Literary adaptation is the cornerstone of long 18th-century literature. Consider the following example: In 1741 Henry Fielding and Eliza Haywood separately adapted Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, Pamela. Fielding invented the notorious Shamela, and Haywood the Anti-Pamela. Although each novel represents a stand-alone work, each bears a symbiotic attachment to a pre-existing text. Incidentally, Fielding and Haywood turned to the same hypotext (a work upon which adaptations are based) and created satirical hypertexts (works intrinsically linked to other texts). In each adaptation we see the power of intertexuality, for in order to make its point each hypertext capitalizes on readers’ knowledge of a hypotext.
With this understanding of adaptation in mind, students in my upper-level undergraduate literature course read Restoration adaptations of Shakespearean plays and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko; mid-18th-century prose adaptations of Pamela; and 20th- and 21st-century prose and film adaptations of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Students first read corresponding hypotexts that influenced the adaptations. A semester of studying these texts ultimately prepares students for the course’s final project: an adaptation.
The assignment requires students to adapt at least one course reading, albeit hypo- or hypertext. It encourages students to explore creative writing, including short fiction, poetry, and screenplays, and to experiment with media, such as videos, websites, and drawings. As shown in the attached assignment prompt, I offer broad suggestions for project lengths. I do this because it encourages students to choose the format that best expresses what they want to communicate about the course material through adaptation. Some students choose to adapt a single text, and others work with multiple texts. Some create derivatives of derivatives, while others produce multimodal works that combine writing with drawing or fiction with poetry. Students embrace the digital turn and create videos or social media sites. For instance, one student’s adaptation of Ben H. Winters’ Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters consisted of a sing-a-long, infomercial parody of Sea Monsters via Disney’s Frozen soundtrack. Another student created fake Facebook pages, replete with wall posts, relationship status updates, and selfies taken from film stills of the 1995 Sense and Sensibility.
In order to situate these adaptations in a critical context, I ask students to write two-page introductions that explain how the project qualifies as an adaptation and how it fits into a scholarly conversation about an author, a text, and/or adaptation studies. The introductions call on students to engage in autoethnography, thereby assessing their methodologies. Further, I require students to present their projects to the “knowing audience” of their classmates, a community of readers who have read the hypotexts and are suited to appreciate the intricacies of student hypertexts. In the end, I grade the projects based on a set of requirements listed on the prompt and the presentations with an oral presentation rubric. Together the adaptation and presentation count for 25% of the final grade.
The richness of this assignment comes in what students gain from close reading, studying adaptation as an art form, and creating intertexual works. In order to imitate texts, students have to read them closely, understand the nuances of genre, and figure out how to incorporate references, obvious or subtle ones, to a previous text. With the aid of scholarship, students enter a critical conversation when they write introductions that situate their projects in terms of studies on adaptation, an author, a text, a time period, or a genre. It is a pleasure to observe students integrating the core learning outcomes of the course in a way that seems more like play than work. Perhaps the biggest payoff is that the combined exercise of writing a critical introduction and composing a creative project bridges the gap between analysis and personal expression. This assignment has the potential to increase students’ investment in their work, especially at the end of a long semester. Professors also benefit from such an assignment: the projects are an absolute joy to grade.