Adaptation Is Not An Excuse: Defending the Criticism of Fiction

Part 2 of 3. Content notice for racial slurs.

The criticism of the idea that you can criticize fictional works tends to run along one or more of three veins, from most to least flimsy:

  1. It’s just fiction and exists merely to entertain. There is no need to take it so seriously.
  2. The adaptation of this fiction cannot be blamed for elements that are true to its source material.
  3. It’s fiction and is not meant to be a political statement / politically correct.

The second isn’t as flimsy as the first, but still doesn’t manage to delegimitize the practice of the criticism of fiction. The best recent example with which I have some familiarity comes from the new Constantine TV show. I found the second episode’s treatment of the Rroma/Romani/Rrom/Sinti peoples to be very much in line with the horrific oppression with which they are treated by society. Alex, as someone of Romany descent, has something to say about that. I will turn my focus to episode three, which addresses so-called “voodoo.” In the case of “voodoo”, as with “gypsies”, so far, I’ve found that Constantine punches down in a way that cannot be explained away via loyalty to the source material.

What most people know as “voodoo” is a religion that arose out of oppression. People of African descent who were brought to the Americas against their wills used their religious practices and beliefs as a way of resisting oppression. Unless you are a Christian hell-bent on characterizing all non-Christian faiths as demonic and Satanic, you have no reason other than the racism you have been fed to consider the religious practices that came from enslaved African peoples to be more inherently evil than those of any other religion.

And how so many of us have been fed. From theme parks to Disney films to music videos, negative and Othering fictional depictions are all most people know about so-called “voodoo”. Constantine feeds into this narrative by putting forth the claim that “voodoo priests” epitomize the worst traits of humanity.

The “it’s canon!” defenses of the racism are either than Constantine is an asshole that hates everyone or that the creators of the show are bound to the negative depictions found in the comics. In either case, the excuse is that the show is merely adhering to the comics and therefore cannot be criticized for its depictions.

Although the character of Constantine is a canonical asshole, he is the main character and framed by the show to be the expert in the supernatural. It is through him that we learn about the universe depicted in the show. Not a shred of his unreliability in personal matters is to be found in his spiritual ones. We have no reason to think that he might be lying or exaggerating when he says what he does about “voodoo priests” being the scum of the earth.

As for sticking to the canon, the show deviates from it in at least one significant way: it erases John Constantine’s well-documented, explicitly-stated bisexual behavior (if not outright bisexuality). Bi erasure aside, there is no way that some aspects of the comics were downplayed or played up in the creation of the TV show. Comics and television are distinct enough formats that choices have to be made in order to adapt from one to the other.

Adaptation always requires choices; there is no such thing as a fully-faithful adaptation from one medium to another. I’m guessing that the comics have more material than could be adapted into a few short episodes of a TV show. Why choose to not only adapt the most problematic depictions of the most oppressed people, but also to thoughtlessly mirror the oppression and begin the show with those depictions? That the show’s creators made those choices falls neatly into line with the racism in society.

Adhering to canon is not an excuse for adaptations to perpetuate the oppression found in society and mirrored in the source material. Creators can and should do better, but they only will if they hear from consumers about what we want to see. I personally am tired of seeing fantasy worlds serving up the same tired oppression that can be found in ours.

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Adaptation Is Not An Excuse: Defending the Criticism of Fiction
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8 thoughts on “Adaptation Is Not An Excuse: Defending the Criticism of Fiction

  1. Rob
    2

    I’ve been thinking about Constantine and how he’s been adapted and changed since you posted on Facebook and I want to expand on my thoughts. Saying that his racism is canon isn’t even technically correct. I said in your post that I don’t remember him being racist in swamp thing, where he first appeared. In the hellblazer story that Neil Gaiman wrote (called Hold Me), John actively shuts down a racist rant by a taxi driver and chooses to walk in the blistering cold than to listen to his shit. In the Sandman, the Books of Magic and other DC comics written by Gaiman, the character is sarcastic and brash, but not racist. I use Neil Gaiman because of his choose friendship with Moore who created the character. They wrote him how he is described.

    His biography on Wikipedia describes him as: Constantine is a working class magician, occult detective and con man stationed in London. He is known for his endless cynicism, deadpan snarking, ruthless cunning and constant chain smoking, but is also a passionate humanist driven by a heartfelt desire to do some good in his life.

    That’s the Constantine I enjoyed in the comics that I read him in. I think what happens though is the writers of hellblazer since have made him resist as an extension of his being abrasive and snarky. They are basically writing his racism as biting humor which doesn’t work and is contradictory to who he is. He’s supposed to be a flawed but ultimately good guy with hard edges, not a flagrant racist.

    And lastly, he lives in the dc universe which has all sorts of magic. It’s canonically erroneous to say that voodoo is inherently evil magic or that the magic of the romani people is the WORST of all because of the people he knows and has worked with / fought in the past.

  2. 3

    Well, I neither know the comics nor the TV adaptaion, but I have my 2ct on adaptation:
    Adaption requires interpretation, aka literary criticism FIRST. Nobody except very old high school teachers and people who have no clue about literature and literary criticism believe in the ONE TRUE MEANING anymore. Derrida has happened and there’s no way back. So did Foucault, Bordieu, etc.
    So you have to decide. You have to decide what to keep and what to throw out (especially with novels it’s almost impossible to stick to the source). You have to interprete the things you keep. You have to decide how to portray those things. Even if your protagonist is fuck racist, you can decide to show the people he’s being racist against as human beings.
    When talking about literary criticism, criticism of other media and criticise for example the gratitious use if rape and violence against women, the childish reply is usually “you’re just prudes, we’re only depicting reality (combined with “it’s not real it’s just a game”) etc” without those howling understanding that it’s not the depiction of sexualised violence as such that is problem, but how this is portrayed as either “just the way things are” or as having no further implications for the female characters (should they survive). There are depictions of violence, racism, etc. that are extremely well done because they show the horror people are suffering. Nobody is arguing against the inclusion of such elements. The question is whose perspective we’re seeing, whose take on the issues we’re getting. To use a blunt example: Nobody complained that “Schindler’s List” was antisemitic because it featured the Holocaust and depicted violence against Jews.
    Lastly, if your source material is so horribly bigotted that you can’t adapt it without perpetuating bigotry, just go and do something else. Really, there’s no lack of great literature and source materials for you to adapt. You don’t have to use that one book/comic/whatever. This is not censorship, it’s responsibility. At the end of the day you are responsible for your choices. If you choose a horribly bigotted source material over all the other possible alternatives and then remained true to the bigotry, the problem is you and you can’r weasel out of the criticism by pointing to the original material.
    I have removed books from my children’s collection. I don’t care if some of the are classics, or that some of them were gifts. I did not deprive them of anything. they still have more books than we can reasonably read together. There are books out there that foster acceptance and understanding, we can read those.

    1. Ed
      3.1

      I enjoyed your post and agreed with a lot of it (as well as the original article). A few points I’d like to make are:

      –There are cases where the racism is such an incidental part of the source material that it would be perverse to include it in an adaptation. For example in The Secret Garden there are racist remarks and assumptions in some of the conversation, but as far as I can recall none of this is essential to characterization and plot. It’s just a reflection of an unpleasant aspect of the author’s time period.

      An adaptation could alter or omit these statements without losing anything, so it should. I could respect different opinions on whether or not children should read the original book, but I’d say that if they do, their parents and teachers should explain that there were attitudes common in that time period that are unacceptable now because in many ways society has improved since then.

      –When the regressive attitude or behavior is more central to the work, there are different ways to approach it depending on the situation and maturity level of the intended consumers. An adaptation of Robinson Crusoe meant for a younger audience should probably ignore the fact that he was involved in the slave trade (he could have been involved in any business requiring sea voyages, and in fact did have other commercial interests), and downplay his prejudices against Spaniards and Native Americans very much.

      A version meant for adults and older teens could retain more of these elements, but should be sure to present him as a flawed character(which is actually how he presents himself in the narration). Be sure to emphasize that he feels guilty for his involvement in the slave trade and that his dislike of the Spaniards is a reflection of the rivalry between Britain and Spain going on at the time.

      Hint that if he can be wrong about one thing, maybe he can be wrong about others. Remember to be clear that when he became governor of a small colony for a time, he was fair to all his subjects regardless of nationality or religion. Be open about his prejudices, but don’t harp on them like the book does. When he renounces Catholicism and mocks Friday for his”pagan” beliefs, maybe make it an open question as to whether Protestantism is any better.

      In both instances, make Friday a more dignified character than he was originally (though he was quite admirable in many ways in the book).

      –Where it gets confusing for me is when there is an interesting story to tell, but there is no way to improve certain aspects of the characters and settings without completely rewriting history and culture.

      For example, it would be too much to demand that in order to be an acceptable hero a medieval knight must have attitudes that would make him a proper member of a liberal democracy. It would simply not be a reasonable characterization.

      Part of the purpose of stories set in radically different environments is to see the world from an unusual, sometimes challenging, perspective. Stories like this are interesting because they pose the question as to how much human goodness can develop even in a setting that encourages much of the worst of human nature.

      But to the extent that someone is presented as heroic, I’d like them to at least avoid the worst excesses of their society’s vices. Also eras that are often glamorized can be presented critically while still making the characters sympathetic. Many post-WWII Japanese directors from Kurusawa on did this with the samurai era.

      –When it comes to Lord of the Rings, I have to confess that while I’m not a Tolkein fanatic, I like his invented world well enough that I’m glad they made relatively faithful adaptations of his major works even though many things in them are morally problematic. I may be wrong, but it’s just how I feel.

      With the Chronicles of Narnia, I don’t think anyone should try to adapt anything except the first three books (already done) and maybe others like The Magician`s Nephew that don’t involve the “Calormenes” who are horrible parodies of Middle Easterners. The handful of good Calormenes are almost equally offensive romanticized Orientalist stereotypes. There is simply no value in adapting those books.

      It is actually unfair to Lewis` reputation, as his actual views on race and non-Christian religions expressed in his non-fiction were much better, though still very flawed. In fact Tolkien took him to task for his fairly positive remarks about Islam. Lewis is so up front about his Christian allegory that I don’t really see it as all that problematic as long as it’s made clear that a person can disagree with the author but still like a story.

      1. For example, it would be too much to demand that in order to be an acceptable hero a medieval knight must have attitudes that would make him a proper member of a liberal democracy. It would simply not be a reasonable characterization.

        See, that’s where I think the “just leave it” point comes in.
        I’m a fantasy chick. 90% of my pleasure reading are fantasy and SF, maybe even more. There’s no lack of farmboy-turned-hero and medieval knight stories to go around. There’s no lack of adaptations of this. Just do something different for once!
        Personally, I’m sick and tired of the “but that’s how that world works” and “that’s how those times were*” excuses of racism and misogyny. It smacks more than a little of “I chose a setting were iI can be unashamedly misogynist/racist and you can’t criticise me for it”.

        *Most representations of “those times” are fucking inaccurate anyway. They portray those societies better in some aspects and worse in others, especially whe it comes to gender and race. White- and male-washed societies that never existed like that except in the heads of people who like their women white and submissive.

        1. Ed

          Yes, I actually like it when fiction set in historical or quazi-historical settings has heroes who aren’t part of the establishment. The farmboy turned hero, the bandit who joins the Samurai, the woman warrior, etc. I was mainly talking about my standards for when there is a hero who clearly is a member of the established warrior class of a feudal or imperial society. I would like him to be presented as a good person in a bad situation rather than the embodiment of a supposedly wonderful system.

          It’s especially fun when the well intentioned establishment character has to work with the peasants, rogues, etc. who are often his equals or superiors in real virtue and courage. Asian films are very good at doing this.

          1. Come on, the farmboy turned hero is by now no longer a subversive element but a fully-fledged trope 😉

            But I see the problem here: If you present a member of the establishment in a world that is horribly unfair, you cannot present them as a basically “good person”. That’s the “good person” from the perspective of the eternally privileged. Because ultimately such a character either rebells against the rules or he is still supporting and profiting from those injustices. To ignore that is to rose-tint those societies.

  3. Ed
    4

    Sure, the peasant hero is no problem for us, but upward mobility may be less popular in their own feudal society. 🙂 Not that it’s universally valued here, unfortunately.

    Have you ever read Jacqueline Carey`s Banewreaker and Godslayer? It’s a two-book series that inverts Lord of the Rings type epic with the Dark Lord character as an agent of progress and the Gandalf analogue as an agent of repression manipulating the various “good” states and peoples into support of a final purge of subversive elements. Your comments reminded me of it. It’s true that a lot of what.is presented as classic heroism is pretty creepy if looked at too closely.

    What I mean by a good person or character within a bad (or at least very ignorant) system would be someone with traits like honesty, courage and compassion generally recognized as virtuous across most human societies.

    You`’re right that the ultimate logical conclusion would be to either rebel or be corrupted. And, I would add, to be a very conflicted, tortured soul in the journey toward either end of the spectrum, which could have dramatic potential.

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