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Evolution of medium and creative adaptation of ‘Journey to the West’

ZHAO MIN | 2022-05-12 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

File Photo: A scene from “Journey to the West” (1986 TV series)

From paper to film and the internet, each medium has left a place of its own for art, and the evolution of the medium has gone hand in hand with the development of art. Journey to the West [a 16th-century Chinese novel, based on the actual 7th-century pilgrimage of the monk Xuanzang to India in search of Buddhist texts] was present at the beginning of each medium’s artistic development. The story undergoes artistic innovations alongside the evolution of each medium. Namely, the cross-media artistic innovation of Journey to the West and media itself evolves concurrently. In each medium’s exploration of artistic discourse and forms, the cross-media practice of Journey to the West shows a similar pattern: from faithfulness to the original through continuous adaptation, a number of classic works have been created.

Three basic paradigms for the cross-media adaptation of Journey to the West have emerged in the 20th century. First, reproduction. Reproduction refers to small adaptations based on the original, which faithfully reproduce the structure of the original. Second, expression. Expression refers to the use and adaptation of a story within the framework of the original, with new discoveries and interpretations. Third, deconstruction. In deconstruction, the original text is the source and starting point of the story, but it is rewritten in a completely rebellious manner—from the external story to the internal structure and spiritual values.
Diversified innovation
In the 20th century, the adaptation of Journey to the West followed China’s modern development, putting an end to pre-modernity and situations in which the reproduction of opera dominated, ushering in the era of diversified innovation. In the first half of the 20th century, the expressive adaptation of Journey to the West, led by the renovated novel, forged ahead, and the 20th century’s rapid changes bred a new climate of unconventional and multifaceted creativity. It was not until the 1980s that CCTV’s TV show of Journey to the West emerged as representative of the creative adaptation. CCTV’s version goes back to the spirit of the original and injects a reforming discourse into it, marking the apex of classic adaptations, recreating classic values, and revealing the serious meaning behind it.
Faithfulness became the aesthetic standard for adaptations in the 1980s and 1990s, due to the success of a number of classics such as Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber. In the late 1990s, the first signs of a post-modern trend emerged with the film,“A Chinese Odyssey,” which changed the aesthetic standard of classic adaptations that had been in place for nearly two decades.
A subversive creative genre, the genre of deconstruction, emerged as a complete rebellion against the popular “faithful” view, and creative trends of artists deconstructing classic content to promote the text’s playfulness began to spread in the new medium of online adaptations such as opera, animation, film, and TV shows.
The creative adaptation genres of Journey to the West, in the 20th century, show a dramatic pattern of change and evolution: from pre-modern “faithful” recreations, to groundbreaking expressive rewriting, back to “faithful” recreations, and on to full-scale rebellious rewrites. The evolution of cross-media adaptations of Journey to the West resembles a pendulum swing, keeping pace with the evolution of the medium.
Adaptation generally occurs when new media art first becomes mature. In both European and American cinema, most of the works in their infancy are adaptations. 1927 saw the world’s first sound film, “The Jazz Singer,” adapted from a musical. The first film in China, “Ding Jun Mountain (1905),” was adapted from an opera based on The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Literature that could serve as material for new media adaptations had essentially become a highly developed narrative model. Journey to the West, a narrative classic in the history of Chinese literature, of course appears at the beginning of the history of Chinese cinema.
As a growing narrative art, new media art must emulate the narrative patterns of similar classics. In this sense, adaptation is a testing ground for the development of new media art, paving the way for new media art to be explored. Reproductive adaptation can be seen as a creative phenomenon that accompanies the initial stages of development in new media, both as a paradigm for the initial creation of art in new media and as a transitional stage when new media art fails to find its own exclusive form of artistic expression. In the absence of a corresponding media language and as a form of expression, reproductive adaptations from the initial period are very naive and basically rehash the borrowed material. Development of new media art experienced a longer trial period. It was during the process of adaptation that the differences in language within the new medium and other narrative languages were revealed. Since then, new mediums started to explore their own language. Take the innovation of film-based art as an example, the 1930s–1980s were an important period for creators of film adaptations to explore the differences between the language of images and the language of literature, and numerous creators and theorists researching adaptations emerged, such as David Griffiths and George Bluestone.
Innovative initiative
The discovery of cinematic self-awareness, and the language of cinema, has led to adaptations that are no longer simple copies of narrative language from borrowed material, but expressions in the language and form of new media. Adaptation has contributed to the development of new media art. From the perspective of adaptation as a separate art, the self-consciousness of new media has inspired a self-aware innovation in adaptation, leading to emerging creative adaptation genres, or “expressive adaptation.” Throughout the history of artistic adaptations both at home and abroad, a large number of expressive adaptations have emerged.
Throughout art’s history around the world, the 1960s to the 1980s represents the peak of cross-media literature adaptations. Numerous works in film, opera, and graphic novels are literary adaptations. Cross-media adaptations emerged as a new type of expressive creative work, and became a central topic in new media art theory during this period. Journey to the West also saw expressive adaptations during this period of time.
Take the field of film adaptation as an example. The center of the Chinese film industry during this period shifted from Shanghai, in the early 20th century, to Hong Kong, where the market stimulated the film industry’s rapid development and an unprecedented rise in creative filmmaking. Shaw Brothers Pictures International Limited’s adaptation of Journey to the West broke away from the original and injected new ideas into it, launching a series that pioneered expressive creativity in the history of Journey to the West as a film adaptation. Shaw’s film adaptations also set the trend for cross-media expressive adaptations of Journey to the West in subsequent decades.
After the launch of the first TV series Journey to the West in Japan in 1976, a number of film and TV adaptations followed this creative line, and this idea has been expanded to comic, animation, and game adaptations of Journey to the West. These established a general pattern of cross-cultural adaptations of the expressive genre, followed by South Korea, Europe, America, and Australia.
Creative adaptation genres not only differentiate in forms of representation, but innovate based on the initial reproductions and generate higher quality reproductions. In his book What is Cinema, André Bazin proposed an ontology of the image, arguing that cinema has a nature which is independent from other media formats, and that there are various ways of adapting it. At the same time, he also strongly advocates a non-purely cinematic adaptation.
This new paradigm of adaptation proposed by Bazin is in fact an updated version of “reproductive adaptation,” a complete restoration of the novel in the form of a film medium, which treats adaptation as a separate art rather than as a media transformation technique. The CCTV 1986 edition of Journey to the West is the pinnacle of reproductive adaptation. It fully invoke the nature of television images as a medium and, to a high degree, recreates the mythical fantasy world and the humanistic core of the novel.
At the stage when new media art gained independence and ontology, adaptation materials were no longer limited to formal resources for the growth of new media art, and the creation of adaptations was not a transitional stage in the development of new media art. Instead, it turned into an independent artistic field with its own internal requirements for growth and development.
The twentieth century was the age of visual images, and film and television were undoubtedly the dominant media. Cross-media adaptations were also subject to another rule—innovations were led by the dominant media, while other new media forms were influenced by it and followed the trend.
Changing cinematic narrative
In the mid to late twentieth century, new media not only became an ontologically independent artistic realm: as traditional media declined, the field of visual new media rose up against the odds. With its accessibility to the public and its efficient dissemination, new media became a field of pioneering cultural practices and a strategy and tool with which to voice new ideas. If, in the first half of the 20th century, new media completed its ontological search from technology to art, and formed a series of independent artistic rules, then, in the second half, the convergence of new media with postmodern media means that the central postmodern principles would lead media to revolutionize itself.
The language of the medium, narrative stereotypes, and the development of genres will encounter new challenges, and new postmodern rules will be implanted in a whole new experiment of new media art. Once again, Journey to the West became a testing ground for postmodern art in China, an experiment pioneered by the movie industry in Hong Kong, which generated “A Chinese Odyssey,” released in 1995, announcing the appearance of a whole new genre of creative adaptations of Journey to the West, the “deconstruction.” Deconstructive creativity not only led the way for online literary adaptations of Journey to the West, but also swept through other areas of Chinese art, becoming a creative genre that has remained popular since the late 20th century.
The creative adaptation of Journey to the West has evolved from reproduction to representation, and on to deconstruction, creating a path of change from fidelity to the original, independent adaptation, to rebellion against the original. The adaptation of Journey to the West accompanied the growth of new media in the 20th century, providing a vehicle for the development of new media art.
Zhao Min is from the College of Chinese Language and Literature, Fujian Normal University.
Edited by WENG RONG