers and the performance as an auto-biography in the strict sense of the term, i.e. as a writing of the actor’s body as much as the spectator’s, a writing which inscribes itself in the scene” (Pavis 221).


Interiority and Exteriority

        The second cliché Hutcheon identifies is, “Interiority is the terrain of the telling mode; exteriority is best handled by showing” (58). Exteriority can certainly be vectorized on stage through scenery, props, costumes, make-up, lighting and sound effects, and Mielziner’s set and projections were especially effective in creating immediate understanding of the situation at Dixieland: “[The house] has a rambling, unplanned gabular appearance, and is painted a dirty yellow. Most of its furniture is badly worn and out of style. […] The street itself has a feeling of great trees hanging over it” (5). But both interiority and exteriority can be rendered by what Pavis terms the dance, or alternatively, the energy, of performance:


[I]ntonations, gazes, restrained rather than manifest gestures are so many fleeting moments where meaning is suggested, but difficult to read and scarcely externalised. […] The rather unscientific and unsemiological term, energy, can be useful in an attempt to determine what this non-representable phenomenon is: by his presence, movement, and phrasing, the actor or dancer releases an energy which directly reaches the spectator. Such a quality makes all the difference and contributes to the whole aesthetic experience as well as the development of meaning. (Pavis 221-22)


This energy is also conveyed in the way the actors occupy the space inside and outside the house. At the start of the play, for example, Eugene remains onstage in his bedroom composing his poem to Ben as the action centers on the boarders outside, and his posture and gestures reveal his outsider’s status and his feelings about his family just as Eliza’s beliefs about him will be obvious as soon as she calls “Eugene, are up in your room? Eugene?” (10): “He hasn’t anything else to do. Spending his time up there scribbling, dreaming” (11).

        Thoughts can be shown in other ways. Jahn writes of “characters fulfilling the role of internal focalizers” in “memory plays and dream plays” (9). Frings had originally planned a flashback in which Eugene watched a naked black woman from Stumptown (Niggerland in the novel) dance and lure him into the jelly roll, or sex act; but she cut that mental scene because it was “too strong.” It would seem that in the end, Frings resorted to telling onstage to convey interiority in her play. Ben evokes the Stumptown delivery boy scene that was Eugene’s in the novel: “I used to deliver papers there. Sometimes those negra women don’t have the money to pay their bill, so they pay you in jelly roll” (32). Frings also reworked the following passage by Wolfe on Eugene as a baby:


He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us. Never, never, never, never, never. (LHA 38)


Eugene’s thoughts are given as lines to Ben, which makes him a more insightful and articulate character: of his parents, Ben concludes, “No one really comes to know anyone. […] No matter what arms may clasp us, what heart may warm us, what mouth may kiss us, we remain strangers. We never escape it. Never, never, never” (65). Frings invented scenes to reveal Eugene’s longing for escape from his boarding house and small town existence and his passionate inner life—Laura tells of seeing him throw the Dixieland advertising cards in the gutter and stare at the train at the station; Eugene pumps her with questions about the city of Richmond, and he tells her that when he touches the locomotive the rails send “a message of all the mountains that engine ever passed—all the flowing rivers, the forests, the towns, all the houses, the people, the washlines flapping in the fresh cool breeze… a whole life, a whole country clicking through your hand” (35-36). Thus Frings lets the audience know how the characters’ thoughts resonate with, or range beyond, the confinement symbolized by Dixieland.

        Yet the playwright in Wolfe came through in his “showing” of mannerisms and characteristic phrases, like Ben’s looking heavenward to say “Listen to that,” Eliza’s “Pshaw”s and constant defense of her coffee, or Gant’s “Merciful God”s. And Frings shows us something of Ben’s interiority in his derisive “Listen to that…,” or of Eliza’s, in her defensive “That’s good coffee.” Frings also conveys interiority by showing: when Eliza finally desists from tearing down the house, the different personalities of the avaricious and profligate parents are highlighted:


“ELIZA. Helen, go get the boarders, tell them he’s been drinking, tell them anything, but get them back! […] Hugh, help me clean up this mess.

GANT. Let them go, Miss Eliza. Let the boarders go!”(88)


Relations among Past, Present and Future

        The third cliché Hutcheon lists is, “The showing and interacting modes have only one tense: the present; the mode of telling alone can show relations among past, present, and future” (63).

        As mentioned earlier, Frings dropped the one visual flashback, about the Stumptown jelly roll, so that exposition about the past is spoken, and often blends with telling about interiority. We are told, for instance, about Eliza buying Dixieland, “selling the house that Papa built with his own hands and moving us into this drafty barn where we share our roof, or food, our pleasures, our privacy so that you can be Queen Bee” (42), told about the sinister happenings at Dixieland over the years (72), and about her “hang[ing] on to [Eugene] like a piece of property].” Told too, is time’s elapsing, noted on the program and voiced by the characters “You’ve been so strange all this last week,” (48) says Eliza to Eugene, or “It’s five minutes to dinnertime at Dixieland,” she says (58). Moreover, all of the characters evoke future plans. Their coming to naught suits the buried life theme.

        But onstage, the lighting and projections give an idea of time’s passing, and the actors’ demeanor and tone can show when they are reminiscing about the past. And they can foreshadow the future, as when Laura’s changed attitude is perceptible as she enters Gant’s shop with the picnic basket in Act II, Scene 1. Particularly noteworthy is the final expressionistic tableau of the play, a synthesis of past, present and future made apparent through the vectorization of sound, lighting, moveable set, of the actor’s energy, and of stage props and theatrical and fictional codes (the curtain signals the end, the convention of closure suggests that the final image foretells the future). Eugene is about to leave for university, having lost Ben to death and Laura to a rival. If the stage directions are followed, the final scene presents the future as “The TRAIN WHISTLE sounds;” it recalls the past—and also introduces it into the future, suggesting that Eugene will always carry it around with him: “LIGHTS reveal Dixieland in dim silhouette;” and it shows Eugene’s present resolution as he faces the future squarely: “EUGENE, without looking back, exits. CURTAIN” (92).


“Untranslatable” Elements

        Hutcheon reformulates a fourth cliché: “Only telling (in language) can do justice to such elements as ambiguity, irony, symbols, metaphors, silences, and absences; these remain “untranslatable” in the showing (…) mode” (68). Much is told in speech that would otherwise remain untranslatable, but a great deal is made more poignant through being shown.

        The ambiguity and ambivalence about all the characters in Wolfe’s book is stressed. Though Eliza is more directly responsible for the woes of the dysfunctional family in the play, there is the ambiguity of Gant’s wanting freedom for his son, but constantly tormenting his wife, and of Eugene’s enduring love for his family. Ambiguous, too, is Eliza’s tearing down the house, then refraining. These perplexing evidences suggest the depth of their buried life.

        Much of the irony in the book is turned into humor. Wolfe writes: “But Eliza was not content with [Gant’s stonecutting] trade: there was no money in death. People, she thought, died too slowly. […] So she persuaded Gant to go into partnership with Will Pentland” (17). In the play the passage becomes black humor as Eliza complains about Gant’s tombstone cutting: “in this day and age people die too slowly” (47). At other times, Frings creates burlesque scenes: Gant cries “So you don’t like my wife’s coffee!” while chasing the boarders, and Eliza, destroying the house, automatically replies “Why, law, that’s good coffee!” (88). But Frings introduces dramatic irony in many scenes, as when the audience knows that Gant is watching Eugene secretly fondle the angel in his shop in Act II, Scene 1, or knows that Laura has left Eugene as he trundles to her door with his suitcase in Act III. And there is irony in the denouement of Frings’ plot: the penny-pinching Eliza sells her property at the last minute hoping to prevent Eugene’s marriage by sending him to university; she doesn’t know that Laura is leaving and the expenditure is unnecessary (82). Moreover, Eugene ends up going to university as he had wanted to at first, instead of marrying and getting a job with his uncle. The tangled course of events parallels the Gants’ tumultuous inner lives.

        Frings established symbols, the boarding house and the train standing for captivity and escape, superimposing the two at the end to show Eugene at the crossroads. She kept the symbol of the angel as Gant’s ideal, while the “melt[ing] with ruth” Milton’s angel evokes is all the easier for the viewer as Frings shows something of the inner workings of all the characters—that they all had an ideal of sorts.

        In contrast, Frings invented the spoken metaphor of being fixed in a photograph for the Gants’ unsatisfactory cohabitation, perhaps reworking Wolfe’s references to photographs in other contexts, notably at the end of Chapter 19 of the novel, or “An Angel on the Porch,” where “life was held […] in photographic abeyance” as Gant’s psychic state is compared to three different men viewing old photos (LHA 269). Frings has Ben use the image twice; his dying words are “It’s one way—to step out of—the photograph…” (“LHA” 74).

        Frings inserts dashes in the dialogue and specifies pauses in her stage directions, and a director can effectively place longer silences in several scenes, for example, when Eugene prays for the deceased Ben on the porch while Laura watches unseen—the silences in between the bursts of prayer and Laura’s silence links them in a caring and sorrowful vigil contrasting with the family quarrels shown earlier.

        Finally, telling is thought to render absences best. But Ben’s refusal to have his mother by his deathbed is made evident as Mrs. Pert replaces Helen and Eliza in the bedroom shown on stage, while they are seen waiting down below. Laura’s absence is shown by Eliza taking in her place in the room, by the letter Eugene reads as he hears the train’s whistle, indicating her departure. And Ben’s absence rings out in his disembodied voice in the darkness (his ghost was flesh in the novel). Eugene’s break with his family is driven home as he delivers his line (taken from the novel) after the argument with Eliza about the boarding house—and physically departs from view:


EUGENE. […] And now, at last I am free from all of you. And I shall get me some order out of this chaos. I shall find my way out of it yet, though it takes me twenty years more—alone. (Starts for door.)

ELIZA. Gene! Gene, you’re not leaving?

EUGENE. Ah, you were not looking, were you? I’ve already gone. (EUGENE exits) (“LHA” 85)


But as stated earlier, through vectorization, showing can convey both the lessening and continuance of the familial influence and the weight of inherited loneliness that Dixieland symbolizes, seen in the distance as the curtain falls—an untranslatable element, at least one that is not explicitly formulated in the play.


The Spirit of the Play

        Similarly, Frings identified cuts in her adaptation that nevertheless had a lasting quality. Orientating playwright and cast, they were the buried life of the play; notably, the absent Wolfe fertilized her production. Of the discarded scenes, she wrote, in an article entitled “O Lost!”, “in their brief existence, each gave of its essence, and so deeply enriched all our experiences” (91). She had conjured Wolfe in her original prologue, realizing “I needed him—his image—close by” (91). Yet Frings increasingly felt the play to be her own creation, too. “After a while, as the play grew, I began to have confidence in its own life […]. I gently crumpled the pages of the prologue” (91). Still, her ghost of Wolfe walks through the play, giving Doctor Maguire his lines on the brevity of life: “We can’t turn back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire—a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three cents’ worth of lime and iron—which we cannot get back” (Wolfe LHA 553, Frings “LHA” 75). Frings’ play, like Wolfe’s novel, highlights the transience of life and the aptness of following the buried consciousness that is within us. “I shall get me some order out of this chaos […], though it takes me twenty years more—alone” Eugene resolves, though his family bury their ideals (85).


The Reception of Frings’ “Look Homeward, Angel”

        Frings’ achievement has been recognized and her adaptation is still unsurpassed. In November 1957 the play, with Anthony Perkins as Eugene, was produced in Philadelphia for a trial run, and then in New York, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. There it ran for 564 performances (Dedmond 56). On opening night in New York, Wolfe’s surviving family members, on whom characters in the novel and play had been based, attended the performance. His sister Mabel (Helen) said, “I went in fear of what I might see or that the audience might titter,” but she found that the spellbound audience reacted with sympathetic silence, applause, and cheers (“Theatre: Fine Play from Great Novel”). The magazine Theatre Arts of February, 1958 states that “There was nothing but praise from the seven New York newspaper reviewers” on the Broadway opening, citing figures such as John McClain of the Journal-American: “One of the best evenings I’ve ever had in the theatre” (19). In her touching recollection of the original play, Clara Stites, the daughter of Wolfe’s agent Nowell, writes about the fine choice of a lead actor: “[S]he [fell] in love instantly and forever with Anthony Perkins, his lonely tragic being, his yearnings and ineptness, the way his neck [rose] out of his sweater thin and unprotected. He [was] perfect, so sad, so desirous of love…” (100). Some reviews of the production found fault with the quantity of telling material, insisting on the quality of the showing aspects that made up for it:


You will hear, now and then echoes of the effortful rhetoric that has disturbed even Thomas Wolfe’s most ardent admirers […]; there is pretentiousness here and there when one or another Gant stops wrangling long enough to venture on philosophy. But the essential, genuinely exciting theatricality of Miss Frings’ play swallows these small burdens whole. (Kerr)


[T]he text occasionally goes wrong, partly because of the necessity for turning whole paragraphs of description into dialogue […]; partly because a certain amount of original, bridging material had to be supplied, a nearly impossible task in dealing with a novelist who was inimitable (at least this side of parody) in his idiom; and partly […] because Miss Frings […] was unable to tamper with passages that her intelligence must have informed her were ‘literary,’ to put it mildly. But [it is] a fine, moving, and generally eloquent play. […] The play is focused on Eugene and his parents, and they are magnificent. The performances in these three leading roles are really brilliant. (The New Yorker)


Many critics, however, expressed relief that Wolfe’s lyricism was so unobtrusive in the play. John Gassner’s 1958 article lauding the playwright’s choices is typical:


The effect is nothing short of superbly realized personal drama made both stirring and meaningful by the obsessiveness and complexity of human beings. […] But we can permit ourselves the reflection that the dramatization would probably have been a fulsome failure if an attempt had been made to turn the lyricism of Wolfe’s large novel into a lyricism of the stage. A simple, occasionally semi-naturalistic, treatment was the best choice. (Gassner 51)


In the Broadway program, Wolfe’s Harper editor Edward Aswell called it a “final consummation” of Wolfe’s failed hopes to write plays (Doll and Stites 228). Frings’ play received the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play of the season and the 1957-58 Pulitzer Prize, one of the Pulitzer jurors pointing out that Frings had helped Wolfe do what he “could not do for himself” (Fischer and Fischer 256). And indeed, some eight months after the play opened on Broadway, Wolfe’s editor wrote,


There is a great revival of interest in Wolfe, both here and abroad. The dramatization of Look Homeward, Angel by Ketti Frings, which […] has been running to capacity audiences […] is largely responsible for all this. A whole rash of articles about Wolfe has been appearing in magazines. The text of the play has been published in this country by Scribners and has gone into a second printing. It is going to be published in England by Heinemann, and in Germany by Rowohlt, and in Italy in a magazine called Sipario devoted to the best current works in the theater. Arrangements have been concluded to produce the play abroad, in England, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Greece and Israel. (Aswell to Flaccus, 18 June 1958)


Frings’ play has continued to give many audiences a taste of and for Wolfe. In addition to the compelling nature of the family drama itself, theater programs often provide information allowing the audience to link it to Wolfe’s novel and life. The play was adapted for TV dramatizations in Germany in 1961 and in the United States in 1972. Although, like her characters, Frings had to bury some hopes (she never adapted other works by Wolfe as she had wanted to (Dedmond 51), and the 1978 musical, “Angel,” only played 5 performances), her adaptation is still widely performed today. Yet a few words of warning are sometimes offered as audiences change. Steven Stanley, in his review of a North Hollywood “Intimate Theatre Company”’s production in November 2013, mentioned its slowness and involved plot, and concluded: “Look Homeward, Angel is precisely the kind of play folks are referring to when they say, ‘They don’t write’em like that anymore.’ Yes, shorter might indeed be more in tune with contemporary tastes. Still, there’s no denying the many pleasures of this lengthy but ultimately quite rewarding mid-20th Century gem.”

        The play, which concerns a family and a teenager, is today a favorite with community theaters and schools. In 2017, for instance, it was put on by the StageCenter Community Theatre in Bryan, Texas, and by the Maine Coast Waldorf High School graduating class. The Texas community theatre’s director let the local paper know that “Children will not relate to the play’s humor and romance the way teens and adults will. People of all ages should know there is brief strong language and alcohol abuse.” And the Maine high school site stated: “Because of the mature themes, sometimes raw language and occasional violent outbursts, parents might find the play’s general intensity inappropriate for children under 12.”

Some productions, like a December 2014 Southern Methodist University production, practice color-blind casting. Here the critic’s warning is literary and biographical in nature:


The Gant family, except for Helen and her husband, Hugh Barton, were played by black students. The other key players were white. Because the roles were so well played, one soon forgot that this casting was inimical to the novel where blatant racism, though authentic, is disquieting to the sensibilities of today. Audience members unfamiliar with the novel and its autobiographical underpinnings would have come away with false ideas about Wolfe’s family and his attitudes, a good reason for being well read. (Casper 118)


But the play, providing meaning on its own terms, can still spark curiosity about Wolfe’s life and work. While Michael Grandage’s 2016 film on the relationship between Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins, Genius, has also led to greater interest in the writer, Frings’ adaptation, covering the earlier years, gives many different types of audiences a sense of intimacy with the young artist to be.


        As a conclusion, in “Look Homeward, Angel,” Frings uses the showing and the telling mode to render the buried life on stage. Though the wordiness of the play has sometimes been criticized, Frings made enormous cuts, and her great talent was adapting Wolfe’s lyricism by putting it to dramatic use. Wolfe’s own dramatic talent, and the “eponymous” nature of his work, whose subject is not just the single man but potentially humankind (see Radavitch 18), bear out Sam Smiley’s belief that drama “inherently moves toward lyric expression. The greatest characters express their dramatic insights and react to their conflicts in poetry; thus, most of the greatest dramas feature great poetic diction” (qtd. in Radavich 16). Including passages of Wolfe’s poetic diction, but synthesizing conflicts and creating her own images to clarify them, Frings selects from and in places amplifies on Wolfe’s range, making her own version of buried life. Performed by gifted actors, it represents not just the Gants’ lot but the plight of all who suffer from a lack of understanding and from obstacles to self-realization—and thus Frings conveys Wolfe’s “essence” (Doll and Stites 228) and fulfills the promise of her own medium, creating community by telling and showing isolation.


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Buried Life.” Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. London: B. Fellowes, 1852. U of Toronto site. Web. 14/06/16.

Aswell, Edward. Letter to Kimball Flaccus 18 June 1958. Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Theatre: ‘Look Homeward, Angel.’” New York Times 29 Nov. 1957, Flaccus-Wolfe Archive, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Blachford, Janet Savage. “Studies in the Novels of Thomas Wolfe.” MA thesis. Department of English, McGill U, Montreal. April, 1963. Web. 5/04/16.

Casper, Vivian. “Reviews: Look Homeward, Angel by Ketti Frings.” Thomas Wolfe Review 38.1-2 (2014):115-21. Print.

Dedmond, Francis B. “Problems of Putting Look Homeward, Angel on the Stage.”Thomas Wolfe Review 10.1 (Spring 1986): 44-57. Print.

Doll, Mary Aswell and Clara Stites, eds. In the Shadow of the Giant: Thomas Wolfe. Correspondence of Edward C. Aswell and Elizabeth Nowell, 1949-1958. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1988. Print.

Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. (Boston: Little, 1987) London: Bloomsbury, 1987. Print.

Fischer, Heinz-D. and Erika J. Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Drama: Discussions, Decisions and Documents. München: K.G. Saur, 2008. Print.

Frings, Ketti. “Look Homeward, Angel. A Comedy Drama in Three Acts. Based on the Novel by Thomas Wolfe.” New York: Samuel French, 1986. Print.

— “O Lost! At Midnight.” Theatre Arts 42.2 (Feb. 1958): 30-31, 91. Print.

Gassner, John. “Broadway in Review.” Educational Theatre Journal 10.1 (Mar. 1958): 41-51. Print.

Genius. Directed by Michael Grandage, performed by Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, 2016. Film.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Jahn, Manfred. “Narrative Voice and Agency in Drama: Aspects of a Narratology of Drama.” New Literary History 32 (2001): 659-79. Koln U site. Web. 8/04/16.

Kerr, Walter. “Look Homeward, Angel.” New York Herald 29 Nov. 1957, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

“Look Homeward, Angel.” Bryan Eagle. StageCenter Community Theatre site. 2/04/17. Web. 10/06/17.

“Look Homeward, Angel.” Unsigned Review. Theatre Arts 42.2 (Feb. 1958): 18-19. Print.

Milton, John. Lycidas. The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900. Ed. Arthur Quiller Couch. 1919. Web. 14/06/2016.

New Yorker Review 7 Dec. 1957 (segments only). Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown U Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Pavis, Patrice. “The State of Current Theatre Research.” Applied Semiotics/Semiotique Appliquée 1:3 (1997): 203-30. U of Toronto site. Web. 7/08/18.

Radavich, David. “Genre Intersections in Thomas Wolfe’s ‘I Have a Thing to Tell You.’” Thomas Wolfe Review 40.1-2 (2016): 7-22. Print.

Sloane, David. “MCWS Seniors to Perform ‘Look Homeward, Angel.’” Maine Coast Waldorf High School site. 23/05/17. Web. 10/06/2017.

Smiley, Sam. Playwriting: The Structure of Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Print.

Stanley, Steven. “Look Homeward, Angel.” Stage Scene LA site. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 10/06/2017.

Stites, Clara. “At the St. Regis.” 2002. Getting Tom Right. Dates in Wolfe’s Life, By Elizabeth Nowell. Ed. Lucy Conniff. Thomas Wolfe Society, 2017. Print.

“Theatre: Fine Play from Great Novel.” Unreferenced review, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown University Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

“Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Angel.’” Unreferenced review, Flaccus-Wolfe Archives, Georgetown University Library Special Collections, Washington D.C. Print.

Wolfe, Thomas. “An Angel on the Porch.” Scribner’s Magazine 82.2 (August 1929): 205-10. Print.

—. The Face of a Nation: Poetical Passages from the Writings of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. John Hall Wheelock. New York: Scribner, 1939. Print.

—. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell. New York: Scribner, 1956. Print.

—. Look Homeward, Angel. New York: Scribner, 1929. Print.

—. A Stone, a Leaf, a Door: Poems by Thomas Wolfe (selected and arranged in verse). Ed. John S. Barnes. New York: Scribner, 1945. Print.

—. Welcome to Our City. A Play in Ten Scenes. Ed. Richard Kennedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. Print.


The Author

Amélie Moisy is an associate professor (maître de conferences) in applied languages at the Université Paris Est Créteil. She is a member of the TIES/IMAGER research group there and of the Thomas Wolfe Society, USA. She has written a doctoral thesis, a book (Thomas Wolfe: L’épopée intime) and many articles on Thomas Wolfe. She has published work on other American writers, and her focus in research has broadened from Southern authors of Wolfe’s era to contemporary Southern writers.

N°2 |“A Distinct Novel of the Same Name”: Adapting Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Honeymoon from Stage to Page

Suzanne Bray


Although most works of adaptation theory acknowledge that many forms of adaptation exist, most of them are concerned with the transformation of written texts or true-life stories for the screen. Equally, as Linda Hutcheon remarks, “an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary and certainly never as good as the original” (xiv), except when the adapter is more famous than the author of the source text. Evaluating the adaptation is made more complicated by the fact that the adapter often has different ideas and priorities from the original author. The case of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon provides an exception to these norms, thus facilitating its use as an example of adaptation techniques. The play was written first and then adapted into a novel immediately afterwards by the author. The context of the two works is therefore identical. The novel is better known than the play, but both works enjoy approximately the same degree of critical esteem. Moreover, in Sayers’ correspondence with Muriel St Clair Byrne, her collaborator for the play and one of her advisors during the novelization process, the author explains her intentions and adaptation difficulties.

This article traces Sayers’ writing processes during the composition of the play and the novel, showing how the original play is both an adaptation of the principles of detective fiction’s “fair-play rule” for the stage and a traditional comedy of manners. On the other hand, the novel represents a complete rethinking of the plot in terms of narrative, replacing the visual with the verbal, resulting in a work that is “not the ordinary novel of the play, but a distinct novel of the same name” (Letters 2 3). The two works fully support Kamilla Elliott’s controversial insistence that adaptation proves that “form (expression) can be separated from content (ideas)” (3-5), even if the novel contains additional ideas which are not present in the play.


Bien que la majorité des écrits sur les théories d’adaptation reconnaissent qu’il existe de nombreuses formes d’adaptation, la plupart d’entre eux aborde surtout la transformation de textes écrits ou d’histoires vraies pour l’écran. De même, comme le constate Linda Hutcheon, “le plus souvent on reçoit une adaptation comme une version mineure ou inférieure, jamais aussi bien que l’originale”, sauf quand l’adaptateur est plus célèbre que l’auteur du support d’origine. Évaluer l’adaptation se complique encore davantage parce que l’adaptateur a souvent des priorités et des idées différentes de celles de l’auteur. Le cas de Busman’s Honeymoon (Noces de crime) de Dorothy L. Sayers présente une exception à ces règles, ce qui facilite son utilisation comme exemple des techniques d’adaptation. Sayers écrit d’abord la pièce de théâtre et l’adapte la même année pour en faire un roman. Le contexte des deux œuvres est donc identique. Le roman est plus connu que la pièce, mais les deux ont été reçus avec le même enthousiasme par les critiques. D’ailleurs, dans les lettres rédigées par Sayers à Muriel St Clair Byrne, sa co-autrice pour la pièce, elle explique ses intentions et ses difficultés pendant le processus de transposition en roman.

Cet article suit les méthodes d’écriture de Sayers pendant la rédaction de la pièce et du roman pour montrer comment la pièce est à la fois une adaptation pour la scène du principe de “fair-play” dans le roman policier et une comédie de mœurs traditionnelle. En revanche, pour le roman, Sayers a dû repenser complètement l’intrigue en termes de stratégie narrative, en remplaçant le visuel par le verbal pour en faire une œuvre qui n’est pas “le roman de la pièce, mais un ouvrage distinct avec le même titre”. Les deux œuvres illustrent pleinement l’idée polémique de Kamilla Elliott que l’adaptation fournit la preuve que “la forme (l’expression) peut être séparée du contenu (les idées)”, même si le roman comporte des éléments supplémentaires par rapport à la pièce.


        While most works of adaptation theory acknowledge that many forms of adaptation exist, the vast majority of them are principally concerned with the transformation of written texts (mainly novels) or true-life stories for the cinema or television. Equally, as Linda Hutcheon points out, “an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary and certainly never as good as the original” (xiv), except in the rare instances when the adapter is more famous than the author of the source text. In most cases, evaluating the adaptation is made more complicated by the fact that the adapter often, quite legitimately, has a different context, different ideas and priorities from the original author, which influence critics’ perception of the later work. The case of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon provides an exception to these rules, thus facilitating its use as an example of adaptation techniques. The play, which was a great success when first performed in 1936, was written first and then adapted into a novel immediately afterwards by the principal author of the play. The context of the two works is therefore identical. In addition, the novel is better known than the play, but both works enjoy approximately the same degree of critical esteem. Moreover, in Sayers’ correspondence with Muriel St Clair Byrne, her collaborator for the play and one of her three advisors during the novelization process, the author explains her intentions and adaptation difficulties in some detail.

        This paper will trace Sayers’ writing processes and intentions during the composition of the play and the novel, to show how the original play is, in itself, an adaptation of the principles of detective fiction’s “fair-play rule” for the stage, while combining this with the traditional romantic comedy of manners. On the other hand, the novel represents a complete rethinking of the plot in terms of narrative, replacing the visual with the verbal, resulting in a work which, as Sayers hoped, is “not the ordinary novel of the play, but a distinct novel of the same name” (Letters 2 13), with a completely different structure from the play. The two works fully support Kamilla Elliott’s controversial insistence that adaptation proves that “form (expression) can be separated from content (ideas)” (Hutcheon 9, Elliott 3-5),even if the novel contains additional ideas which are not present in the play.


        In early 1935, while she was writing her penultimate novel Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers was obliged to employ a sweep to clear the chimneys in her Essex home. As Barbara Reynolds recounts, the sweep “wore a number of pullovers, which he peeled off, one after the other as he warmed to his task” (Sayers, Letters 1 342). Sayers found this highly amusing and, when visiting her friends Muriel St. Clair Byrne and Marjorie Barber in London “entertained her friends to a pantomime representation of the sweep’s methods as he tried to insert his body into the chimney” (Williams 213). As Sayers later stated in an interview for The Evening Standard, their subsequent conversation went as follows:


“Splendid,” said Miss Byrne; “there’s an ideal opening to a play.” “I don’t want to write a play,” said Miss Sayers; “I can’t start learning a new technique.” “Well, we’ll write it together then,” said Miss Byrne. So they did. (Williams 213)


        Muriel St. Clair Byrne and Dorothy Sayers had been close friends since their student days at Somerville College, Oxford, where they were fellow members of the Mutual Admiration Society. Since graduating in English in 1917, Byrne had become a lecturer at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and a member of the governing body of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was therefore the ideal collaborator in writing a play on account of her thorough knowledge of acting and stage technique. Sayers and Byrne both believed, controversially, like Linda Hutcheon and Kamilla Elliott, that the form of a work can be separated from its content or ideas. Sayers would later explain her theories of creativity in her 1941 book The Mind of the Maker. In this study, Sayers presents a trinitarian theory of literary creation where the Creative Idea in the mind of the maker becomes incarnate through the working in time of the Creative Energy or Activity, finally producing, through the Creative Power, a response in the soul of the reader (Mind of the Maker 28). From this point of view, the same idea can give birth to several concrete manifestations, more or less perfectly communicating the idea to the world.

        For their collaboration, Sayers and Byrne decided to write a detective play. Both co-authors thought, like Aristotle, that all good plays and all good detective stories should be plot-driven. Just a year before this, Sayers had in fact delivered a lecture in Oxford where she claimed that the “Poetics remains the finest guide to the writing of [detective] fiction that could be put, at this day, into the hands of an aspiring author” (Aristotle 179). As a result, the authors worked on the murder method first (Letters 1 389), then the final dramatic climax and then a plot outline before they started to write at all. From then on:


Sayers would write a draft and Byrne would go over it, making notes, cuts and revisions; then, Sayers would take the manuscript or typescript and produce another version, with Byrne editing that. (Dale xxvii)


Sayers was quite hesitant, being only too aware that “the novelist’s approach by argument and explanation is clearly unsuited to the stage” (Love All 5) and relied heavily on her co-author, telling Byrne: “Please don’t mind altering anything at all that seems to you weak or inadequate. I trust your judgement quite implicitly” (Letters 1 348). Part of Sayers’ problem was how to convey the idea in words in a theatrical context. She wrote to her collaborator: “As regards Kirk and Sellon – I think what really happened is this […] I don’t see how the situation can be made clear in the dialogue” (Letters 1 348). Although it may seem strange to refer to “what really happened” with regard to a work of fiction, this indicates that, in Sayers’ mind, there is an original idea with which she is struggling in order to find an appropriate form or expression to reveal it to the theatre audience.

        Sayers referred to their work as “this highly experimental play” (Love All 6) as the co-authors saw Busman’s Honeymoon as “an attempt to show in dramatic terms […] the fair-play rule” (Love All 5) famous in Golden Age detective fiction. This meant that, as in a detective novel or short story, “every clue must be shown at the same time to the public and to the detective” (Love All 5), giving the members of the audience every opportunity to solve the mystery for themselves before the solution is revealed in the final scene. However, in a play, these clues must be shown visually as much as, if not more than, verbally. As a result, for Sayers, the challenge comes from the fact that “every movement is done, every clue is laid, in full sight of the audience” (Williams 213), but ideally when the audience’s attention is focussed elsewhere. For example, in Busman’s Honeymoon, the murderer cleans the blood and hair off the murder weapon while everyone is paying attention to a fascinating conversation on the other side of the stage (Love All 22).

        In the “Author’s Note” to the published version of the play, Sayers explains how this was achieved. To start with, “for the First Act, the chosen method is that of visual presentation […] the clues as to the Means are displayed, silently but conspicuously, down-stage” (Love All 5). This means that the murder weapon, a very large cactus in a heavy metal pot, hanging from the ceiling on a chain, is clearly visible on the stage, as is the murder victim’s radio, used to spring the trap. The audience cannot miss them, although the authors hoped that their significance would not be apparent. In the Second Act, the technique changes. As Sayers remarks: “the method, while still contrapuntal, is slightly varied. While the inquiry is ostensibly directed to the Motive, the information actually conveyed to the audience chiefly concerns opportunity, or lack of it” (Love All 5). In this Act, all the characters are introduced and their potential, and numerous, reasons for committing the murder become apparent. The authors deliberately introduce red herrings to lead the audience astray, in the hope that “they will gallop off on the trail of the motive” (Letters 1 390) and forget the practicalities of the crime. In the first scene of the Third Act, the atmosphere changes and “an effort here is made to do for the detective play what has already been achieved for the detective novel – that is, to combine it with the comedy of manners” (Love All 6). The interaction between the characters sheds light not only on the motives for murder, but also on the essential foundations of a happy marriage and what makes relationships between the sexes go wrong. The detective couple, Harriet and Peter, are seen adapting to their newly married state and creating a creative balance in their relationship, while other characters show they do not know how to control their emotions and become unbalanced. In the final scene, “both the disguised and ostensible clues, extracted from the previous scenes, are presented afresh in a visual reconstruction to solve the problem on purely theatrical lines” (Love All 6). In front of the audience, as Sayers explains, “the stage is literally cleared […] of almost everything” (Letters 1 389) except the murder apparatus, and a dramatic reconstruction of the crime enables Peter to trap the murderer into an admission of his guilt.


            By September 1935, Sayers’ previous novel Gaudy Night was finished, as was the script for Busman’s Honeymoon,and Sayers decided to start work immediately on the book of the play, adapting her own and Muriel St. Clair Byrne’s work into a novel. This time Sayers was the sole author, but she frequently met Muriel St. Clair Byrne, Marjorie Barber and Helen Simpson in London and discussed the novel at length with them. The novel is dedicated to these three women whom, she claimed, were “wantonly sacrificed on the altar of that friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable” (Honeymoon v), and who provided helpful criticism and insights.

            Very little has been written about the novelization process in general. For Linda Hutcheon, adapting a novel into a film is first and foremost “a labour of simplification” (1). It is therefore, perhaps, legitimate to claim that novelization implies a labour of complexification. The novel Busman’s Honeymoon is certainly longer than the play and moves forward at a more leisurely pace; there are 451 pages in the latest paperback edition of the novel and only 113 in the script of the play. Sayers refers to her novel as “the limbs and outward flourishes” (Honeymoon v) of the play, which implies a form of embellishment, also adding a means of moving around to a static body. However, the plot remains identical. For Sayers, novelization implied principally “rethinking the story in terms of narrative” (Letters 2 3), which implied changing the order of appearance of several elements in the plot and rethinking how information is to be communicated. The author pointed out to a potential backer: “You will see how much general information has been extracted from the first act and expanded into novelist’s rigmarole” (Letters 1 389). The key word here being “expanded,” as if the skeleton was gaining extra flesh.

        Linda Hutcheon points out that “fans of films enjoy their novelizations because they provide insight into the characters’ thought processes and more details about their background” (118). Part of the difficulty in Busman’s Honeymoon comes from the fact that those who have already read Sayers’ other detective novels already know three of the characters fairly well. In the play, however, very little attempt is made to connect the murder mystery to the rest of their lives. On the other hand, the novel takes its place in the Wimsey series and is deliberately presented as a continuation of the story told in Gaudy Night. This is achieved by restructuring the work and adding a “Prothalamion”at the beginning and an “Epithalamion”at the end which provide a framework for the action. Equally, as Thomas Leitch remarks, “stage plays have to be opened up” (69) when they are adapted and move beyond the physical limitations of the theatre. It is no longer realistic, for example, to have all the action taking place in just one location, as it does in the play of Busman’s Honeymoon,or for so few people to be involved in the events.

        In the novel of Busman’s Honeymoon, Sayers solves this problem by bridging the gap in the Prothalamion between Peter and Harriet’s engagement at the end of Gaudy Night and the first morning of their honeymoon, which is where the play begins. Various characters, many of whom the reader has already met in previous novels, give their opinion on the wedding and on Peter and Harriet’s chances of happiness. This not only sets the scene for the comedy of manners elements in the plot, it also enables Sayers to introduce one of her most popular characters, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Peter’s mother. Peter, Harriet and Bunter are all replaced in their context and reconnect with their past, their families and friends, making them both more credible for the reader and more complex. On a more practical level, Talboys, Peter and Harriet’s honeymoon house, has to be given a geographical location in the novel with consistent distances from the other places mentioned. In the play, it is just in some rural village in the south of England. The restructuring of the plot and the framework also allow more time and space to be devoted to the more serious themes: what makes for a happy marriage and the pros and cons of capital punishment, which was still practised in England at the time. It is also important that the murderer can be seen outside his employer’s living room, enabling Sayers to give him a private life and thus adding realism to his motive.


         However, the principal change implied in the novelization process is moving from the visual to the verbal. This also involves a lot of necessary description. For example, in the incident with the sweep which both inspired and opens the play, Mr Puffett’s very unsexy clothing is described using terms which start off  very technical, but in the end remind the reader of an attractive actress’s attire:


His costume […] had reached what, in recent medical jargon, is known as ‘a high degree of onionisation’, consisting as it did of a greenish-black coat and trousers and a series of variegated pullovers one on top of the other, which peeped out at the throat in a graduated scale of décolleté. (Honeymoon 77)


One page on, we learn that Mr Puffett removed “his coat […] displaying the outermost sweater in a glory of red and yellow horizontal stripes” (78). A page later, Sayers writes that “he removed his top sweater to display a blue one” (79). After six more pages, we read that Puffett “stripped off another sweater to reveal himself in emerald green” (85) and shortly afterwards “peeled off his green uppermost layer,” to show the world “a Fair-Isle jumper of complicated pattern” (88). It is another twenty pages before it is revealed that “he had piled his cast-off sweaters” (108) in a visible location. All this, obviously, does not need to be mentioned in the play as the audience sees Mr Puffett’s progressive, multi-coloured striptease act on the stage. However, the vocabulary chosen in the narrative: “peeped,” “décolleté,” “display,” “glory,” “stripped” and “reveal himself,” conveys the parallel with a cabaret dancer’s performance.

        This movement from the visual to the verbal is also needed for the detective plot and the respect of the fair-play rule in the novel. When Frank, the murderer, enters the scene of the crime for the first time after his victim’s death, the stage directions merely say that he is “taking it all in” (Love All 18), but it is to be supposed that the actor looks around the stage, including at all the key elements of the murder machinery. He then goes to get a watering can and a cloth to inconspicuously wipe any blood or hair off the cactus pot, although he, obviously, does not explain what he is doing to the other characters. All this occurs without him saying a word. In the novel, Sayers has to describe his actions: “Frank Crutchley’s eyes wandered over the room as though seeking counsel from the dust-sheets, the aspidistras, the chimney, the bronze horsemen, Mr Puffett’s bowler, the cactus and the radio cabinet” (Honeymoon 92). By adding several other things that Frank sees to the important objects, she successfully disguises his intentions while giving the reader the necessary information. One of the principal difficulties for Sayers, as a novelist, was how to give the reader enough information about the cactus without drawing attention to it and inviting suspicion. As she wrote to Muriel St Clair Byrne:


I realise that the technical difficulty of the book version will be to keep the cactus out of the centre of the picture. In a play it’s all right never to ask the question “suppose the cactus wasn’t there when Sellon looked in?” because you can cut off one act and begin another on a new note. But in a book, it’s going to look obvious. Also, in a book, it’s going to be stupid of Peter not to suggest that there may have been a murder-machine… Must think of a way round these difficulties… (Letters 1 364)


In the end, she solved the problems by ending chapter six in exactly the same place as the end of Act I, thus allowing a change of focus, away from the living room, at the beginning of chapter seven, and by Kirk suggesting that the cactus had been removed from its pot and then proving that this was not possible.

        The problem with the cactus continues because, on stage, it is visually obvious that this heavy object swinging on a long chain is sufficiently dangerous that it could kill anybody tall enough who got in its way. In the novel, the fair-play rule obliges Sayers to communicate this information in words. The weight of the pot is estimated: “getting on for fourteen pound” (398) and the fishing line which held it out of sight is described as able to “hold a twenty-pound salmon” (398) and thus, by definition, also a fourteen-pound pot. The sinkers on each end of the line are also mentioned, enabling the reader with a minimal knowledge of mechanics to understand how they would counterbalance the pot. The reader can then imagine what must have happened.

        Although the detective plot in both works is identical and the fair-play rule duly observed, it is not unfair to say that the extra embellishments in the novel mean that, while the play may be described as a detective drama with romantic interruptions, the novel is clearly, as was written on the cover of the Victor Gollancz first edition, “a love story with detective interruptions.” In spite of this, the most frequently quoted sentence in the novel, and the only one from Busman’s Honeymoon to found on Wikiquotes, is not about crime but is a declaration of love, and can be found both in the play and in the novel: “And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? I love you—I am at rest with you—I have come home” (Honeymoon 326, Love All 91).


        Dorothy L. Sayers was aware that she was taking a risk in immediately adapting the play into a novel, particularly if anyone got the false idea that the novel had been written first. The author was aware that adaptations from page to stage or screen were often looked down on by the general public. As she wrote to her agent, David Higham:


It is extremely important from the management’s point of view that people should not suppose the Play to be ‘the novel with all the best bits left out’ which is the sort of thing critics and audiences always say if they imagine that the Play has been taken from the book. (Letters 1 400)


Fortunately for Sayers, the risk paid off and both works were successful. An initial short run at the Birmingham Theatre Royal in November 1936 went very well and Sayers wrote that the company had “had a very successful first night and a splendid press” (Letters 1 405). It then transferred to the Comedy Theatre in London’s West End and ran for nine months before being transferred to the Victoria Palace. All in all Busman’s Honeymoon played for over 500 performances in the West End before going on tour. It has frequently been revived, including a very successful staging at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1988 with Edward Petherbridge and Emily Richard as Peter and Harriet. The script was first published in 1937 at about the same time as the novel.

        As for the novel, ever since its publication in 1937 it has gone through numerous editions and never been out of print. An Audiobook also exists and it has been serialised for radio by the BBC. It has also been translated into several languages.

        Is the novel the same as the play or was Sayers right in referring to it as “a distinct novel of the same name?” This depends on your point of view. The plot is identical. Much of the dialogue from the play has been imported into the novel. The characters are all recognisably the same people. There are no contradictions between the two works. And yet, the novel is in many ways a much more serious piece of writing than the play. The extra space for reflection on relationships between the sexes and the exploration of the results of detection in a country which practises capital punishment give the novel extra depth. Busman’s Honeymoon is probably the only Golden Age story where the detective is fully confronted with the horrible consequences of his detection in the person of an unrepentant murderer who dies hating him. As Lizzie Seal has noted, Busman’s Honeymoon “link[s] trauma with capital punishment” (42) and also “highlighted the moral ambivalence of the detective’s role, in which he is implicated in the violence which he ostensibly opposes” (43).


        And yet, this does not detract in any way from the merits of the play. As Gary Bortolotti and Linda Hutcheon observe: “an adaptation stands on its own as an independent work, separate from the source, and can be judged accordingly” (445). In fact, both works, original and adaptation, should be judged separately, according to the constraints and specificities of their own genre. Busman’s Honeymoon, the play, is a detective drama that observes the fair-play rule; it is also a comedy. It is dramatic and full of suspense, with a forward-driving plot that builds up successfully to a satisfying dramatic climax. It ends with the triumph of justice. The novel, part of a series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, combines a detective plot, which scrupulously observes the fair-play rule, and contains an interlinked exploration of two important social issues. It has several climaxes and periods of suspense, but ends with the triumph of love. Both works, with their different forms, successfully convey their authors’ idea to the general public and provide a different incarnation of what, in Sayers’ words, “really happened.”


Works Cited

Bortolotti Gary R. and Linda Hutcheon. “Rethinking Fidelty Discourse and Success: Biologically.” New Literary History 38.3 (Summer 2007): 443-58. Print.

Dale, Alzina Stone. “Introduction.” Dorothy L. Sayers, Love All and Busman’s Honeymoon. Kent OH: Kent State UP, 1985. xv-xxxvii. Print.

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads.” Adaptation 1.1 (2008): 63-77. Print.

Sayers, Dorothy L. “Aristotle on Detective Fiction.” Unpopular Opinions. London: Methuen, 1946. 178-90. Print.

—. Busman’s Honeymoon. 1937. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003. Print.

—. Love All and Busman’s Honeymoon. Kent OH: Kent State UP, 1985. Print.

—. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers 1, 1899-1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995. Print.

—. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers vol.2: from Novelist to Playwright. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. Hurstpierpoint: The Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1997. Print.

—. The Mind of the Maker.1941. London: Mowbray, 1994. Print.

Seal, Lizzie. Capital Punishment in Twentieth-Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Williams, Stephen. “Lord Peter Wimsey Takes to the Stage,” London Evening Standard, 5 November 1936. Qtd in Dorothy L. Sayers, Love All and Busman’s Honeymoon. Ed. Alzina Stone Dale. Kent OH: Kent State UP, 1985. 213-14. Print.


The Author Suzanne Bray is professor of British literature and civilisation at Lille Catholic University. Her research concerns the history of religious ideas in England during the 20th century and she has published many works on the relationship between theology and popular literature.

N°2 | From History to Page to Screen: A Mise-en-Abyme of History in The Other Boleyn Girl Novel and Film

Alison Offe

In 2001 Philippa Gregory published The Other Boleyn Girl which recounts Anne Boleyn’s story. It is a difficult task to reconstruct Boleyn’s life through the different—insufficient and usually biased—sources that have made their way from the 16th century to the 21st, yet Gregory’s interpretation of the events seems to be based on the most controversial academic histories available today. An analysis of her methods as a novelist and of her perception of the characters makes it possible to understand her adaptation of this famous queen’s life. The novel was turned into a film in 2008. Whilst keeping to the fundamentals of the novel, that is overall plot and major characters, director Justin Chadwick has also developed a distinctive narrative voice and some new subplots. It is be interesting to see how the film translates a first-person narrative into an audiovisual medium. Relying on current adaptation theories, this essay attempts to assess the techniques of transfer and adaptation to the film, in addition to the techniques of (re)presenting the past on screen.


En 2001, Philippa Gregory publie The Other Boleyn Girl relatant l’histoire d’Anne Boleyn. Reconstruire la vie de Boleyn n’est pas chose aisée car les différentes sources de l’époque qui ont survécu aujourd’hui sont insuffisantes et souvent biaisées. Gregory représente cependant les événements de l’histoire en se fondant sur les histoires universitaires les plus controversées qui existent. L’analyse de ses méthodes d’écrivain et de sa perception des personnages permettent de comprendre son interprétation de la vie de la reine. Le roman a été adapté au cinéma en 2008 et bien que gardant les bases du roman, l’intrigue générale et les personnages principaux, Justin Chadwick a également développé une narration distincte et de nouveaux éléments d’intrigue. Il est intéressant de voir la façon dont le film traduit la narration autodiégétique dans un format audiovisuel. S’appuyant sur les théories actuelles d’adaptation, cet article évalue les techniques de transfert et d’adaptation d’un roman au cinéma ainsi que les techniques de (re)présentation de l’histoire à l’écran.


        Representing history in literature and cinema requires knowledge about the time period and the key players from the novelist and the filmmaker. In both arts, specific techniques are used to portray the past according to the artist’s point of view with the elements s/he chooses to present to their audience. The duality between “high” scholarship and “low” popular texts manifests itself in the tension between academic research and romantic narratives, or at least the critical reception of texts from these perspectives.

        The Other Boleyn Girl is a historical novel by Philippa Gregory published in 2001. It tells the story of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, and Mary Boleyn, her sister. This novel was acclaimed by a large readership, which propelled Gregory’s career forward. The book sold over 800,000 copies worldwide between 2001 and 2009 (Groot, 12) and it has won several prizes including the Pen Parker Novel of the Year in 2002 and the Romantic Fictional Biography Award the same year (Chrisafis). The Hollywood film of the same name was produced in 2008, starring Natalie Portman who plays Anne Boleyn, Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII. It is a period drama directed by Justin Chadwick largely based on Gregory’s work and has made over $26 million profit in the USA and over $77 million worldwide (IMDb).

        Anne Boleyn, the common denominator of both works’ success, is the “other” woman for whom England and its religious establishment were torn apart. Indeed, she advised the King, along with many other reformers, to break with the Roman Catholic Church in order to obtain his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The story of a woman who captures the heart of the King and turns the country upside-down fascinates history and period drama enthusiasts who wish to discover who was behind those dark eyes, which contributed to her myth as a witch.

        This paper will thus focus on the novelistic and cinematic strategies developed to adapt a true life story. With scholarly as well as online “pop journalist”/fandom sources, it will examine whether a historical novel should be a literal rendition of history, or remain mainly a medium of entertainment. Likewise, it will study whether a historical film should be a literal adaptation of the novel or make revisions for the cinema and the requirements of visual entertainment.


From History to Page

Gregory’s Research Methods

        Philippa Gregory was born in January 1954. She studied at the National Council for the Training of Journalists in Cardiff, after which she became a journalist for the Portsmouth News, and then a journalist and producer for BBC radio. She resumed her studies after a while and obtained her Master’s degree in history at the University of Sussex in Brighton. She finally got her PhD from the University of Edinburgh on 18th century literature. Her first novel and success, entitled Wideacre, part of a gothic trilogy, was published in 1987. Besides writing novels, Gregory also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of her novel A Respectable Trade for the BBC; she also collaborated with the Hollywood studio for the adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl. Finally, she regularly takes part in Time Team on BBC4 as a Tudor expert.

        For each novel, Gregory spends many hours researching the subject, starting with secondary sources and travelling to historical places. Gregory usually chooses women who have been left out of history to be her main protagonists. Her methods of research rarely vary and for The Other Boleyn Girl she proceeded as follows: She read seven or eight academic histories and almost a dozen biographies as she confided in an interview (Bookbrowse). She had first thought of writing a novel on the Royal Navy set in the Tudor period when she came across a ship called The Mary Boleyn, a name she had rarely heard (Fahle). From there, she chose Mary Boleyn as her chief heroine and she drew a timeline of her life stressing the major events. She went to Rochford Manor, Essex, to get as many details as she could on the place where Mary had lived to set her narrative. Finally, she went to the library in Southend-on-Sea where information on Mary Boleyn can be found in the archives.


Novelistic Choices: Narration and Characters

        As far as Gregory’s way of writing is concerned, her novels are usually written in the first person which makes the reader more sympathetic to the character who is telling the story. She uses a homodiegetic narrative in The Other Boleyn Girl, which enables a greater connection between the reader and the character-narrator. Gregory pointed out in an interview: “I have a great liking for the first person narrative because I think it gets the reader into the head of the character: it’s a very immediate style” (Bookbrowse). Assuredly, it entails a direct way of perceiving the events as they unfold. Adrian Goldsworthy, British historian at the University of Oxford, posits the first person narrative as a style that allows some intimacy with the character:


First person narration readily lends itself to focusing on the main character’s thoughts and experiences. We see other people and events through their eyes and the story is told from their perspective. The narrator may either be the key protagonist or someone close to him, a Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes, telling the story and revealing the greatness and flaws of someone else. (Goldsworthy)


Mary Boleyn is the main protagonist of Gregory’s novel, although she is not the central character from a historical point of view. She recounts the story of her elder sister’s swift rise in society until she becomes Queen of England and then the struggles she faces to stay there. Overall, although the novel is quite long (over 700 pages) the style is simple and the paragraphs are short. As a reviewer of an entertainment website, Tasha Robinson, comments, “it glides along easily, with a lot of broad, summing-up narratives and a lot of quick-moving dialogues.”

        Gregory is a skilled novelist as her successes attest: she knows how to create suspense, how to construct love scenes, how to invent endearing characters. She has even been nicknamed “The Queen of Historical Fiction” (Naylor) by an online marketplace for books. However, some elements in her adaptations of true life stories into fiction deserve a more minute examination. First, Gregory took the rather debateable decision of making Anne the elder of the two sisters and George, their brother, the eldest child. This hypothesis can be found in Retha Warnicke’s controversial The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn in which she attributes the birthdates as follows: George: 1504, Anne: 1507 and Mary: 1508 (9). On the contrary, most other modern scholars have come to the conclusion that Mary was the eldest: 1499, then came Anne: 1500-1, and finally George was born in 1504.[1] Gregory might have chosen to make Anne the older sister to give a motive to better her younger sister who had achieved a decent marriage at quite an early age and who had been noticed by the King. Secondly, recent historians have worked hard to soften Anne Boleyn’s reputation damaged five hundred years ago by Catholic commentators who vilified her for the role she played in the English Reformation (e.g. Nicholas Sander). In The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne is viewed by Mary as a detestable girl who gives credit to the rumours. Claire Ridgway, author of the website The Anne Boleyn Files comments:


There is no other way to describe the Anne Boleyn of The Other Boleyn Girl, she is a complete b**ch and it’s no wonder I get emails asking why I “defend” such a b**ch!


And finally, in complete disregard of the historical facts, Gregory hardly mentions Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell is utterly absent from the foreground in her novel, whereas they actually both played a major role in the Anne-Henry story, as well as in the history of England. Her novelistic strategies reflect her choices to tell a story of ambition, female agency and family, rather than an accurate depiction of historical events.

        However, it must not be forgotten that Gregory is writing historical fiction. A historical novel is therefore a work of literature, an invented story with a historical setting. As Francisco Carrasquer particularly stresses:


Because if it is a subgenre of the novel, the historical novel has to be and cannot be anything other than a novel. Not ‘primarily’ or ‘particularly’ a novel, but a novel from head to toe. After being a novel, only afterwards, can it be imbued, dyed or painted as historical. (qtd. in Indurain)


Historical fiction writers draw up a theory from their research and then imagine the consequences and the reactions of the people from a given situation. Richard Slotkin, cultural critic and historian, suggests that “[f]or the thought-experiment to work, the fiction writer must treat a theory which may be true as if it was certainly true, without quibble or qualification; and credibly represent a material world in which that theory appears to work”. So Gregory’s work must be handled cautiously as a work of fiction, or at least far-fetched theory.


Anne Boleyn’s Guilt

        Yet, what really bothers historical critics is Gregory’s ambiguity about Anne’s guilt for the charges of witchcraft, incest and murder. Anne Boleyn was arrested on 2 May 1536 for having allegedly had adulterous relationships with five lovers, for plotting the King’s death and for speaking ill of the King’s virility. She probably was guilty of the last charge. Those five presumed lovers were three noblemen, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton, a musician, Mark Smeaton, and more importantly her brother George, Lord Rochford, so he and Anne both faced the accusation of incest. Nevertheless, as Eric Ives points out and nearly all contemporary historians agree:


No, she had not been unfaithful; no, she had not promised to marry Norris; no, she had not hoped for the King’s death; no, she had not given secret tokens to Norris; no, she had neither poisoned Katherine nor planned to poison Mary. (340)


        Philippa Gregory seems to have taken and combined all the rumours about Anne Boleyn and injected them into her fiction to create a more dramatic story. Gregory’s Anne is guilty. First, Anne was accused of witchcraft by Catholic supporters as, according to Eustace Chapuys (imperial ambassador for Charles V) who heard it from a courtier, the King himself pronounced the fatal words that he had “made this marriage seduced and constrained by sortileges” (298). These words, however, do not necessarily mean that Anne was a practising witch with charms and potions as Ives underlines:


Did Henry use the word ‘sortilege’, or was the word provided en route? Even if Henry did use the noun, since its primary English translation was ‘divination’ and since Henry spoke in the same breath of male heirs, the simple construction is that he was referring to the premarital predictions that union with Anne would produce sons. … In any case, alleging witchcraft was a commonplace excuse for foolish male behaviour. … No accusation that she had dabbled in the black arts was ever levelled against Anne. (298)


         In The Other Boleyn Girl, this is rather ambiguous because Anne does not use witchcraft directly but pays for the service of a wise woman in order to expulse a dead foetus from inside her body. The setting of the scene however, combined with the atmosphere, the secrecy and the costumes carry the weight of sorcery:


He was back within the hour with a surprisingly clean young woman, with a small sack of bottles and herbs. I took her to the little room where George’s pageboy slept and she looked around the darkened room and recoiled. In some grotesque moment of fancy George and Anne had raided the palace costume box to find a mask to hide her well-known face. Instead of a simple disguise they had found a golden bird face mask, which she had worn in France to dance with the King. Anne, panting with pain, half-lit by guttering candles, lay back on a narrow bed, her huge belly straining under the sheet and above it a glittering gold mask with a face like a hawk, a great gilt beak and flaring eyebrows. (400)


The midwife brewed a potion which Anne drank and then gave birth to a mass of flesh and blood. The witchcraft depicted in the scene differs from the sixteenth-century reports of Anne ensnaring the King into marriage; it is rather used in the novel as a helping instrument for the birth of sons.


        Another heavy accusation brought against Anne is incest with her brother George. Historians have refuted the possibility that Anne could be guilty of that, but Gregory uses this element of the plot to encourage her depiction of Anne as a woman afraid of nothing to get what she wants. Although she does not say it explicitly, the reader understands very well that Anne has slept with her brother to produce the child she could not have with the King, but eventually she loses the baby:


‘I thought you might be afraid to touch me,’ she said softly.

[George] shook his head. ‘Oh, Anne. According to the law of the land and the church I am anathemetised ten times over before breakfast.’

I shuddered at that; but she giggled like a girl.

‘And whatever we have done, it was done for love,’ he said gently. […] ‘Even if the outcome was monstrous?’ (482)


        Mary is so unreliable a narrator that readers, if they do not pay attention, might easily believe every rumour Mary reports about her sister. Bishop Fisher, a fervent supporter of Catherine of Aragon, was causing difficulties for the King to obtain his title of Supreme Head of the Church of England. During a dinner, the broth that was served to him was poisoned and two of his guests died. Although he was not himself poisoned, Catholic partisans were quick to blame Anne for this. In the novel, Mary does not really understand her sister’s character and thus suspects, leading the reader with her, that Anne may well be a sleeping partner in attempted murder as well as guilty of dabbling in black magic and enchantments.

        Gregory certainly made use of her imagination to compose such a novel from the life of a real woman. Nevertheless, she clearly decided to make Anne an anti-heroine as she herself stated during an interview: “Anne is undeniably an interesting character, she’s incredibly courageous but I wouldn’t regard her as a heroine in the sense that she is utterly unscrupulous and her intentions are purely her own satisfaction, her own ambition” (Fahle). Conveniently, Mary Boleyn’s life is difficult to uncover and she is usually in the footnotes of academic histories rather than their subject, which leaves room for invention. The adaptation of the novel into a film is therefore an adaptation of an adaptation that pushes the act of invention and reinterpretation even further away from the events. Here we have a mise-en-abyme of a story from real life to one medium and then to another. The process of adapting from history to page to screen takes the public one step further from the facts as, according to Kamilla Elliott (162): “if art draws from real life, then an art adapting another art is one step further away from real life as a representation of a representation.” It begs the question as whether a film must render a literal transcription of the novel and of history and whether any deviation is to the film’s credit.


From Page to Screen

The Director’s Choice: Plot and Subplots

        Peter Morgan is a well-known screenwriter for dramatic political productions such as The Queen (2006) or Frost/Nixon (2008). He wrote in 2006 the script for the film The Other Boleyn Girl,directed by Justin Chadwick. Before this film, Chadwick had only directed TV series and, since then, has directed five films including Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013). The main element of the film at hand is the rivalry between the Boleyn sisters. The synopsis of the movie distinctly focuses on a love triangle, not between the King, the Queen and his mistress—as it is usually portrayed in other historical fictions as a fight between Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn for Henry’s heart—but between the King, his mistress and his mistress’s sister. Critic Tasha Robinson severally sums up the film as “a fight between two sisters who want the same dude.” The film respects the fundamentals of the book to provide the main storyline. It is the story of Henry VIII’s first two wives: the failure of Catherine of Aragon to give him a male heir, Henry’s taking Mary Boleyn as his mistress and having children with her; his defying the Pope to divorce Catherine and to marry Anne. However, she, too, fails to give him the promised son. She is finally accused of terrible crimes and executed.

        The advancement of noble families in the sixteenth century is plainly what triggers the whole plot, “particularly the idea that women were helpless pawns in Tudor society, which the film plays up far more than the book” (Robinson). As it happens, the story presents the Duke of Norfolk and his brother-in-law Thomas Boleyn who are, from an early stage, aware that the King’s marriage is under strain. Both of them are determined to gain favour, power and wealth. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, the scene to push the King to take Anne as his mistress is set:


        SIR THOMAS

An opportunity has arisen. An opportunity in which, were you to succeed, you could secure for yourself and this family incalculable wealth and position.


There is a strain on the King’s marriage. In such circumstances, a man sometimes seeks comfort elsewhere.

        SIR THOMAS

At present, because of your Uncle’s close friendship with His Majesty, we’re alone in knowing this. But it won’t be long before all the other noble families discover the truth and came to parade their daughters under his nose.


The favour he would bestow upon us, I mean upon you, if he liked you (The Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick, 11’).


Yet, shots of Elizabeth Boleyn, the girls’ mother, looking disapprovingly at the merchandising of her daughters punctuate the story of reproach that women are not just goods to show off for favours. This depiction of the sisters’ mother is in opposition with the character in the novel who behaves coldly and detachedly regarding her daughters’ emotional turmoil.

        The screenwriter and director took some liberties with the source text. It is commonly accepted in adaptation theory that, in films, the themes serve the story whereas in books, the story serves the themes. It is thus understandable that the plot and the subplots of a novel can be transformed for the purposes of the film. Linda Seger, script consultant, points out that, in adaptation, events may have to be adjusted, the centre of the storyline may be heightened and that adapting means making choices and thus leaving out what is undramatic to emphasise what is dramatically important (9). In The Other Boleyn Girl, the centre of attention is Anne Boleyn becoming jealous of her sister for attracting the King’s attention and, once she finally obtains it, striving to become and remain Queen of England. The dramatisation of the film reduces and simplifies the novel; it “takes the two [Boleyn girls] as the one single focus that ties events together” (Robinson).


Narrative and Point of View

        Linda Hutcheon posits that “[i]n the move from telling to showing, a performance adaptation must dramatize: description, narration and represented thoughts must be transcoded into speech, actions, sounds and visual images” (40). In her work, she asserts that dramatisation means a re-accentuation and a refocusing of themes, characters and plots. Gregory’s novel is written with Mary Boleyn as the narrator, therefore the whole work is from her point of view. Linda Hutcheon remarks that attempts to use the camera for a first-person narrative are infrequent because they are judged clumsy. Most films use the camera for a third-person narrative to represent the point of view of various characters at different moments (54). Although the script of The Other Boleyn Girl attempted to put Mary in the foreground, the film rather concentrates on Anne and the Boleyn family’s greed. In fact, the film does not try at all to render the homodiegetic focalisation, thus giving a more holistic but less nuanced approach to the events. Mary is too passive in the film to carry the major role (Robinson).

        The way of filming that is most used in the film is the shoulder shot, which enables the viewer to connect with a character who is listening to another. Thus, during one to one discussions, the focus is only fixed on the two main protagonists, blurring the rest of the scene. Close-ups are also employed to show the characters’ emotions and reactions and therefore to emphasise the sense of betrayal or despair that each character feels in turn. For instance, one passage of the film (The Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick, 57’) shows a discussion between Anne and Mary and takes place in the room Mary is using for her confinement. Anne is presented as the sister with power and full of energy coming to take revenge while Mary is in bed resting to assure a safe delivery. While Anne blames Mary for the failure of her intended marriage to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, a close-up displays Anne’s cruel and mean look, but when a messenger comes in to bring a gift from the King to Anne, her change of expression can be clearly seen and she becomes once more the courtier.


(Re)presenting the Past on Screen

        Being a period drama, The Other Boleyn Girl needed to translate the past onto the screen. The setting should be relevant to the sixteenth century in which the action takes place. The evident primary means to achieve this sense of historical period is the costumes. According to actress Scarlett Johansson, it really was her dress that helped her to get into her character as well as the time period. She says:


Anything that you have to help you get into character is helpful. The costumes were certainly a major part of that. It’s not only uncomfortable to wear, but it affects how people move around you and how you walk. It affects your intimacy, so I [felt] kind of vulnerable and statue-like. (NYCmovieguru)


One commentator on the film posted a remark that reads: “It looks like they spent a lot of money on the sets and costumes” (Tracy). The codpieces for men and the cleavages and hoods of the women were clearly reproduced after contemporary portraits. The settings, too, were distinctly used to transport the viewer into the Renaissance period with reverse-angle shots at castles and manors. The crew and the cast travelled to England to capture the British atmosphere of the story. Robinson mentions in her review “how sumptuous and pretty the movie is, in an Elizabeth-esque costume-drama way, which is one of the big draws.” In addition, one of the heightened historical issues addressed in this film is “the way women suffered historically as second-class citizens with limited power to determine their own fate” (Robinson) which gives one perspective of how it could have been.

        The film also tries to be modern to appeal to a wide audience. Natalie Portman suggests that the film is “a story that’s resonant now because you know that there are people who think of marriage as empire-building, which still exists today” (NYCmovieguru). As for Scarlett Johansson, she remarks that the director modernised the events in order for people to escape into a story (Glamour Magazine). For instance, Anne’s determination to bring, by her own means, wealth and power to herself and her family brings up the question of feminism, which is much more of a question in the 21st century. In addition, the rivalry between women suggests the many reproaches that are aimed at women. As Johansson says: “a lot of the stigma that are put against women and the feminist movement are to do with the fact that women can be so catty against one another. It really brings us back instead of … moving forwards” (Glamour Magazine).

            In contrast, the film has been the subject of much disapproval about its handling of history and especially the English Reformation of the Church and Anne’s role in it. Christopher Orr, American film critic, reveals and comments on what he sees as the film’s weakest point:


The Other Boleyn Girl takes vanishingly little interest in the broader history unfolding around its love triangle. It gives not a hint of Anne’s religiosity or crucial role in the Reformation. … Henry’s decision to abandon the Catholic Church is given approximately 90 seconds of screen time, and the closest the film comes to making a case for or against it is Anne’s purposeful vow, “Somehow I need to make him understand that this” ―i.e., the contents of her petticoats―“will be worth it.”


Consequently, the film was remarkable for its efforts at period costumes and scenery, but the historical aspect of it did not convince many. The Reformation process and the political game which Henry VIII played all his life is non-existent. The struggle between Catholics and Protestants is not portrayed in the film. The problem, as one person commented on Goodreads, is that too many viewers seem to think the film is an accurate representation of past events and do not appreciate the art for what it is: fiction.

        The overall perception of the film by critics shows signs of disappointment as much regarding the directing as the characters and cast. If some of them recognize a well-built story, it is not enough to counterbalance the general feeling of dissatisfaction. After the release of the film, Josh Taylor said in an article online: “Ultimately it’s a clumsy film with performances ranging all over the place and a story that while well-constructed, just isn’t that compelling. It’s a[sic] blithely mediocre.”

        Finally, many film experts remark on the poor quality of the shooting, describing it as “oddly plotted and frantically paced pastiche” (Dargis), and claiming that: “Shot in high-definition video with a murky brown palette (perhaps to suggest tea-stained porcelain and teeth), the film is both underwritten and overedited” (Dargis). Consequently, Dave Calhoun observes for Time Out:


The pair’s stellar presence at least fits the film’s Holbein-meets-Annie Leibovitz colour palette; let’s call it the Vanity Fayre look. Polite, well-made, adequately performed, moderately paced – television director Justin Chadwick’s take on Philippa Gregory’s racy, trashy novel is everything you don’t want it to be.


        Adapting a true life story into an artistic medium, be it a film or a novel, already requires some rearrangement of the facts, a pre-selection of events. As Seger underlines:


The true-life epic demands much more detective work. What event, out of an entire lifetime, will be the focus of the drama? How do you keep a true-life story from becoming episodic? Clearly it is impossible to tell the “womb to tomb” story in two hours. Even if you could tell it, the story would be unfocused and unconnected and would not add up to compelling drama. (52)


Adapting a novel into a film requires a further remodelling of the source material, and often a condensing of the source text. Seger adds that,


The nature of condensing involves losing material. Condensing often includes losing subplots, combining or cutting characters, leaving out of the many themes that might be contained in a long novel, and finding within the material the beginning, middle, and end of a dramatic storyline. (3)


In the novel, the story of Anne Boleyn has been refocused in order to put forward her manipulation of the King, her treatment of her siblings, her role in the family business, and her self-centred determination. The political and diplomatic events of the time have been minimised, as, in the eyes of Mary Boleyn, the narrator, they were a side issue to Anne’s searing rise to power and her just as swift downfall. In the film, the history of England during this crucial period has been trivialised to attract the widest possible audience. Consequently, the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, who are considered as “the lovers who changed history” (Lipscomb), is reduced to a romantic affair with some collateral damage.

        Brian McFarlane states that “[f]idelity criticism depends on a notion of the text as [having a] rendering up to the (intelligent) reader a single, correct “meaning” which the film-maker has either adhered to or in some sense violated or tampered with”(8). For many critics, the fidelity debate did not so much concern the relationship between the novel and the film, although Robinson stated that the film “strips things down”. It rather concerns the relationship between all works of fiction and History. All the rumours about the King’s second wife seem to find a place in Gregory’s and Chadwick’s works which Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn, captions as “Chapuys’ Revenge: Fiction Becomes Fact Once Again” (219). As it happens, Chapuys often reported hearsay and rumours about Anne Boleyn and her relationship with the King, therefore, giving resonance to these rumours looks like Chapuys’ portrait of Anne is being passed down in history. However, it is worth noticing that Chapuys did not believe in the charges of adultery and incest brought against Anne at her trial. Despite their immediate success, the film and the novel received some severe comments: “it’s shallow, melodramatic, and sometimes campy, […] it plays fast and loose with history, […] it hollows out a book that was already kind of hollow to begin with” (Robinson). Gregory is nevertheless praised for her rehabilitation of forgotten women in history; her narration in the eyes of the main characters brings forth the restrictions imposed on the female sex in the 16th century, as well as giving female protagonists will and power to transcend their limits and the rules they live under. As for the film, as Geoffrey Wagner defined, it is a case of commentary in which “an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respects […] when there has been a different intention on the part of the film-maker, rather than infidelity or outright violation” (McFarlane 10-11). Chadwick’s work can be said to follow the major elements of the novel, even trying to breathe a sense of the Renaissance into the film, yet leaving out what does not plainly influence the romantic affair between the lovers or the family relationships.


Works Cited


Bookbrowse. “An Interview with Philippa Gregory.” 2006.Web. 16/03/15.

Bordo, Susan. The Creation of Anne Boleyn. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.

Boxofficemojo. “The Other Boleyn Girl.” IMDb. 20/04/2008. Web. 18/04/15.

Calhoun, Dave. “The Other Boleyn Girl.” Time Out. 03/03/2008. Web. 18/04/15.

Chrisafis, Angelique. “Everyday story of courtly folk takes romantic fiction award.” The Guardian, 19/04/2002. Web. 20/05/15.

Dargis, Manohla. “Rival Sisters Duke It Out for the Passion of a King.” The New York Times, 29/02/2008. Web. 12/05/15.

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Fahle, Rich. “Philippa Gregory Talks about The Other Boleyn Girl.” Bordersmedia. 02.03.2008. Youtube. Web. 12/05/15.

Glamour Magazine UK. “Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman Interview: The Other Boleyn Girl Movie.” 06/03/2008. Youtube. Web. Web. 12/05/15.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. “On First-Person Narration in Historical Novel”. Writing Historical Novels. 15/09/2013. Web. 15/05/15.

Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. 2001. London: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

—. The Women of the Cousin’s War, The Real White Queen and her Rivals. Introduction. London: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.

Groot, Jerome (de). Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. 2006. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Indurain, Carlos, Mata. “Brief Definition and Characterization of a Historical Novel”. Cultura Historica. University of Navarra, 2009. Print.

Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. 2004. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Lipscomb, Suzannah. Henry and Anne, the Lovers Who Changed History. Prod. Lion Television, 20/02/2014. Web. 15/05/15.

McFarlane, Brian. Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. “Part I: Backgrounds, Issues, and a New Agenda.” Oxford: Clarendon P, 1996. Print.

Naylor, Stephanie, “The Queen of Historical Fiction: Philippa Gregory.” AbeBooks. Web. 18/06/18.

NYCmovieguru. “Interview with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, stars of The Other Boleyn Girl.” 16/03/2008. Web. 15/05/15.

Orr, Christopher. “The Movie Review: The Other Boleyn Girl.” New Republic. 29/02/2008. Web. 15/05/15.

Ridgway, Claire. “Anne Boleyn and The Other Boleyn Girl.” The Anne Boleyn Files. 22/09/2010. Web. 15/05/15.

Robinson, Tasha. “Book vs. Film: The Other Boleyn Girl”. AVClub. 27/03/2008. Web. 15/05/15.

Seger, Linda. The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. New York: Henry Holt & Cie, 1992. Print.

Slotkin, Richard. “Fiction for the Purposes of History.” Rethinking History 9.2/3 (June/September 2005): 221-36. Print.

Taylor, Josh. “The Other Boleyn Girl.” Cinema Blend. 29/02/2008. Web. 15/05/15.

The Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick. Perf. Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana. BBC Film, 2008. DVD.

Tracy. “Movie review: The Other Boleyn Girl.” GoodReads. 27/05/2010. Web. 15/05/15.

Warnicke, Retha. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.


Alison Offe est doctorante à l’Université Catholique de Lille en cotutelle avec Liverpool Hope University. Ses recherches portent sur la représentation des Tudors dans la culture populaire britannique entre 1995 et 2015. Elle a obtenu son Master en 2015 et son mémoire s’intitulait : “Les six femmes d’Henri VIII dans les fictions historiques de Philippa Gregory, Jean Plaidy et C. J. Sansom.” Elle a depuis publié : “Katherine Parr, Protestant Scholar and Role Model” dans Résonances 15, “Women and Vocation, La Vocation au féminin, Volume I” (2015) ; et “Popularising the Tudors: The Case of Anne Boleyn” dans Theorising the Popular, ed. Michael Brennan, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.


Alison Offe is a doctoral student with joint supervision between Liverpool Hope University and Lille Catholic University. Her research focusses on the depiction of the Tudors in British popular culture between 1995 and 2015. She obtained her MA in English in 2015 with a dissertation entitled “The Six Wives of Henry VIII in the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory, Jean Plaidy and C.J. Sansom.” Since then, she has published “Katherine Parr, Protestant Scholar and Role Model” in Résonances 15, “Women and Vocation, La Vocation au féminin, Volume I” (2015) ; and “Popularising the Tudors: The Case of Anne Boleyn” in Theorising the Popular, ed. Michael Brennan, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.



[1] Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (15); Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (141); David Starkey’s Six Wives, The Queen’s of Henry VIII (258); Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (147); Linda de Lisle’s Tudor (16) to name but a few works in which scholars have established Anne Boleyn’s birth date as 1501.

N°2 | Adapting Don Quixote: Terry Gilliam’s Picaresque Journey in the Film Industry

Jonathan Fruoco


Terry Gilliam has often been described as a ‘cursed’ filmmaker, a curse that has expressed itself in various ways throughout his career. However, his most notorious failure still remains his attempts to adapt Don Quixote. It is accordingly of great importance to see what lies at the heart of Gilliam’s cinematic vision and to understand that his desire to adapt Cervantes’s novel is representative of the filmmaker’s own relationship with reality and with art. Gilliam’s cinema is indeed marked by a confrontation between the need to tell stories and to live as much as possible in one’s imagination, with the harsh reality of the economic, industrial and bureaucratic world. This paper analyses Gilliam’s attempts to film Don Quixote as a form of metafilmic adaptation, in which the documentary Lost in La Mancha plays a vital role.


Terry Gilliam a souvent été décrit comme un réalisateur “maudit”, du fait des nombreux ennuis rencontrés durant la production de ses films. Pourtant son plus grand échec à ce jour reste ses tentatives d’adaptation de Don Quixote. Il est ainsi très important de voir ce qui est au cœur même de la vision cinématographique de Gilliam et de comprendre que son désir d’adapter le roman de Cervantès est représentatif de la relation qu’entretient le cinéaste avec la réalité et l’art. Le cinéma de Gilliam est en effet marqué par une confrontation entre le besoin de raconter des histoires, de vivre autant que possible dans sa propre imagination, et la dure réalité d’un monde économique, industriel et bureaucratique. Cet article considère ses tentatives d’adaptations de Don Quixote comme une forme d’adaptation métafilmique, dans laquelle le documentaire Lost in La Mancha joue un rôle crucial.


        Terry Gilliam has often been unfairly described by the media as a ‘cursed’ filmmaker, a curse that has expressed itself in various ways throughout his career (the death of Heath Ledger while shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, multiple wars with his producers, going over budget, etc.). But his most notorious and spectacular failure to date still remains his attempt to adapt Don Quixote, during which everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, from pre-production to production, eventually forcing Gilliam to stop shooting the movie altogether.

        The aim of this article is to try to see what lies at the heart of Gilliam’s cinematic vision and to understand that his attempts (for there have been many before and since 2000) to adapt Cervantes’s novel are representative of the filmmaker’s own relationship with reality and with art. Indeed, Gilliam’s cinema is marked by a confrontation between the need to tell stories and to live as much as possible in one’s imagination, with the harsh reality of the economic, industrial and bureaucratic world. He has positioned himself as the champion of impossible dreams, ready to fight for us—or with us—against “the oppressive yoke of [a] new corporate management” (The Crimson Permanent Assurance, 1983). And yet, despite having successfully adapted several novels into movies (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998, Tideland, 2005…), Gilliam struggled for a long time to shoot his own vision of Don Quixote. One could thus ask where to draw the line at what we call an adaptation: should it necessarily be a form of art adapted, transformed into a different medium? Or a story, a legend into a painting or a sculpture? I propose to look at Gilliam’s attempts to film Don Quixote as a form of metafilmic adaptation, in which the documentary Lost in La Mancha plays a vital role.

        Gilliam’s journey in life and art has been, as we are about to see, nothing if not picaresque. We will thus consider the possibility that Gilliam has in fact accomplished one of the most faithful adaptions of Cervantes’s novel, a perfect intersemiotic transposition from art to life and life to art.


        Upon reading Terry Gilliam’s memoirs, one cannot help but notice that they could have been written as a picaresque novel, describing the formative strolling of a modern day pícaro, whose actions, both tragic and comic, form a mirror reflecting the injustices and abuses of the world he lives in. Indeed, a picaresque novel is first and foremost the autobiographical story of a character whose purpose in life is to extract himself from the social conditions he was born into and who tries to find his place in the world, no matter what the cost. He is, as Helios Jaime wrote in Le Siècle d’Or, “a young man without scruples who, spurred on by his precarious situation, takes advantage […] of circumstances” (81).[1] The pícaro in both La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes and La Vida del Buscón is ready to resort to all sorts of stratagems and subterfuges to escape hunger, thirst, and poverty. His life is a continual journey, and he can be alternately beggar, servant, and thief. Yet most importantly, he embodies the rejection of social values: in a society driven by profit, the pícaro’s actions reflect a certain form of hostility towards the system. Cervantes’s own novel, however, was written both in reaction and as an answer to the picaresque: it has been widely associated with the genre, though Don Quixote does not seem to follow all of its codes. Cervantes recognizes the richness of the picaresque and borrows many of its motifs, but rejects the first person narrative and completely transforms the role of his “hero.” Quixote is a delusional old man, living the end of his life in a fantasy world, not a young pícaro at the beginning of his own story. The confrontation between these visions is especially obvious when Quixote frees a prisoner called Ginés de Pasamonte, who tells his saviour that he has been writing the story of his own life: “So good is it,” says Ginés, “that ‘a fig for ‘Lazarillo de Tormes,’ and all of that kind that have been written, or shall be written compared with it: all I will say about it is that it deals with facts, and facts so neat and diverting that no lies could match them” (Chapter XXII). Quixote lives in a world of lies and delusions, Ginés in a world of fact, and that distinction is what makes the difference between Don Quixote and other picaresque novels.  

        Now, what about Terry Gilliam? Where does he fit in this particular picture and how is that connected to his career and his attempts to adapt Don Quixote? As we will see, Gilliam has lived most of his life as a quixotic pícaro, and his decision to adapt Cervantes’s novel, when he turned fifty, was accordingly thought of as the logical coda to his career. Gilliam’s picaresque journey remarkably began with a happy childhood. He writes that missing out on the opening of Disneyland in 1954 was “about the closest I ever came to real childhood trauma. In fact, that’s probably why I had to go into film-making—to acquire the deep emotional and spiritual wounds which my shockingly happy childhood had so callously denied me” (21). Being spared any childhood trauma, Gilliam spent most of his early years in the countryside, which anchored his imagination in a brutal reality. For if he has been described as a fantasist and a dreamer, Gilliam’s artistic sensibility and cinematic vision have, in fact, never been cut off from the real world. They are, on the contrary, a reaction to the reality we live in, to the “messy, weird, unexpected things that only come out of the way reality works” (234). Living with animals and being in contact with death and the cruelty of the food chain thus gave him a respectful understanding of how nature works and reinforced in him the beauty of fantasy. Reading was also a huge formative experience for Gilliam, and although he loved cinema, books gave him the chance to develop his ability to adapt and visualize stories: “the great thing about reading as a spur to the imagination,” he explains, “is that you’re doing all the visualisation yourself. However good the author might be at painting a picture with words, the final stage of translating that mental picture from two dimensions into three is up to you” (9). Here, one can already see the future “adapter” at work. And the same thing happened with the radio. A show called Let’s Pretend became his first gateway to the fantastical and taught him to conjure up visuals based, this time, on voices rather than written words. Surreal comedy then further forged his imagination and helped him realize that things did not have to be the way they truly are. “In terms of constructing a home for my youthful imagination,” Gilliam writes, “the two sure foundations which Ernie Kovacs and Walt Disney had to build upon were Grimms’ fairy tales and stories from the Bible” (10).

        All these elements formed, as you can see, the basis of the surreal imaginative fantasy that would later characterize his animations and his films. Yet, Gilliam was still far from the end of his journey. Upon moving with his family to Los Angeles, he discovered that the place was far from being as dramatic as on film, but his disappointment quickly turned into contentment as his mind bridged the gap between reality and fantasy, a junction, he says, that would later be the setting of his movies (Gilliam 14). From that point on, Gilliam embarked on a picaresque journey that would occupy most of his life, from childhood until he joined the Monty Pythons. He tried to become a magician, which taught him to keep the audience on his side when the tricks invariably went wrong, developed his talents as a cartoonist, and even worked one summer at a children’s theater, where his first major adaptation had to be canceled. He worked for six weeks on a rather lavish production of Alice in Wonderland, a project that gradually became too elaborate for a children’s theater. “My ambitious plans,” he remembers, “foundered on the lack of any organisational infrastructure to help translate my vision from two dimensions into three—imagining the whole thing was the easy part, the difficult bit was the reality of actually doing it without the facilities, time, money, or basic talent to make it happen” (Gilliam 53). It apparently did not help that the children were engaging in other activities such as archery or horse riding and would spend most of their holidays not following Gilliam’s instructions. He is still marked by this “formative trauma,” which happened to be the first time a whole community had expected him to accomplish something, but which ended in the most “disastrous summer-camp theater productions of all time” (53). He then tried his hand at different jobs, became a cartoonist, worked for the magazine Help! on photographic strips and was drafted in the early days of the Vietnam war. He was forced to join the National Guard, but you will not be surprised to read that Gilliam is not the kind of person who really thrives on the order of the military. His talents as a cartoonist helped him in the army, but when his commanding officer asked him to do a portrait of his fiancée and of himself, which kept him safely in the barracks for a while, he could simply not resist the temptation to defy authority and started doing caricatures which ridiculed the officer in front of all his recruits (81). However, that was not the only time he defied authority in the armed forces. During one of the maneuvers, they were expected to “take a hill.” Gilliam recalls:


I’d be running around like a kid playing soldiers, shouting “Boom!’, ‘Bang!’ and ‘Taka-taka-taka” (my best shot at a convincing machine-gun sound). “What’s wrong with you, Gilliam?” an exasperated commanding officer would ask. “C’mon, these blanks are practically silent,” I would reply. “If you’re going to fire a gun, it should at least make the right noise.” Obviously I was taking the piss, but I was also trying to make this foolishness as entertaining as possible […] and as a result soon found myself widely acknowledged as a bit of a joke. (80)


        His experience in the National Guard and the perspective of being sent to Vietnam then encouraged him to tell the Army that he was being transferred to the obviously non-existent European bureau of Help! in 1965. Far from the “institutional incompetence” of “capable authority” (83), he embarked on his most picaresque journey yet. He bought himself a motorbike in North Africa, which prophetically became his own personal Rocinante. Cervantes describes Don Quixote’s horse as ‘the first and foremost of the hacks in the world’ (Chapter 1), all skin and bones, and Gilliam recognizes that his bike was “possessed by the spirit of Don Quixote, because it seemed to be doing everything it could to humiliate” him (Gilliam 94). He drove off into Spain, and within an hour hit a dog and crashed in front of a bar, where the locals cauterized his wounds with a bottle of liquor. Now deprived of front headlight, he had to follow as close as possible any car that came by so as to be able to see the road by night. The bike would then stop every now and then, especially when he had to drive up a hill, it would continually run out of petrol, which convinced Gilliam that it was a demon sent to destroy him. Once in Barcelona, he decided to act first:


When night fell I got all the guys and girls from the hostel to march up with me for the act of sacrifice, but the infernal machine got the better of me one more time. The petrol cap I’d never been able to loosen had now come undone of its own accord. Most of the fuel had leaked out so the grand explosion I’d planned to impress everyone with was now not going to happen. Luckily there was just enough fuel remaining to get a fire going, so I pushed it off the cliff with just enough aplomb to save face. (94)


Of course, the place was an area well-known for smuggling operations, so the minute the bike went up in flames, the police were all over the place, which forced Gilliam to hide for over an hour in a bamboo thicket…


        These are but a few examples of the many events associating Gilliam with the picaresque, well before he directed his first movie. Yet this little detour by his formative years, as entertaining as it may be, helps us get a better look at how his mind works, where his art comes from, and also contributes to our understanding of him as a modern iconoclast. His fantasies enable his characters—and himself—to escape, but they are also a reaction to the world. How could one not think about Don Quixote and Rocinante when faced with Gilliam’s journey through Spain? He was not simply on a holiday; he was genuinely fleeing the grasp of the army and lying to the Government in order to live the way he wanted to live. And it is this fantasy that turned the pícaro into an authentically quixotic figure: his aim is not to take advantage of the world but to make it a better place by showing us its beauties and its darkness. “When you grow up—as I did—reading Grimms’ fairy tales and the Bible,” Gilliam explains, “there’s no question that you see it as your duty to change the world for the better. And I think that’s why, for all my frequent recourse to irony and/or sardonic sarcasm, my films have always been repositories of idealism—both in terms of the process of making them and of the subject matter of the films themselves” (199). Writing about picaresque irony, Caroline Pascal remarks that such a text is built upon a supplantation of reality by a deception used to force readers to become aware of the existence of a narrow interstice between truth and lies, “the difficult space of fiction” (qtd. in Carrasco 104). A picaresque novel thus proposes a mixed vision of reality, both comic and tragic, and which provokes a bittersweet reaction. This literary anamorphosis is one of the specificities of picaresque comedy: a change of perspective on a particular event changes the event and our reaction to it, making us both laugh and cry (Pascal qtd. in Carrasco 108). And once more it is particularly difficult not to see that this definition applies perfectly to most of Gilliam’s films. Adaptation is both a process and a product, as Linda Hutcheon famously remarked. In Gilliam’s case, it has always seemed to be a process during which he not only adapts a book or a script (that he may, or may not, have written) into a film but during which he also communes with his main character and then tries to adapt the world to his fantasies. Indeed, an adapted text is not something that should be merely reproduced; on the contrary, it is interpreted and transformed into a reservoir of diegetic, narrative and axiological instructions that the adapter is liable to use or ignore (Gardies 68-71). Before he can become a creator, the adapter must be an interpreter, for the creative transposition of a story is “subject not only to genre and medium demands […] but also to the temperament and talent of the adapter” (Hutcheon 84). This delicate balance of fantasy, reality, and iconoclasm, is the very essence of a Gilliamesque artistic sensibility, an extension of Cervantes’s own vision of the picaresque, amplified by Gilliam’s artistic voice. And it is consequently unsurprising that when he finally started directing movies, Gilliam became, somehow, the victim of a magical process whereby “the making of the film becomes the story of the film” (58). As he explains, “I would never have found myself in the director’s chair […] without an approximately equal and opposite propensity for imagining my way into pre-existing narratives. This staple resource of the child’s imagination is one I have adapted to become the motor of my adult life” (58-59).


        Two movies seem especially revealing of Gilliam’s pre-Quixote career and show that his later attempt to turn Cervantes’s words into moving pictures was actually inevitable. Indeed, both Brazil and Baron Munchausen had Gilliam painting the portrait of societies where fantasy is the only possible escape[2] and forced him to fight his own personal windmills.

        In the case of Brazil, both Gilliam and his producer Arnon Milchan engaged in a historical battle with the head of Universal Pictures, Sidney Sheinberg, to have him release the director’s cut of the movie. As Jack Mathews remarks, Brazil is still today a “textbook example of how the creative process is so often subverted by commercial interests in Hollywood” (Mathews 1). The film has often been described as Orwellian, but Gilliam’s ambition was not to criticize and attack a social system limiting individual freedoms; what he wanted to show was that bureaucratic societies provoke an inevitable loss of passion, inducing people to surrender their individuality so that they can be assimilated by the system that feeds them. The heart of Brazil is accordingly about that unnatural drift toward conformity, which inevitably costs us our humanity as we turn a blind eye to the injustices and horrors committed by the system. Gilliam’s hero in the film, Sam Lowry, is the perfect example of a passionless bureaucrat, whose only escape from reality is his fantasy. But when he finally meets the girl he was dreaming about, a suspected terrorist, his reaction is to enter into conflict with the system: “[a]s he falls in love, he takes bolder and bolder actions, and begins to regain his passion and humanity, until the system reacts defensively to quash him” (Mathews 22). Gilliam’s imagination has always been stimulated by enclosed worlds with their rules and hierarchies, and Brazil gave him his first major opportunity to react against such well-defined social structures (Gilliam 22). Sadly, although he finished the movie on time and on budget, and edited a version accepted by Fox for the European market, Universal and, more precisely, Sidney Sheinberg, deemed the movie too long for American audiences and demanded a happy ending. The head of the movie corporation ironically wanted the movie to end on what was initially shot as a fantasy sequence, with Sam living happily ever after with his girlfriend. Gilliam, on the other hand, fantasist that he is, ended that dream sequence with a brutal return to reality: Sam has only escaped in his dreams, in order to save himself from the fact that his girlfriend has been shot and that he is in prison, being tortured. Once again, fantasy was meant to help Gilliam reflect reality: “he’d taken his most cynical views on Bureaucracy in the 20th Century and exorcised them all in a satirical fantasy about the myth of individual freedom—apparently only to serve it up as a self-fulfilling, self-destructive professional and personal prophecy” (Mathews 12). Gilliam became Sam Lowry, reacting violently against Universal, while Sidney Sheinberg willingly accepted the role of Jack Lint, Sam’s friend and torturer, asking Gilliam to let him be “the friend that tortures you” (Mathews 78). Sheinberg refused to release the movie in America and started editing it on his own, while Gilliam worked on a shorter cut that would suit the American market. But although the director won his battle, three versions of the same movie existed for a while: the European version, the director’s cut, and Sheinberg’s cut. In that context, one can wonder who is the real adapter in a film? The screenwriter, the director, or the editor? Indeed, the editor works on the construction of the film, he “identifies and exploits underlying patterns of sound and image that are not obvious on the surface” (Walter Murch qtd. in Ondaatje 10). Editing has, accordingly, long been considered as the true voice of cinematic discourse, most notably by Russian formalist filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. The Universal version of Brazil is, as a result, not so much a shorter version of Gilliam’s film, as its adaptation: an adaptation both to the requirements of the studio (length of the movie) but also to the sensibility of the producer (happy ending).


        Gilliam’s battle with Universal was thought of as largely quixotic, most notably by Orson Welles. His victory, however, was a surprise, albeit one that would have consequences on Gilliam’s career. In the case of Baron Munchausen, his next film, things became much more dramatic and saw Gilliam abandon Sam Lowry’s shadow to follow in the footsteps of the Baron himself. In the film, Munchausen is accepted by everyone as a legendary character whose fantastical adventures are considered to be nothing more than legends. Thus, when the real Munchausen (an old and dying man) arrives, nobody believes in him, or in the veracity of his tales, except for a little girl. As he is dying, he says: I’m tired and the world is tired of me,” a feeling that was then shared by Gilliam himself (218). But, as Andrew Yule writes, his intrepid efforts “to translate the free-spirited, dramatic and romantic adventures of Baron von Munchausen to the screen is in itself a fascinating tale of the ‘reality’ of Hollywood filmmaking—and a lesson in the price of achieving a dream” (iv).

        Gilliam found himself working with a German producer named Thomas Schuhly, who convinced him to shoot the movie in Rome, where the costs of production would be lower to what America or England could offer. Gilliam accepted, of course, and soon realized that if he is himself a fantasist, he was now working with someone living in what Bernd Eichinger called “hyper-reality,” which he usually translated in layman’s terms as meaning that most of Schuhly’s claims were “bullshit” (Yule 10). Nothing was organized as Gilliam wanted it to be, sets were not built, money disappeared, corruption was paramount[3] and the filmmaker found himself blamed, probably because of Brazil, for one of the most disastrous shoots in the history of cinema.[4] The set was filled with people from different nationalities and evidently, no one spoke the same language. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen quickly became a project as calamitous as the Tower of Babel and, as Eric Idle, a former Monty Python who played the part of Berthold in the film, remarked they were trying to make a movie with all those European nationalities, while the only thing they had successfully been able to make together for the last four-hundred years was war (qtd. in Yule 70). Gilliam started being haunted by his failure in his children’s theater production of Alice in Wonderland: “I’d set my own rules and gone against the system and pulled it off with small budget movies time and again. Now I felt that Munchausen was the one I was going to get caught on” (Yule 72-73). The fate of the Baron became Gilliam’s destiny, but he was ready to follow Munchausen to the bitter end. He once threatened Sidney Sheinberg to burn both Brazil and the Universal tower if they touched his movie; this time, he knew his priorities were right: “I will sacrifice myself’, he said, ‘or anyone else for the movie. It will last. We’ll all be dust” (Yule 217). The movie was and still is a masterpiece, but sadly Columbia backed out of a major launch, refused to make 70mm prints available, and refused to spend money on its promotion… They decided the movie would not work, that it had been produced by the former executives of Columbia, that it was a product from the past… Or, to put it in another way, the new management tried to wipe the slate clean. Sidney Sheinberg had turned into the very essence of bureaucracy, but as Andrew Yule reports, if one must consider the head of Columbia, think “in terms of Horatio Jackson and his functionary’, the epitome of rationality in Munchausen, ‘and you’re getting closer” (227).

        From that point on, Gilliam worked on several other movies. But when he turned fifty, his connection with Quixote seemed to reach a new dimension. He had been obsessed with the character for years, without ever reading the novel, but had felt the similarities between his own cinematic vision and Cervantes’s character. The association of reality, fantasy, madness, and sanity is a key element of Gilliam’s cinema, and Don Quixote encompasses all of it, especially in our collective imagination. “Quixote struck me more powerfully,” explains Gilliam, “when I reached middle-age because that’s what I thought Quixote was very much about. He’s an older man, he’s been through life […], he has one last chance to make the world as interesting as he dreams it to be” (Fulton & Pepe, 2003, DVD). Gilliam started reading the novel and writing his script in 1991, and with every year that passed, he became more aware that he had only filmed a few of the many movies he had in mind. Filming Quixote gradually became necessary for Gilliam, as he identified more than ever with his hero. He needed to go through this cathartic experience, with life imitating art, and Gilliam making the world a little more like he dreams it to be. For the way Quixote sees the world is close to the way we saw it as children, with objects keeping their magical significance, which is something that appealed immensely to Gilliam. So when he started adapting the novel into The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, he rapidly began to change Cervantes’s perspective on his story. He realized that it would be difficult to adapt a picaresque novel since, in the book, the stories are linked thematically, but there are no central plots. Picaresque novels are indeed episodic, which is difficult to transpose onto the big screen. Most people would not be able to tell the difference between the 13th and 17th centuries, so having Quixote, someone from the past, talking about an even older past and the return of chivalry would be complicated to handle and most the references would be lost on the audience. However, Gilliam found a way to adapt the story for a modern audience: he borrowed Mark Twain’s idea in A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and created the character of Toby Grisoni, a young, arrogant and rational man, working in advertising. In the script, Toby is sent back in time, and finds himself riding with Quixote who saves him and mistakes him for Sancho Pança. This allowed Gilliam to create a plot for the whole movie, but also to add another layer of fantasy to Don Quixote: Toby would be the connection with a modern audience and would allow them to look at Quixote’s madness through his eyes. However, unlike Cervantes, Gilliam had no desire to mock his main character or his visions. On the contrary, he decided to show his audience the world through his eyes: we would see the windmills, but also the giants. This concretization of Quixote’s surreal visions through Gilliam’s film lenses would reinforce the beauty of his fantasy and underline its importance, leaving us to wonder: are we seeing through Quixote’s eyes, or through Gilliam’s? W.K. Wimsatt explained that an “art work is something which emerges from the private, individual, dynamic, and intentionalist realm of its maker’s mind and personality” (11). As we have seen, Gilliam is in most of his movies both himself and his character. Michael Taussig argued that our propensity to behave like someone else marks a capacity to be Other (19), it is through alterity that we manage to maintain sameness (129). For Gilliam, this mimetic faculty is the capacity to “copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into and become Other” (xiii). Thus when Gilliam identifies with his characters, he pushes his adaptive ability to “repeat without copying, to embed difference in similarity, to be at once both self and Other” (Hutcheon 174) to fully explore the realm of imagination, with his feet firmly planted at the junction between fantasy and reality.

        In other words, when Gilliam started adapting Quixote, he not only adapted Cervantes’s novel, but also the character and its universe to his own cinematic sensibility. But, as Lost in la Mancha shows us, and as the film had to be canceled, Gilliam gradually shifted from the role of adapter to the role of main character in the story. Indeed, when he invited Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton to film the making of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, nobody expected it to turn into the making of the “unmaking” of a movie. As soon as preproduction began, the film was in complete disarray, but things really became tragic during the first week of principal photography. On day one, Gilliam realized that his extras did not know the choreography of the sequence he was meant to shoot and then F-16 planes started flying over the location, ruining the sound. On day two, a biblical storm destroyed the set, most of the gear and significantly changed the look of the desert. On day three, the insurance company defined the storm as an act of God and refused to pay for the time lost. On day four, they changed location, tried to film but the F-16s flew once more over the set. On day five, Jean Rochefort, who played Quixote, got hurt and had to be sent back to France. Days passed and it became obvious that Rochefort would never be able to come back: production was stopped, insurance companies and the completion bond company stepped in and the movie was officially abandoned… Lost in La Mancha shows Gilliam gradually becoming a tragic figure, fighting to keep his movie going against all odds, and ultimately failing. We have here a unique transition from adapter to “adaptee”: Gilliam became his main character on film. Ten years after he started writing the script, he was forced to abandon his dream project, and to forfeit the rights of the movie to the insurance company. As he remarks in Lost in La Mancha, the windmills of reality fought back. 


        When he was shooting Baron Munchausen, Gilliam started wondering if the film industry was really about making movies, or if movies were byproducts of the system (Yule 231). For him, making films has always been the best way to express the beauty of the world as seen through the eyes of children and dreamers. Adapting Don Quixote was not so much something he wanted to do, as something he needed to do. He started writing the script in 1991, tried for a decade to shoot it and had to give up after a week of production. Now, fifteen years after Lost in La Mancha, and almost thirty years after he started writing the script, Gilliam finally managed to get back on his horse to save us from the desert of the real. After several new incidents that postponed the production of the movie for a few more years, and then its release (he had to fight his former producer Paulo Branco in court), The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was released in France in May 2018 and shown at the Cannes Film Festival, starring Jonathan Pryce[5] (Sam Lowry in Brazil) as Quixote. In the film, Gilliam shows us what it means to follow one’s dreams to the end: if he previously identified with Quixote, Gilliam realized in the recent past that he was actually Sancho Pança madly following Quixote. And as Toby gradually enters Quixote’s world and starts seeing the world as the old knight sees it, so does the audience. It is only with Quixote’s death that Toby’s journey really starts: he himself becomes Quixote, fighting windmills, which the audience sees for the first time as giants too. After having followed Quixote for so long, Toby/Gilliam managed to become one with the myth. He began his life and career as a quixotic pícaro and has since become a Gilliamesque Don Quixote, fighting against the windmills of reality.


Works Cited

Carrasco, Rafael, ed. Le Roman picaresque : La vida de Larazillo de Tormes, Francisco de Quevedo, La vidal del Buscón, Ilamado don Pablos. Paris: Ellipses, 2006. Print.

Gardies, André. “Le narrateur sonne toujours deux fois.” La Transécriture : Pour une théorie de l’adaptation. Ed. Thierry Groensteen. Québec: Editions Nota Bene, 1998. 65-80. Print.

Gilliam, Terry and Ben Thompson. Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir. London-Edimburgh: Canongate, 2015. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York-London: Routledge: 2006. Print.

Jaime, Helios. Le Siècle d’Or. Paris: Ellipses, 1999. Print.

Mathews, Jack. The Battle of Brazil With the Director’s-Cut Screenplay Complete and Updated by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, & Charles McKeown. New York: Applause Books, 1987. Print.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002. Print.

Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York-London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Yule, Andrew. Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam & The Munchausen Saga. New York: Applause Books, 1991. Print.



Fulton, Keith & Pepe, Louis, Lost in La Mancha. Quixote Films & Low Key Pictures, Editions Montparnasse, 2003. 2 DVD.

Gilliam Terry, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Included in Terry Jones, Monty Python: Le sens de la vie. Universal Studios, 2003. 2 DVD.

____. Brazil, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2011. 1 BLU-RAY-1 DVD.

____. The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (20th Anniversary Edition). Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2008. 1 BLU-RAY.

____. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Lionsgate, 2010. 1 BLU-RAY.


The Author

Jonathan Fruoco is a medieval scholar affiliated to the Institute of European, African, American, Asian and Australian Languages (ILCEA4) and Cultures at the University of Grenoble. His research is concerned with the cultural and linguistic development of medieval England and, more particularly, the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. His translated and edited, for the first time in the French language, the original Robin Hood ballads in Les Faits et gestes de Robin des Bois (UGA Editions, 2017) and is the author of Chaucer’s Polyphony: The Modern in Medieval Poetry (to be published in April 2020 by Medieval Institute Publications).


[1] Translated by the author.

[2] Most of Gilliam’s films could be used to illustrate this point, but a selection had to be made to avoid turning this paper into a book.

[3] Gilliam jokingly remarks that ‘Italy is number four in the league of industrial nations, thanks to us. We put them back on their feet. We should be proud of that!’ (Yule 218).

[4] The original budget of the movie was $23.02 million (August 15, 1987). Its final cost turned out to be $46.34 million.

[5] There would be a lot to say about Jonathan Pryce’s presence in the movie and the connection between Sam Lowry and Quixote. Gilliam seems to have come full circle with this casting choice and logically connects his vision in Brazil and what The Man Who Killed Don Quixote stands for. 

N°2 | Mythopoetic Adaptation in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy

David Goldie

The debate on adaptation often focuses on a perceived rivalry between the arts when considering the transformation of narratives from one media to another. This paper seeks to go beyond the problem of comparison by opposition by considering one element in the question of adaptation more specifically. Somewhat paradoxically, this is the story itself. Despite being at the heart of the adaptive process, it is a partner that rarely has a voice in any of these discussions.


Trop souvent, la question de l’adaptation se focalise sur la transformation des récits à travers différents médias, ainsi elle met en évidence une certaine rivalité entre les arts. Au lieu de se heurter aux problèmes issus de la comparaison d’œuvres par l’opposition, cette contribution se concentre sur l’un des éléments mis en jeu par l’adaptation. Paradoxalement, il s’agit de l’histoire. Malgré le fait qu’elle devrait se trouver au cœur même du processus d’adaptation, nous n’entendons que rarement sa voix.  


For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.

Ursula Le Guin (Introduction, Tales from Earthsea xv).


         Ursula Le Guin neatly captures a dilemma we face when considering cinematic adaptations of mythological texts. On one hand, modern CGI technology allows incredibly lifelike rendering of places, peoples and events that would have previously been impossible. On the other hand, mythological storytelling has ancient origins and the messages contained in such tales remain as true today as they ever have. These points would seem quite favourable for adapting such stories. However Le Guin points out that exploiting modern technology to accurately portray ancient narratives is often a difficult balancing act.

         In his 1939 On Fairy Stories lecture, J. R. R. Tolkien describes the art of the storyteller as weaving a magical spell on the reader. He does this through the creative act of mythopoeia. While this term existed before him, it has become associated with Tolkien as the title of a poem he wrote for C. S. Lewis. Tolkien presents a discussion between “Philomythos” (myth-lover) and “Misomythos” (myth-hater) and defends the creation of myths, underlining the importance of their narratives. These two characters represent Tolkien and Lewis and the poem re-enacts the conversation between the two on the evening of the 19th September 1931. This was a formative moment in Lewis’ spiritual renaissance. Lewis held the view that myths, however attractive and appealing as stories, were worthless since they were “Lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien managed to convince Lewis that this was wrong. In his opinion myths contained universal truths offering glimpses of the great truth of Christianity. Mythopoeia is extremely important to Tolkien. It is the art of producing myths and stories that bring these truths to the surface.

         Before the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), Christopher Tolkien adopted an unequivocally negative stance towards Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in an interview with Raphaelle Rerolle for Le Monde.


“They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, (…) The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.”[1]


According to Christopher Tolkien the adaptations are disrespectful. Blockbuster action films are neither aesthetically pleasing nor intellectually stimulating. Ignoring the fact that The Lord of the Rings is not without detractors in the world of literary criticism[2] he also condemns a large part of the readership who fuelled the book’s early success.

        J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson are both mythopoetic storytellers. When debate focuses on aesthetic and essential differences in adaptations, the central importance of the stories and what they have to say is often forgotten. While such oppositional comparison is understandable, this is a crucial omission for The Lord of the Rings.J. R. R. Tolkien’s point of view was expressed in On Fairy Stories where he famously declared: “The Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty” (The Monsters and the Critics, 125). This metaphor neatly captures the idea that stories exist in a historical continuum and that ideas can be communicated across space and time. As new ingredients are stirred in, the original constituents resurface and new flavours are created from the mix of old and new. Just like a cook, the storyteller’s art is to draw them out and present them to a contemporary audience. J. R. R. Tolkien thus provides a philosophical support for the process and the practice of adaptation.

        This article aims to discuss how mythopoeia, the art of myth creation, has become central to the Hollywood blockbuster. Taking The Lord of the Rings as example of mythopoetic storytelling we will question Christopher Tolkien’s dismissal of Peter Jackson’s works as mere action films. Structuring his narrative on “The Hero’s Journey” concept that has informed Hollywood blockbusters since Star Wars, Jackson certainly follows a familiar format. Yet his adaptations have succeeded in reintroducing the narratives to a post-Millennial audience. The fundamental questions are how and why do such stories as continue to attract and fascinate audiences?

        Firstly, we will consider mythopoeia and its significance for J. R. R. Tolkien. Next, we will see where the mythical pretensions of Hollywood blockbusters come from by examining the “The Hero’s Journey” story cycle. Finally, we will analyse a passage from The Two Towers,comparing Tolkien’s view of stories with the representation of the same sequence in the film version.

‘Philomythus to Misomythus’

J. R. R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia


        J. R. R. Tolkien explains his own theories on the importance of stories in On Fairy Tales. Mythopoeia should be the ultimate aim of a writer in a creative process he terms “subcreation.” An author should assume a role akin to a deity by creating a universe for his story. He should know it intimately and make certain it functions coherently so that there can be no doubting any part of it. Tolkien compares his role with that of God, the Creator in what he calls the Primary World. In this sense, the author is the creator of a Secondary World, a subcreation in respect to God’s Primary World.

[1] Worldcrunch. “My Father’s ‘Eviscerated’ Work – Son of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out.” Trans. Jeff Israely (Web. 19/07/14).

[2] Harold Bloom

In a mythopoetic context it is appropriate to incorporate and adapt other elements from myths and legends. According to Tolkien this is what has always happened unconsciously. Glimpses of the Gospel, the “true” myth, are contained and distilled in other tales that blend and mix in the cauldron of “Story” Although Tolkien never uses the word “adaptation” it is clear in On Fairy Stories that it is not something to be avoided. In fact it is fundamental to Tolkien’s thinking and writing.

        Regarding the process of cinematic adaptation, Brian McFarlane advocates moving away from comparison via a narrow oppositional paradigm in his essay “Reading Film and Literature” from 2007. He argues for placing the narrative at the centre of discussion and considering the relations between the different versions as a starting point for evaluation of the work in question. Since good storytelling exists just as much in cinema as in literature, it is necessary to appreciate that the narrative mode is different and interpretation comes through different semiotic messages.

        McFarlane suggests approaching cinematic adaptation through the concept of intertext as developed by Julia Kristeva in Sèmiôtikè. Recherches sur une sémanalyse and Gérard Genette in Palimpsestes. This means not only taking into account a number of influencing factors from the story’s roots to the cultural context of the adaptation but also its place within a cinematic context, all of which contribute to its newly adapted form

        Despite Christopher Tolkien seeing his father’s work as a unique creation, intertextuality is actually at the heart of The Lord of the Rings and it is extremely important to bear this in mind. As a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, Tolkien’s particular expertise was in philology, retracing the origins of words. His extensive study of ancient texts afforded him a vast knowledge of mythology that he set about employing and indeed adapting to achieve his aim of creating a specifically English mythology. Tom Shippey demonstrates this in his book The Road to Middle-Earth, citing numerous references in Tolkien’s works to legendary texts such as the Icelandic Kalevala.

        Where mythopoetic texts are concerned, adaptation is not a case of opposition between art forms, but rather part of an ongoing process that facilitates the transmission of ideas. Tolkien discusses this last point extensively in On Fairy Stories. Indeed, his main interest is this communication of ideas via stories rather than an anthropological search for their origins. Tolkien’s Christian faith is inseparable from his concept of mythopoeia. However, the idea that myths contain universal truths transmitted in an indirect and palatable way is not exclusively Tolkien’s. Other writers have examined this question from radically different standpoints

        In A Theory of Adaptation Linda Hutcheon explains the continual transmission of ideas by borrowing from Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “meme” in The Selfish Gene. The meme represents a unit of cultural identity or idea and is analogous to the gene. Just as the process of natural selection contributes to an ongoing evolution in the natural world, the same is true in culture. Hutcheon therefore encourages us to regard stories as such evolving units of culture. While contexts may change over space and time, the essential messages remain the same.

        Before them both Joseph Campbell took an anthropological approach to explain the transmission of ideas through mythology. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he studied myths from around the world, referencing many different cultures and religions. We can compare Tolkien’s concept of “Story” to the idea of the existence of a universal mythological story cycle such as the “Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey” developed by Campbell. Campbell’s two major aims were to prove the universality of these narratives and to establish their importance as formative stories for human society.

        As a specialist of mythology and comparative religion, Campbell concluded the existence of a common human inheritance to be found in myths. To develop his concept of the hero, Campbell based his own theory on the work of structuralists like Lévi-Strauss or Saussure. He supported his interpretation of myths by using the Jungian theory of a universal consciousness and Freudian dream interpretation. While admitting to being open to spirituality in his interview with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Campbell underlined the pattern at the heart of all mythological narratives. Remarking such similarity that he could not attribute it to one source or another, he underlined the commonality to be found in all cultures and religions.

        There is an inherent opposition between them. Tolkien would certainly would not have believed in Campbell’s approach. In his opinion, every myth contains elements of the “true” myth of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile Campbell was suspicious of monotheism, centred on humanity and the shared inheritance of a collective consciousness. Yet Tolkien’s cauldron analogy allows for different ingredients within his soup. Tolkien and Campbell both uphold the importance of myths containing messages to be communicated to humanity. Mythological narratives bear witness to universal truths that will appear again and again. Debating the merits of one view over another is not really the issue here. Instead, we come back to one central point. If an idea is strong enough it will survive through adaptation

        As a specialist of mythology and comparative religion, Campbell concluded the existence of a common human inheritance to be found in myths. To develop his concept of the hero, Campbell based his own theory on the work of structuralists like Lévi-Strauss or Saussure. He supported his interpretation of myths by using the Jungian theory of a universal consciousness and Freudian dream interpretation. While admitting to being open to spirituality in his interview with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Campbell underlined the pattern at the heart of all mythological narratives. Remarking such similarity that he could not attribute it to one source or another, he underlined the commonality to be found in all cultures and religions.


(…) a lesson disguised as entertainment. Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey, 2007, 300)


        “The Hero’s Journey” lends itself to adaptation, retelling of stories and recycling themes. In 1979, Syd Field published Screenplay, the Foundations of Screenwriting. He developed a form he called the “Paradigm” and explained how to stage events in order to keep the narration moving forward. Similar to Aristotle’s story structure of context, conflict & resolution, this emphasised the traditional three act structure, plotting the number of pages required for each section against the time this would take in a film. This is illustrated by the table below, today freely available for download.


        In the 2005 version of his book Field analysed how The Lord of the Rings Trilogy fits into this structure:


In Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo becomes the ring bearer to return the ring to its place of origin, Mount Doom, so he can destroy it. That is his dramatic need. How he gets there and completes the task is the story. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring sets up the characters and situation and narrative through line; it establishes Frodo and the Shire, as well as the Fellowship, who set off on their mission to Mount Doom. Part II, The Two Towers, dramatizes the obstacles Frodo, Sam, and the Fellowship confront on their journey to destroy the ring. They are confronted with obstacle after obstacle that hinder their mission. At the same time, Aragorn and the others must overcome many challenges to defeat the Orcs at Helm’s Deep. And Part III, The Return of the King, resolves the story: Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom and watch as the ring and the Gollum fall into the fires and are destroyed. Aragorn is crowned king, and the hobbits return to the Shire and their life plays out. (19)


While we are not suggesting a direct link between Field’s Paradigm and Campbell, there are certain points in common. Since the Paradigm is a general approach for a screenplay, the details of the narrative arc are not clearly defined like Campbell’s monomyth. Despite this, the Paradigm is also based on a three act structure where the main characters are on a journey towards resolution. What is certain is that this form is the basis of the blockbuster and The Lord of the Rings trilogy clearly subscribes to a similar structure.

[3] “The Paradigm Blank Worksheet,” Sid Field, The Art of Visual Storytelling (


        As Hunter explains in his essay “Post-Classical Fantasy Cinema” from 2007, “The Hero’s Journey” has had a major influence on Hollywood productions since the 1970s.


If The Lord of the Rings reminds us of Star Wars, this is not only because Star Wars borrowed heavily from Tolkien’s novel, or even that both happened to mine identical archetypes: all Hollywood films now draw inspiration from Star Wars’s Joseph Campbell-influenced pseudo-myth of individual liberation, sacrifice, and enlightenment. (161)


A clearer understanding of “The Hero’s Journey” and how it has permeated Hollywood will now allow us to see how it affects the narrative structure of Peter Jackson’s films in more detail.


        Campbell divides the Monomyth into three parts, comprising seventeen stages of a narrative he called “The Hero’s Journey.” The journey takes place in three phases of “Departure,” “Initiation” and “Return” as we can see below:

This is a story of personal development with consequences on a societal level. To sum it up, in the departure section the context of the story is established. The hero is put in a position, often reluctantly, where he has to respond to a problem threatening the society he lives in. The next is his initiation into a position where he possesses the necessary knowledge and experience to be able to address and resolve this problem. This is the section where the major personal development occurs. Past these points the hero is prepared to return to society and bring his new-found knowledge to bear on the problem affecting his society. This may take some time and involve various adventures on the way back. Once back, he is the master of two worlds, the spiritual and the real, ready to bring resolution.

        Star Wars is the most obvious example of “The Hero’s Journey” in cinema and its links to The Lord of the Rings are more than anecdotal as Cyril Rolland points out in his 2010 article. George Lucas discovered Campbell’s work in the 1960s while studying anthropology at the University of Southern California. Lucas’ storytelling impulse was identical to Tolkien’s. He wanted to make his films for a generation growing up without fairy tales and create his own mythology based on fundamental morality. Despite apparently harbouring some ambition to make his own version of The Lord of the Rings, he eventually decided against it and set about creating his own mythopoetic story. We clearly see elements of “The Hero’s Journey” in the story of Luke Skywalker. As Hunter points out, post-Star Wars, myth-making has become a central part of Hollywood production. If such stories can teach us universal truths, it is unsurprising that we constantly return to them and narratives that resemble them.

        In the 1980s, the mythopoetic impulse of Hollywood increased when Christopher Vogler, a script analyst for the Walt Disney Company, wrote a famous memo to his staff arguing that the most successful screenplays were variations on “The Hero’s Journey.” In Vogler’s opinion Star Wars was the perfect example and fantasy the ideal genre as archetypes are freely represented and spirituality is untouched by religious dogma. Having studied Campbell, Vogler developed a simplified version of “The Hero’s Journey,” incorporated into The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers in 1990.

         In the 2007 edition of this book Vogler spoke his belief that “stories are alive” (300) thus echoing the thoughts of Tolkien and Campbell. Vogler’s version of “The Hero’s Journey” plots twelve stages which outline both the outer and inner progression of the main character through trials and tribulations before arriving at a place of enlightenment. Its simplification of Campbell’s cycle has made it an ideal format for screenwriters, neatly dividing into three equal sections or acts.

        Championing the blockbuster format, Vogler repeatedly tells us that we should not be too quick to dismiss “The Hero’s Journey.” As he says, stories “want to teach you a lesson disguised as entertainment” (300). Vogler may have only increased the formulaic tendency of the blockbuster, yet he also gave classical narrative forms a chance to survive and thrive today. Unsurprisingly we can also find examples of “The Hero’s Journey” in characters such as Neo in The Matrix (1999 – 2003), Jake Sully in Avatar (2009), Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2012-15) and, of course, Harry Potter. While acknowledging the obvious commercial aspects of a cinema industry looking for universally exportable stories, we could also say that the mythopoetic pretensions of these stories are precisely what make them so attractive to audiences.

        Vogler’s “Hero’s Journey” travels between two worlds. While strict applicability in the overall positioning of the stages is open to discussion we should not forget that The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy. Peter Jackson recognised the overall unity of the narrative arc before beginning shooting. He then made the three films continuously as one largely chronological work over a six-year period. Vogler’s pattern is represented below and applied to the primary narrative of Frodo’s journey.

This may appear as an oversimplification of the complex interlacing of narratives within The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is not the only hero in The Lord of the Rings. If his journey to Mordor represents the Primary narrative, the Secondary one relates Aragorn’s personal journey towards accepting his place as the true king of Middle-Earth and a similar plotting could be achieved for him.

        Beyond the scenario structure Tom Shippey’s comments regarding Peter Jackson’s intentions are particularly insightful. Shippey is in a unique position regarding The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a renowned Tolkien expert, he was invited to be a consultant for the production. During a conference given at Swarthmore College in 2010 he emphasises several points of interest.

        The comparisons with Star Wars are very important. According to Shippey, George Lucas’ production was the model for The Lord of the Rings production. As he puts it, “Peter Jackson wanted to out-Star Wars, Star Wars.” Shippey supports the idea of Jackson as a mythopoetic storyteller for the 2000s, obeying the cinematic conventions imposed on him by showing a story rather than telling it. From a purely technical point of view, in the early 2000s, the time was right for another story of epic proportions to speak to audiences. Cinematic technology was advanced enough to be able present Middle-Earth on film and thereby bypass some of the problems that had led to disappointment with previous attempts such as the animated version by Ralph Bakshi in 1976 and its follow-up The Return of the King by Rankin and Bass in 1980.

        However Jackson shares a deeper mythopoetic intention with Tolkien and Lucas. Writing in 2013, the psychologist Serge Tisseron remarked on the renaissance of fantasy during this period pointing out that the success of the Harry Potter (2001-11) can at least be partly attributed to a desire to recapture certain cultural references or supposedly universal images and ideas which Western society felt it had lost after the attacks of 9/11.

        It could be argued that this merely provides escapism. However, in On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien states that this is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, conceptualizing it in the image of the “Escape of the Prisoner,” he asks if we should really be contemptuous of anyone trying to escape their own difficult situation by immersing themselves in a story. The “prisoner” is still allowed to dream of the free world outside of their cell. It is real, even if they cannot see it. In the same way, we can escape into stories in the search for fundamental truths.

        Tolkien created Middle-Earth during the difficult circumstances of the beginning of the twentieth century, convinced that England needed a mythology of its own to turn to in times of crisis. For Tolkien fantastic escapism is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is a mechanism for presenting reality and indeed truth in a palatable way. The mythopoetic heart of The Lord of the Rings was perfectly suited to responding to the problems faced by society at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It would not be an overstatement to say that Peter Jackson’s adaptations at least partly paved the way for the rebirth of fantasy that culminated in the Harry Potter phenomenon.

        Perhaps Christopher Tolkien’s criticism hinges on the fact that Jackson often plays up the adventurous side of The Lord of the Rings. Jackson certainly employs a great deal of CGI. This point was regretfully conceded by Viggo Mortensen who played Aragorn in the film. In an interview from 2014 he confessed to much preferring The Fellowship of the Ring to its sequels as more time was given over to the reflective elements of the text. In his 2005 article “Peter Jackson’s Film Versions” Shippey also recognises a tendency to play up to a contemporary audiences’ expectations. He cites the prominence of Arwen as just one example. She provides a strong female character thus responding to potential criticism of Tolkien’s gender politics. If these points support Christopher Tolkien’s view, Peter Jackson does not ignore the text’s mythopoetic intentions as we will now see in one of the most memorable sequences of the films.

The great stories … the ones that really mattered

Sam Gamgee, The Two Towers (2002)


         The reflective side of the stories is not completely forgotten. For example we see it during the steady development of relations between Frodo, Sam and Gollum. There are some masterful sequences which provide visual representation of Smeagol’s inner struggle with Gollum, such as conversation between the two parts of his personality via a reflection in a pool at the beginning of The Return of the King (2003) and on either side of a tree which splits the screen in two in the final scene of The Two Towers (2002).

         One of the most memorable sequences of the trilogy juxtaposes the epic with the reflective. We find it at the climax of The Two Towers. Comparing its treatment in the book with how it appears in the film will allow us to see how mythopoeia is just as close to Peter Jackson’s heart as it was to Tolkien’s.

         Towards the end of the literary version, Frodo, Sam and Gollum try to enter into Mordor by taking a secret passage at the top of the rocky steps of Cirith Ungol. It is a very arduous path and the hobbits decide to rest and eat a last meal before crossing over the frontier. At this point Sam begins a conversation about storytelling:


(….) The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.” (738-39)


On first sight it is an episode which could seem an entirely insignificant example of Tolkienian digression and may well have been among the first passages a Hollywood executive might consider cutting. The two companions just seem to be momentarily escaping their plight by talking about their favourite stories before they move on. However, on further examination, Tolkien is clearly explaining his own theories on storytelling. Within his own mythopoetic text, this passage presents a discussion on the value of mythical stories and the importance of his “Story” concept. This fact is emphasised by Sam who describes them as “the tales that really mattered.” He continues:


“I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. (…) I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” (The Two Towers,739)


Frodo and Sam’s determination in the face of extreme adversity is a lesson for us all. To the casual observer hobbits are clearly defined by their height and outer timidity. Thus, they are presumed to be insignificant by the great powers of Middle-Earth. Tolkien informs us that this is clearly the wrong way to judge a person. In spite of all the power that can be wielded on the battlefield it is the action of self-sacrifice of two small individuals that will ultimately decide the fate of Middle-Earth. Sam thus equates himself with a person in a tale and the reader begins to understand that heroes can come in all shapes and forms.

        It is particularly significant that Sam presents Tolkien’s ideas here. The friendship between Frodo and Sam is thus integral to this narrative. Sam is Frodo’s gardener and far from extraordinary. However, he volunteers to accompany Frodo on his quest and steadfastly holds to this task. In J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, Carpenter reminds us that Sam represents the rank and file soldiers Tolkien met as an officer in the First World War. Tolkien wanted to pay homage to these anonymous men. In his opinion, they were the real heroes who did their duty despite incredibly difficult circumstances

        To really understand Tolkien’s conception of myths we need to recognise the universality of the narratives the hobbits are discussing. If Tolkien’s major argument treats the common roots of myths, here Sam underlines that myths are universal stories in the sense that they can touch each of us. Anyone, even the least sophisticated, can find meaning in myths. Perceiving the similarities between old tales from his childhood and his present situation, Sam finds comfort here.

        Peter Jackson does not ignore this passage. In fact he transposes the text of this conversation to another scene of his own invention, using all the cinematic means at his disposal to underline its importance and touch his audience on an emotional level. The hobbits have been captured by Faramir of Gondor and the Ring is bound for the city where it will be taken into the possession of men. The hobbits are therefore facing the imminent failure of their quest to destroy the Ring once and for all. To make matters worse, as they pass through the outpost at Osgiliath which guards Gondor, the company is attacked by the Nazgûl. These Ringwraiths are attracted to the Ring. Frodo’s strength and resolve fail and he almost gives it over to the enemy. At the last moment Sam stops him. Frodo realises the enormity of his task and despondently wonders if he can really achieve his aim. At this point Sam launches into an epic speech.


Frodo: (slowly) I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: (sadly) I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here.

Sam stumbles to his feet and leans against a wall.

Sam: (cont’d) But we are.

Sam keeps watching the terrible scene, and speaks absently.

Sam: (cont’d) It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy?

Sam: (Voice Over) (cont’d) How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: (skeptically) What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam looks at Frodo… Sam walks over and lifts FRODO to his feet.

Sam: (resolute) There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Frodo is moved by Sam’s determination. He smiles grimly.

(“The Two Towers Screenplay Transcript”)


        This dialogue condenses the first part of the text from the book and places it in a different context. It thus loses some of the important references which Sam makes to other stories from the legends of Middle-Earth. In the book he compares their situation to events from The Silmarillion and realises that he and Frodo are participating in the continuation of stories began long ago. They are actively involved in their mythopoetic creation. Crucially, theirs is a real story.

        Peter Jackson replaces the whole discussion by an emotional monologue. At the centre of a close-up shot, Sam, leans against the wall of their hiding place in the ruins of Osgiliath and looks out to the horizon. As he begins his speech he is framed in a medium close shot. Frodo lies on the ground listening and seems visibly affected. Accompanied by stirring romantic music, Sam’s speech continues as a voice-over to a montage of images of the Battle of Helm’s Deep between the forces of Rohan and Isengard which is taking place far away at the same time. Firstly we see the monstruous Uruk-Hai fleeing before the horseriders of Rohan led by Gandalf and Aragorn. Against all odds men have been victorious. This fact is underlined by a full shot of King Theoden crying victory with his sword held aloft, then close-ups of Gandalf and Aragorn in the melee. Next we jump another long distance to Orthanc where the Ents, together with Merry and Pippin, are destroying Saruman’s evil industry. Liberating the force of a dammed river, it floods the land all around and bring Saruman’s projects to an end. We return to Sam in full shot to conclude with the final part of the dialogue. When Frodo asks him “What are we holding on to, Sam?” he helps his companion to his feet before delivering his final words.

        It is a stirring speech, typical of a blockbuster and an element which could support Christopher Tolkien’s criticism. However Peter Jackson believes that stories are an essential part of our humanity too. In an interview with Sean Woods for Rolling Stone in 2013, he was asked, “With all the advances in technology, which you clearly love, do you ever worry that storytelling will fall by the wayside?” Jackson simply replied: “No. No. No. No. No. Look, we’re human beings and we want stories. We’re always going to be entertained and have our emotions touched by humanity and by things that we recognize in our own lives.”

        His images support this point of view and the audience can hardly fail to take notice. Just as Frodo and Sam are living through it, we are watching a great tale, one that really matters and the emotion conveyed by the speech and its mise en scène cannot fail to move us. In fact it is so powerful a speech that even Gollum seems visibly affected. More importantly for the narrative, Faramir has also been listening. Thanks to Sam he sees that the situation goes beyond the laws of the city he is supposed to be defending. He is a good soldier but also a righteous man and decides to free Frodo and let him continue his quest despite knowing this decision means the death penalty for him.

        This is definitely an emotional sequence which places the speech in a different context to the novel and for another effect. However, does this difference make the speech any less appreciable or diminish its artistic value? The central theme is still the power of stories and it entirely supports J. R. R. Tolkien’s points. If we have taken this particular example it is because it illustrates how an adaptation can condense and change a text then employ cinematic language to provoke a strong reaction in the viewer. Even if the point is made according to the norms of a stirring speech in an action movie, is startlingly clear. The great stories teach us values and advice necessary to stand up to all challenges. This is precisely what “The Hero’s Journey” tells us in all its forms. The “tales that mattered” now become “great stories … the ones that really mattered” and “the stories that stayed with you, that meant something.” It is a turning point in the narrative and links intrinsically to mythopoeia. Here Jackson succeeds in visually representing a message that may well have remained hidden in Tolkien’s text. Dramatising and emphasising it, Jackson succeeds in making the fundamental impulse of Tolkien’s storytelling clear to all who see it.

        In conclusion we return to our initial point of departure. Christopher Tolkien finds Peter Jackson’s film versions of The Lord of the Rings difficult to digest since he regards them as merely shallow escapist action films. In holding this opinion, he certainly does an injustice to the films and his father’s notion of escapism. The mythopoetic impulse that inspired his father’s work is just as present in Peter Jackson’s films, not only in his direction but also in the blockbuster format. If this mythopoetic format has established itself so soundly in Hollywood it is not necessarily because of economic expediency and a lack of creativity. It is because myths are able to touch us profoundly even within the context of merely entertaining us.

        Even if we cannot and should not forget the essential differences that inform the arguments that Tolkien, Campbell, Vogler and Jackson present to us on the value of myths, we cannot deny the mythopoetic impulse that lies at the heart of their ideas. Mythopoeia uses the common roots of mythological narratives to adapt and re-present universal ideas that remain as relevant today as they ever have. Blockbuster action movies may be formulaic but in their adaptation of “The Hero’s Journey” they follow a pattern that has existed since long before cinema and even literature. Following on directly from the opening quotation of this article, Ursula Le Guin neatly sums up the attraction of such stories in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea:


We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and “there” is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill […]. So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities. (xv)


        The sequence we have examined helps to underline the fact that in the context of The Lord of the Rings, the story should be perceived as something which exists for its own and our own sakes. Studying stories as J. R. R. Tolkien did himself, what really matters is not the differences between representations of their narratives but rather how these fit into our overall cultural inheritance.

        With this in mind, we finish now with another quotation from Sam and Frodo’s conversation in the book:


(Sam) “Don’t the great tales never end?” “No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.” (The Two Towers,739)


This is of course true for both the characters and the storytellers. Instead of creating an opposition between them as authors, maybe it is preferable to view J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson as collaborators playing their respective parts in the process of adapting and telling stories. Contrary to Christopher Tolkien’s assertion, an action film should be not a term of abuse. As we have demonstrated, it is completely appropriate that Tolkien’s epic work should have been adapted in this way. The way we tell the stories may change but our need for them and the messages they provide remain as strong as ever.


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        The Author:

After graduating in Modern Languages from the University of Manchester, David Goldie taught English both in Italy and the United Kingdom. Since his arrival in France in 2001, he has worked in a variety of contexts both in industry and in higher education. He now occupies a post in the UFR Sciences at Aix-Marseille University where he teaches English to non-specialist students in cinema in the SATIS department and collaborates regularly on screenwriting courses. He is affiliated to the LERMA laboratory where his research centres on English literature and adaptation studies. His doctoral thesis deals with the cinematic adaptations of fantasy novels, including the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis & J. K. Rowling.

Frodo is moved by Sam’s determination. He smiles grimly.