Adaptation vs. Appropriation: Shakespearean Platonic Forms

by mongrelgrim


There has been much discussion concerning the specific meaning and definition of the words adaptation and appropriation as they concern Shakespeare’s plays in various media. There is, of course, some general consensus on the terms. Adaptation is usually assumed to be something closer to Shakespeare’s original play, while appropriation is something somewhat further away. There are several misconceptions with this definitional relativity. The first, of course, is that the idea of ‘Shakespeare’s original’ is essentially void. The ‘original’ is a concept that is utterly bounded in time and place and can never be replicated exactly. The second misconception is one of spectrum. It is difficult (I would argue impossible) to set a definite point at which adaptation becomes appropriation. There is no single factor that determines whether a representation of a play is an adaptation or an appropriation. Dialogue, setting, plot, casting, wardrobe, music, etc, are all factors that inform this decision. To distinguish between these two terms, viewers must weigh various aspects of each production and, finally, make the decision for themselves.

A thorough examination of the adaptation vs. appropriation conundrum should include as many of these factors as possible, but a responsible (though perhaps less thorough) examination will include dialogue, setting, and plot. Two very different productions of Much Ado About Nothing will serve as example through which we can explore the distinctions between adaptation and appropriation. The first, Kenneth Branagh’s modern classic, is commonly accepted to adhere closely to the original work while the second, BBC’s Shakespeare Retold, featuring Rose Tyler, pardon, Billie Piper, seems to be much further from Shakespeare’s hypothetical original text.

The difference is dialogue seems quite obvious at first. Branagh’s version uses mostly Shakespeare’s original writing while the BBC version uses much more modern English. But this cursory examination doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Neither play adheres strictly to Shakespeare’s original script (or any particular iteration of that ‘original’ script), so why does one seem faithful and the other less so? Both plays, to varying extents, incorporate segments of the original Shakespearean text. So what creates our perceived difference in categorization? The answer is degree. The majority of Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is spoken in original Shakespearean dialogue, which goes a long way toward creating the perception of adaptation. The BBC’s Shakespeare Retold uses almost entirely modern English, only quoting Shakespeare as a sly metadramatic reference. So because Branagh’s production of the play is closer to what we consider the ideal, original, form of the play, it merits the term adaptation, while the BBC version, further out on this hypothetical scale, is an appropriation.

A second important aspect of a production is the setting. In the term setting, I am referring to the Cartesian point in time and space that provides the environment and informs sub-topics like wardrobe and music. In general, it seems that the closer this point of setting lies to the time and place of Shakespeare’s play text. In Branagh’s movie, the setting is largely analogous to Shakespeare’s play text. In the BBC Shakespeare Retold production, the setting is modern England instead of renaissance Italy. Given the modernity of the production, characters wear modern clothing instead of period pieces, they communicate by cell phone, work as news anchors, and drive themselves in automobiles instead of riding horses. The characters wear modern clothes and interact in distinctly modern ways (the scene where Beatrice is eavesdropping in the bathroom stall comes immediately to mind), which contributes to the perception that this particular rendition of the story is an appropriation, while Branagh’s is, again, an adaptation.

Finally there is plot. Plot, the events and pacing of the story, is perhaps the factor most critical to this discussion. It seems difficult to create either an adaptation or appropriation of Shakespeare. Both Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and the BBC Shakespeare Retold Much Ado About Nothing follow the same essential plot points. The return of Benedict, the clash between him and Beatrice, the marriage of Claudius and Hero, the matchmaking of Benedict and Hero, the perfidy of Don John, etc, are all plot points shared between both versions. However, just as in the previous examples, there are differences between the various expressions of Much Ado About Nothing. For example, In Shakespeare’s original work, Don John does not get demoted to a production assistant. Benedict does not shave a goatee for Beatrice. These differences are slight but they are important. We recognize the plot as Much Ado About Nothing even though it is not identical to the original.

So what does this mean? We have established that adaptation and appropriation are points on a spectrum characterized by the various factors that make up any given production. But the ostensible reference point, the zero point, Shakespeare’s original, is a myth. The various quartos, folios, prints, edits, etc, mean that there really is no ‘original’. Moreover, the reader/viewer perception of the original shifts from culture to culture, time to time, leaving the concept of ‘original’ even hazier. Both points (the viewer and the original) are entirely relative. Adaptation and appropriation are merely ways of describing the distance between person experiencing the work and the work itself. The original is not some dusty play text somewhere but rather an ideal in Platonic sense, some theoretical and improbable form that is mirrored variously in different mediums to different extents. The irony of describing the brilliance of Shakespeare via book 10 of The Republic is delicious; we can think of the difference between adaptation and appropriation as simply being the poet’s interpretation of an ideal form removed, more or fewer times, from the truth. The tipping point is not in any one factor or element of the play. Because the positions of both viewer and play text are so relative, the decision to label one expression of Much Ado About Nothing an adaptation and another expression an appropriation is largely up to the viewer and always open to debate