JFA 24.3 (2013)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: Adapting to Adaptations”
Brian Attebery

The theme of the 34th international conference on the fantastic in the Arts, held in Orlando in March of 2013, was Fantastic Transformations, Adaptations and Audiences. Guests of honor included scholar Constance Penley, who did some of the first work on fan communities and their transformation of film and television into unauthorized new texts; Kij Johnson, who has written not only fine fantasy and science fiction but also game scripts and comics; and the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman, who travels gracefully among various media and genres and has been involved in adapting his own work for tv and the movies. Many of the papers at the Conference testified to the importance of studying adaptation and cross-media publication and invoked a number of theories of adaptation and what is often now called “remediation” (a wonderfully slippery term that suggests both transplanting from one medium to another and remedying what is missing in one form with expression in another). This issue of JFA includes something from each of the three guests as well as articles that arguably intersect with their work.

At the end of 2013, a pair of movie releases complicated and darkened the picture of adaptation from book to film. One was the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit on performance-enhancing drugs: bloated, clumsy, and full of roid-rage. The other was Saving Mister Banks, a fictionalized account of the negotiations between author P. L. Travers and studio head Walt Disney over the adaption of Travers’s Mary Poppins. The film, made by Disney Studios, implies that Travers should have simply let Disney take over and transform her book and character as they wished. Despite a nuanced portrayal by Emma Thompson as Travers, the film reinforces the notion that the author did not know what she was doing and that, as adaptation theory suggests, we should let go of the notions of the primacy of and faithfulness to an original text and simply view each as an equal partner in an intertextual dialogue.

All well and good, but what if the adaptation is inferior on its own terms, as an aesthetic object and as an act of expression? We need a theory of bad adaptation, which I am by no means qualified to formulate, but I’ll make a few suggestions here.

There are movies far worse than The Hobbit or Mary Poppins, and some of them come from good source material. In the field of fantasy, for instance, there is the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was then called) and its inept production of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, about which Le Guin has written with fine wit and anger. Even worse was a movie that did not even dare call itself The Dark Is Rising, though it was originally billed as an adaptation of Susan Cooper’s classic novel, but rather ended up being called The Seeker.

Both Le Guin and Cooper expected changes to their work. Le Guin had had good luck with a 1979 PBS dramatization of her novel The Lathe of Heaven, and Cooper, who co-wrote the play and film Foxfire based on Eliot Wigginton’s compilations of Appalachian folk tradition, was well aware of the artistic choices that must be made in translating ideas from one medium and genre to another. But the product in these cases was simply bad. The televised Legend of Earthsea was a great disappointment to fans of the book, although a few viewers who had not read it found value in the special effects and some of the acting. Seeker was a critical and commercial flop. In both cases the adaptors presumed to lecture the writers on what they really intended:

“Miss Le Guin [sic] was not involved in the development of the material or the making of the film, but we’ve been very, very honest to the books,” explains director Rob Lieberman. “We’ve tried to capture all the levels of spiritualism, emotional content and metaphorical messages. Throughout the whole piece, I saw it as having a great duality of spirituality versus paganism and wizardry, male and female duality. The final moments of the film culminate in the union of all that and represent two different belief systems in this world, and that’s what Ursula intended to make a statement about. The only thing that saves this Earthsea universe is the union of those two beliefs.” (Sci Fi Dec 2004, quoted in Le Guin)

In other words, we know what Le Guin meant to do. We have kindly remedied her mistakes.

In the case of The Seeker, I can only guess that the screenwriter and director sat down together and made a list of everything people loved about The Dark Is Rising:

Its atmosphere of hushed anticipation and mystery. Its vivid evocation of a particular place and time: rural England in the 1960s.

Its complex characterization, especially of the one-time ally and then betrayer of the Light called the Walker.

Its depiction of a large, loving family that is both outside the main magical conflict and utterly necessary to the hero’s ultimate victory.

Its use of English folk tradition to unearth, in archaeological fashion, the pagan midwinter celebration underlying modern Christmas.

Its delicate balance between childhood and maturity and magical and mundane worlds.

Then the filmmakers said, “We won’t do any of that!”

The problem in both cases is not that the adaptations were not faithful; it’s that they were shoddy.

So what causes a project to go wrong, rather than, as in Jackson’s and co-screenwriters Phillipa Boyens’s and Fran Walsh’s extended edition of Lord of the Rings, mostly right? What’s the difference between these and films that actually eclipse their source material, like Gone with the Wind or Casablanca or Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which tightens and intensifies J. K. Rowling’s novel?

Here’s my theory. Bad adaptation second-guesses its source material and its creator(s). Bad adaptation pays no attention to the audience’s reactions to the original. Remakes of previous adaptations that don’t look at the source are nearly always disasters (e.g., the 2002 film of The Lathe of Heaven that aimed only at dumbing down the earlier PBS version). Adaptations go wrong when they try too hard to be faithful and don’t exploit the potential of the new medium, but they go even more badly astray when the adaptors do not love the source. In the case of Mary Poppins, I would claim that the charms of the film are outweighed by the fact that it now prevents new readers of Travers’s novels from appreciating her quirky, unsettling vision. I liked the movie when it came out, but I already knew the books and knew that there was much more substance there. I thought Julie Andrews strove mightily to overcome serious miscasting, and found the songs to range from blandly inoffensive to actively irksome (I know that not everyone agrees with me). My students these days actively dislike the book’s lead character and are unprepared for its complex tone—tart and tender and comic and frightening—and its mythic resonances, which the Disney people evidently were either deaf to or actively disliked. One would never know that the smiling technicolor Poppins derives from a character who is quite literally a demigoddess, and an alarming one at that.

A totally self-indulgent game is to bypass the actual filmmakers and assemble an imaginary cast and crew for the movie that should have been. My ideal Mary Poppins is directed by Michael Powell—shall we say in 1948, shoehorning the production between his afterlife fantasy Stairway to Heaven and his dark fairy tale The Red Shoes? The screenwriter is Robert Pirosh, an adaptable Hollywood writer who contributed to the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera and to The Wizard of Oz and co-wrote the 1942 I Married a Witch. For original songs, we have a newly teamed pair of songwriters named Michael Flanders and Donald Swann; they haven’t yet produced such great songs as “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,” and “The Reluctant Cannibal,” but let’s give the young guys a chance. Most importantly, Mary Poppins is played by Beatrice Lillie. Lillie was a comedienne who combined broad humor with a serious, slightly offended demeanor. Her looks were odd: sharp nose, long chin, button eyes—very much like Mary Shepard’s illustrations of the Poppins books, in fact. She excelled at sending up sentimental culture: look on the web for audio or video recordings of her performance of “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden.” Sung in what she called her “mezzanine soprano,” the Victorian song, a favorite of her mother’s, becomes a riotous and rather bawdy send-up of everything twee and precious. Most importantly, she was P. L. Travers’s own choice for the role. The old gal did know what she was doing.

My version would not have made as much money as the Disney film, but it might well have been a classic work of fantasy and a fit companion piece to the original book, rather than a barrier to entry. Ultimately what we ask of adaptation is that it invite audiences to look beyond the text at hand toward other versions, other crystallizations. Every reading of a text is, after all, an interpretation—a translation. Adaptation opens the way for further adaptation; if some members of the audience try their own transformations, the world is made richer, as when John Milton wrote his famous piece of Bible fan-fic, “Paradise Lost.”

We start the issue off with Neil Gaiman’s Guest of Honor address, accompanied by Peter Straub’s moving introduction. The published title of the talk was “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography,” although it isn’t really about that at all, except where it is. It’s about the power of stories and the uses of genre and ultimately about the fact that, as Gaiman says, readers and writers are collaborators and co-creators, no matter what the genre or the medium.

Kij Johnson did not give a speech, so in order to suggest her contributions to the Conference and to the various genres she employs, I subsequently posed ten questions and she kindly agreed to answer them. Our email conversation is reproduced here, following ICFA President Sydney Duncan’s introduction to Johnson’s reading. Constance Penley’s scholar’s address was primarily a tour of her recent collaborative Melrose Place project that can’t be reproduced here. Instead, we offer a transcript of the fascinating and wide-ranging conversation that took place earlier between Penley and Karen Hellekson, along with Hellekson’s introduction to the luncheon address.

Anca Rosu’s essay “Food Fantasies in George R. R. Martin” concerns a text that is multiply immersed in issues of adaptation. Each of the installments in Martin’s saga is in some ways an adaptation of those that preceded it: each converses with and changes the meanings of its predecessors. In addition, because HBO began its dramatization midway through the publication of the books, the TV series necessarily intervenes in the reception and probably the composition of the final volumes, especially because Martin, who spent several years as a TV writer before returning to the world of print, has been actively involved in the production. Rosu’s article does not discuss the televised version of Martin’s fantasy. Her interest is in food as a form of social discourse and cultural expression, and though television would seem to offer a richer sensory experience than words, it is less effective in conveying taste and touch. For those, we would need to turn to another kind of adaptation mentioned by Rosu: the spin-off cookbooks.

Gina Wisker’s essay concerns a writer who is now best known for novels and stories adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg. Wisker does not look directly at any of those works by Daphne du Maurier: Jamaica Inn, “Don’t Look Now,” “The Birds,” or Rebecca, but at the less-familiar time-travel narratives “Split Second” and The House on the Strand. Simply calling them time-travel narratives already suggests something of their intertextuality. Any such story, says Wisker, necessarily adapts H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and other previous time fictions as well as interacting with scientific and poetic investigations of the way we perceive ourselves in time. The conversation now includes not only Du Marier but also Audrey Niffenegger and Stephen Hawking and Doctor Who. And, as only storytelling can do, it loops back into the past to pick up Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot and Albert Einstein. As Wisker suggests, stories are our time machines.

Greg Conley’s article on Algernon Blackwood asks, more or less, “When is a horror story not a horror story?” The answer, according to Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” is when the dangerous alien entities are not malevolent but instead are motivated by an evolution-driven morality that is radically unlike that of humans. I suspect that this perspective might be applicable to other Blackwood stories as well, including one called “Ancient Sorceries,” the inspiration for the 1942 film Cat People. In that case, the most important elements of the fiction crossed over into the movie unscathed, and might account for the movie’s distinctive mixture of horror and allure.

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Earthsea Miniseries: A Reply to Some Statements Made by the Film-Makers of the Earthsea Miniseries Before it was Shown.” Ursula K. Le Guin’s Website 13 Nov 2004. Web. 12 Feb 2014


Introduction: Adapting to Adaptations
Brian Attebery

Neil Gaiman: An Introduction, by Peter Straub

The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography
Neil Gaiman

Constance Penley: An Introduction, by Karen Hellekson

A Conversation with Constance Penley
Constance Penley and Karen Hellekson, Transcribed by Seth Thomas

Kij Johnson: An Introduction, by Sydney Duncan

Ten Questions for Kij Johnson
Kij Johnson and Brian Attebery

The Uncrossable Evolutionary Gulfs of Algernon Blackwood
Greg Conley

Food Fantasies in George R. R. Martin
Anca Rosu

Starting Your Journey in the Past, Speculating in Time and Place: Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, “Split Second,” and the Engaged Fiction of Time Travel
Gina Wisker


Lindsay Myers’s Making the Italians: Poetics and Politics of Italian Children’s Fantasy
Rev. by Felice Italo Beneduce

Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper’s 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and their Fans: Cadets, Rangers and Junior Space Men
Rev. by Mark Bould

Patricia Allmer, Emily Brick, and David Huxley’s European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe since 1945
Rev. by Matthew A. Cicci

Simon Riches’s The Philosophy of David Cronenberg
Rev. by Trevor Cunnington

Kyle W. Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture
Rev. by Charlie Ellbé

Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson’s The Cambridge Introduction to Margaret Atwood and Gina Wisker’s Margaret Atwood: An Introduction to Critical Views of Her Fiction
Rev. by Anya Heise-von der Lippe

Jean-Noel Bassior’s Space Patrol: Missions of Daring in the Name of Early Television
Rev. by Jacob Horn

David Sandner’s Critical Discourses of the Fantastic, 1712-1831 515
Rev. by Paul Kincaid

María del Pilar Blanco’s Ghost-Watching American Modernity: Haunting, Landscape, and the Hemispheric Imagination 520
Rev. by Jacquelynn Kleist

Marc Lucht and Donna Yarri’s Kafka’s Creatures: Animals, Hybrids, and Other Fantastic Beings 524
Rev. by Gabrielle Kristjanson

Danny Shipka’s Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain, and France, 1960-1980
Rev. by Rob Latham

Campo Ricardo Burgos López’s Otros seres y otros mundos. Ensayos en literatura fantástica
Rev. by Lola López Martín

Mike Ashley’s Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not as You Know It
Rev. by Daniel Lukes

Robert Boenig’s C. S. Lewis and the Middle Ages
Rev. by T. S. Miller

Liisa Ladouceur’s Encyclopedia Gothica
Rev. by Amy J. Ransom

Billee J. Stallings and Jo-An J. Evans’s Murray Leinster: The Life and Works
Rev. by Amy J. Ransom

David Layton’s The Humanism of Doctor Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy
Rev. by L. N. Rosales

Ulf Abraham’s Fantastik in Literatur und Film. Eine Einführung für Schule und Hochschule. [The Fantastic in Literature and Film. An Introduction for Schools and Universities]
Rev. by Simon Spiegel

Valerie Estelle Frankel’s Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One
Rev. by Katherine E. Whaley