Is Consistent Meaning a Necessary Part of Adaptation?

October 2013

While we may never know exactly what the multitude of great writers throughout history were thinking as they transferred their thoughts to one of many written media, we may rest assured of one thing: they were communicating not just with their immediate audiences but also with each other. Humanity has been engaged in an ongoing dialogue for as long as it has been speaking. The truth we must face, though, is that any topic can and will age if we choose to dwell upon it for too long; for this reason, the writers throughout history have changed the subject on more than a few occasions. When we consider that adaptation represents the core of the ongoing culture dialogue, changing the subject might be considered the practice of altering a work’s meaning in the process of adapting it. In this way, an author may voice a different or even contrary opinion while maintaining the same conversational partner; the practice, then, is not a degradation of or insult to the original but merely another point in the same conversation.

Let us take as an example the chronically-evolving realm of the fairy tale. The modern collection of fantasy we regard as fairy tales constitutes the results of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years of tellings and retellings. Fairy tales likely began as simple stories communicated orally in early societies, their details altered gradually as time passed and orators changed. When written down, ideas continued to change, and this persists even now. For example, let us examine the classic tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.” In Charles Perrault’s interpretation, Red is a gentle, harmless, and easily manipulated child. When the wolf inquires as to her destination, she offers an entirely specific answer, allowing him to run ahead and take her granny’s place. As she runs down the path, she takes to “entertaining herself by gathering nuts, running after butterflies, and gathering bouquets of little flowers” (Perrault; 1). Not only is Red gullible, she is flighty and easily distracted. Upon encountering the wolf in his disguise, she “was at first afraid; but believing her grandmother had a cold and was hoarse, answered, ‘It is your grandchild LIttle Red Riding Hood…” (Perrault; 1). Again, Red fails to identify the blatant danger directly beneath her nose. In the end, the wolf easily makes a meal of the hapless child, yet Perrault still feels the need to include a dedicated moral, even going so far as to mark it as obviously as possible. To Perrault, children were wandering, empty-headed fools so prone to manipulation that the clear moral of the story needed to be spelled out. As we examine more modern interpretations of “Little Red Riding Hood,” on the other hand, we see authors appropriating the tale for their own uses, such as Roald Dahl, in whose version the previously delicate and helpless protagonist is now a mature and bloodthirsty killer, much more so than the wolf. Before ever being endangered, Red muses, “what a lovely great big furry coat you have on,” and “whips a pistol from her knickers.” (Dahl; 15). Her desire to take the wolf’s skin for a trophy and her proactive decision to arm herself both indicate that she entered the situation prepared for the violence that the original Red could never have anticipated. Rather than allowing herself to be eaten, she shoots the wolf before he gets anywhere near her. Dahl has turned upon its head the antiquated image of girls being helpless and children being naive; as he sees them, girls are willing and able to fight back, and children are now adapting to the violent world that once preyed upon them without the slightest hint of resistance. Roald Dahl has, in essence, replied to Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and others, retorting darkly that children of today are virtually unrecognizable from the children of a few centuries ago. Though time and death have spared early writers from witnessing Dahl’s response, the modern reader need not look very deep to discover a very clear dialogue spanning the centuries.

The implication is thus quite lucid to those studying adaptation: of the many elements that must be consistent across the various interpretations of any given work, the original meaning need not be one of them. In reading Dahl’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale, we have no occasion to deny the fact that it is “Little Red Riding Hood,” however distant it may be from any standing preconceptions of how the story ought to go. The young lady in red, the hungry beast, the trek through the wilderness, the repetitive banter, the undertones of sexual violence–all of these elements persist in Dahl’s adaptation. Dahl himself saw the connection, as he titled the piece “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” and editor who compiled The Evolution of a Fairy Tale: Selected Versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” clearly saw it just as well. To affirm the connection between these two renditions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” perhaps the best place to start is with Richard Dawkins’ original definition of a meme, the concept that has formed the backbone of most modern schools of thought surrounding the adaptation. Dawkins notes that “[a]t first sight it looks as if memes are not high-fidelity replicators at all… I have twisted them round for my own purposes, changing the emphasis, blending them with ideas of my own and of other people” (Dawkins; 4). It would seem as though, as far as Dawkins is concerned, a meme (a fairytale) need not consist solely of whatever set of ideas the original author injected into it; instead, a meme is anything than can be replicated. I would argue that the meme we see in the case of Little Red Riding Hood is simply manifest content. Dahl’s intent is not to warn little girls of the dangers that await them should they stray from the safety of the path, but we recognize his story as a take upon the classic fairy tale as it involves a wolf, a cottage in the forest, and of course, a girl in red. These elements are easily recognized and easily transplanted, making the author’s parodying intent clear. This, then, I shall posit: at the very least, an adaptation must retain at least one main character defined by characteristics or circumstances, a basic plot structure, especially with respect to the “start” and “end” points of character arcs. So long as these are maintained, other authors may alter and amend the story without forfeiting its integrity; thus, Dahl’s newly-introduced elements, however radical they may be, are permissible. At the core of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” we can plainly see the original story, even if this core has taken a backseat to Dahl’s own contributions.

Taking this into consideration, it seems that there may be no more to a story than the story, at least as far as “Little Red Riding Hood” is concerned. As Roald Dahl has shown us in practice, one may divorce the manifest content of a work from its latent content without divorcing it from its identity. What, then, does this mean for meaning? Nothing, really, I would posit. The meaning of the original piece need not suffer at the hands of an adaptation; after seeing the Blackadder version of “A Christmas Carol” in which the protagonist learns that being evil pays, one may still understand and appreciate the message of selflessness and cheer that Charles Dickens’ original story conveys. The writers of Blackadder presented their own message through light, tongue-in-cheek humor so as to gently remind the audience not to give it undue credence, thereby preventing confusion with the original message. Thus, one may adapt a story without its original meaning, and we should be very glad of this. If the message of a story never changed, the great conversation between writers over the centuries would grind to a halt, and that would be very dull, indeed.


Works Cited

Dahl, Roald. “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.” The Evolution of a Fairy Tale: Selected Versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Dawkins, Richard. “Memes: The New Replicators.” The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. N. pag. Print.
Perrault, Charles. “Little Red Riding Hood.” The Evolution of a Fairy Tale: Selected Versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.


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