Reflections from Media Across Borders: The Creative Potential of Adaptation

In an example of (super) slow blogging, I’m finally getting round to writing up my scribbles from the Media Across Borders conference that took place at the University of Roehampton in June 2012. This conference, which focused on cross-cultural adaptation of audio-visual content and brought together scholars and industry personnel, was the first event of the AHRC-funded research network of the same name. I much enjoyed the entire event, which is not surprising seeing as I’m always fascinated by, and readily drawn to discussions of, textual border crossings, whether the border in question is that of medium, nation and/or language. However, I should immediately disclaim that this will be no conference report as such – I’m afraid my mind is far too flighty and my handwriting too unintelligible – but rather some brief reflections on one really interesting ideas that I came across that day.

The idea in question emerged during one of the pre-conference workshops, titled ‘TV Formats: production and distribution’, and specifically the paper that opened the workshop, presented by Sylwia Szostak, who is currently finishing her fascinating doctoral research on Polish broadcasters and American television programming at the University of Nottingham. In her engaging talk, ‘Fiction TV Formats in Poland – Why Bother to Adapt It?, Sylwia argued that foreign players and scripted formats have proven instrumental in laying the grounds for the (re)launch of domestic Polish television series. Drawing on extensive interview research and considering a range of genres, she suggested how broadcasters in developing markets can benefit from international fiction formats in ways more profound than simply helping satisfy a growing demand for local production.

Niania (TVN 2005-2009), the Polish adaptation of US sitcom The Nanny (CBS 1993-1999).

The idea in question emerged during the workshop discussion following Sylwia’s paper, when I invited Sylwia to reflect on the importance of and opportunities for training in contemporary Polish television production, and whether a creative talent pool gets established by (in this case) scriptwriters getting the chance to develop and hone their craft. This is something I’m deeply interested in, and find too often and very regrettably absent from discussions of ‘how to get into the industry’. Sylwia here offered a very interesting idea, namely that undertaking adaptations (for example, Hela w opałach (TVN 2006-2007), the Polish version of Grace Under Fire (ABC 1993-1998); and Wszyscy kochają Romana, the 2011 remake of Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS 1996-2005)) is to be understood as a training period for Polish script writers. This, to me, is really intriguing. (Even more intriguing (or do I mean terrifying?) is the fact that Everybody Loves Raymond somehow managed to run for as many years as it did; but that’s for another blog post.)

Wszyscy kochają Romana (TVN 2011), the Polish remake of Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS 1996-2005).

There is a long history of anecdotes by comedian writers and performers about how they re-enacted their favourite skits and sketches when they were young (one recent example of this is The Office writer and actor Mindy Kaling in her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)), and how this benefited their understanding of comedy. However, the act of adapting (and included in this, to some extent, the acts of transcribing and translating), would be less readily seen as a creatively meaningful act, and in some ways lends itself to being dismissed as little more than repetitive imitation. This is partly because of the absence of the live performance, which is much more readily understood as creatively meaningful, and also partly linked to a wider cultural issue, and continual bugbear of mine, namely that translation is not fully enough recognised as the complex transformative process that it is.

Even with remakes that set out to stay close to the source text, the act of adaptation allows for an in-depth, active engagement with structure, dialogue and story-telling techniques. It is not surprising to find in ‘How to’ guides for aspiring comedy writers the advice to transcribe (here, to physically write/type out – a particularly interesting idea in the age of ‘cut and paste’) pre-existing comedy material, in order to develop one’s skill and craft. This is certainly something that will feed into my own critical and practical teaching of sitcom, come the new academic year. While my concern for the nurturing and training of creative talent continues, one of the many interesting ideas that I took from Media Across Borders is a reminder and affirmation of adaptation as a potentially deeply creative act – indeed, as a potentially creative re-enactment, and one that contains (albeit perhaps implicitly) the important recognition of analysis as a creative act in itself.

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