Embodying change

Adaptation, the senses, and media revolution

Authored by: Ama Ruud

The Routledge Companion To Adaptation

Print publication date:  April  2018
Online publication date:  April  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138915404
eBook ISBN: 9781315690254
Adobe ISBN:


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While scholarship on reception has made important gestures to epistemology and cognition, it has often been relatively blind to the senses it invokes. Is adaptation a kind of transformation we recognize by sight? Or is it something we feel? When we encounter adaptations that surprise us, repel us, or invite us in, do we experience that as a kind of touch? It is possible that it is all of these, and more? And yet, our scholarship resists addressing these sensible and affective encounters with adaptation beyond their ability to be transformed into epistemological metaphors. More often than not, an adaptation—say, a Shakespeare play produced as a silent film, or a novel turned into a ballet—will signal itself in part by a change in address to the senses. They ask their audiences to experience visual, aural, and even haptic transformations to a narrative with which we have familiarity and often even emotional attachments. Just as transformations to familiar texts can potently move an audience (Who hasn’t heard the lay critic’s frustrated cry: ‘It wasn’t like that in the book!’?), so too do transformations in the media by which we experience them. New technological advances, such as the invention of ‘moving pictures’, have forcibly affected spectators in ways that cold terms such as ‘recognition’ and ‘reception’ don’t seem properly to name. Indeed, Alfred Gell needed the term ‘enchantment’ to describe this moment of perception (1992: 211). Gell argued that wonder, fascination, and pleasurable incomprehension were affects almost bound to accompany an audience’s experience of a new technology or medium. Though Gell’s argument is concerned with significant evolutions in technology, it seems to me that the ‘enchantment’ he describes may also be broadly applicable to the experience of adaptation. Do we not also experience sensations of surprise, of visual wonder, of haptic desire when we encounter alterations that are less extreme? A new staging of a familiar opera might still have the capacity to make its audience gasp with surprise or grimace at a new characterization—all moments of experience that register in a feeling body. It is to this somatic experience of adaptive change that I wish to draw our attention.

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