Re-imagining the Literary Brand




adaptation, promotional discourse, cinema, fiction, Andrew Motion, Steven Spielberg, children's fiction, media franchising

How to Cite

Rutherford, L. M. (2016). Re-imagining the Literary Brand. M/C Journal, 18(6).
Vol. 18 No. 6 (2015): re-imagine
Published 2016-03-07


This paper argues that the industrial contexts of re-imagining, or transforming, literary icons deploy the promotional strategies that are associated with what are usually seen as lesser, or purely commercial, genres. Promotional paratexts (Genette Paratexts; Gray; Hills) reveal transformations of content that position audiences to receive them as creative innovations, superior in many senses to their literary precursors due to the distinctive expertise of creative professionals. This interpretation leverages Matt Hills’ argument that certain kinds of “quality” screened drama are discursively framed as possessing the cultural capital associated with auterist cinema, despite their participation in the marketing logics of media franchising (Johnson). Adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon proposes that when audiences receive literary adaptations, their pleasure inheres in a mixture of “repetition and difference”, “familiarity and novelty” (114). The difference can take many forms, but may be framed as guaranteed by the “distinction”, or—in Bourdieu’s terms—the cultural capital, of talented individuals and companies. 

Gerard Genette (Palimpsests) argued that “proximations” or updatings of classic literature involve acknowledging historical shifts in ideological norms as well as aesthetic techniques and tastes. When literary brands are made over using different media, there are economic lures to participation in currently fashionable technologies, as well as current political values. Linda Hutcheon also underlines the pragmatic constraints on the re-imagining of literary brands. “Expensive collaborative art forms” (87) such as films and large stage productions look for safe bets, seeking properties that have the potential to increase the audience for their franchise. Thus the marketplace influences both production and the experience of audiences. 

While this paper does not attempt a thoroughgoing analysis of audience reception appropriate to a fan studies approach, it borrows concepts from Matt Hills’s theorisation of marketing communication associated with screen “makeovers”. It shows that literary fiction and cinematic texts associated with celebrated authors or auteurist producer-directors share branding discourses characteristic of contemporary consumer culture. Strategies include marketing “reveals” of transformed content (Hills 319). Transformed content is presented not only as demonstrating originality and novelty; these promotional paratexts also perform displays of cultural capital on the part of production teams or of auteurist creatives (321). 

Case Study 1: Steven Spielberg, The Adventures of Tintin (2011) 

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is itself an adaptation of a literary brand that reimagines earlier transmedia genres. According to Spielberg’s biographer, the Tintin series of bandes dessinée (comics or graphic novels) by Belgian artist Hergé (Georges Remi), has affinities with “boys’ adventure yarns” referencing and paying homage to the “silent filmmaking and the movie serials of the 1930s and ‘40s” (McBride 530). The three comics adapted by Spielberg belong to the more escapist and less “political” phase of Hergé’s career (531). 

As a fast-paced action movie, building to a dramatic and spectacular closure, the major plot lines of Spielberg’s film centre on Tintin’s search for clues to the secret of a model ship he buys at a street market. Teaming up with an alcoholic sea captain, Tintin solves the mystery while bullying Captain Haddock into regaining his sobriety, his family seat, and his eagerness to partner in further heroic adventures. Spielberg’s industry stature allowed him the autonomy to combine the commercial motivations of contemporary “tentpole” cinema adaptations with aspirations towards personal reputation as an auteurist director. Many of the promotional paratexts associated with the film stress the aesthetic distinction of the director’s practice alongside the blockbuster spectacle of an action film.  

Reinventing the Literary Brand as Franchise

Comic books constitute the “mother lode of franchises” (Balio 26) in a industry that has become increasingly global and risk-adverse (see also Burke). The fan base for comic book movies is substantial and studios pre-promote their investments at events such as the four-day Comic-Con festival held annually in San Diego (Balio 26). Described as “tentpole” films, these adaptations—often of superhero genres—are considered conservative investments by the Hollywood studios because they “constitute media events; […] lend themselves to promotional tie-ins”; are “easy sells in world markets and […] have the ability to spin off sequels to create a franchise” (Balio 26). However, Spielberg chose to adapt a brand little known in the primary market (the US), thus lacking the huge fan-based to which pre-release promotional paratexts might normally be targeted. While this might seem a risky undertaking, it does reflect “changed industry realities” that seek to leverage important international markets (McBride 531). 

As a producer Spielberg pursued his own strategies to minimise economic risk while allowing him creative choices. This facilitated the pursuit of professional reputation alongside commercial success. The dual release of both War Horse and Tintin exemplify the director-producer’s career practice of bracketing an “entertainment” film with a “more serious work” (McBride 530). The Adventures of Tintin was promoted largely as technical tour de force and spectacle. Conversely War Horse—also adapted from a children’s text—was conceived as a heritage/nostalgia film, marked with the attention to period detail and lyric cinematography of what Matt Hills describes as “aestheticized fiction”. 

Nevertheless, promotional paratexts stress the discourse of auteurist transformation even in the case of the designedly more commercial Tintin film, as I discuss further below. These pre-release promotions emphasise Spielberg’s “painterly” directorial hand, as well as the professional partnership with Peter Jackson that enabled cutting edge innovation in animation. As McBride explains, the “dual release of the two films in the US was an unusual marketing move” seemingly designed to “showcase Spielberg’s artistic versatility” (McBride 530).

Promotional Paratexts and Pre-Recruitment of Fans

As Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell have explained, marketing paratexts predate screen adaptations (Gray; Mittell). As part of the commercial logic of franchise development, selective release of information about a literary brand’s transformation are designed to bring fans of the “original,” or of genre communities such as fantasy or comics audiences, on board with the adaptation. Analysing Steven Moffat’s revelations about the process of adapting and creating a modern TV series from Conan Doyle’s canon (Sherlock), Matt Hills draws attention to the focus on the literary, rather than the many screen reinventions. Moffat’s focus on his childhood passion for the Holmes stories thus grounds the team’s adaptation in a period prior to any “knowledge of rival adaptations […] and any detailed awareness of canon” (326). 

Spielberg (unlike Jackson) denied any such childhood affective investment, claiming to have been unaware of the similarities between Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the Tintin series until alerted by a French reviewer of Raiders (McBride 530). In discussing the paradoxical fidelity of his and Jackson’s reimagining of Tintin, Spielberg performed homage to the literary brand while emphasising the aesthetic limitations within the canon of prior adaptations:

‘We want Tintin’s adventures to have the reality of a live-action film’, Spielberg explained during preproduction, ‘and yet Peter and I felt that shooting them in a traditional live-action format would simply not honor the distinctive look of the characters and world that Hergé created. Hergé’s characters have been reborn as living beings, expressing emotion and a soul that goes far beyond anything we’ve been able to create with computer-animated characters.’ (McBride 531)

In these “reveals”, the discourse positions Spielberg and Jackson as both fans and auteurs, demonstrating affective investment in Hergé’s concepts and world-building while displaying the ingenuity of the partners as cinematic innovators.

The Branded Reveal of Transformed Content

According to Hills, “quality TV drama” no less than “makeover TV,” is subject to branding practices such as the “reveal” of innovations attributed to creative professionals. Marketing paratexts discursively frame the “professional and creative distinction” of the teams that share and expand the narrative universe of the show’s screen or literary precursors (319–20). Distinction here refers to the cultural capital of the creative teams, as well as to the essential differences between what adaptation theorists refer to as the “hypotext” (source/original) and “hypertext” (adaptation) (Genette Paratexts; Hutcheon). The adaptation’s individualism is fore-grounded, as are the rights of creative teams to inherit, transform, and add richness to the textual universe of the precursor texts. 

Spielberg denied the “anxiety of influence” (Bloom) linking Tintin and Raiders, though he is reported to have enthusiastically acknowledged the similarities once alerted to them. Nevertheless, Spielberg first optioned Hergé’s series only two years later (1983). Paratexts “reveal” Hergé’s passing of the mantle from author to director, quoting his: “ ‘Yes, I think this guy can make this film. Of course it will not be my Tintin, but it can be a great Tintin’” (McBride 531).

Promotional reveals in preproduction show both Spielberg and Jackson performing mutually admiring displays of distinction. Much of this is focused on the choice of motion capture animation, involving attachment of motion sensors to an actor’s body during performance, permitting mapping of realistic motion onto the animated figure. While Spielberg paid tribute to Jackson’s industry pre-eminence in this technical field, the discourse also underlines Spielberg’s own status as auteur. He claimed that Tintin allowed him to feel more like a painter than any prior film. 

Jackson also underlines the theme of direct imaginative control:

The process of operating the small motion-capture virtual camera […] enabled Spielberg to return to the simplicity and fluidity of his 8mm amateur films […] [The small motion-capture camera] enabled Spielberg to put himself literally in the spaces  occupied by the actors […] He could walk around with them […] and improvise movements for a film Jackson said they decided should have a handheld feel as much as possible […] All the production was from the imagination right to the computer. (McBride 532)

Along with cinematic innovation, pre-release promotions thus rehearse the imaginative pre-eminence of Spielberg’s vision, alongside Jackson and his WETA company’s fantasy credentials, their reputation for meticulous detail, and their innovation in the use of performance capture in live-action features. This rehearsal of professional capital showcases the difference and superiority of The Adventures of Tintin to previous animated adaptations.

Case Study 2: Andrew Motion: Silver, Return to Treasure Island (2012)

At first glance, literary fiction would seem to be a far-cry from the commercial logics of tentpole cinema. The first work of pure fiction by a former Poet Laureate of Great Britain, updating a children’s classic, Silver: Return to Treasure Island  signals itself as an exemplar of quality fiction. Yet the commercial logics of the publishing industry, no less than other media franchises, routinise practices such as author interviews at bookshop visits and festivals, generating paratexts that serve its promotional cycle. 

Motion’s choice of this classic for adaptation is a step further towards a popular readership than his poetry—or the memoirs, literary criticism, or creative non-fiction (“fabricated” or speculative biographies) (see Mars-Jones)—that constitute his earlier prose output. Treasure Island’s cultural status as boy’s adventure, its exotic setting, its dramatic characters long available in the public domain through earlier screen adaptations, make it a shrewd choice for appropriation in the niche market of literary fiction. Michael Cathcart’s introduction to his ABC Radio National interview with the author hones in on this:

Treasure Island is one of those books that you feel as if you’ve read, event if you haven’t. Long John Silver, young Jim Hawkins, Blind Pew, Israel Hands […], these are people who stalk our collective unconscious, and they’re back. (Cathcart)

Motion agrees with Cathcart that Treasure Island constitutes literary and common cultural heritage. In both interviews I analyse in the discussion here, Motion states that he “absorbed” the book, “almost by osmosis” as a child, yet returned to it with the mature, critical, evaluative appreciation of the young adult and budding poet (Darragh 27). Stevenson’s original is a “bloody good book”; the implication is that it would not otherwise have met the standards of a literary doyen, possessing a deep knowledge of, and affect for, the canon of English literature. 

Commercial Logic and Cultural Updating

Silver is an unauthorised sequel—in Genette’s taxonomy, a “continuation”. However, in promotional interviews on the book and broadcast circuit, Motion claimed a kind of license from the practice of Stevenson, a fellow writer. Stevenson himself notes that a significant portion of the “bar silver” remained on the island, leaving room for a sequel to be generated. In Silver, Jim, the son of Stevenson’s Jim Hawkins, and Natty, daughter of Long John Silver and the “woman of colour”, take off to complete and confront the consequences of their parents’ adventures. In interviews, Motion identifies structural gaps in the precursor text that are discursively positioned to demand completion from, in effect, Stevenson’s literary heir: 

[Stevenson] was a person who was interested in sequels himself, indeed he wrote a sequel to Kidnapped [which is] proof he was interested in these things. (Cathcart)

He does leave lots of doors and windows open at the end of Treasure Island […] perhaps most bewitchingly for me, as the Hispaniola sails away, they leave behind three maroons. So what happened to them? (Darragh)

These promotional paratexts drop references to Great Expectations, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, Wild Sargasso Sea, the plays of Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard, the poetry of Auden and John Clare, and Stevenson’s own “self-conscious” sources: Defoe, Marryat. Discursively, they evidence “double coding” (Hills) as both homage for the canon and the literary “brand” of Stevenson’s popular original, while implicated in the commercial logic of the book industry’s marketing practices.

Displays of Distinction

Motion’s interview with Sarah Darragh, for the National Association of Teachers of English, performs the role of man of letters; Motion “professes” and embodies the expertise to speak authoritatively on literature, its criticism, and its teaching. Literature in general, and Silver in particular, he claims, is not “just polemic”, that is “not how it works”, but it does has the ability to recruit readers to moral perspectives, to convey “ new ideas[s] of the self.” Silver’s distinction from Treasure Island lies in its ability to position “deep” readers to develop what is often labelled “theory of mind” (Wolf and Barzillai): “what good literature does, whether you know it or not, is to allow you to be someone else for a bit,” giving us “imaginative projection into another person’s experience” (Darragh 29). 

A discourse of difference and superiority is also associated with the transformed “brand.” Motion is emphatic that Silver is not a children’s book—“I wouldn’t know how to do that” (Darragh 28)—a “lesser” genre in canonical hierarchies. It is a writerly and morally purposeful fiction, “haunted” by greats of the canon and grounded in expertise in philosophical and literary heritage. In addition, he stresses the embedded seriousness of his reinvention: it is “about how to be a modern person and about greed and imperialism” (Darragh 27), as well as a deliberatively transformed artefact:

The road to literary damnation is […] paved with bad sequels and prequels, and the reason that they fail […] is that they take the original on at its own game too precisely […] so I thought, casting my mind around those that work [such as] Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead […] or Jean Rhys’ wonderful novel Wide Sargasso Sea which is about the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre […] that if I took a big step away from the original book I would solve this problem of competing with  something I was likely to lose in competition with and to create something that was a sort of homage […] towards it, but that stood at a significant distance from it […]. (Cathcart) 

Motion thus rehearses homage and humility, while implicitly defending the transformative imagination of his “sequel” against the practice of lesser, failed, clonings.

Motion’s narrative expansion of Stevenson’s fictional universe is an example of “overwriting continuity” established by his predecessor, and thus allowing him to make “meaningful claims to creative and professional distinction” while demonstrating his own “creative viewpoint” (Hills 320). The novel boldly recapitulates incidental details, settings, and dramatic embedded character-narrations from Treasure Island. Distinctively, though, its opening sequence is a paean to romantic sensibility in the tradition of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1799–1850).

The Branded Reveal of Transformed Content

Silver’s paratexts discursively construct its transformation and, by implication, improvement, from Stevenson’s original. Motion reveals the sequel’s change of zeitgeist, its ideological complexity and proximity to contemporary environmental and postcolonial values. These are represented through the superior perspective of romanticism and the scientific lens on the natural world:

Treasure Island is a pre-Enlightenment story, it is pre-French Revolution, it’s the bad old world […] where people have a different ideas of democracy […] Also […] Jim is beginning to be aware of nature in a new way […]  [The romantic poet, John Clare] was publishing in the 1820s but a child in the early 1800s, I rather had him in mind for Jim as somebody who was seeing the world in the same sort of way […] paying attention to the little things in nature, and feeling a sort of kinship with the natural world that we of course want to put an environmental spin on these days, but [at] the beginning of the 1800s was a new and important thing, a romantic preoccupation. (Cathcart)

Motion’s allusion to Wild Sargasso Sea discursively appropriates Rhys’s feminist and postcolonial reimagination of Rochester’s creole wife, to validate his portrayal of Long John Silver’s wife, the “woman of colour.” As Christian Moraru has shown, this rewriting of race is part of a book industry trend in contemporary American adaptations of nineteenth-century texts. Interviews position readers of Silver to receive the novel in terms of increased moral complexity, sharing its awareness of the evils of slavery and violence silenced in prior adaptations.

Two streams of influence [come] out of Treasure Island […] one is Pirates of the Caribbean and all that jolly jape type stuff, pirates who are essentially comic [or pantomime] characters […] And the other stream, which is the other face of Long John Silver in the original is a real menace […] What we are talking about is Somalia. Piracy is essentially a profoundly serious and repellent thing […]. (Cathcart)

Motion’s transformation of Treasure Island, thus, improves on Stevenson by taking some of the menace that is “latent in the original”, yet downplayed by the genre reinvented as “jolly jape” or “gorefest.” In contrast, Silver is “a book about serious things” (Cathcart), about “greed and imperialism” and “how to be a modern person,” ideologically reconstructed as “philosophical history” by a consummate man of letters (Darragh).


When iconic literary brands are reimagined across media, genres and modes, creative professionals frequently need to balance various affective and commercial investments in the precursor text or property. Updatings of classic texts require interpretation and the negotiation of subtle changes in values that have occurred since the creation of the “original.” Producers in risk-averse industries such as screen and publishing media practice a certain pragmatism to ensure that fans’ nostalgia for a popular brand is not too violently scandalised, while taking care to reproduce currently popular technologies and generic conventions in the interest of maximising audience. As my analysis shows, promotional circuits associated with “quality” fiction and cinema mirror the commercial logics associated with less valorised genres. Promotional paratexts reveal transformations of content that position audiences to receive them as creative innovations, superior in many senses to their literary precursors due to the distinctive expertise of creative professionals. Paying lip-service the sophisticated reading practices of contemporary fans of both cinema and literary fiction, their discourse shows the conflicting impulses to homage, critique, originality, and recruitment of audiences.


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Author Biography

Leonie Margaret Rutherford, Deakin University

Dr Leonie Rutherford teaches in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University. Her research expertise includes: media practices of children and youth; television studies; multiplatform production, media policy; and influences of media on children’s digital literacy, health and educational outcomes. Her current ARC Discovery studies the ‘Ben10 problem’, the effects of saturation marketing on early childhood curricula. She has also written regularly on public broadcasting and children’s culture issues for The Conversation.