Value in the Difference of Media: A Primer on Poetics

Hello again, everyone! So last week was a bit of a break from the ruminating on media and adaptations, but as this is my last week for posts this month, I wanted to add some thoughts to my post, Value in the Difference of Media: The Hobbit, hopefully giving some answers to the questions I raised, mainly:

  • How can we most objectively evaluate adaptations from novel to film (or at least not feel so lousy when someone butchers our favorite book)?
  • Are there elements that transcend media, or are books and film completely different?

My answer (I don’t presume to call it the answer) revolves around a literary concept: Poetics, or as I describe it, the aesthetics of literature.

We’ve Got More Than Poems Now…

Note: I’m not an authority on the subject of poetics, which is a heavily academic subject; I’m merely attempting to show how this concept is important in evaluating cross-media literature. This is a very complicated subject, so if you have more to add or think that I missed something, feel free to comment below.

This stuff get complicated, yo.

This stuff get complicated, yo.

Everyone has their own idea about what makes art beautiful. Is it the colors? The shapes? The use of materials? The subject matter? Even if you’ve never stopped and consciously asked yourself why you like a painting or a sculpture (or more informatively, why you didn’t), you have underlying assumptions about what art should be, or do. This is called aesthetics – “a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight” (Merriam-Webster.com, definition 2). This term deals almost exclusively with visual arts, but the idea of aesthetics can also be narrowed further to address literature specifically.

Have you ever wondered what exactly makes people enjoy some books, but not others?

I know, I know. The thought of Twihards even accidentally doing something literary makes my head spin too.

I know, I know. The thought of Twihards even accidentally doing something literary makes my head spin too.

What’s the deal with that Twilight craze? I read the first two (before they became the spastic teen girl favorite) and they’re not too bad, but certainly not good enough, in my opinion, to elicit mass hysteria. While psychological and sociological explanations are probably more useful here (marketing, hype, peer pressure, etc.), there was obviously something about these books that really connected with what these readers view as good literature.

We all have these inclinations (although perhaps not as zealously), to respond to what we conceive of as good literature. Even when we recognize that what we’re reading or watching isn’t well executed, sometimes a book or movie just does something for us. This is what happens when a story approximates our idea of poetics – “a particular theory of poetry or sometimes other literary forms,” in this case, novels and film (Merriam-Webster.com, definition 1b). However, a more useful definition for me, as I stated above is: “the aesthetics of literature,” or to attempt to combine these definitions:

Poetics: a particular theory or conception of beauty or art in literature: a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and stimulates the mind.

aristotle bustThe word “poetics” comes from the title of a collection of Aristotle’s lecture notes about how his students should classify, discuss, and write poetry in ancient Greece. It is considered the first organized attempt to create a framework of analysis for poetry (which would include Homer‘s epics, the tragedies, and comedies, which are much closer to stories and films than, say, a poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow”). When Aristotle was discussing these concepts, it’s important to note that novels and film did not exist, and therefore his concepts of how to evaluate literature cannot always be directly applied to these relatively new forms of media.

Since Aristotle, however, writers, playwrights, philosophers, and whoever else had a mind to, have discussed and framed new forms of poetics, spanning every artistic period to our current day. Many literary critics base their approaches to literature on a specific poetics (although there can be a very distinct difference between literary criticism and poetics, but I won’t get into that here). The point of all this is to demonstrate that there is actually such a thing as a structured approach to opinions to novels and film, and, depending on how that structured approach evaluates literature, different media can be held to the same standards. But on the other hand, depending on how finely tuned your approach is for individual forms of media, you may not be able to apply those standards to others.

So, if we’re going to be fair to these movies, we need to use a poetics that can include both film and novels so that we can compare apples to apples, and then we further need a way to compare one adaptation to another; in short, we need a poetics for adaptations.

What Does All of This, I Don’t Even…

“Adaptations” of novels to film are supposed, by marketing and consensus opinion, to take what’s great about the book and faithfully translate that to film with as much accuracy as possible. First, we need to identify some key elements that exist in both film and novels in equal degree. Some examples would be:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Pacing
  • Tension
  • Scene

If you wanted a poetics for adaptations, your framework for evaluating whether or not a film like The Hobbit or Harry Potter is successful as an adaptation would look something like:

  • Do aspects of characters in the film match those of their analogue (if it exists) in the film?
  • Is the literal manifestation of setting in the film an adequate representation of the descriptions in the text?
  • Compared relatively to the pacing of the book, does the film take enough time where required to adequately represent important parts of the story?
  • Is the tension of the narrative from the novel translated to the film?
  • Are scenes from the book represented adequately, and given enough time and development so as to capture their importance to the story?

You might have noticed from these examples that while this would be a good way to tell if a film was a good adaptation, it doesn’t leave much room for the film-maker to be original or creative. While you might argue that the point of an adaptation is exactly not to be original, you might see the rub when it comes to changes made between media that actually improve the narrative (e.g. Dr. William’s example of the Aragorn not carrying The Shards of Narsil, or changing the tone of The Hobbit to better fit with the trilogy).

It is also very different in intent from deciding if the adaptation is itself a good film.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

It leaves us with a choice: to decide if we should come to movies like The Hobbit and judge them by a poetics of adaptations, or if we should just let them be movies instead. Personally, I’m ok with doing both. I can look at The Lord of the Rings and call it a “bad” adaptation, and then look at something like Life of Pi and call it a “good” adaptation, but then turn around and say the first is a good movie and the second isn’t. But I’m doing so based on two separate systems of poetics, and that’s an important thing to remember.

I hope this discussion has been useful to you, and helped you to see how this isn’t such a simple issue. There’s a lot of room for debate here, but that’s only because it’s part of a larger discussion. If you have any questions about my approach, or just plain disagree with me on something, let me know in the comments below!

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on February 27, 2013, in Aesthetics, Art, Books, Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Literary Criticism, Poetics, The Hobbit and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I think your distinctions are good, useful, and valid. But here’s my question. Does a movie that is also an adaptation have to be a good adaptation before it can really be a good movie? I would argue that it can only be a great work of art by succeeding at both. Some of Jackson’s violations of Tolkien’s “inner consistency of reality” principle in “The Hobbit” seem to me to be flaws in the movie as a movie as well as laws in the adaptation, for example. Lots of people complain about over-the-top action scenes taking over modern movies when they have no vested interest in a prior incarnation of the story. In fact, I wonder if such interferences with Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes poetic faith” are not even worse in film than in prose, because you cannot ameliorate the unbelievability of what you’re seeing by giving the author’s words the benefit of your doubt. (I’m referring to Radagast’s sled, falls from several stories’ height that don’t hurt anybody, etc.) I would call these bad scenes even if they had not been gratuitously added to the narrative in the book.

    • I would say that, of course, a movie can fail both as an adaptation and a film, even for similar reasons, however, a movie could be a terrible film but an excellent adaptation, or vice versus. I’m not saying that The Hobbit is such an example, however. I’d say it’s not fantastic on either front, although I’d say its a better film than it is an adaptation. The logical inconsistencies you describe would be failures in its conception as a film as long as they do not previously exist in the novel, in which case the adaptation could be credited for its fidelity rather than criticized for its error of internal consistency.

      As far as the sequel problem goes, think about The Matrix. It isn’t an adaptation, but it is in parts, which means that the second and third movies have external context from previous parts. If you consider The Hobbit to be a prequel, it has the same problem of referencing external context in order to fully engage with its narrative. This problem doesn’t have anything specifically to do with its being an adaptation, in other words.

      • My point is that the flaws in the film *as film* were created by failure to be faithful *as an adapter*; the two roles are distinct, but not separate. I think you can have a faithful adaptation that is a bad film (I’ve seen some adaptations of Flannery O’Connor stories that would count), a film that fails on both levels (Zemeckis’s “Beowulf”), and a film that succeeds on both levels (“A Man for All Seasons”); I’m not so sure you can have an bad adaptation that is a perfect success as a film, not if the story was well told in the first place. In that case, you can’t just ignore what the author got right, and messing with it is going to hurt the film. It’s unavoidable. In Jackson’s case, you have films with some merit that could have been *great films* if they had been *better adaptations* at certain points.

        • I would agree with, you with the exception: any time someone watches an adaptation without knowledge of the original novel, their evaluation is not colored by comparison with the primary source. As such, theoretically, it should be possible for a movie to be a success as a film but an utter failure as an adaptation (would we consider it a failure if it was not even truly attempted? i.e. a “re-imagining?”). I can’t necessarily give an example, but for the sake of argument, it must be possible. An adaptation should be able to operate as an effective film regardless of how well it conforms to its source novel. Hence, separate poetics for film and adaptations.

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