Posts Tagged ‘appropriation’

Many schools approach the Preliminary English Extension course in the same way: first, they select a “classic” text (anything from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen or a play by Shakespeare); then they introduce students to the idea of “appropriation” or “adaptation” by exploring texts that are based on or inspired by the classic or core text.

For example, my old school used Homer’s Odyssey as the core text and then everything from Virgil’s Aeneid (essentially the first fanfiction) to Margaret Atwood’s feminist Penelopiad and the Cohen Brother’s delightful film, O Brother Where Art Thou? to explore how context and values influence a text.

In the final term of the course, the students are faced with the daunting Term 3 Project, in which they must select their own “classic” (pre-WWII) text and at least two appropriations, to study. They also have to journal their responses to the texts and create their own appropriation, reflecting selected values within a given context.

The first, and most difficult, step is choosing the core text. Here are some suggestions, followed by an deeper analysis of one pair of texts.

Fairytales, think Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella. They’re easily analysed (most are explicit about their core value in the moral at the end) and have been frequently appropriated.

Shakespeare plays, think The Taming of the Shrew or Romeo and Juliet. The analysis might be a little more difficult but there’s a fair amount of scholarly writing around them already.

Arthurian Legend, think the Marriage of Gawain and Dame Ragnelle or Tristan and Isolde. These are fun and the appropriations range from retellings for children to ribald parodies.

Greek or Roman Myth, think Icarus or Oedipus. These have strong messages and have inspired lots of clever retellings, from operas to comic books.

If you’re not familiar with any of these genres, another approach might be to take a text you already like (your favourite novel, comic book, or film) and then find out if it was inspired by a classic text.

I recently read The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. The post apocalyptic society of the novel requires each District to sacrifice two young people each year to the Hunger Games, a brutal ritual somewhere between the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome and a reality TV show.

The sending of two young people each year to be sacrificed in an arena struck a chord with me when I first picked up the novel but my growing sense of something familiar was overwhelmed by the constant allusions to Rome. The city that rules the Districts is called the Capitol. The heroine, Katniss has a team of stylists: Cinna, Flavia, Venia and Octavia, all named after prominent Romans.

But then, just as Katniss and Peeta were boarding the train for the Games, I remembered why the scene and the idea was so familiar: Theseus. In the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, each year the city state of Athens is required to send seven young men and seven young women to the island of Minos to be sacrificed to the Minotaur as punishment for the death of a Minoan prince years before. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, the Capitol uses the games to punish the Districts for their former rebellion.

The challenge when selecting texts for the project is not to be tied down by a text type or genre. A good second appropriation for a project which centred on the myth of Theseus and then branched onto The Hunger Games could be anything from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream–where Theseus is the Duke of Athens–to the video game God of War–where, according to my husband, Kratos rips off the Minotaur’s head and wears it as a jaunty hat. The texts themselves can be just about anything, it is the focus on the context and values that influenced the creation and reception of each text.

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All three of my texts end with a relationship being firmly established. In P&P and B&P, this relationship is a marriage and this has been the goal, if not of the female leads then at least of their mothers, all along. Bridget ends up with her Darcy but, in the modern western tradition (begun, I think in Four Weddings and a Funeral), they are not married. In fact, they have not yet reached the committed stage of “moving in”. The values portrayed by this are clear: women need men, preferably men of high social status and great intelligence and it is up to the women to somehow catch these men regardless of the obvious initial indifference of both parties.

What if we changed the ending of on of the texts? The cultural pressure in both P&P and B&P towards marriage is perhaps too great to be disregarded but I think we can work with Bridget.

‘Come on,’ said Mark Darcy.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Don’t say “what”, Bridget, say “pardon”,’ hissed Mum.

‘Mrs Jones,’ said Mark firmly, ‘I am taking Bridget away to celebrate what is left of the Baby Jesus’s birthday.’

I took a big breath and grasped Mark Darcy’s proffered hand. Then I shook it firmly. ‘Thank you for all your help Mr Darcy but I’m afraid I have other plans.’ I smiled as both Mark and Mum gaped at me in astonishment.

Outside in the snow Jude, (no-longer-Vile) Richard, Shazza and Tom were waiting by the mini. ‘Come the fuck on,’ called Tom as I squeezed into the back of the tiny car.

Tuesday December 26

9st something, alcohol units lost count at twelve, cigarettes 0 (but one fat cigar), calories outnumbered by warm festive thoughts.

10am Woke in a hotel room in Paris. Little bit hungover but secure in the knowledge that Daniel, Mark, Julio and well-meaning but interfering parents are an ocean (well, a channel) away.

11am At itty bitty bistro on Left Bank with best friends. Have finally realised the secret to happiness, and it is with deep regret, rage and an overwhelming sense of defeat that I have to put it into the most cliche words in the English language: Be yourself and surround yourself with people who love you.

Next post: how does Bridget represent all five Bennet sisters?

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During discussion in class today a student asked, “isn’t that the one where they randomly burst into song?” He was, of course, referring to one of my chosen appropriations, the Bollywood film, Bride and Prejudice (see previous post for an example of a musical number from the film). This got me thinking about the links between the cultural context of a text, the values portrayed (and questioned) in the text and the narrative and stylistic conventions of the genre. Characters randomly burst into song because it is a Bollywood film, not because it is an appropriation of a Jane Austen novel.

Similarly, Bridget Jones chronicles her weight loss and gain and smoking and drinking habits as well as the ups and downs of her love life, not because she is supposed to be a modern Elizabeth Bennett but because she a single woman of a certain age. What she shares with Lizzy (and with Bride‘s Lalita) is the pressure to marry and to marry well. In all three texts marriage equals social mobility, something that is valued across the three texts and their cultures.

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Following the example of Dr Shann, I have decided to begin work on the Term 3 project being undertaken by the Preliminary Extension English classes. These journal entries will chronicle my progress and, hopefully, serve as a guide to the students who are tackling the idea of a learning journal for the first time. This is an important skill as it will be one of the major assessment pieces for those undertaking the Extension 2 course. My core text for the major project will be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the most popular of her completed novels but not, I must confess, my favourite. At least part of the ongoing appeal of this text has to be attributed to Austen’s construction of characters through dialogue and the technique of free indirect speech (which she pioneered). The two main characters, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett (or as I like to think of them Mr Pride and Ms Prejudice) still charm audiences with their wit two centuries after being written. This choice of text will also, of course, require me to not only reread the novel but to view the two most influential adaptations, the 1996 BBC mini series starring Colin Firth and the 2005 Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen effort

For my two modern appropriations I am considering the Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice and the novel by Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Both are very deliberate appropriations of Austen’s novel, in terms of character and plot. Both also transpose the characters and plot of the original into interesting and different settings that come with their own culture, values and narrative traditions.

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