28. October 2021 | Magazine:

Adaptation without Borders Professor Eckart Voigts on the international lecture series

“Adaptation can help to overcome borders and build bridges,” says Professor Eckart Voigts from the Institute of English and American Studies. “Only in translation, adaptation and transformation will older texts survive.” The lecture series “Adaptation without Borders” brings together researchers from Europe, the USA, India and Korea who will present their different perspectives on the current state of adaptation studies and give insights into their research. Professor Voigts and Dr. Maria Marcsek-Fuchs will introduce the series, which connects Macbeth with memes, on 2 November.

Professor Eckart Voigts from the Institute of English and American Studies. Photo credit: Florian Bült/TU Braunschweig

Professor Voigts, the lecture series “Adaptation without Borders” starts on 2 November. When you hear the term “adaptation”, you probably first think of the film version of a literary classic, which you consider to be less successful than the “original”. What exactly is “Adaptation Studies” about?

Yes, originally Adaptation Studies was really about the classic literary adaptation. The attitude “I read the book and then saw the film adaptation: The book was better” also denotes the usual reservations about adaptations. However, a lot has changed in our reception habits – today, people are very likely to see the film adaptation first before (hopefully) reading the book afterwards. Moreover, today we define the term much more broadly than in the past. Our keywords are intertextuality, intermediality, appropriation, translation, transformation and remix: especially in the digital world, it goes back and forth between genres and media, between Twitter, TV, comics, theatre, but also dance, photography, poetry and much more.

Last but not least: The indisputably most important author of world literature, Shakespeare, is the supreme adaptor of all. Anyone who believes that “Romeo and Juliet“ or “Macbeth“ are original poems is completely wrong: In “Macbeth” he poaches Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland from 1587 and for “Romeo and Juliet” he had Arthur Brooke’s long poem from 1562 and lots of variants in other languages at his disposal for his adaptation. So Shakespeare, too, helped himself to an existing reservoir of stories and adapted them for the stage. No wonder, conversely, that Shakespeare and his plays exist not only in film and TV, but also as vlogs, webseries and memes.

Can adaptation ensure the survival of narratives?

The term comes from biology and it is true: For narratives to survive, they have to adapt. Change is necessary and inevitable. The “Beowulf”, an Old English epic, written sometime in the early Middle Ages before the 11th century, is preserved in runic script – hardly anyone can do anything with it. Fortunately, there are many translations, for example by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, and also film adaptations, for example in 2007 by Robert Zemeckis with Angelina Jolie. The quality of the interpretation is debatable, especially in this case – but in this way, an Old English epic that has only survived in one copy remains in the public consciousness even after more than a millennium.

The title of the lecture series is “Adaptation without Borders”. Which borders are crossed here or do not exist? Which areas will be examined in the lectures?

All of the lecturers teach outside of Germany, including in Korea and India. It was important for us to address the global dimension of adaptation, the necessary processes of connection, appropriation and hybridisation of narratives between languages and cultures. Of course, the English language unites all the speakers and many also come from the USA and Great Britain. Because traditionally, adaptation research has been Anglo-American. This is still predominantly where the financially strong media companies sit, supplying the market with popular narratives. This is changing at the moment, there is much more diversity here too, but this is precisely where many conflicts arise. The keyword is “Cultural Appropriation”, the often thoughtless appropriation of foreign cultural assets. This is also part of the field of adaptation studies.

Which lecture are you looking forward to the most? And why?

Please do not force me to highlight individual lectures here. I am very pleased that we were able to attract many renowned researchers in the field. I am looking forward to seeing how Kamilla Elliott, who has just published the standard work “Theorizing Adaptation” at Oxford UP, brings adaptation and apps together, or how Julie Sanders reads Global Shakespeares. I am also very curious about Thomas Leitch’s title on the adaptation phase. Last but not least, I am looking forward to the contributors who are making the long online journey from India and South Korea to us and hope that we can manage the partly considerable time differences.

Why might the lecture series also be exciting for interested people from other departments and faculties?

Much of what we see, hear and read is subject to exciting processes of adaptation – sometimes overt, but often covert. Let’s think of the contoversis around racist terms in Astrid Lindgren’s classic children’s book “Pippi Longstocking”. How much change can this text from the 1940s take when we read it with our children today? Is there even a copyright on literary characters – a debate that was very controversial in the case of Sherlock Holmes, for example? Shouldn’t Holmes and James Bond perhaps be played by women today? Why is the South Korean series “Squid Game” suddenly a global phenomenon on Netflix and how does it change through subtitles or synchronisation? And what was it that attracted Akira Kurosawa to Shakespeare? Are fans allowed to do whatever they want with Harry Potter and “Star Trek”? What should a glossary for texts translated from Arabic into German look like and who needs such a thing for what?

Why are remakes of Friedkin’s “Exorcist” being made in Turkish cinema and of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” in Bollywood? How does Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic “Dune” compare to David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation, the 2000 series and the remake currently in cinemas? Are GIFs a kind of mini cinema and what happens to literature in Tiktok, Etsy and Instagram? Adaptation studies are currently dealing with these and many other questions.

We live in turbulent times, the world is moving together, but also apart again. Not only people move, whether by force or voluntarily, but also cultures and thus cultural texts. The series aims to sharpen the view that Adaptation Studies is a field of cultural and media studies that has been dealing with the movement between texts, media and cultures for a long time. Adaptation can help to overcome borders and build bridges. Only in translation, adaptation and transformation will older texts survive. And this is precisely where a special attraction of adaptation research lies, because it always brings together the past and the present.