When storytellers decide to adapt an old story for a new audience, they must make an important decision: Is this for audiences who already know the story, or will this story function as a standalone?
Adaptations are highly successful partly because when the audience already knows the setting and characters, the new take is easier to sink into. There’s less ‘orientation’ work on the part of the audience member.
I recently read The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow, a new story which extends Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, focusing on Mary. I enjoyed it immensely, and also wondered if someone brand new to Pride and Prejudice would have got as much out of it. Pride and Prejudice is so widely popular that I doubt many readers of The Other Bennet Sister will have neither read the book nor seen the miniseries nor the movie. Because this story is for an adult audience, and because the hypotext is so popular, Janice Hadlow was able to assume familiarity with Austen’s original.
But what if we are adapting an old story for a child audience? No matter how widely loved the story, we can never assume a three or ten year old child is familiar with the older version. This is how Disney operates:
For at least one generation of children, The Jungle Book is the 1967 Disney cartoon, not a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, even if the film opens with an image of the book.
Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation
Likewise, young audiences of Frozen don’t need to have heard any Snow Queen stories in order to appreciate it. Another Disney example: the Disney adaptation of Peter and Wendy. Readers of the book and viewers of the Disney film experience two separate stories, as described below:
“When students know Peter Pan through Disney, they know a pretty scrubbed version,” Smith says. “The characters in J.M. Barrie’s play don’t know if Peter’s adventures are real. In the novelized version, he often went out alone and they never knew whether he had had an adventure because he might have forgotten about it, and they would go outside and find a body. This is a very jarring moment for them. I ask what does Walt Disney’s adaptation of Peter Pan say about how we view childhood now, as opposed to how it was understood in the early 20th century when Peter Pan was popular on the stage? You can’t fight Disney. You have to let him in.”
These two words come in handy when describing whether an adaptation serves a familiarised audience or a new one.
Retrospective adaptations reward audiences for any prior knowledge of the hypotext (or origin story). Retrospective adaptations offer a parallactic view of an older story. The audience sees the ‘same’ story through a different lens, or point of view.
There is a whole other, extra dimension that comes with knowing the adapted work, a dimension that makes the experience of reading a richly ‘palimpsestuous’ one, as we oscillate between the version of a story we already know and the one we are reading now.
Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation
Prospective adaptations can stand alone. Their relevance does not depend upon prior knowledge of earlier texts. Prospective adaptations can encourage audiences to investigate the hypotexts upon which they are based, but ‘full’ enjoyment of the adaptation does not depend on prior knowledge. Disney’s Aladdin is an example of a Prospective adaptation.
Highly successful adaptations work both Retrospectively and Prospectively, rewarding both a familiarised audience and a brand new one. When children’s stories get new adaptations, they are now able to work for a dual audience — with the adults already familiar with the older story, and with their children, who are not.
Retrospectively, an adaptation can reward audiences who possess prior knowledge through enriching their experience. The very same adaptations can also act Prospectively by making statements isolated from the hypertext and guiding newcomers to the original works.
The amulet and talisman are both charms worn on or near the body. They mean basically the same thing: Jewellery with magical significance particular to the owner or wearer. It might be something similarly portable, like a stone.
Charm powers fall into two main categories:
brings luck (auspicious)
averts evil (apotropaic)
Amulet comes from late 16th century Latin but talisman comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘magic picture‘.
For this reason, if a charm has a picture or an inscription on it, say, the names of the spirits, the Seal of Solomon or other mystical symbols, it’s more likely described as a ‘talisman’ than an ‘amulet’.
Amuletic and talismanic are the adjectives of amulet and talisman. Apotropaic is the adjective of ‘apotrope’.
Apotropes are specific kinds of amulets designed to ward off evil. The word comes from Greek and means ‘turn away’. This amulet features a protective symbol such as an eye. Eyes are thought to ward off the evil eye by staring right back at it. Or it might feature The Hand of Fatima.
Bigghes are ceremonial jewels worn by queens (the crown, garter, necklace, bracelet) and also witches. (See: Glossary of Witch Words)
The Bulla was a charm given to Roman babies. ‘Bulla’ means ‘bubble’ or ‘knob’. This was a sealed locket containing magic spells specific to the child e.g. symbols of protection or wishes for wealth. The Bulla was made out of leather or even gold, depending on the wealth of the family.
When Roman boys reached puberty they offered their bullae to the gods. Girls weren’t considered grown until the eve of their wedding, so kept it until then.
We can see a similar culture at play in a European fairytale such as Sleeping Beauty, in which the princess is given beauty at her birth (with a Deal With The Devil type trade off). Philip Pullman also uses a tangentially related concept in his Dark Materials series. In that case, the ‘charm’ is connected to a person’s character as well, forming its essence.
Liminality is all about between-ness. If you find yourself anxiously on the threshold of something, you may be in a liminal space.
A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.
betwixt or between…in a period of transition between states … [where individuals] are neither one thing nor another; or may be both; or neither here nor there; or may even be nowhere
Victor Turner, anthropologist
If you’re on one side of a boundary, you could be in a liminal space. You might even be straddling it. Not just boundaries, either: borders, frontiers, no-man’s-land, the out-of-bounds area of the school playground.
Perhaps it’s dawn or dusk — on the border between night and day.
You’re in some kind of transition. You’re between schools, between jobs, between friendships. You’re engaged to be married but haven’t set a date. You have a new partner but haven’t changed your socials status. Doubly liminal if you’re both sitting where land meets sea, contemplating ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ with a flower.
You’re waiting for what’s to come.
You’re where land meets water. Dark water. You don’t know what’s down there. You almost feel you’re a part of it.
You live on a docked house boat.
You’re climbing a fence. Or thinking about climbing a fence — in the preliminal phase of climbing a fence. You don’t know what’s in that thicket of trees on the other side.
You’re on the edge of a village, trees are getting thicker. You’re about to enter the forest… or your dark subconscious.
You live in outer suburbia, betwixt urban and rural worlds. Shaun Tan made a picture book compilation about that particular liminal space. “‘It opened into another room altogether… an impossible room somewhere between the others.”
You live between cultures — one subculture at home, another at school.
You’re no longer a kid but haven’t yet launched as an adult. You have your learner’s permit but can’t yet drive on your own. You’ve outgrown the little chairs but you sit at the kids’ table over Christmas dinner.
You are passing through a place ‘of transit, not of residence’ (theorist James Clifford).
You’re moving to a new house — a popular way to open a children’s book. Perhaps you live in a caravan park, and have this deep-seated feeling you’re living situation is something between permanent and temporary. You might be in a “hotel, a station, airport terminal, hospital and so on: somewhere you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary’ (Clifford).
You’re more likely to be in a liminal space if you’re in a children’s book and that children’s book is set in the city. In children’s stories, cities are often transitional spaces, of transit rather than of residence.
Examples of these places in children’s literature are numerous: Felice Holman’s Slake’s Limbo uses both the New York subway and the Commodore Hotel as central images; in Kay Thompson’s Eloise, the Plaza Hotel becomes its own imaginative sphere for its young protagonist; in E.L. Konigsberg’s The Mixed-Up-Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, the Metropolitan Museum in New York becomes the site for exploration. Cities themselves in the modern, literary imagination are places defined by transit, ambiguity, and arbitrary interactions between random individuals. Often, liminal urban places may be perceived as symbolic microcosms of the cities where they are located.
You’ve done something wrong, the community is throwing you out. You’re becoming an outcast. Your deputy principal is filling in the paperwork and you’re about to get expelled. You’re the black sheep of your family.
You are in the realm of the “thrice-nine kingdom”, the land of the living dead. This liminal realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead. (You’ll know you’re there because you’ll find a house on chicken legs.)
You’re not rich enough to afford a skiing holiday most of your friends are going on. But the poor kids think you’re rich.
You’re too beautiful to be human yet not quite a goddess. (Psyche had this same issue.)
You’re emigrating. This ship is your temporary home. (You’ve even brought your bird, with the birdcage functioning as symbol of a fully-contained house, in which you imagine you have all you could ever need.)
You’re having a rough time lately, alternating between hope and hopelessness.
You’re trying to read something interesting, but your mind keeps wandering as the text makes you think of related and tangential things. Things that upset you a little, or a lot.
You’re pregnant with your first baby. People are treating you like a mother but you’re not a mother yet. You actually have no idea how that’s going to feel.
You’re on an international flight and you haven’t readjusted your circadian rhythms yet and lunch arrives at a weird time. Between time zones, you’re neither here nor there. Doubly liminal if the world below is about to collapse due to an eco-crisis, as in this Helen Simpson short story.
You’re in the bathroom, standing in front of a mirror. You’ll never be able to touch one half of that space between you and your mirror-self. It creeps you out. Perhaps you’re a character in a horror movie.
You exist between the sacred realm and the profane (non-sacred). Tricksters exist here, as mythic projections of the magician archetype.
You’re transgender, gender fluid, in a quasi-romantic relationship, intersex, gender non-binary, queer, androgynous or somehow betwixt and between.
You see fairies. Fairies take many forms. They exist at any point on the spectrum of morality. But they tend to appear in liminal spaces, the inbetween spaces, when you’re on the cusp of something: manhood, giving birth, death.
Fairies are also ‘inbetween’ because people from antiquity neither believe in them nor disbelieve. Fairies (and related fantasy creatures) stand for what can never be truly known.
Liminoid — Another similar adjective to liminal. The liminoid has the characteristics of the liminal. But liminoid experiences are optional and don’t involve some kind of personal crisis. Graduation ceremony: liminal. Rock concert: liminoid.
Preliminal, liminal, postliminal — the stages of transition
Limen — a threshold below which a stimulus is not perceived or is not distinguished from another e.g. existing in the limen between X and Y
Double liminality — Purgatory is a liminal space in its own right, but many people don’t believe in it, making it doubly liminal.
Paracosmic realm — that space behind the big red curtain where you like to read. (Your name is Jane Eyre.)
WHY DO WE NEED THE WORD ‘LIMINAL’?
Why not just say ‘between’ or ‘border’ or any number of similar words plucked out of a thesaurus?
For starters, liminality contains layers, e.g. the doubly liminal concept of Purgatory. It’s hard to convey this layered-ness using other, more concrete words.
The painting below might depict a doubly liminal space — a train transports passengers from one side to another and it is also sunset.
Not everything that seems liminal is necessarily so. In a story, a beach may be depicted as a liminal space or, in contrast, it might be a place where the characters have fun and feel a sense of belonging. In that case, the beach is not being used in a liminal way.
Liminal space is special.
Liminality is all about ambiguity, discomfort, anxiety. A liminal space or a liminal creature is both familiar and unfamiliar — uncanny. (The dead can also be described in this way.)
Liminal situations are fluid, malleable and multi-layered.
Something feels weird here, but it’s never seen, never named and never known. People wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. This is the epitome of ‘liminal’.
If you’re in a liminal space you’re basically facing a moral dilemma. Your circumstance allows you to question social constructs. Which world do you want to be a part of? Once you’re in that liminal space you can choose to progress or retract, to take hold of freedom or remain in a state of metaphorical slavery.
In stories, this is the bit where the main character has a Anagnorisis, or makes a moral decision.
Liminal Times Of Year
In Early Modern English these times were known as the ‘reathes of the year’.
Hallowe’en or May Eve
Yuletide (the 12 days from Christmas to January 6th)
On the eve of any major feast
New Year’s Eve
The eve of your birthday
Liminal Stages of Life
The following are major social or physical transitions:
A liminal deity is a god or goddess in mythology who presides over thresholds, gates, or doorways; “a crosser of boundaries”, from Wikipedia
Sheila Egoff writes about a genre of children’s literature known as enchanted realism (similar to magical realism/fabulism) in which the child character explores an arena which is neither part of the real world nor part of the fantasy world. This might be a garden (Tom’s Midnight Garden), a wood (Enid Blyton’sThe Enchanted Wood), an old house or similarly familiar space.
Header painting: Charles Harold Davis – Outside the Village 1883
Literary impressionism centres on the following questions: Who am I and What is it all about? In impressionist literary works, themes are difficult to pin down because the reader is expected to bring a lot to the table. This is true of lyrical stories in general.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM
Charles Baudelaire’s poetry inspired the symbolist movement in literature, which communicated through symbolist subjects. The goal of symbolism was to convey the essence of a subject rather than reproducing it.
Impressionism produced new forms in literature: the prose poem and the psychological sketch. Emphasis is on how things appear — on the sense of sight in particular.
The modern lyrical short story is not a genre in its own right, but a natural consequence of literary Impressionism. The best examples of Impressionism can be found in short stories. Because of their length, short stories are better able to ‘paint an Impressionist picture’, so the Impressionist bits are more obvious.
GENERAL FEATURES OF IMPRESSIONIST LITERARY WORKS
Characters and settings are suggested rather than defined.
Impressionist works are all about the transient nature of reality and the complexity of truth.
They share this in common with many historians today:
Historians: All histories are fiction. Objective truth is illusory. Every narrative is a subjective product of its author and context, with no tangible bearing upon reality.
Historians watching any film remotely connected to their field: Well that never fuckin’ happened.
A few strokes capture the mood of the characters and the minute ‘objective’ details (which are actually subjective).
The personal impression of any experience is of greater importance to the Impressionist than any accurate description of reality.
Like an Impressionist painter she worked to convey the light and the shade, the overall impression or mood; details were altered, outlines blurred and places, people or occasions merged into a composite picture […] people were shaped and manipulated to fit the impression she wished to create.
Gillian Boddy of Katherine Mansfield, 1988
In Impressionism, a (homodiegetic) narrator tells a story which is fragmentary, seemingly objective, dramatic and indirectly suggestive.
Since Impressionist stories are all about indirectness, some kind of limiting point of view is best. The narrator has limited powers — everything is filtered via a focalising character. Two preferred limiting points of view (in third person) are narrated monologue and free indirect speech (also called free indirect discourse).
It is up to the reader to piece together fragments and come to our own conclusion about who this person is and what’s happening in the story. The character can’t see the full picture because they are stuck within the setting.
The narrative will emphasise the sensory and inner world of a character.
THE PARALLAX TECHNIQUE
Parallactic narration can be achieved when reality is described differently from multiple viewpoints. None of these narrators is omniscient — none of them has seen or understood the entire ‘story’.
Impressionist stories show us that characters (and therefore people) are conditioned by their environment and prone to distortion and misinterpretation. Unreliable, in other words. But this is not because they’re being deliberately deceitful. They are unreliable because they don’t quite understand themselves or their relationship to their world. This is how the character genuinely perceives reality. Remember the central questions of Impressionism: Who am I? How am I connected to my world?
Detail will look like ‘a flash perception of an outstanding aspect of the object’. In film, Terence Malick’s Tree of Life makes for an excellent visual example of how Impressionism looks in literature.
THE SUM WILL BE GREATER THAN THE PARTS
On their own, all of these details mean little. But they work together to create a symbol web, and only make sense once the reader has seen the whole story and stood back. Impressionist artwork works in the same way — stand too close and focus on any single brush stroke and the detail will seem random.
THE LANGUAGE OF IMPRESSIONISM
The prose is unabashedly purple. Early Impressionist writers were attempting to express everything to the last extremity and fix the last fine shade of mood and feeling. Subtlety is key.
But it wasn’t poetry. They were more interested in prose than in poetry. Prose was seen as a more inconclusive medium — the writer isn’t hemmed in by requirements of rhyme and metre. Prose is better to express feeling, reflections, comparisons.
But this prose was heavily influenced by poetry and is clearly aesthetically designed.
STORY STRUCTURE OF AN IMPRESSIONIST LITERARY WORK
Character and plot are enveloped in atmosphere. Every story function is conveyed indirectly.
Impressionist stories don’t have an elaborate finishing touch. This is to maintain across the entire story a narrator’s subjective, fragmentary impression of the world.
The main character really wants to know the ‘truth’ of human consciousness but if they realise anything long term, it’s that there is no ‘truth’ — only perceived fragments of highly ambiguous sensory stimuli.
At the Anagnorisis phase, the Impressionist main character is kept in the state where they want to learn the meaning of their experience but at the same time they’re unable to do so. Or they have a brief moment of clarity, but that is soon forgotten. We might call this anagnorisis illusory or phantasmagoric. An excellent example of this is “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield, but also a much more recent short story “In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson.
In Realism natural phenomena are generally described as they are commonly understood to be. But in Literary Impressionism the author simulates a sensory experience. This is presented with little additional information. Characters are not great noticers. They perceive their settings in momentary, fragmented pieces.
Because they know little about the bigger picture, they’re unreliable narrators. But not because they’re trying to deceive anyone — they really don’t know themselves very well. They’ve been shaped by their environment to the point where they can’t see that. They are unreliable because they are unable to sustain any realistic conception of themselves.
They tend to resort to fantasies and reality is distorted by illusion. Their false and incomplete data can contribute to a feeling of isolation in the world.
An Impressionist character generally faces a cognitive rather than a moral dilemma, and establishing the character’s background or history is, therefore, of little importance.
Although both Naturalist and Impressionist writers may pay a great deal of attention to details there is a difference in their use of it. Where the Naturalist tends to be comprehensive and complete, the Impressionist is highly selective. Where the Naturalist tends to give equal emphasis to a large number of details, Mansfield singles out the first detail that catches the narrator’s eye, the main impression on the particular occasion, and has the detail completely dominate the scene.
Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
Note that there’s a whole cluster of international art movements and definitions are often at great variance: impressionism, post-impressionism, realism, symbolism, modernism, symbolism, naturalism, imagism, dadaism, surrealism, expressionism, futurism and so on).
RESOURCES & FURTHER READING
Julia Van Gunsteren’s book Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
Beverly Jean Gibbs “Impressionism as a Literary Movement”
Header painting is Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise 1872 — the painting which led to the first insult which led to the reclamation of the word ‘impressionism’ as an art movement.