What is the Original? Literary Works in Constant Change Drawing on the Example of Jane Austen

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7




1 Introduction

2 Original and Adaptation
2.1 Adapting a Literary Work
2.1.1 Fan Fiction and Fan Culture(s)
2.2 The Original in Constant Change

3 Reception of Austen’s Work
3.1 Adaptation of Austen’s Work
3.2 Austen Fan Cultures
3.2.1 Lost in Austen as a Work of Fan Culture

4 Conclusion

5 List of Works Cited

1 Introduction

“It is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape.” With this sentence, that might seem quite familiar at first to those who are enthusiasts in the field of Jane Austen’s novels (or those who are simply freakishly talented in memorizing famous first sentences), the ITV series Lost in Austen opens the very first episode. Similar to the famous first words of Pride and Prejudice, but then slightly altered to fit the needs of today’s society, this beginning clearly states the connection to Austen’s work. In this four-part series, that will serve as the main example to illustrate my thesis statement, the protagonist Amanda Price accidentally finds herself trapped in the world of Pride and Prejudice, having changed places with Elizabeth Bennet herself. As a true fan of the novel, Amanda tries to preserve the original plot, not wanting to disturb the story as readers and fans know it, but through her sheer presence she alters the story unwillingly. Caught in a world alongside the characters she seems to know better than herself, she discovers new twists and turns and different perspectives to her favourite story. This series goes alongside many other adaptations of Austen’s works that emerged during the end of the twentieth and beginning of twenty-first century. All six novels of Jane Austen have been adapted for the screen, some of them even more than once. There is also a large variety of other adaptations of those novels (especially concerning Pride and Prejudice) in written form, on television, on diverse internet platforms or in film, which play with the story, change it, add things or take it to a different setting.

In the consideration of this variety of adaptations, I asked myself what this constant working progress on a literary work does to it and how it might be changed through this. What does it do to an original work, when it is constantly reread, revised, discussed, analysed and transitioned? To answer this question, I will start my thesis by exploring the relation between original and adaptation, where I will give an overview of the various ways of adapting techniques and show which role fan fiction plays in this. This will lead to an abstract on fan cultures, what they are and how they come into being. This first part will be concluded by a theoretical approach on how original works are in a constant change. The second part of this paper will study these concepts in the works of Jane Austen. Starting with a look at the reception of Austen’s novels, I will go on with an overview of why and how her work was adapted, followed by a chapter on the fan culture which focuses exclusively on her and her work. This part will then be concluded by tracing the elements of fan culture in the series Lost in Austen, to see how the changing process applies here and is furthermore shown on several levels.

2 Original and Adaptation

New adaptations of already well-known classics of the literary genre are popular as always and are still frequently demanded and developed. Fan cultures which develop around certain novels or films guarantee the popularity of a constant consideration of the respective subject, while the constant appearance of new material concerning the same story also ensures a growing popularity. The relation between original and adaptation can either be obvious or completely hidden for the uniformed audience and the question arises, what it does to an original work and its reception when it is revised on screen, sometimes more than once. An adaptation seemingly always needs the original as a starting point but with an increase of adaptations of the same original work, not only the original influences the adaptation, but also those other adaptations can have a mutual influence. The original might no longer be the only source of inspiration. Furthermore, a multitude of adaptations also influences the perception of the original work, as it is more and more connected to those other works and not only to itself. A closer look at adaptations will help to understand this connection.

2.1 Adapting a Literary Work

Adapting novels and other literary sources to a different genre, especially in film, is a popular way of creating new content and stories for the audience. The popularity and success of adapted screenplays is a given nowadays. The Academy Awards have an own category dedicated to adapted screenplays alone and since the mid-seventies even over half of the nominated films for “Best Picture of the Year” have been based on literary works (Parrill 4). Nevertheless, adapting a novel for the screen is a difficult task. If it is the first adaptation, screenwriters and producers have definitely more liberties when it comes to choosing the appropriate setting and actors. But if it is a well-known novel, a huge part of the future audience will also already have images in mind and the risk to disappoint is high. Even so when the possibilities of how to transition literary fiction into film are not limited to one way of doing it. According to Geoffrey Wagner, there are three main types of adaptation which should be considered. The first one is the transposition, the second one is the commentary and the third category is the analogy (222- 225). The transposition is marked through its direct approach that follows the novel closely without interfering too much with the actual content or intentions. The second category, the commentary, however will alter the novel slightly in some aspects so that “it could also be called a re-emphasis or re-structure” (223). The analogy, finally, just uses the original novel as a point of departure or a means to find the general idea. It should thus not be a reproduction of the original, nor does it violate the original story. An adaptation that is an analogy simply creates a new work of art through the inspiration of the novel (225). Regardless which of those three forms of adaptation one chooses, they all demand an intense study and analysis of the novel; therefore, an adaptation can also be seen as a work of literary criticism and is at the same time always an interpretation of the original work. Adaptations also can occur in different forms, the most common form being the screen adaptation, thus a film or a series. But adaptations in the form of a novel, a comic or a game are also possible. Even though this variety of types and forms makes it difficult to talk about adaptations in general, they all agree on some major features. It can thus be said, that every adaptation needs an original work from which it takes at least some main ideas. Moreover, adapting also always means interpreting the original work and can thus be seen as a work of literary criticism. Producers have to decide what they consider important since the material usually has to be cut in order to fit the time frame of a film. Decisions in the cast, costume and scenery are also part of this interpretation. This process of interpreting has lead to a variety of negative “[t]erms like ‘infidelity’, ‘betrayal’, ‘deformation’, ‘violation’, ‘bastardization’, ‘vulgarization’ and ‘desecration’” in the criticism of adaptations, which “imply that the cinema has somehow done a disservice to literature” since some things might be lost in the adaptation (Stam 3). But, as Bluestone states, “changes are inevitable the moment one abandons the linguistic for the visual medium” (5). Through the change of the medium from text to screen it is necessary to alter features of a novel like descriptions or inner monologues. Voiceovers can be used sometimes, but since film is mostly about showing (while the novel is more about telling) the most eloquent passages might get cut in order to create images that speak for themselves. Hence, it is almost impossible to adapt a novel exactly as it is but this change could also be seen as something positive that presents us with new creations. Film and literature hence do not need to be rivals; in adaptations we see how they can enrich each other.

A special type of adaptation is the fan fiction. Mostly in text form, these works arise from the ever-growing field of fan cultures and play an important role in the consideration of the original work and its changing process.

2.1.1 Fan Fiction and Fan Culture(s)

The rise of fan culture is a phenomenon which has gotten a lot more attention in the last decades, due to media coverage and the possibilities to connect worldwide via the internet. Therefore, it has to be considered here as well, since there is a close connection to the field of adaptation and of course fan fiction, which has its routes in fan culture. Just about forty years ago “[f]ans were characterized as extremely devoted followers that had an obsessive attachment to media stars or texts, stressing the fanatical part in the etymology of the word fan” (Zwaan 1). The term fan, being an abbreviation of the word “fanatic”, has its roots in the Latin word “fanaticus” which simply meant “of or belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee” but adopted also some negative meanings, “of persons inspired by orgiastic rites and enthusiastic frenzy” (Oxford Latin Dictionary 676). This negative connotation stuck and even though it shifted from the religious context to a broader spectrum, the importance of belief also stayed and fandom was hence mostly connected to madness and frenetic behaviour (Jenkins 12). But this rather negative image has changed over the years, thanks to several studies in the field of fandom (probably starting with Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992)), that pointed out the positive aspects of fandom and changed the public opinion about fans. But it is not only thanks to fan studies that fan culture nowadays is widely accepted and even appreciated, but also due to technical development and a growing usage of the internet. In organized, online-based communities, fans now find a place for exchange with like-minded people, no matter what minor fandom they are into. Through this rather organized fandom, interactions are growing, not only between fans but also between fans and the source of fandom. Fans are no longer only passive consumers, but rather active members in a participatory culture. It is first this active reading which Jenkins describes as “textual poaching” drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau. He calls it “an impertinent raid on the literary preserve that takes away only those things that are useful or pleasurable to the reader” that also shows an “ongoing struggle for possession” between readers and writers (24). But it is exactly in this will and possibility to participate, where the origins of fan fiction lie. Through this constant consideration and the constant exchange with others, fans become “an active audience that not only critically analyzes (sic!) the texts but also actively writes back, creating their own narratives to fill the plots, characters, and emotions they find lacking in the source text” (Busse 7). These texts are therefore usually also an excellent example for intertextuality since their content and meaning is shaped by the original text or adaptations thereof. In the case of fan fiction this intertextuality is not accidental or unintended, but rather something that is important for the creators of those works. Busse states that “[a]s part of their mediated authorship, fans emphasize and foreground the intertextuality of their creative work” (121). Fan fictions are thus also always adaptations of their original source, mostly in the way of a commentary or an analogy.

2.2 The Original in Constant Change

Literary works are always meant to be read. The longer such a work exists, the more people read it, speak about it, think about it, analyse it; privately as well as in scholarly contexts. Furthermore, mostly depending on its popularity, adaptations of literary works are a common practice, which grants an even larger recognition. But adapting practice and literary studies are not the only way of handling an original work. In the observation of fan culture, we also see how fans constantly work with their source of fandom. Whether they re-read or re-watch it over and over again, discuss it in communities with other fans or even create new content through fan fiction, the given material is in constant use. All those practices raise the question in how far an original work changes through a constant re-evaluation, discussion and other modes of following up. Not only the emerge of possible fan cultures, but also simply the duration of how long a work of literature already exists is important for the way it is seen and treated. To explain and show the fact that original works are in a constant changing process, we first must define what this change looks like. Some people might argue that a work of literature is never really changed unless maybe the original manuscript and all other existing copies are destroyed. This is of course true for the words and the text itself in its written form, but this literal approach to the concept of change (that can be found in books like The Eyre Affair) is not what is meant here.

The change which literary works experience throughout their existence is a more subtle one but still a massive and continuous one. Every piece of literature is read, sometimes purely for pleasure, sometimes for research and other scholarly purposes. And every reading brings a new perspective to the work, gives it a new meaning, since reading and the reception of a text is always subjective. Throughout this process of reception and interpretation the ownership shifts from the other to the entire audience, or, as Wiltshire formulates it: “Texts […] only partially belong to the original author: they are constantly being reworked, rearranged, recycled. […] that is the central motor of artistic development” (3). Whether we define this way of reworking as a purely intellectual process or as the process in which fan fiction is created, the idea is clear, even though it is not entirely new. Roland Barthes already stated in his essay on The Death of the Author, that the origin, hence the author, of a text is not important for giving meaning to it and the literary work and its creator should always be separated from each other. He declares that a constant linkage to the author limits the interpretations of a text and prevents the reader from an individual reading experience in which he can discover multiple layers of meaning: “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (124). The original work does not have to be connected to its author, but the individual reader can make every text their own through this disconnection and an own interpretation. Hence, the reading experience varies from person to person; for each individuum the same text might be entirely different. Taking this idea of giving several meanings to one text, thus subjecting it to a constant process of reworking, no piece of literature ever stays the same. No matter if it is within research publications, in public discourse or simply in casual conversations, interpretations of a text get transported and become an additional insight to a text for new readers for example. Therefore, each interpretation is usually influenced by already existing thoughts on the text and also by the existence of other text, creating an intertextuality. As Jenkins suggests, referring to Barthes, “all reading is essentially rereading as we draw upon cultural codes and social assumptions acquired through our previous encounters with other texts” (67). Consequently, not only the former occupation of others with a literary work influences the own reading of a text, but also our own experiences. This also includes a rereading of a text, since on a second or third reading of the same text, “interest shifts elsewhere, onto character relations, onto thematic meanings, onto the social knowledge assumed by the narrator: ‘reading is no longer consumption but play’ […]” (67). The original is seen differently with every reading and by every reader, hence it is changed.

Nevertheless, the changing process does not need to stop here. Especially in the case of a fictional text, the emergence of fan cultures brings a new level to this activity. The active participation and engagement fans show when it comes to their particular source of fandom, in vivid discussions, re-enactments or the creation of fan fiction, show a new dimension of change. Not only different interpretations and perspectives, but also the material of adaptations and newly invented material from fan fictions like possible background information or additional plot twists can shape a narrative. With all these possibilities in mind we find that the term “simulacrum” as used by cultural theorists like Jean Baudrillard describes this changing situation quite accurately. The simulacrum is here defined as a copy of something that had no original or that no longer has one. “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth - it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” (1). Baudrillard also connects this term to an absence of meaning and value by describing simulacra as empty signs referring to themselves, knowing “no longer […] the distinction between signifier and signified” (64). And this is where we find an excellent explanation for the changing process an original literary work undergoes. All these different interpretations, perspectives, discussions, adaptations and additional invented details form a text and shape it. We cannot read any text without at least some of this information in mind. The text, purely on its own, does not exist any longer. For example, reading a literary work that has already been adapted to a movie will replace some of the reader’s imagination with pictures shaped by the film. Also, a discussion about a piece of literature leads to a new perspective on this text. The original vanishes and only leaves a simulacrum.

3 Reception of Austen’s Work

Published over 200 years ago, the work of Jane Austen still enjoys a great popularity. Looking back at the time of publication, using the word “still” might not be quite accurate, regarding the fact that Austen was not at all well received in her own time. After waiting a long time to be published at all, sales numbers were still not high compared to other authors of her time (Jehmlich 4). The interest in her novels only grew in the middle of the nineteenth century and then again in the beginning of the twentieth century.

But Jane Austen is not only noteworthy in an academic context but also highly admired by a non-scholarly audience of readers. Between all the fantasy books and thrillers, this aging romance is still in demand nowadays. How can a work that has been published at the beginning of the nineteenth century, still be highly popular with today’s readers? All of Austen’s novels depict the society of her time, mockingly indeed, but still with all the manners, policies and behaviours of that time; patterns which do not apply anymore today. Not only is the life today different from then, especially the role of women as portrayed in the novels has changed drastically. Still, it is mostly women who admire the narratives of Jane Austen, even though they have next to nothing in common with the heroines depicted there, but seemingly the “simple love stories […] are still appealing, particularly to a female audience” (Parrill 3). To call the love connections that are made in Austen’s work “simple” might not be the most appropriate description, but the essence of that statement is still clear and points out the desire for love, pure and romantic, without the complications there are today, omitting the fact that at the time there were obviously other complications. But in these modern times of media, technology and endless possibilities, people develop “a nostalgic longing for the order and beauty of the past” (Parrill 6), therefore the popularity of Austen’s novels is still high with today’s readers.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


What is the Original? Literary Works in Constant Change Drawing on the Example of Jane Austen
University of Siegen
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Austen, Original, adaptation
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Anonymous, 2020, What is the Original? Literary Works in Constant Change Drawing on the Example of Jane Austen, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/541417


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