Creative writing: Adaptations can update, critique, distill fiction  

Vintage postcard: Curry’s Lebec Lodge on the Ridge Route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California.

The best adaptations add to the literature & expand the conversation

Adaptation is a long-standing aspect of creative writing. The first adaptations I remember were cinematic — a couple 200-year-old novels re-imagined for the present day:

  • The movie Clueless adapts Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma for 1990s Beverly Hills where matchmaking perils become a story of surviving high school and finding love.
  • The movie/novel Bridget Jones’s Diary adapts Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice for London in the early 2000s. The crux is Bridget/Elizabeth discerning the character and motives of potential suitors. Does the name Mr. Darcy ring a bell?

The number and array of adaptations of Shakespeare are legion. For example, Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres adapts King Lear and his three daughters for Iowa farm struggles. David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle adapts Hamlet’s tragic brother-killing uncle for a family of dog breeders in rural Wisconsin.

Shakespeare himself was an adapter and borrower. For example, All’s Well That Ends Well traces back to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in a more troubling manner than most. Some have said this Shakespeare play is “a direct lift.” In today’s world, would Shakespeare be accused of plagiarizing or passing off a translated work as his own?

Beyond the word adaptation is a range of approaches — including homage, hauntings, satire, critique, retelling (slantwise or not), and re-imagining — that Margot Livesey explores within her book The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. In the chapter, “Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be: Paying Homage,” she explores the gradations of borrowing from predecessors in literature, as well as art.   

The adaptation process can approach writing as a series of conversations, instead of a solitary act of creation. “That is, we write in response to what we have read, and expect others to read what we have written and to write in response to us.” This quote, which came from a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee first-year writing program common syllabus, applies to a range of writing from adaptation to refutation. The notion of critical conversations is especially important given today’s changing reading patterns, namely more skimming and less deep reading.  

The idea of a conversation acknowledges that novels, plays, and other creative works, no matter how highly esteemed, have weaknesses and strengths. Adaptations may update (for example, by revising uninformed mental health portrayals from past centuries), critique (for example, by addressing the lack of gender or racial diversity), or otherwise distill elements of the original.

Adaptations may:

  • Update (for example, by revising uninformed mental health portrayals from past centuries)
  • Critique (for example, by addressing the lack of gender or racial diversity)
  • Distill elements of the original

However, adaptations/responses/critiques should go beyond copying, plagiarizing, or copyright infringement. A worthy adaptation is “very much its own work of art, one that can be appreciated by readers with no inkling of its ancestor,” writes Livesey. The adaptation needs to add to the conversation, not just repeat it.

Writing prompt

Think about the books, plays, poems, or other works that have stuck with you. Maybe you’ve found yourself re-reading one or two of them. If so, ask yourself why. Why was this work so significant to you? Do you have something to say in response to the plot, main character, voice, subject, or a mix of those and other elements? Maybe you want to explore what made the original so compelling – how did it work? Or, consider the adaptations that you’ve admired. Is there something you want to add to the conversation through your own writing? 

Reading recommendation

Outside of my classes or reading/writing groups, I try to include books on the craft of writing in my daily reading. Books such as Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery offer reminders and ideas that enrich my works in progress. Even by reading ten pages a day, a craft book a month is useful in terms of continuous improvement as a writer.

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