I really love the idea of courses which combine trying to apply a body of knowledge to a practical problem with exploring why said practical problem actually poses intellectually challenging questions with no clear answer. I’ve mentioned before at the blog that I think the best possible way to teach a graduate seminar in a particular field of historiographical specialization would be to collectively build three syllabi in that field over the course of the semester: a survey course and two topical courses. That puts a useful constraint on what and how the seminar might read the historiography, but constructing syllabi also involves fascinating and intellectually challenging judgments: what kinds of scholarship is teachable? What do we mean by teachability? Does scholarship serve a function that is independent of its particular uses by particular audiences? Is there work we value that can never be used in a classroom, and what distinguishes it if so?
I’ve experimented with classes that are annotating primary documents, something that other faculty at Swarthmore have taken to a whole new level. Similarly interesting discussions arise out that kind of “applied knowlege”.
Another concept that I haven’t tried yet but which seems like a natural possibility is guiding students through the preparatory work that an author or producer might do if they were adapting a body of knowledge, a setting or a story for some kind of media besides scholarly publication. Say, what kinds of researched knowledge you might need if you were going to write a script, make costumes, find locations, fine-tune dialogue, craft audio, and so on for a film working with a particular historical setting.
Or, in another case, if you were going to debate and discuss what you’d have to do to successfully adapt a science-fiction novel to a film. Not actually create the adaptation, just figure out what the issues involved in an adaptation might be, what rules of preference for ‘adaptable’ works a group of students could generate and discuss and so on. This is probably yet another example of an exercise or a direction for a class that would define me as the advance guard of a barbarian horde dedicated to despoiling the noble traditions of disciplinary inquiry and serious scholarship. But honestly, you can study texts which exist and use them to raise the same questions: how does intertextuality operate? How do visuality and textuality interrelate? Are there cultural works which are so strongly native to one mode or form of representation that they have no plasticity, no room for reinterpretation or translation into other forms? Are specific technologies of representation necessary preconditions of some kinds of cultural work? It’s just that starting from the question, “Which books on this list do you think could plausibly be adapted into films, and what kinds of translating and interpreting would you employ in your favored cases” gives those discussions an interesting mix of open-ended contingency and practical concreteness.
Having to explore your reasoning for those kind of preferences is a really interesting exercise. For example, on the Register‘s current list:
John Scalzi, Agent to the Stars. This seems like an easy adaptation to me, and a highly viable one. But why? Some of it is Scalzi’s prose and dialogue: it already feels like a screen treatment in places. The pacing of the story fits the likely pacing of a standard commercial film. The premise isn’t complex, it doesn’t have a huge amount of world-building or backstory. On the other hand, stripped of Scalzi’s wit and the smooth readability of his prose, it could come off as derivative or familiar.
Stephen Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Well, maybe I’m inclined to think these books both unadaptable and unwise to adapt because I don’t like them much. But an assignment’s an assignment, so independent of my feelings, this is the classic kind of premise that creates a puzzle about the relationship between diegetic and extra-diegetic elements. In the best case scenario, that’s a goad to the creation of really amazing work that pushes at the boundaries of what cinema can be. In the worst case scenario, well, we’ve all seen epic fails in rising to this challenge. There are some existing films that work brilliantly with the basic construct at the heart of the Thomas Covenant books: The Wizard of Oz for one (the visual and narrative relationship between Oz and Kansas, but also Dorothy has Covenant’s dilemma in the sense that it’s important that she not accept Oz for what it offers, just without so much self-loathing, leprosy and rape).
David Brin, Kiln People. I think I might pick Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon instead for some of the same themes and mood of this Brin novel, but both of them strike me as readily adaptable and as being adaptations that could support a really wide range of visual aesthetics and thematic ambitions. Compare to the Scalzi: anybody who tries to make that a “heavy” text or as an occasion for visual invention is going to break what charm it has. But Kiln People or Altered Carbon have some thematic potency lurking inside the noir-ish mood.
Jack Chalker, the Well World books. Can’t see that these could be adapted as a single feature film, for a zillion reasons, ranging from the irreducible genre geekiness involved in their premise and style to the visual challenges to almost-Rule-34-invoking Chalker fetish about body-swapping to the convoluted plotting of even the relatively simple first book in the series. On the other hand, this strikes me as an insanely appropriate series for adaptation to a digital game, especially a massively-multiplayer persistent-world format.
Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love. As my uncle once put it, “Easiest book ever to summarize: an immortal guy has sex with everyone he meets, and then travels through time to have sex with his hot young mother. The End.” Here the premise restricts what it can be: too outre and Mary-Sueish to work as a story played straight, and made as a piece of porn that tries to hold on to a shred of narrative complexity, it would be at best a quaint period piece alongside “Dwarf Threesome Amateurs” and so on in the contemporary market.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy. Great text for thinking about how cinematic work handles (or fails to handle) world-building fictions. (Anybody who watched Game of Thrones this last week saw a case of a cinematic work really struggling and sometimes failing to surmount this obstacle.)