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Evolution of Intent

cevans's picture

The evolution of literature is seen in many ways, through modern use of classical references, through literary influences, and most obviously in adaptations. Within the range of evolution in literary adaptations is the evolution of characters, settings, language, plot, meaning, and intent. The authorial intent is the one aspect that must always change when literature evolves because it is the most deeply personal aspect. When the plot of a story remains recognizably the same but the message and meaning has been completely altered some people would say that the work was a bad adaptation. I say that it is a good evolution of the original work, that kind of adaptation is analogous to homologies in tetrapod limbs. A bats wing has the same basic structure as their ancestor’s yet they serve a completely different function. To me this is the biological equivalent as literary pieces with the same or similar plot points that are being used to convey different meanings. One story that has been adopted into several different medias and incarnations is Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 story The Little Mermaid.  

            The main themes in Andersen’s original story are self-sacrifice and religious dedication as shown by the mermaids longing for an immortal soul, whenever she is afraid or faced with pain in the story “she thought of the prince and the immortal soul”. The story was adapted into its most famous incarnation by Walt Disney in 1989. The Disney movie had none of the religion and a much happier ending which made it much more accessible to modern audiences. Although the plot is still recognizable as being based on Andersen’s tale the ending is completely different the message and the meaning unrecognizable and some people think that the movie should not even be considered an adaptation of the story but merely inspire by it. When you think about the adaptation in evolutionary terms however the movie was an incredibly successful and generative adaptation of the original story. As a direct adaptation the movie might fail, but as an evolution of the story adapted for fitness in a new and different environment the movie can definitely be seen as something successful derived from Andersen’s original story.

            As the times change it is not the structure of stories that needs to change but rather the ideas behind them. People, especially parents, in the one hundred and fifty-three years that have passed since the original work do not particularly see the importance of their children understanding Andersen’s religious moral or the importance of self-sacrifice while they do believe that it is good for those same children to see an uplifting musical about two people overcoming great personal difficulties so that they can be together. That is just a product of our modern times and so for the new environment the Disney version is very ‘fit’. The Disney version evolved the story to fit the environment by making the story more uplifting but other adaptations of the same story have done it in different ways.

            Rosa Guy’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid, her 1985 novel My Love, My Love adapts the story into a Caribbean fantasy story. She evolved the story by focusing on a topic that is relevant to the modern world, racial and class tension. Although all of the outward trappings of the Christian faith are removed, and even rejected as several major Vodun gods play a large part in the novel, the theme of self-sacrifice and the ultimate reward being found beyond the spans of mortal life is retained. Thematically then this novel is much closer to the original story in spirit than the Disney film although the Disney film is closer to the original in plot.

Which adaptation then is a ‘better’ adaptation, and which is merely inspired by the Andersen tale? Pulling my examples from biology again, the Disney story is something that shares lots of structural similarities but very few functional similarities, like a homologous evolution and Guy’s novel would be something that had less structural similarities but much closer functional similarity as in convergent evolution. Of course my metaphor is far from perfect but what I am hoping to show with it is the conclusion that both forms of adaptation are equally as valid. You can never say any form of adaptation is less valid than another just because it is more similar to the original, just as no one would ever say that in biological evolution so no one should say that in terms of the arts or literature. It is much more interesting and generative both in the arts and sciences to create something that is different than something that is identical. After all, the world already has Hans Christian Andersen’s point of view on a set of circumstances its much more interesting to get somebody else’s version of events. While the levels of artistic merit and popular appeal may vary among My Little Mermaid and all of its daughter stories all of those stories have a niche that they are fit for, and a different set of selection pressures that would determine popularity in those niches.  In evolution when you speak of adaptation you think of adaptive radiation and in literature, as shown with the example of The Little Mermaid adaptive radiation is a valid term to describe the process of adaptation.