Adaptation, Intertextuality, and the Endless Deferral of Meaning


How to Cite

Shiloh, I. (2007). Adaptation, Intertextuality, and the Endless Deferral of Meaning: Memento. M/C Journal, 10(2).
Vol. 10 No. 2 (2007): 'adapt'
Published 2007-05-01

Film adaptation is an ambiguous term, both semantically and conceptually. Among its multiple connotations, the word “adaptation” may signify an artistic composition that has been recast in a new form, an alteration in the structure or function of an organism to make it better fitted for survival, or a modification in individual or social activity in adjustment to social surroundings. What all these definitions have in common is a tacitly implied hierarchy and valorisation: they presume the existence of an origin to which the recast work of art is indebted, or of biological or societal constraints to which the individual should conform in order to survive. The bias implied in the very connotations of the word has affected the theory and study of film adaptation.

This bias is most noticeably reflected in the criterion of fidelity, which has been the major standard for evaluating film adaptations ever since George Bluestone’s 1957 pivotal Novels into Films. “Fidelity criticism,” observes McFarlane, “depends on a notion of the text as having and rendering up to the (intelligent) reader a single, correct ‘meaning’ which the film-maker has either adhered to or in some sense violated or tampered with” (7). But such an approach, Leitch argues, is rooted in several unacknowledged but entrenched misconceptions. It privileges literature over film, casts a false aura of originality on the precursor text, and ignores the fact that all texts, whether literary or cinematic, are essentially intertexts.

As Kristeva, along with other poststructuralist theorists, has taught us, any text is an amalgam of others, a part of a larger fabric of cultural discourse (64-91). “A text is a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”, writes Barthes in 1977 (146), and 15 years later film theoretician Robert Stam elaborates: “The text feeds on and is fed into an infinitely permutating intertext, which is seen through evershifting grids of interpretation” (57). The poststructuralists’ view of texts draws on the structuralists’ view of language, which is conceived as a system that pre-exists the individual speaker and determines subjectivity. These assumptions counter the Romantic ideology of individualism, with its associated concepts of authorial originality and a text’s single, unified meaning, based on the author’s intention. “It is language which speaks, not the author,” declares Barthes, “to write is to reach the point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not me” (143).

In consequence, the fidelity criterion of film adaptation may be regarded as an outdated vestige of the Romantic world-view. If all texts quote or embed fragments of earlier texts, the notion of an authoritative literary source, which the cinematic version should faithfully reproduce, is no longer valid. Film adaptation should rather be perceived as an intertextual practice, contributing to a dynamic interpretive exchange between the literary and cinematic texts, an exchange in which each text can be enriched, modified or subverted.

The relationship between Jonathan Nolan’s short story “Memento Mori” and Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2001) is a case in point. Here there was no source text, as the writing of the story did not precede the making of the film. The two processes were concurrent, and were triggered by the same basic idea, which Jonathan discussed with his brother during a road trip from Chicago to LA. Christopher developed the idea into a film and Jonathan turned it into a short story; he also collaborated in the film script. Moreover, Jonathan designed otnemem> (memento in reverse), the official Website, which contextualises the film’s fictional world, while increasing its ambiguity. What was adapted here was an idea, and each text explores in different ways the narrative, ontological and epistemological implications of that idea. The story, the film and the Website produce a multi-layered intertextual fabric, in which each thread potentially unravels the narrative possibilities suggested by the other threads. Intertextuality functions to increase ambiguity, and is therefore thematically relevant, for “Memento Mori”, Memento and otnemem> are three fragmented texts in search of a coherent narrative.

The concept of narrative may arguably be one of the most overused and under-defined terms in academic discourse. In the context of the present paper, the most productive approach is that of Wilkens, Hughes, Wildemuth and Marchionini, who define narrative as a chain of events related by cause and effect, occurring in time and space, and involving agency and intention. In fiction or in film, intention is usually associated with human agents, who can be either the characters or the narrator. It is these agents who move along the chain of causes and effects, so that cause-effect and agency work together to make the narrative.

This narrative paradigm underpins mainstream Hollywood cinema in the years 1917-1960. In Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell writes:

The classical Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals. … The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem, and a clear achievement, or non achievement, of the goals. The principal causal agency is thus the character … . In classical fabula construction, causality is the prime unifying principle. (157)

The large body of films flourishing in America between the years 1941 and 1958 collectively dubbed film noir subvert this narrative formula, but only partially. As accurately observed by Telotte, the devices of flashback and voice-over associated with the genre implicitly challenge conventionally linear narratives, while the use of the subjective camera shatters the illusion of objective truth and foregrounds the rift between reality and perception (3, 20). Yet in spite of the narrative experimentation that characterises the genre, the viewer of a classical film noir film can still figure out what happened in the fictional world and why, and can still reconstruct the story line according to sequential and causal schemata.

This does not hold true for the intertextual composite consisting of Memento, “Memento Mori” and otnemem>. The basic idea that generated the project was that of a self-appointed detective who obsessively investigates and seeks to revenge his wife’s rape and murder, while suffering from a total loss of short term memory. The loss of memory precludes learning and the acquisition of knowledge, so the protagonist uses scribbled notes, Polaroid photos and information tattooed onto his skin, in an effort to reconstruct his fragmented reality into a coherent and meaningful narrative. Narrativity is visually foregrounded: the protagonist reads his body to make sense of his predicament.

To recap, the narrative paradigm relies on a triad of terms: connectedness (a chain of events), causality, and intentionality. The basic situation in Memento and “Memento Mori”, which involves a rupture in the protagonist’s/narrator’s psychological time, entails a breakdown of all three pre-requisites of narrativity. Since the protagonists of both story and film are condemned, by their memory deficiency, to living in an eternal present, they are unable to experience the continuity of time and the connectedness of events. The disruption of temporality inevitably entails the breakdown of causality: the central character’s inability to determine the proper sequence of events prevents him from being able to distinguish between cause and effect. Finally, the notion of agency is also problematised, because agency implies the existence of a stable, identifiable subject, and identity is contingent on the subject’s uninterrupted continuity across time and change. The subversive potential of the basic narrative situation is heightened by the fact that both Memento and “Memento Mori” are focalised through the consciousness and perception of the main character. This means that the story, as well as the film, is conveyed from the point of view of a narrator who is constitutionally unable to experience his life as a narrative.

This conundrum is addressed differently in the story and in the film, both thematically and formally. “Memento Mori” presents, in a way, the backdrop to Memento. It focuses on the figure of Earl, a brain damaged protagonist suffering from anterograde amnesia, who is staying in a blank, anonymous room, that we assume to be a part of a mental institution. We also assume that Earl’s brain damage results from a blow to the head that he received while witnessing the rape and murder of his wife. Earl is bent on avenging his wife’s death. To remind himself to do so, he writes messages to himself, which he affixes on the walls of his room.

Leonard Shelby is Memento’s cinematic version of Earl. By Leonard’s own account, he has an inability to form memories. This, he claims, is the result of neurological damage sustained during an attack on him and his wife, an attack in which his wife was raped and killed. To be able to pursue his wife’s killers, he has recourse to various complex and bizarre devices—Polaroid photos, a quasi-police file, a wall chart, and inscriptions tattooed onto his skin—in order to replace his memory. Hampered by his affliction, Leonard trawls the motels and bars of Southern California in an effort to gather evidence against the killer he believes to be named “John G.” Leonard’s faulty memory is deviously manipulated by various people he encounters, of whom the most crucial are a bartender called Natalie and an undercover cop named Teddy, both involved in a lucrative drug deal.

So far for a straightforward account of the short story and the film. But there is nothing straightforward about either Memento or “Memento Mori”. The basic narrative premise, consisting of a protagonist/narrator suffering from a severe memory deficit, is a condition entailing far-reaching psychological and philosophical implications. In the following discussion, I would like to focus on these two implications and to tie them in to the notions of narrativity, intertextuality, and eventually, adaptation.

The first implication of memory loss is the dissolution of identity. Our sense of identity is contingent on our ability to construct an uninterrupted personal narrative, a narrative in which the present self is continuous with the past self. In Oneself as Another, his philosophical treatise on the concept of selfhood, Paul Ricoeur queries: “do we not consider human lives to be more readable when they have been interpreted in terms of the stories that people tell about them?” He concludes by observing that “interpretation of the self … finds in narrative, among others signs and symbols, a privileged form of mediation” (ft. 114). Ricoeur further suggests that the sense of selfhood is contingent on four attributes: numerical identity, qualitative identity, uninterrupted continuity across time and change, and finally, permanence in time that defines sameness. The loss of memory subverts the last two attributes of personal identity, the sense of continuity and permanence over time, and thereby also ruptures the first two.

In “Memento Mori” and Memento, the disintegration of identity is formally rendered through the fragmentation of the literary and cinematic narratives, respectively. In Jonathan Nolan’s short story, traditional linear narrative is disrupted by shifts in point of view and by graphic differences in the shape of the print on the page. “Memento Mori” is alternately narrated in the first and in the third person. The first person segments, which constitute the present of the story, are written by Earl to himself. As his memory span is ten-minute long, his existence consists of “just the same ten minutes, over and over again” (Nolan, 187). Fully aware of the impending fading away of memory, Earl’s present-version self leaves notes to his future-version self, in an effort to situate him in time and space and to motivate him to the final action of revenge.

The literary device of alternating points of view formally subverts the notion of identity as a stable unity. Paradoxically, rather than setting him apart from the rest of us, Earl’s brain damage foregrounds his similarity. “Every man is broken into twenty-four-hour fractions,” observes Earl, comforting his future self by affirming his basic humanity, “Your problem is a little more acute, maybe, but fundamentally the same thing” (Nolan, 189). His observation echoes Beckett’s description of the individual as “the seat of a constant process of decantation … to the vessel containing the fluid of past time” (Beckett, 4-5). Identity, suggests Jonathan Nolan, following Beckett, among other things, is a theoretical construct. Human beings are works in progress, existing in a state of constant flux. We are all fragmented beings—the ten-minute man is only more so.

A second strategy employed by Jonathan to convey the discontinuity of the self is the creation of visual graphic disunity. As noted by Yellowlees Douglas, among others, the static, fixed nature of the printed page and its austere linearity make it ideal for the representation of our mental construct of narrative. The text of “Memento Mori” appears on the page in three different font types: the first person segments, Earl’s admonitions to himself, appear in italics; the third person segments are written in regular type; and the notes and signs are capitalised.

Christopher Nolan obviously has recourse to different strategies to reach the same ends. His principal technique, and the film’s most striking aspect, is its reversed time sequence. The film begins with a crude Polaroid flash photograph of a man’s body lying on a decaying wooden floor. The image in the photo gradually fades, until the camera sucks the picture up. The photograph presents the last chronological event; the film then skips backwards in ten-minute increments, mirroring the protagonist’s memory span.

But the film’s time sequence is not simply a reversed linear structure. It is a triple-decker narrative, mirroring the three-part organisation of the story. In the opening scene, one comes to realise that the film-spool is running backwards. After several minutes the film suddenly reverses and runs forward for a few seconds. Then there is a sudden cut to a different scene, in black and white, where the protagonist (who we have just learned is called Leonard) begins to talk, out of the blue, about his confusion. Soon the film switches to a color scene, again unconnected, in which the “action” of the film begins. In the black and white scenes, which from then on are interspersed with the main action, Leonard attempts to understand what is happening to him and to explain (to an unseen listener) the nature of his condition. The “main action” of the film follows a double temporal structure: while each scene, as a unit of action, runs normally forward, each scene is triggered by the following, rather than by the preceding scene, so that we are witnessing a story whose main action goes back in time as the film progresses (Hutchinson and Read, 79).

A third narrative thread, interspersed with the other two, is a story that functions as a foil to the film’s main action. It is the story of Sammy Jankis: one of the cases that Leonard worked on in his past career as an insurance investigator. Sammy was apparently suffering from anterograde amnesia, the same condition that Leonard is suffering from now. Sammy’s wife filed an insurance claim on his behalf, a claim that Leonard rejected on the grounds that Sammy’s condition was merely psychosomatic. Hoping to confirm Leonard’s diagnosis, Sammy’s diabetic wife puts her husband to the test. He fails the test as he tenderly administers multiple insulin injections to her, thereby causing her death.

As Leonard’s beloved wife also suffered from diabetes, and as Teddy (the undercover cop) eventually tells Leonard that Sammy never had a wife, the Sammy Jankis parable functions as a mise en abyme, which can either corroborate or subvert the narrative that Leonard is attempting to construct of his own life. Sammy may be seen as Leonard’s symbolic double in that his form of amnesia foreshadows the condition with which Leonard will eventually be afflicted. This interpretation corroborates Leonard’s personal narrative of his memory loss, while tainting him with the blame for the death of Sammy’s wife. But the camera also suggests a more unsettling possibility—Leonard may ultimately be responsible for the death of his own wife. The scene in which Sammy, condemned by his amnesia, administers to his wife a repeated and fatal shot of insulin, is briefly followed by a scene of Leonard pinching his own wife’s thigh before her insulin shot, a scene recurring in the film like a leitmotif. The juxtaposition of the two scenes suggests that it is Leonard who, mistakenly or deliberately, has killed his wife, and that ever since he has been projecting his guilt onto others: the innocent victims of his trail of revenge. In this ironic interpretive twist, it is Leonard, rather than Sammy, who has been faking his amnesia.

The parable of Sammy Jankis highlights another central concern of Memento and “Memento Mori”: the precarious nature of truth. This is the second psychological and philosophical implication of what Leonard persistently calls his “condition”, namely his loss of memory. The question explicitly raised in the film is whether memory records or creates, if it retains the lived life or reshapes it into a narrative that will confer on it unity and meaning. The answer is metaphorically suggested by the recurring shots of a mirror, which Leonard must use to read his body inscriptions. The mirror, as Lacan describes it, offers the infant his first recognition as a coherent, unique self. But this recognition is a mis-recognition, for the reflection has a coherence and unity that the subject both lacks and desires. The body inscriptions that Leonard can read only in the mirror do not necessarily testify to the truth. But they do enable him to create a narrative that makes his life worth living.

A Lacanian reading of the mirror image has two profoundly unsettling implications. It establishes Leonard as a morally deficient, rather than neurologically deficient, human being, and it suggests that we are not fundamentally different from him. Leonard’s intricate system of notes and body inscriptions builds up an inventory of set representations to which he can refer in all his future experiences. Thus when he wakes up naked in bed with a woman lying beside him, he looks among his Polaroid photographs for a picture which he can match with her, which will tell him what the woman’s name is and what he can expect from her on the basis of past experience. But this, suggest Hutchinson and Read, is an external representation of operations that all of us perform mentally (89). We all respond to sensory input by constructing internal representations that form the foundations of our psyche. This view underpins current theories of language and of the mind. Semioticians tell us that the word, the signifier, refers to a mental representation of an object rather than to the object itself. Cognitivists assume that cognition consists in the operation of mental items which are symbols for real entities. Leonard’s apparently bizarre method of apprehending reality is thus essentially an externalisation of memory. But if, cognitively and epistemologically speaking, Lennie is less different from us than we would like to think, this implication may also extend to our moral nature.

Our complicity with Leonard is mainly established through the film’s complex temporal structure, which makes us viscerally share the protagonist’s/narrator’s confusion and disorientation. We become as unable as he is to construct a single, coherent and meaningful narrative: the film’s obscurity is built in. Memento’s ambiguity is enhanced by the film’s Website, which presents a newspaper clipping about the attack on Leonard and his wife, torn pages from police and psychiatric reports, and a number of notes from Leonard to himself. While blurring the boundaries between story and film by suggesting that Leonard, like Earl, may have escaped from a mental institution, otnemem> also provides evidence that can either confirm or confound our interpretive efforts, such as a doctor’s report suggesting that “John G.” may be a figment of Leonard’s imagination.

The precarious nature of truth is foregrounded by the fact that the narrative Leonard is trying to construct, as well as the narrative in which Christopher Nolan has embedded him, is a detective story. The traditional detective story proceeds from a two-fold assumption: truth exists, and it can be known. But Memento and “Memento Mori” undermine this epistemological confidence. They suggest that truth, like identity, is a fictional construct, derived from the tales we tell ourselves and recount to others. These tales do not coincide with objective reality; they are the prisms we create in order to understand reality, to make our lives bearable and worth living.

Narratives are cognitive patterns that we construct to make sense of the world. They convey our yearning for coherence, closure, and a single unified meaning. The overlapping and conflicting threads interweaving Memento, “Memento Mori” and the Website otnemem> simultaneously expose and resist our nostalgia for unity, by evoking a multiplicity of meanings and creating an intertextual web that is the essence of all adaptation.

Author Biography

Ilana Shiloh