Great voices speak alike

Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

Authored by: Bradley Stephens

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 the field of adaptation studies has rightly challenged the primacy of fidelity as an ­analytical instrument, recognising an adaptation’s relationship to its source remains a necessary step if we hope to understand a work’s reception. This is true largely because adaptation is always an interpretive act that conveys at least one of the ways in which a source text can be read, and such acts of ‘reading’ are of course the focus of reception studies. By considering the relationship between adaptation and source in hermeneutic rather than simply communicative terms, a better understanding of a work’s appeal within the dynamics of appropriation becomes possible. Orson Welles’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s nineteenth-century novel Les Misérables for American radio in the summer of 1937 is an illustrative case in point. This radio drama performs what Lawrence Venuti might call an “interpretive operation” (2007: 33) upon Les Misérables that draws attention to the formal, thematic, and biographical contexts not only of Welles’s own practice but also of Hugo’s source novel. In its creative relationship with that colossal book, the 1937 miniseries stresses both Welles’s imagination as what Paul Heyer has called an “auteur by means of adaptation” (2005: 213) and the pliancy of Hugo’s prose as a work with universal reach.

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