Film Adaptation: 4 Paradigms
[Excerpts from and Cora's Summary of:]

Kline, Karen E.  “The Accidental Tourist on Page and on Screen: Interrogating Normative Theories about Film Adaptation.”  Literature Film Quarterly 24.1 (1996): 70 (14 pp).  Academic Search Elite (9605150332). EBSCOHost, 2002.  Central Oregon Community College Library, Bend, OR.  2 Jan. 2002.

EBSCOHost Abstract of Kline's full-text article:  “Examines four prominent paradigms concerning the film adaptation of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.  Articulation of the criterion of fidelity in critics' evaluations of film adaptations; Critics' responses on the film adaptation of the novel; Condemnation on the film's faithfulness to the novel; Efforts to retain the thematic concerns of the novel.” 

[From Kline's introduction - emphasis added:]  Karen Kline explains that "The issue of adaptation has long been a salient one among film critics for quite practical reasons, as Dudley Andrew has observed: 'The making of a film out of an earlier text is virtually as old as the machinery of cinema itself. Well over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals, though by no means all of these originals are revered or respected' (10)" (qtd. in Kline). From cinema's beginnings, the most popular written source for film adaptations has been the novel; and, looking back from the late 1970s, Morris Beja reports that "in the typical year, about 30 percent of American movies are based on novels. And among the films that have won either the Academy Award or the New York Film Critics Award for 'Best Picture' since 1935, the largest proportion have been film adaptations of novels (Beja 78)" (qtd. in Kline).

In light of the important role novels have played in service to filmmaking, then, it is not surprising that, when faced with the prospect of evaluating a film based on a novel, critics often ground their judgments in assessments of the effectiveness of the adaptation. Yet, it is not uncommon to find contradictory evaluations of the same film, with one critic judging the adaptation successful while another deems it a failure. Some might argue that such disagreement simply illustrates the utter subjectivity of criticism; however, I contend that these differences in judgment stem from the critics' adoption of differing paradigms for evaluating the film adaptation. (Kline.)

In her article, Kline proposes "four prominent paradigms concerning film adaptation that are at work in contemporary academic criticism, . . .  using the film adaptation of Anne Tyler's novel The Accidental Tourist to illustrate."  Kline categorizes film adaptations into four main paradigms: (1) "Translation"; (2) "Pluralist"; (3) "Transformation"; and (4) "Materialist." Each paradigm offers different "limits and possibilities" that shape the creative work of adapting literature to film, as well critics' evaluation of film adaptations.  Kline does not "conclude that one particular paradigm is necessarily best, for such a judgment would ignore a complexity of factors that mitigate in the individual case, including the linguistic qualities of the specific novel and the sociohistorical circumstances of the film's creation. Rather, this essay is an attempt to re-configure the critical discourse about film adaptation, by pointing to the assumptions behind the critic's adoption of a particular paradigm and the constraints upon critical commentary that result from that decision."

[From "Four Critical Paradigms of Film Adaptation" section of Kline's article - emphasis added]

Paradigm 1:  "Translation"
Principal assumptions of
the "Translation" paradigm, according to Kline: "the novel is the privileged artistic work, while the film exists to 'serve' its literary precursor."  Thus, the "translation paradigm" also privileges "traditionally literary elements while minimizing specifically cinematic elements, and . . . value[s] similarities rather than differences between the written and cinematic texts" (Kline).
"Translation" Critics' Expectations & Evaluation Criteria, according to Kline: "A critic adopting this perspective judges the film's effectiveness primarily in terms of its 'fidelity' to the novel [i.e. the original literary work], particularly with regard to narrative elements, such as character, setting, and theme.  Dudley Andrew refers to this as the film remaining faithful to the 'letter' of the text (12)" (qtd. in Kline). Critics who adopt the "translation" paradigm when judging the success of a film adaptation, may concede that a feature film adaptation (limited usually to two hours' run time) must select and condense the original novel, e.g. simplify or eliminate minor characters and complex subplots of the literary original.  Even so, critics like Michael Klein and Gillian Parker expect the film to remain faithful to "'the main thrust of the narrative, to the author's central concerns, to the natures of the major characters, to the ambiance of the novel, and . . . [its] genre . . .'" (qtd. in Kline).  "Translation" critics feel justified in condemning film adaptations that depart from these expectations. 

Paradigm 2:  "Pluralist"
Principal assumptions of
the "Pluralist" paradigm, according to Kline: a successful film adaptation "presents 'analogies' between the novel and the film, thus implying that there are essential differences between the[se] two sign systems.  Nevertheless, the possibility of equivalence is also assumed by advocates of [the pluralist] paradigm . . . ."  Differences between film and literature are "acceptable," but  "similarities are expected as well"--thus, a "successful" film adaptation must "find a 'balance' between these two opposing tendencies" (Kline).
"Pluralist" Critics' Expectations & Evaluation Criteria, according to Kline: "Critics adopting this model value the film's ability to present a coherent fictive world within itself which bears significant traces of the novel operating at a somewhat abstract emotional/intellectual level.  Dudley Andrew has labeled this the film's allegiance to the 'spirit' of the novel (12).  Of central concern from this critical perspective are the film's ability to exist in its own right but also to convey such qualities as the novel's mood, tone, and values."  Kline elaborates by quoting Morris Beja: "'Of course what a film takes from a book matters; but so does what it brings to a book. . . . The resulting film is then not a betrayal and not a copy, not an illustration and not a departure.  It is a work of art that relates to the book from which it derives yet is also independent, an artistic achievement that is in some mysterious way the 'same' as the book but also something other: perhaps something less but perhaps something more as well' (88)." Such a film adaptation "'remains true to the spirit'" [June Perry Levine qtd. in Kline] of a novel even as it may change the the original - e.g. by adding scenes to flesh out a major character, or by deleting some minor characters while elevating others.

Paradigm 3: "Transformation"
Principal assumptions of
the "Transformation" paradigm, according to Kline: There are "two significant assumptions underlying critical work within the transformation paradigm.  First scholars adopting this approach consider the novel and the film to be separate, autonomous arts, constituted by different sign systems.  Finding equivalencies between the two systems is not a priority, and, indeed, may not be possible according to this paradigm."  "Second, critics adopting this paradigm often end up privileging the cinematic text over its literary source in their commentary" (Kline).
"Transformation" Critics' Expectations & Evaluation Criteria, according to Kline: "Critics adopting this approach consider the novel raw material which the film alters significantly, so that the film becomes an artistic work in its own right."  "Transformation" critics occupy "a range of positions" depending upon the "extent to which [they believe that] the connection between novel and film should be retained in the adaptation" (Kline). Some critics welcome a successful film adaptation that "transforms" the original literary work "into something new and different," but still expect to find "traces" of the original literary work; others view the original literary work "merely as raw material, as simply the occasion" for producing an original work of  film art.  Critics like Keith Cohen go even farther: Cohen requires a successful film adaptation to free itself from the literary original--to "subvert its original" by criticizing the literary model or exposing its contradictions--otherwise the film adaptation offers "'nothing more than . . . seeing words changed into images'" (Cohen 255, qtd. in Kline).  More conservative than Cohen at this end of the range also reside "transformative" critics like John Orr [re: The Year of Living Dangerously] and Gabriel Miller [re: Hester Street], who applaud film adaptations that improve upon their literary originals.

Paradigm 4:  "Materialist"
"Critics adopting this approach examine the film as the product of cultural-historical processes.  While the film's literary source is not overlooked, the influence of that source" is less important than understanding "'the world from which [the film adaptation] comes and the one toward which it points'" (Dudley Andrew 16-17, qtd. in Kline; emphasis added).  "Materialist" critics may consider "the institutional factors affecting cultural productions" and give much less weight to whether or not the film adaptation is comparable to the original literary work.

[From Kline's conclusion - emphasis added:]  "A film adaptation cannot be all things to all people, especially when the people in question are film critics who bring differing critical paradigms to bear in their evaluations of the film's effectiveness as an adaptation.  In this essay, I have explored four paradigms that are prevalent in normative critical discourse about film adaptations, identifying the assumptions underlying each paradigm and illustrating how each paradigm makes certain critical commentary possible while simultaneously constraining other observations the critic might make.  In the end, the critical paradigm might best be understood as a filter or lens which shapes the critic's perspective, facilitating his or her inevitable selectivity in isolating specific qualities in the novel and the film that the critic decides are most crucial to his or her judgments. . . ." (Kline).

[Selective list of Works Cited in Kline's article:]

Andrew, Dudley.  "The Well Worn Muse: Adaptation in Film History and Theory."  Narrative Strategies: Original Essays in Film and Prose Fiction.  Ed. Syndy M. Conger and Janice R. Welsch.  IL: Western Illinois Univ., 1980.  9-17.

Beja, Morris.  Film and Literature: An Introduction.  New York: Longman, 1979.

Cohen, Keith.  "Eisenstein's Subversive Adaptation."  The Classic American Novel and the Movies.  Ed. Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin.  New York:  Frederick Ungar, 1977.  239-256.

Klein, Michael, and Gillian Parker.  "Introduction: Film and Literature.  The English Novel and the Movies.  Ed. Michael Klein and Gillian Parker.  New York: Frederck Ungar, 1981.

Levine, June Perry.  "Two Rooms with a View: An Inquiry into Film Adaptation."  Mosaic 22.3 (Summer 1989): 67-84.

McDougal, Stuart Y.  Made into Movies:  From Literature to Film.  New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

Miller, Gabriel.  Screening the Novel: Rediscovered American Fiction in Film.  New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Orr, John.  "Peter Weir's Version: The Year of Living Dangerously."  Cinema and Fiction: New Modes of Adapting, 1950-1990.  Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1992.  54-65.

MLA Style Citation of this HUM 210 [Online] Handout:

Agatucci, Cora, ed.  "Film Adaptation: Four Paradigms." Rev. of “The Accidental

         Tourist on Page and on Screen: Interrogating Normative Theories about

          Film Adaptation" [Literature Film Quarterly 24.1 (1996): 70-84].

          Humanities 210 [online handout], Central Oregon Community College,

          Fall 2006. 2 Nov. 2006 <


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