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The subconscious and conscious adaptation and evolution of literary stories

rebeccafarber's picture

Any story that we generate, whether it is written, spoken, performed – includes at least bits and pieces from stories that we have absorbed in the past. Our original works and stories that we create are products certainly of our imagination and hard work but also of accounts that we have previously absorbed, that have impacted us whether we know it or don’t. It is indeed possible to consciously model a narrative based on one that was produced before it, as Zadie Smith did in On Beauty with E.M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End as her model. The functionality of this practice is one that leaves little room for originality and flexibility, as evident by the somewhat confined ending of Smtih’s novel. On the subconscious level, however, I argue that somehow, a part of what we have read, watched, or listened to has stuck with us and is manifest in the work we create and the stories we later tell. In that respect, all of our stories are conglomerations of slices of the stories we have already heard, whether we knowingly choose to make them so or not.

Smith made Forster’s characters her own in every way, the first by adapting them to modern day rather than the era of 1910. Her story even begins with similar phrasing to Forster’s opening as the springboard for the rest of the novel. As Forster begins his story with: “One may as well start with Helen’s letters to her sister” (Forster, 1), Smith intentionally adapts this opening line with her own: “One may as well start with Jerome’s emails to his father” (Smith, 1). Redefining the context of the story she is about to begin that is based on what she has already read and absorbed, Smith opens with a pure indication that she is consciously and actively evolving the story of Howard’s End. In On Beauty, it is as though Smith has lifted the physical structure of a house with a crane and simply relocated it, placing it carefully in a different neighborhood. She has maintained the skeleton of Howard’s End, using it as a baseline of her novel and certainly as an inspiration, yet she gives Forster’s story her own meaning by redefining the characters and plot he once created. This represents Smith’s conscious decision to abandon original thought – which in the context of literary work is a fallacy since all work has at least some derivation from other literary pieces even if the author is unaware – and do so on an extreme level by creating an entire novel not based on her own conception of a plot, but rather on one that has already been written and celebrated.

The concept of unconsciously utilizing someone else’s ideas while creating a unique story ties in a lot with how our brains remember and what we choose to view as important. When I was in elementary school, it was my dream to become a writer similar to Judy Blume, my favorite novelist at the time. Her work was what I was familiar with, what entertained me, and what I loved. Day after day I sat in front of my sister’s computer and created my own characters that were ultimately similar to those of Blume’s. I put these characters in parallel contexts and they experienced like difficulties to those involved in Blume’s plots. My intention surely was not to plagiarize or copy Blume; I did not want to produce an uninspired or unoriginal work. Yet given this resource of her novels, I inadvertently used them as a model to create my own version of her stories because it was what I knew and appreciated. I claim that this unintentional yet inevitable magnetism to draw from works one has already encountered goes beyond just seeking inspiration. This was instead my innate adaptation of her storytelling that I built as my own distinctive story, and as my evolution to Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret came my interpretation of her characters in the format of my very own story.

Smith uses the template of Howard’s End to examine modern societal issues while staying faithful to certain aspects of the original book. A 1998 dissertation by Boston College’s Elizabeth Ann Blood examines the concept of “literary recycling” – a process she refers to as authoring, adapting and circulating stories. Dating back to the nineteenth century, far before Smith could possibly conceive the idea to adapt Howard’s End, Blood observes the concept of authorship and ownership of the original work as well as the purpose of this practice. “The creation of literary adaptations in the 18th century, what I call literary recycling, allowed authors to engage in critical public discourse about important social, cultural, and moral issues and to reevaluate traditions. One of the most consequential traditions being reevaluated by writers of adaptations was, in fact, the tradition of literary adaptation itself. Debates about literary appropriation, originality, plagiarism, copyright laws, and author's rights, punctuate each series of adaptations, revealing the fundamental preoccupation of 18th-century authors: the definition of authorship” (Blood).

Certainly plagiarism is a hot issue in academia, and there is a fine line of what is and is not plagiarism when a work has been adapted. The later evolved literary piece that resembles previous work (whether intentionally or not) must be definitively unique still from the original story. Still, there tends to be some controversy amongst readers as to what regards as plagiarism and what does not. A blogger posted in a recent entry that the opening of Smith’s On Beauty “is of course a plagiarism - sorry - homage to” Forster’s Howard’s End. So then how does one distinguish between an author taking an original work and deliberately choosing to make it evolve from an author simply lacking creativity? It is up to the reader and the critic.

Either an author can formulate a story by choosing to base it on one that has existed, or by using innate stored bits from stories. This is the drive of the evolution and continuation of story telling. “Stories have two types of evolutions: first, there is the evolution of the story itself, from idea to literary artifact; then there is the evolution of the artifact, as it leaves its author's hands to influence others or trigger other events” (Brame). Stories’ ability to evolve from each other lies within the generative nature of the story itself as well as the talent of the author and the author’s decision to adapt them.

Works Cited

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. New York: Penguin, 2006.


Forster, E.M. Howard’s End. New York: Dover, 2002.


Blood, Elizabeth Ann. “Literary recycling: Authorship, adaptation, and the circulation of

 the stories of Pamela and the Gambler in 18th-century Europe.”

Diss. Boston College, 1998.


Sandra. “The On Beauty Code.” [Weblog entry] Book World. 07 March 2006.


16 April 2007.


Anonymous's picture

on plagiarism and adaptation.

when does a piece of an adapted work become a plagiarised work.for instance, if the a celebrated african writer adapts a work from a westerner, but refuses to give due acknowledgements, can it be said to be a plagiarised work?

Anne Dalke's picture

From Adaptation--to Plagiarism?


I see you exploring some fascinating terrain here--and not being entirely clear about the topography. What intrigues me is the implied comparison you set up in paragraph one, between the sort of conscious adaptation that Zadie Smith engages in when she re-writes Howard's End, and the sort of unconscious adaptation you engaged in as a child, when you re-worked the novels of Judy Blume. You say that Smith's deliberative, conscious approach leaves little room for originality and flexibility; what I don't see you making is the counter-claim, that subconscious manifestations allow for less confinement. Do you want to make that claim, or are you deliberately ducking it?

I'm especially interested in your answer to this question about the possible contrast between the limits of conscious revision and the possibilities of unconsciously doing so, because of the very striking turn you take towards the end of the essay, when you begin to discuss that "hot issue in academia," plagiarism. You say simply that it's "up to the reader and the critic" to distinguish between a "simple lack of creativity" and the "deliberate choice to make an original evolve." But I think the framework of your essay suggests a more intriguing way to go about thinking about (at least some versions of what we now condemn as) plagiarism: as an unintentional borrowing that we-cannot-but-do, as we assimilate what we read. Perhaps much of the current "heat" around plagiarism has to do with a misunderstanding of the process of unconscious adaptation that you've been highlighting here?

Would you be interested in taking on this question for your final paper? Using your insights, and some further reading on the implications of the conscious/unconscious "loop" (Paul's written tons on this topic) to explicate a new, "less wrong" way that the academy and society might think about plagiarism? If so, you might also want to look @ these texts on plagiarism and ethics: 

  • Louis Pojman. "A Critique of Ethical Relativism." The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature.
  • Philippa Foot. "Moral Relativism." Moral Dilemmas: And other Topics in Moral Philosophy.
  • Gilbert Harman. "Is There a Single True Morality." Morality, Reason, and Truth