Special Issue: Building Bridges between Film Studies and Translation Studies

Towards a model for the study of film adaptation as intersemiotic translation

By Katerina Perdikaki (University of Surrey, UK)


The aim of this paper is to put forward a model which builds on the affinities between translation and adaptation and which can be used to systematise the analysis of film adaptation as a modality of translation. Translation and adaptation have much in common, as both processes involve a transposition of meaning and are highly context-dependent (Aragay 2005; Leitch 2008; Venuti 2007). Theorists working in Translation and Adaptation Studies have highlighted the potential synergies between the two fields (Milton (2009) and Stam (2005) respectively). Translation Studies has addressed a vast array of perspectives, including textual and sociocultural perspectives. On the other hand, the study of film adaptation seems to have limited itself to comparative or thematic analyses between book and film. In line with this, the point of departure of this paper is the observation that the methodological advancements in Translation Studies can be used to bolster a systematic analysis of film adaptation. The proposed model for adaptation analysis draws upon theories from Translation Studies, Adaptation Studies and Narratology. More specifically, the changes between source novel and adaptation, i.e. the adaptation shifts, are conceptualised and examined as parallel to translation shifts. The model adjusts van Leuven-Zwart’s (1989) taxonomy of translation shifts to the study of adaptation and includes concrete categories of shifts which rely on narrative theory (Chatman 1990) as this is applied to the cinematic text. The shift types retain the labels of van Leuven-Zwart’s (1989) translation shifts but are reconfigured to encompass the audiovisual mode. In this way, the interrelations between translation and adaptation are foregrounded with the potential of a methodological contribution: the analysis of adaptations can be theorised and systematised by means of insights from Translation Studies and translation practice (especially of the translation of audiovisual texts) can benefit from an analysis of the different narrative modes at work.

Keywords: film adaptation, intersemiotic translation, translation shift

©inTRAlinea & Katerina Perdikaki (2017).
"Towards a model for the study of film adaptation as intersemiotic translation"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Building Bridges between Film Studies and Translation Studies
Edited by: Juan José Martínez Sierra & Beatriz Cerezo Merchán
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2246

1. Introduction

Translation Studies has grown to be a largely interdisciplinary field of research and practice. The process of translation was initially understood as a transfer of verbal meaning which encompasses various modalities and acts of representation and intercultural exchange. The meaning-making process involved in translation has been seen as relying on a variety of resources, ranging from verbal and oral ones to a combination of audio-visual modes. Building upon this, recent advancements in Translation Studies have shifted attention to models that can analyse such intersemiotic and multimodal texts (cf. Desilla 2012; Dicerto 2015; Littau 2011; Pérez-González 2014).

Adaptation has been used as a concept in order to describe the transformation involved in the translation process. Given the different forms that translation products can take, a common debate concerns the distinction (if any) between translation and adaptation. For example, adaptation has been used to refer to the process involved in audiovisual translation, due to the spatio-temporal restrictions at work (Díaz-Cintas and Remael 2007), and to the translation of advertisements (or transcreation), due to the intercultural considerations involved (Valdés 2011). Vandal-Sirois and Bastin (2012) define adaptation as functional translation. Adaptation is all the more evident in localization projects which aim for an efficient multilingual and intercultural communication. Moreover, the term ‘adaptation’ has been used to describe a translation strategy used to render cultural references which may be obscure to the target audience (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958/1995); similar applications of the term can be found in Audiovisual Translation as well (cf. Karamitroglou 1998; Nedergaard-Larsen 1993; Pedersen 2011).

The simile ‘translation as adaptation’ has often been used in order to examine the changes made in translation so as to address the needs and expectations of the target audience and culture. The reverse, ‘adaptation as translation’, has been deployed in a cognate field, i.e. Adaptation Studies, to refer to the changes made in literary works which are transposed to the big screen or the stage. This article focuses on the case of film adaptation, i.e. the transfer of a narrative from novel to film, and looks into the ways in which insights from Translation and Adaptation Studies are brought together in the analysis of adaptation products as intersemiotic translation texts.

Section 2 examines the affinities between translation and adaptation and identifies the methodological gap which this paper aims to fill. Section 3 draws the connecting lines between translation shifts and adaptation shifts and lays the groundwork for the development of an adaptation model. The model comprises categories from Translation Studies and Narratology and is presented in section 4. Additionally, section 4 expands on the categories and types of adaptation shifts with reference to examples from the film adaptation The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004), based on Nicholas Sparks’ homonymous novel (1996). Finally, Section 5 evaluates the model and outlines avenues for further research.

2. Parallel lives: translation and adaptation

This section presents some of the similarities between translation and adaptation as meaning-making and context-dependent processes. The two fields have explored similar issues in their respective periods of theoretical and conceptual development. As will be shown, the analytical and methodological tools developed in translation can be adjusted to the research context of adaptation study.

2.1. Identifying the common ground between translation and adaptation

Translation and adaptation involve similar properties as processes since they both deal with the transfer of meaning and are context-dependent. Furthermore, they study similar phenomena and, as a result, the study of their respective products can share a meta-theoretical discourse as well. Cattrysse (2014: 47-49) summarises the common characteristics of adaptation and translation as follows:

  • both adaptation and translation involve products that are situated in a complex context of agents, receivers and agendas of various interests;
  • both processes involve utterances or texts. Cattrysse (2014: 48) further argues that the production processes in adaptation and translation are considered as intra- or intertextual and intra- or inter-semiotic. He identifies the intra- or inter-textual quality as deriving from the interaction of users with texts in a specific context and the cognitive, emotive and behavioural effects that result from this interaction;
  • translation and adaptation are considered irreversible processes, in the sense that a back-translation is not the same as the source text and, similarly, a novelization of a film adaptation would not be the same as the source novel;
  • adaptation and translation processes are assumed to be teleological, in that they are influenced by source and target (con)text conditioners, the latter of which play a pivotal role in the overall decision-making;
  • notions of ‘equivalence’ can be traced in both adaptation and translation.

With regard to the last point, Cattrysse (2014) notes that the concept of ‘equivalence’ has often co-occurred with ‘fidelity’ in the adaptation discourse. More specifically, in the context of adaptation study, ‘[e]quivalence meant fidelity towards specific valued aspects of the adapted literary text’ (Cattrysse 2014: 272).

There is much common ground in the issues that have been examined in translation and adaptation and in the ways in which the two disciplines have developed as research areas. The early steps of adaptation theories follow in those of translation theories, with an emphasis on relations of ‘equal value’ between the two texts (and with similar complications). Early research in Adaptation Studies aimed at identifying what can (or should) be transferred in adaptations. Bluestone (1957) highlighted the thematic and formal differences between literature and cinema and stipulated that these are inextricably linked with the capacities of book and film as distinctive media with their own meaning-making resources. In addition, theorists like Wagner (1975) and Andrew (1976) came up with several taxonomies identifying narrative elements that can or cannot be transferred from book to film. As a result, the two media were then posited as two distinct modes of expression with the book often considered as cognitively superior to the film. Progressively, theoretical viewpoints on the analysis of adaptations acquired a sociological orientation and encompassed the various contexts of production and reception (cf. Casetti 2004; Elliott 2014; Leitch 2008; Murray 2012).

A more thorough examination into the specifics of narrative devices as used in literature and cinema was initiated by Chatman (1978), who distinguished between the parts of the narrative that need to be transferred in a film adaptation and those that can be omitted. Chatman (1978: 53-54) called kernels the major events of the narrative which contribute to the development of the overall plot. According to Chatman (1978), kernels must be maintained as such in the adaptation because their deletion leads to destruction of the narrative logic. On the other hand, Chatman (1978) argued that the minor events, which he called satellites, can be deleted, although their deletion may potentially result in an aesthetic impoverishment of the narrative.

Similarly to Chatman (1978), McFarlane (1996) also examined narrative constituents that need to be transferred in the adaptation. Drawing upon Barthes’ (1966/1975) distinction of narrative functions, McFarlane (1996: 13-14) argues that actions and events can be transferred from novel to film and he defines the functions that are transferrable as adaptation proper. McFarlane (1996) calls cardinal functions and catalysers the major and minor events of the narrative respectively. He maps his distinction onto that of Chatman’s (1978). In other words, cardinal functions and catalysers can be analogically juxtaposed to kernels and satellites respectively. According to McFarlane (1996: 14), the degree to which cardinal functions are more or less faithfully transferred can relate to how successful (or not) the adaptation will be. Catalysers lend themselves for manipulation or deletion from the adaptation. An example of a catalyser is the laying of the table for a meal, which may prepare the ground for rising action, i.e. for a cardinal function (McFarlane 1996: 14).

Apart from events and actions, McFarlane (1996) points out that information pertinent to the characters can also be transferred to various degrees of fidelity in the film adaptation. He distinguishes between informants and indices proper, both of which are related to the characters and the setting but enjoy different degrees of ‘adaptability’. Informants include matter-of-fact information as to who the characters are and where the narrative is set and can be transferred from one medium to another, whereas indices proper convey less tangible details and are assumed to be more versatile during the adaptation process (McFarlane 1996: 14). In later years, Voigts-Virchow (2009) argued that there are basic themes and plot elements which are medium-independent, and thus aptly transferrable.

Chatman’s (1978) and McFarlane’s (1996) focus on transferability of narrative segments touches upon fidelity issues between the source novel and the film adaptation. The ways in which the film manipulates the narrative core of the book, and in turn how much it differs from the source novel, resonates with value judgements as to whether the ‘spirit’ or the ‘essence’ of the work is transferred. Fidelity is a recurring theme in the adaptation discourse and seems to be a persistent measure of success especially when culturally treasured classics are adapted. This echoes with the long-standing rhetoric of ‘literal’ vs. ‘free’ translation which occupied Translation Studies in its early years. Much the same as the translation was considered subordinate to the source text, adaptation was also assumed to bear the label of ‘imitative’ art holding a derivative position in relation to the source novel.

As research in Adaptation Studies progressed, adaptation theorists started arguing that adaptations need not be ostracised to inferiority as artistically minor replicas just because they are different from the source material; on the contrary, these differences allow for creativity within the bounds of the two media. Gradually, fidelity started to fade as a criterion of evaluation and novel and film were viewed as arsenals of meaning-making resources with unique creative capabilities.

2.2. Obligatory and optional shifts in adaptation

From the dawn of the 21st century, Adaptation Studies starts to encompass the element of creativity and the range of options available to the adapter. Similarly to translation theories which highlight the translator’s agency, the view that adaptation involves rewriting and reinterpretation also gains ground (cf. Aragay 2005; Hutcheon 2013; Venuti 2007). By virtue of such theories, it can be argued that in adaptation there is a distinction between obligatory and optional shifts similar to that in translation.

As noted in 2.1., early developments in Translation Studies were preoccupied with the dichotomy between ‘literal’ and ‘free’ translation. These two approaches were eventually viewed as two ends of a continuum with a gradual scale in between. In other words, a translation could be more or less literal or more or less free, rather than either literal or free. Vinay and Darbelnet (1958/1995) introduced two parameters which can point towards the literal or the free end of the spectrum, i.e. servitude and option. Servitude signifies obligatory translation shifts in the target text which result from the differences between the language systems involved; in contrast, option entails non-obligatory shifts which relate to the translator’s preferences and stylistic choices. By analogy, in adaptation, the changes between book and film (i.e. the adaptation shifts) may be obligatory, when they occur because of the intrinsic differences between book and film as coding systems, or non-obligatory, optional, deriving from the adapter’s style and creativity. Optional adaptation shifts signify the choices made by the adapter in order to communicate the source narrative by means of the meaning-making resources afforded by the cinematic code. Therefore, similarly to translation, adaptation involves ‘translational subjectivity’ (Loffredo and Perteghella 2006: 2), in that the adaptation manifests the adapter’s reading of and response to the source material.

As Doloughan (2011) maintains, the ways in which narratives are realised in different media depend on the capacities of those media and on the interaction between different modes within those media. More specifically, the different representation of narratives across media may depend on ‘a factor of mode (e.g. written or spoken), medium (e.g. print medium or screen) and the conventions of the genre (e.g. comedy or tragedy)’ (Doloughan 2011: 54). Book and film differ as media in many respects and are thus afforded with distinct narrative possibilities and capacities. Therefore, there may be adaptation shifts which could be characterised as borderline obligatory.

Nonetheless, film-making is also a creative process and the making of an adaptation is no exception. Hutcheon (2013: 84) notes that the creative transposition which takes place during a film adaptation largely depends on the adapter’s temperament and talent as well as on their ‘individual intertexts through which are filtered the materials being adapted.’ According to Hutcheon (2013), as adapter is meant the director and/or the screenwriter, who mainly undertake the task of adaptation, while the rest of the participants report to the screenplay. Cobb (2008: 285) assigns the role of the filmic text’s author to the director of the film adaptation, who is analogically juxtaposed to the source novel’s author. However, it should be noted that other agents involved in the adaptation also play a part in the reinterpretation of the adapted narrative. For example, the cinematic portrayal of the literary characters is dependent on the cast’s creativity and performance as well.

Apart from the meaning-making resources available to literature and cinema, aspects of co-text and context need also be taken into account in the analysis of adaptation. In Translation Studies, and, more specifically, in regard to the translation of multimodal texts, Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) note that both verbal and visual language express meanings that are context-dependent. Both words and images derive their meaning from the surrounding co-text and context. Arrojo (1998) points out that linguistic meaning is not a stable entity, as it is ideologically and historically produced and socially determined. In a similar vein, the meaning of images is determined by the beholder and within the sociocultural context in which the image is received. Therefore, it can be argued that there are similarities in the ways in which images and words make sense. As Leitch (2012: 90) argues, ‘many novels depend on images, either inscribed or implicit, and even more films depend on words, written as well as spoken.’ This statement highlights the inter-dependence of words and images, literature and film, adaptation and (audiovisual) translation. Such similarities can bridge the gap between the allegedly estranged repertoires of meaning-assignment devices of verbal and cinematic language. By extension, the tools used to analyse linguistic meaning and translation can mutatis mutandis be applied to the analysis of cinematic meaning and adaptation.

This brief discussion suggests that the changes observed between the source novel and the film adaptation result from the different semiotic capacities of the two media as well as from the creative element involved in adaptation. The following section discusses van Leuven-Zwart’s model of translation shifts, which provides the basis for the model for adaptation analysis put forward in this paper.

3. From translation shifts to adaptation shifts

As already mentioned, a long-standing debate in the early years of Translation Studies related to the distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘free’ translation. This gave rise to the study of translation shifts which consisted in the changes that take place between source and target text. Vinay and Darbelnet (1958/1995) discussed obligatory and optional translation shifts in relation to the parameters of servitude and option (as mentioned in 2.2.). Moreover, Catford (1965), van Leuven-Zwart (1989) and Hatim and Mason (1997) have all looked into translation shifts on various levels of grammar, pragmatics and style.

Among the models of translation shifts that have been developed in Translation Studies, van Leuven-Zwart’s model (1989) has a strong potential for being applied to the study of adaptation because it offers concrete categories of shifts and examines them on a micro-textual and on a macro-textual level. In her model, van Leuven-Zwart established precise definitions of shift categories in order to describe and compare translations of literary texts. In addition, the model shows how shifts of the micro-textual level (i.e. semantic or syntactic shifts) affect the macro-textual level (i.e. the plot and the character construal of the story). As a result, this seems to be an effective tool in order to analyse the shifts between source novel and adaptation on a textual level (i.e. which aspects of the story have been adapted or not) as well as on a narrative level (i.e. what is the functionality of the adaptation shifts).

In van Leuven-Zwart’s model (1989: 154-155), translation shifts are examined on a semantic, stylistic, syntactic and pragmatic level. Moreover, the model links shifts of the micro-structure to the macro-structure of the text. Micro-structural shifts dissect the source and target texts in terms of grammar and semantics. On the other hand, macro-structural shifts apply to broader narrative units, such as characterisation and point of view. In van Leuven-Zwart’s model, the analysis of macro-structural shifts draws upon Systemic Functional Grammar (Halliday 1973) and examines how the interpersonal, ideational and textual functions are realised on the story level and on the discourse level of the narrative (van Leuven-Zwart 1989: 173). Therefore, this model lends itself to being adjusted for the study of adaptations, since these functions have also been explored in static and dynamic multimodal texts (cf. Baldry and Thibault 2005; Kress and van Leeuwen 2006; O’Halloran 2004).

Van Leuven-Zwart’s shift categories are identified against a common denominator between the source text and the target text. This common denominator is based on the denotative meaning of the examined word and is called architranseme (ATR). The ATR is a necessary condition in order for shifts to be identified (van Leuven-Zwart 1989: 159). The ATR can be semantic or pragmatic. Shifts apply to specific parts of source and target texts, i.e. the transemes, and are labelled according to the relationship between each of the transemes and the ATR (van Leuven-Zwart 1989: 158-159):

  1. If there is no difference between the transeme and the ATR, then there is a synonymic relationship between them. If each of the transemes bears a synonymic relationship to the ATR, there is a synonymic relationship between the two transemes as well; in this case, there is no translation shift.
  2. If only one of the two transemes has a synonymic relationship to the ATR, then there is a hyponymic relationship between the two transemes. This is a modulation shift.
  3. If both transemes bear a hyponymic relationship to the ATR, then there is a relationship of contrast between the transemes. In this case, there is a modification shift.
  4. If no relationship can be established between the two transemes, it means that there is no aspect of conjunction. When this happens, there is a mutation shift.

An accumulation of such micro-structural shifts leads to salient shifts in the macro-structure of the text, which covers the following:

[T]he nature, number and ordering of the episodes, the attributes of the characters and the relationships between them, the particulars of events, actions, place and time, the narrator’s attitude towards the fictional world, the point of view from which the narrator looks at this world. (Van Leuven-Zwart 1989: 171)

Nevertheless, van Leuven-Zwart’s model has been criticised as a cumbersome heuristics for shift analysis due to its level of detail and its complexity of shift categorisation (Hatim and Munday 2004: 31). The above-mentioned regarding the ATR and the shift types indicate that the model is quite detailed and that it bears a text-oriented focus. Contextual factors are not taken into account in the model and this seems to be an important limitation since both translation and adaptation are highly context-dependent processes, as already argued. Another problematic aspect of van Leuven-Zwart’s model seems to be the definition of the ATR as a tertium comparationis against which translation shifts are identified (Hatim and Munday 2004: 32). The tertium comparationis is seen as an invariant form of meaning, independent of both source and target text, which can assist the transfer of meaning in the translation (Munday 2012: 76). Identifying this ‘independent’ comparator implies a degree of subjectivity which is not taken into account in the model, even though subjectivity is inevitably involved in translation.

Despite the shortcomings of van Leuven-Zwart’s intricate model, it is worth applying this shift analysis to film adaptation because it can elicit concrete findings as to the changes that can take place in the transposition of a narrative from novel to film. To this end, one of the necessary adjustments is broadening the shift types so as to accommodate audiovisual texts and multimodal narratives. Transferring the configuration of shifts to the area of adaptation is a challenging endeavour because there are no tangible aspects of conjunction to identify (e.g. quantifiable shifts of grammar or syntax). This challenge can be tackled by abandoning the notion of ATR and by shifting attention to aspects common to literary and filmic narratives so that there can be an element of comparison between the two media.

The concepts underlying van Leuven-Zwart’s shift types can serve the development of a general model of adaptation that can be used beyond verbal translation. In other words, the adaptation model retains van Leuven-Zwart’s concepts of ‘modulation’, ‘modification’ and ‘mutation’ for the study of adaptation shifts but these concepts acquire a slightly different signification in the adaptation model. Modulation adaptation shifts encompass the idea that there is a conjunction between ‘source’ and ‘target’ but that some aspects of the adapted narrative are foregrounded or backgrounded. Modification adaptation shifts entail an element of contrast or contradiction, in the sense that shifts of this type usually change radically the narrative aspects examined; thus, modification shifts pertain to notable changes in the narrative. Finally, mutation adaptation shifts suggest that certain elements are absent from either the source material or the adaptation. All the above types of adaptation shifts can apply to both cardinal functions/kernels and catalysers/satellites.

4. Introducing a model for the analysis of adaptation shifts

The model presented in this section was derived after analysing adaptation in a small corpus of novels and films (Perdikaki 2016). It draws upon the theoretical affinities between translation and adaptation mentioned so far and approaches film adaptation as a modality of translation, with the source novel as the source text and the film adaptation as the target text. The model is designed as a methodological tool enabling a systematic analysis of adaptation as intersemiotic translation and has the potential to apply to other cases of adaptation (and translational processes, more broadly). The points outlined in section 3 form the basis for this model; the types of shifts explained above (i.e. ‘modulation’, ‘modification’ and ‘mutation’) are mapped onto narrative units which literature from Narratology and Adaptation Studies has shown that are common to both books and films. These narrative units are, namely, the plot structure, the narrative techniques, the characterisation and the setting. These are firstly presented in 4.1. and sub-section 4.2. discusses the different types of adaptation shifts.

4.1. Categories of adaptation shifts

Research in Narratology and Adaptation Studies suggests that the narrative units ‘plot structure’, ‘narrative techniques’, ‘characterisation’ and ‘setting’ are medium-independent and can be found in any form of storytelling. These narrative units are the descriptive categories in the adaptation model. Simply put, the descriptive categories of adaptation shifts are the following: Plot structure, Narrative techniques, Characterisation and Setting (temporal and spatial). The categories are capitalised so that they are distinguished when used as tools for shift classification. In the adaptation model, the shift types ‘modulation’, ‘modification’ and ‘mutation’ from van Leuven-Zwart’s model are mapped onto these categories. The configurations that emerge as a result are discussed in 4.2.

As Chatman (1990: 3-4) notes, ‘plot (the double chrono-logic), character, and setting are uniquely characteristic of Narrative among the text-types [and] occur in “shown” no less than in “told” texts.’ Chatman defines narrative as ‘an invention, by an implied author, of events and characters and objects (the story) and of a modus (the discourse) by which these are communicated’ (1990: 119). This echoes the premise of structuralist narratology, where the main distinction lies between fabula, i.e. the ‘what’ of the narrative, and sjuzhet, i.e. the ‘how’; the former is considered medium-independent, whereas the latter depends on the specificities of the medium through which the narrative is communicated (Herman 2004). Ryan (2004: 337) concurs that this ‘logico-semantic characterization of narrative is sufficiently abstract to be regarded as a cognitive universal’ and thus found in many media forms (see also Andrew 1984; Bordwell 2004; Chatman 1990; Genette 1980). This commonality between literature and cinema can be further evidenced in the fact that these aspects of narrative have occupied adaptation theorists as well. As mentioned in 2.1., Chatman (1978) and McFarlane (1996) have both looked into narrative chunks that can be omitted (i.e. the story) as well as the point of view from which the narrative is communicated (i.e. the discourse).

In the model proposed here, the descriptive categories Plot structure and Narrative techniques comprise combined what Chatman (1990) calls the double chrono-logic, i.e. the time during which the fictional events unfold (story) and the time during which the story is narrated (discourse). Plot structure refers to these fictional events, the story. Narrative techniques are the ways in which the events of the fictional story are communicated to the reader/viewer. The category of Narrative techniques subsumes the temporal sequence in which the fictional events are communicated and the method of presentation opted for in each medium in order to communicate these events. Put differently, temporal sequence looks into which event is communicated first and presentation examines the ways in which the story is communicated (e.g. through voice-over, just sequences of images or a combination of the two). Consequently, adaptation shifts can be observed in both of these two aspects within Narrative techniques.

The sub-category of temporal sequence includes Genette’s (1980) concepts of ‘order’ and ‘duration’ of narrative time. Certain definitions are in order here. Narrative time is the time needed to ‘consume’ the fictional story – regardless of the medium in which the story is communicated – and is different from story time, which is the time in which the events of the fictional story unfold (Genette 1980: 34). The order in narrative time is examined with respect to ‘connections between the temporal order of succession of the events in the story and the pseudo-temporal order of their arrangement in the narrative’ (Genette 1980: 35). In other words, order in narrative time depends on both order in story time and on the ways in which the events of the story are rearranged when communicated as a narrative. In a similar vein, duration in narrative time signifies the relation between the duration of the fictional events in the story and the duration of their communication in the narrative (Genette 1980: 35). Applying these concepts to the adaptation model, the shifts under the sub-category of temporal sequence in Narrative techniques refer to whether and how the film manipulates the order and duration of the fictional events communicated in the source novel. An elaboration of these adaptation shifts is provided further below.

As far as presentation is concerned, this is a term that Chatman (1990) uses in order to replace the often ‘too fraught with vocal overtones’ notion of narration (Chatman 1990: 113). In this way, he manages to subsume the diegesis favoured by discursive arts and the mimesis favoured by performing arts under the overarching notion of presentation. As a result, presentation is a concept that can apply to both literature and film in order to refer to ways of narrative communication. Moreover, Stam (2005: 35) points out that films both ‘tell stories (narration) and stage them (monstration).’ Verbal narration in films may be achieved by means of voice-over and/or film dialogue (Stam 2005: 35). Given that cinema is an audio-visual art, monstration constitutes part of the cinematic presentation by default. Therefore, in film adaptations, monstration replaces literary narration to a greater or lesser extent. What seems to be of particular interest is whether the visual narrative, i.e. monstration, is accompanied by verbal narrative or not in the film. This is essentially the distinction between modulation and modification types of shifts in presentation, as will be explained in 4.2.2.

The category of Characterisation refers to the character portrayals of the fictional story. Characters are the intelligent agents with whom the fictional world is populated (Ryan 2004: 337). It is worth noting that characterisation has been examined as an aspect which undergoes changes in audiovisual translation and, in particular, in dubbing, where the voice talents are asked to act out, and not merely reproduce, the target-language dialogues (Bosseaux 2015). Therefore, it is reasonable to include characterisation as a category of adaptation shifts, given that film adaptation involves a higher degree of performativity and a greater re-interpretive freedom.

Finally, setting refers to the world where the fictional events take place (Ryan 2004: 337) and it can have a temporal and a spatial dimension. This means that the category of Setting as used in this model includes the period during which events unfold, which encompasses socio-political and ideological conditions, and the actual place(s) of the action.

This sub-section presented a set of categories which can be used to classify the adaptation shifts in terms of plot structure, narrative techniques, characterisation and setting. These categories emerge as a result of conjoined theoretical viewpoints in Narratology and Adaptation Studies. The following sub-section discusses the specific types of adaptation shifts, that is, how ‘modulation’, ‘modification’ and ‘mutation’ from van Leuven-Zwart’s translation shits can be applied in the case of film adaptation. Relevant examples from the film adaptation The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004) are also provided to illustrate the denomination of the shift types.

4.2. Types of adaptation shifts

As explained towards the end of section 3, in the adaptation model, modulation indicates a shift which pertains to highlighting or playing down aspects of the narrative (i.e. plot structure, narrative techniques, characterisation and setting). In other words, these aspects may appear in the source novel but are emphasised or toned down in the adaptation. Modification refers to profound changes in adaptation; in this case, plot, narrative techniques, characters and/or setting change radically in the adaptation. Finally, mutation refers to the addition or excision of narrative units in the film adaptation.

4.2.1. Plot structure shifts

In the category of Plot structure, modulation has two types, i.e. amplification (an event is highlighted in the film adaptation compared to the source novel) and simplification (an event is downplayed in the adaptation). An example from the film adaptation The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004) can illustrate the distinction. The film is based on the homonymous novel by Nicholas Sparks (1996), which recounts the story of a couple, Noah and Allie, who meet a few years before World War II, separate and find each other again 14 years later. This story is narrated by an aged man to his female companion at a nursing home in an effort to restore her Alzheimer-affected memory. The reunion between Noah and Allie is included in both media. However, the film presents only some of the activities that comprise the ‘reunion’ event; thus, it simplifies this part of the plot. On the other hand, the film highlights the beginning of the romance, as opposed to the novel; thus, the film amplifies this event.

Modification in Plot structure relates to events that are changed in the adaptation, resulting in an alteration of the story in the film. Modification may occur in major events (i.e. McFarlane’s cardinal functions (1996) and Chatman’s kernels (1978)), or minor events (i.e. McFarlane’s catalysers and Chatman’s satellites (1978)). Arguably, when affecting major events, plot alterations may be more obviously registered. Alteration is the only sub-category of modification for the categories of Plot structure and Setting. In terms of Plot structure, mutation can have two types, i.e. the addition or the excision of events in the adaptation. The shifts in Plot structure are summarised in Table 1 below:

Plot structure










Table 1: Adaptation shifts in Plot structure

Shifts in Plot structure are closely related with those in Characterisation. Although interconnections between all descriptive categories are evident, the interplay between plot and characters seems to be especially prominent. This is further elaborated in 4.2.3.

4.2.2. Narrative techniques shifts

As already explained, the category of Narrative techniques complements Chatman’s (1990) concept of plot, in that it refers to the ways in which the events of the fictional story are communicated (while Plot structure refers to the events unfolding within the bounds of the fictional story). This category includes two further sub-categories, namely temporal sequence (i.e. the narrative time of the story) and presentation (i.e. the means of communicating the story).

Adaptation shifts in Narrative techniques supply the following configurations. With regard to temporal sequence, modulation pertains to the duration of events. In other words, modulation shifts in temporal sequence refer to manipulation of the duration of the communicated story event. In particular, the duration may be prolonged, in which case there is a pause (Genette 1980: 93), or abridged, in which case there is an ellipsis (Genette 1980: 93). In the above example from The Notebook, in the film adaptation there seems to be a pause at the beginning of Noah and Allie’s relationship; on the other hand, there is an ellipsis at their reunion, compared to the source novel.

Modification in temporal sequence in Narrative techniques relates to the order in which the story events are communicated. Modification shifts may result in analepses (i.e. flashbacks) or prolepses (i.e. flash-forwards). These shifts change the way in which the story is communicated in the adaptation and can have an impact on the audience’s understanding and experience of the narrative. Such modification shifts abound in The Notebook, which frequently switches from the narrative present to the past and back to the present again. Mutation in Narrative techniques depends on Plot structure mutation shifts: where events are added/excised, the temporal sequence is affected accordingly.

Shifts in the presentation sub-category of Narrative techniques concern changes to the mode of communication of the story. Put differently, what is examined here is whether the verbal narration of the source novel remains as such in the film or whether it is replaced by visual narration. Of course, as pointed out above, monstration, i.e. the deployment of visuals, is inherent in the cinematic mode. Therefore, even when an event is part of the verbal narrative of the film adaptation, it is also accompanied by a degree of monstration by default. What is of interest here is the way in which the verbal and the visual modes interact and the implications of this interaction for the meaning-making processes in the adaptation.

In presentation, the terms modulation and modification signify what happens to narrative chunks of the source novel: if they remain part of the narration in the film (incorporated either in voice-over or in film dialogues), a modulation shift occurs; on the other hand, if they are directly shown, a modification shift occurs. Modulation indicates that the verbal narration of the novel is rendered with verbal narration in the film: events that are communicated via first-person or third-person narration in the book are conveyed through voice-over and/or film dialogue in the film. A shift in presentation is a modulation shift when the majority of the event is communicated via narration (as part of voice-over or dialogue). For instance, in The Notebook, much of the novel’s narration describing the daily routine in the nursing home is incorporated as voice-over in the film adaptation. It is worth noting that verbal narration in a film may include the music and the songs that are part of the soundtrack. Although an in-depth investigation into the functions of film music falls outside the scope of this paper, it needs to be noted that the use of music to communicate parts of the narrative can mean a modulation shift in presentation in the adaptation.

Modification in presentation in Narrative techniques occurs when the verbal narration of the book is rendered primarily with monstration (visual narration) in the film: events that are ‘told’ in the book are ‘shown’ in the film. In The Notebook, a modification shift in presentation occurs in regard to the argument between Allie and her parents. Noah and Allie come from different social backgrounds and Allie’s parents react to this relationship; this is the cause of the couple’s break-up. Allie’s argument with her parents is briefly described in the novel. In contrast, this is a very emotional scene in the film adaptation, where frustration and exasperation are conveyed through the characters’ intense kinetics and vigorous body language.

Similarly to mutation in temporal sequence, mutation in presentation depends on Plot structure mutation, i.e. the addition/excision of story events: events that are added/excised from the plot structure are similarly added/excised from presentation in Narrative techniques. Table 2 illustrates the adaptation shifts in Narrative techniques:

Narrative techniques

Temporal sequence


Modulation (duration: ellipsis, pause)

Modulation (narration to narration)

Modification (order: analepsis, prolepsis)

Modification (narration to monstration)

Mutation (dependent on plot structure mutation

Mutation (dependent on plot structure mutation

Table 2: Adaptation shifts in Narrative techniques

It would be expected that shifts in this category relate to the intermedial differences between literature and cinema and would thus come across as obligatory shifts (discussed in 2.2.). However, the adapter’s reinterpretation should not be overlooked either. For instance, in the above-mentioned example of Allie’s argument with her parents, the adapter could have opted for verbal narration conveying the argument via voice-over. Nevertheless, this scene is directly communicated to the audience and is one of the most intense scenes of the film.

4.2.3. Characterisation shifts

As already mentioned, Characterisation involves the character construal of the fictional story as well as the interpersonal relationships developing between the characters. Modulation in Characterisation has two types, i.e. amplification or simplification (similarly to modulation shifts in Plot structure). Put differently, aspects of character portrayals may be emphasised or played down. For instance, in The Notebook, the characters of young Noah and Allie are amplified in the adaptation. As mentioned in 4.2.1., Characterisation shifts are interrelated with Plot structure shifts, in that changes to plot aspects can have an impact on the portrayals of the fictional characters. This is the case in The Notebook; the adaptation places emphasis on the beginning of Noah and Allie’s romance (Plot structure shift) and, as a result, the young couple is emphasised as well (Characterisation shift). Of course, the link can work the other way round as well, that is, the fact that young Allie and Noah are portrayed as overly dramatic (Characterisation shift) leads to the amplification of the beginning of the romance (Plot structure shift). The interconnections between plot structure and characterisation appear to provide a link between aspects of the plot and indices proper (McFarlane 1996). As noted in 2.1., indices proper pertain to information around the characters and the setting and are usually changed in the adaptation (McFarlane 1996: 14). The interplay between shifts in Characterisation and Plot structure suggests that the manipulation of indices proper can lead to extensive changes in the plot structure.

Modification in Characterisation refers to pronounced changes in character construal. Modification shifts can signify the dramatization, objectification, or sensualisation of the characters. These shifts resonate with gender representation in book and film, an aspect salient in the genre of The Notebook (i.e. romance). Nevertheless, characterisation modification shifts can apply to male characters as well. It should be noted that character modification may include additional types of shifts when analysing other adaptation genres. In The Notebook, dramatization can be observed in the cinematic portrayals of young Noah and Allie: in the film these characters manifest overdramatic behaviours and emotional outbursts which are not encountered in the source novel.

Finally, mutation refers to the addition or excision of characters from the film adaptation. The Characterisation shifts are summarised in Table 3:














Table 3: Adaptation shifts in Characterisation

The reinterpretation of characters in an adaptation can also reveal the creativity invested by the makers of an adaptation, including directors, cast and crew. Examining characterisation shifts as they manifest in the adaptation text and as they link with other shifts can be telling as to the rewriting process involved in adapting a novel for the big screen.

4.2.4. Setting shifts

Setting is the time and place where the fictional story unfolds. Consequently, Setting can be examined in terms of a temporal as well as a spatial aspect. In both temporal and spatial Setting, modulation has two types, i.e. amplification and simplification (similarly to Plot structure and Characterisation). Put differently, aspects of the temporal and/or spatial Setting can be highlighted or backgrounded in the film adaptation. For example, The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004) often underscores the social overtones of the story, given that Allie comes from a wealthy family who does not approve of her relationship with a working-class man. Thus, the adaptation amplifies the temporal Setting. Modification results in an alteration of the setting. In the case of The Notebook, the story in the source novel is set in North Carolina, while the film alters the spatial setting and relocates the story to South Carolina. Finally, mutation signifies the addition or excision of time periods and/or locations. The adaptation shifts in Setting are summarised in Table 4 below:






















Table 4: Adaptation shifts in Setting

The category of Setting seems to be particularly important in adaptations set in a different era, as is The Notebook where part of the plot unfolds in the 1940s. The emphasis placed on Setting in these cases, which results in the concomitant adaptation shifts, relates to an effort to reproduce the bygone era as convincingly as possible so as to ensure the audience’s full immersion in the story world.

5. An evaluation of the adaptation model and suggestions for further research

The adaptation model proposed here can be used to examine film adaptation as intersemiotic translation from words into images. Theoretical insights from Translation Studies, Adaptation Studies and Narratology amount to the descriptive categories that comprise the model. These categories encapsulate narrative aspects which can be found in literary and cinematic narratives alike. This suggests that the model has potential for application to adapted narratives in general, given that plot, in its double chrono-logic, characters and setting are the cornerstones of storytelling.

The classification of adaptation shifts in the context of this model was enabled by adjusting van Leuven-Zwart’s translation shifts to the case of intersemiotic translation involved in film adaptation. The ‘modulation’, ‘modification’ and ‘mutation’ shift types as they are mapped across the descriptive categories of the model suggest that there is a continuum between more and less ‘striking’ adaptation shifts. Shifts may range from emphasising or playing down narrative elements (modulation shifts), through to profoundly changing them (modification shifts), all the way to omitting some or introducing new narrative elements (mutation shifts). Examining the adaptation shifts by means of this model can raise awareness of the different layers of changes that take place in the adaptation text. In this way, the focus moves beyond what needs or should be transferred in an adaptation, which has remained a central topic in adaptation research throughout the years. On the contrary, emphasis can now be placed on the new techniques and devices used to convey an existing narrative and to ‘embed difference in similarity’ (Hutcheon 2013: 170).

As already argued, obligatory adaptation shifts may be imposed by the inherent semiotic differences between book and film. Nevertheless, given the creativity involved in film-making and the collaborative nature of adaptation, it may be difficult to draw the separating line between obligatory and optional shifts. The model surpasses this conundrum and offers tools which enable a systematic study of the ways in which the source narrative is reimagined and rewritten through a new medium. Analysing an adaptation by means of the categories and shift types of the model can allow for an understanding of adaptation shifts on the textual level of the adaptation but also on the broader level of the narrative communicated by the adaptation.

According to Chatman (1990), a work of art should be seen as ‘a repository […] of already made choices, which can be considered as alternatives to other choices that might have been made but were not’ (Chatman 1990: 82; emphasis in the original). Literature and cinema have among others an aesthetic function which draws attention to an analysis of the manner of expression and how this is manipulated to communicate the informative content. The model for adaptation analysis proposed in this paper examines source novel and adaptation as creative entities which employ their own means in order to convey a similar yet different narrative. Leech and Short (2007) argue that creative arts need to be examined in regard to the reasons why a particular choice rather than another was made. Identifying the adaptation shifts in terms of types-within-categories is a first step towards pinpointing aspects of reinterpretation and recontextualisation in the adaptation.

The film adaptation The Notebook was used to provide some examples of the shift types included in the model. As mentioned in section 4, the adaptation model has been applied to a small corpus of novels and film adaptations (Perdikaki 2016). The next step would be to apply the model to a larger corpus and to different genres and adaptation types (e.g. TV adaptation, radio adaptation and novelisation, to mention but a few). Such application of the model can yield interesting findings as to whether the provided categories of shifts can be identified in other cases of adaptation and whether the model needs further adjustment so as to facilitate a broader applicability. Approaching adaptation as translation can thus enable a broader understanding of translational processes in different media and contexts of communication in the contemporary era of cultural production.


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About the author(s)

I completed my PhD entitled “Adaptation as Translation: Examining Film Adaptation as a Recontextualised Act of Communication” at the University of Surrey in 2016. My thesis examined the transfer of novel to film as a modality of translation. The main findings of the study pointed to the creativity and re-interpretive activity involved in film adaptation and highlighted the importance of adaptation and translation in the creative industries. In 2013, I was awarded an MA in Audiovisual Translation by the University of Surrey. Prior to that, in 2012, I obtained a first-class BA in English Language and Literature from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Currently, I teach Audiovisual Translation and Specialist Translation from English into Greek at the University of Surrey and I am a freelance subtitler.

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©inTRAlinea & Katerina Perdikaki (2017).
"Towards a model for the study of film adaptation as intersemiotic translation"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Building Bridges between Film Studies and Translation Studies
Edited by: Juan José Martínez Sierra & Beatriz Cerezo Merchán
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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