Great adaptations: The positive impact of rewriting stories

Dante DeBono

7 November 2023


If I asked you to think about the last five or so movies you’ve watched, how many of them were an adaptation of some type?

A reboot? A remake? A retelling?

There has been a recognisable trend, particularly in recent years, where a lot of the films and television we’ve been watching are derivative in some way. That’s not to say this is a bad thing. Certainly, adaptation has a long and successful history in the entertainment industry. There are plenty of critically acclaimed classics that are ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ something that came before them.[1]

But what can we actually do with this adaptation trend?

In an effort to pursue creative means of addressing bigotry, perhaps it’s time we consider the radical potential of practices like revisionist adaptation. This is what Robert Stam has referred to as ‘strategic infidelity’,[2] in which the changes made to an established narrative offer a critique of some type. These don’t necessarily have to be significant alterations to the story. Something as simple as shifting perspectives may seem innocuous, but Snow White from the Evil Queen’s perspective might say something about ageism and Western societal beauty standards. If the fairy tale is relocated to a modern, corporate setting, it might also speak to neoliberal capitalism and the economic barriers created by it. Perhaps the seven dwarves are rewritten as a diverse cast of people, each of them not fitting the normative mould that our world perpetuates and facing the prejudice that comes with it. What questions are raised when there are so many ways to be an outsider but few ways to find success? How is it decided who is the fairest of them all? Who is allowed to have a happy ending?

While not all adaptations are—nor need to be—transgressive, approaching adaptation in this way engages a form of critical thinking focused on identifying subaltern perspectives that are minimised, misrepresented, or missing entirely from the original, thus calling into question the normalising power of the canon at the expense of minority voices. As bell hooks explains, ‘talking critically about popular culture [is] a powerful way to share knowledge, in and outside the academy, across differences, in an oppositional and subversive way.’[3]

Part of this discussion is to recognise that minority groups are impacted by fictional representations of their identity signifiers and begin to combat this specific form of oppression that can negatively impact real people. Take, for instance, the BBC’s latest version of the Dickensian classic Great Expectations,[4] which was met with mixed reviews. Some criticisms were understandable, like the fact that this is the eighteenth screen version to be made and so perhaps felt like an unnecessary story to revisit. Others, in a sadly predictable fashion, disagreed with the decision to cast people of colour in leading roles, disregarding the known diversity of Victorian Britain in favour of the white-washed history pop culture has previously touted.[5]

That familiar outcry of ‘wokeness gone mad’ disregards the very real positive impact that diversification can have. Broadly speaking, exposure to diverse fictional characters can foster empathetic connections with a range of minority groups, helping to combat prejudice through positive representation. This form of parasocial contact can improve someone’s attitude towards people with differing identities in a similar way to genuine interpersonal relationships.[6] But it is equally as important and validating for people belonging to subaltern groups to see themselves reflected in popular culture. Indeed, literary and media representations are some of the first salient role models people identify with, helping them to construct the tapestry of their own intersectional identities. As Adam and Murphy mention, research reveals that stories are very much still white, middle-class, and heteronormative.[7] While representations of minority cultures may be increasing over time, the absence of diverse depictions is still a prevalent issue, as is the harmful use of superficial stereotypes that undermines the potential benefits of more inclusive stories.

Stuart Hall notes that popular culture is ‘a theatre of popular desires, a theatre of popular fantasies. It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there who do not get the message, but to ourselves for the first time.’[8] He reminds us of the importance of representation, of the potential possibilities that are opened by seeing people like you in the stories you enjoy. Part of creating art is seeking out meaning and resonance that you hope to impart on your audience. Sometimes that means interrogating a well-known story, reinterpreting it to better reflect the diversity of our modern society.

One might argue faithful adaptations are relatively pointless unless some changes are made in order to speak to the current cultural zeitgeist. Yet in the case of Great Expectations, some viewers where more disturbed by alterations to the storyline than the more inclusive cast.[9] One such controversy included a scene depicting a sadomasochist relationship between Mrs Gargery and her brother-in-law, Mr Pumblechook. In the novel, Mrs Gargery is notoriously ill-tempered and physically violent towards her family, and yet maintains a respectful relationship with Mr Pumblechook, including occasional days spent together. Why not, then, expand upon the potential of their dynamic in creative ways?

The BBC Content Chief defended this addition on behalf of Steven Knight, the series creator.[10] Knight reasoned that it was necessary to ‘read between the lines’, since Dickens would have had restrictions on what he was able to include in his published works. In a modern context, we’re able to imagined darker possibilities. While some may insist there is nothing in the text that implies a sadomasochistic connection between these characters, there is equally nothing that suggests there could not be one. In a surprisingly Foucauldian manner,[11] Knight draws attention to the narrative of sexual repression in Western history that has been perpetuated by pop culture representations. Rather than show the Victorian era as a time of social taboos relegating sex to a utilitarian act of procreation, Knight’s adaptation prompts audiences to think about the subversive possibilities of the unknown private lives of these familiar characters and to have viewers consider their own normative assumptions of Victorian propriety that may very well influence their opinions of contemporary sexuality discourse. The fact that people remain outraged by a fictional ‘kinky’ relationship—particularly when the woman is taking up the dominant role—demonstrates how the previous absence of these depictions has contributed to their continued degradation from a normative, mainstream audience. This is an example of the intersection between pop culture representation and the belief systems it can influence.  

Indeed, it is Foucault’s understanding of discourse as a means of reinscribing naturalised hegemony that explains the necessity of creative practices like revisionist adaptation in combating various forms of bigotry. Hegemony in this sense relates to the self-regulation of society based on dominant ideologies; learned behaviours and thoughts that are established as the norm through systems of power repeating specific narratives. The nuclear family, the five-day working week, even the default minty-fresh flavour of toothpaste are all discursive constructs based on their ongoing re-inscription as social norms—but they are not infallible. If social knowledge is developed through exposure to cultural representations, then the (re)incorporation of minorities has the potential to shift certain ideologies.

Revisionist adaptations provide the opportunity to address the canon’s lack of diversity while also engaging in a critique of current sociocultural issues. With each knew adaptation comes the creator’s dilemma of shifting the story ‘to the “right”, by naturalizing and justifying social hierarchies based on class, race, sexuality, gender, region, and national belonging, or to the “left” by interrogating or leveling hierarchies in an egalitarian manner.’[12] It provides a catalyst for discussions about dominant power structures and the various ways we might question the norms they enforce. Revisionist adaptations allow us to imagine worlds that are more inclusive and accepting, utilising familiar stories as a tool in which to communicate across demographics in creative and subversive ways.


About the author

Dante DeBono is a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia with the goal of promoting social inclusivity and equality through work focussed on diversifying queer representation in research and creative outputs. Her current thesis is focused on the queer potential of revisionist adaptations in fiction through screenwriting-based practice-led research that has seen the development of a queered modernisation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. She has been on the central committee for the Gender, Sex and Sexualities Conference since 2021, and is an advisory team member for the UniSA Oral History Hub.



[1] See the introductory chapter ‘100+ years of adaptations, or, adaptation as the art form of democracy’, in D Cartmell (ed) 2012, A Companion to Literature, Film, and Adaptation, Blackwell Publishing, West Sussex.

[2] Stam, R 2017, ‘Revisionist adaptation: Transtextuality, cross-cultural dialogism, and performative infidelities’, in T Leitch (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 242.

[3] hooks, b 1994, Outlaw culture: Resisting representations, Routledge, New York, pp. 4–5.

[4] Great Expectations 2023, created by Steven Knight, BBC.

[5] Ramone, J 2023, ‘Great Expectations: why it’s not historically inaccurate for a Dickens character to be black’, The Conversation, 5 April,>.

[6] See Schiappa, E, Gregg, PB & Hewes, DE 2005, ‘The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis’, Communication Monographs, vol. 72, no. 1, pp. 92–115.

[7] Adam, H & Murphy, S 2021, ‘Children’s picture books still overwhelmingly white, middle-class & heteronormative’, Freilich Project for the Study of Bigotry, 16 Dec,>.

[8] Hall, S 2004, ‘What is this “black” in Black popular culture?’, in J Bobo et al. (eds), The Black Studies Reader, Routledge, New York, p. 262.

[9] Farmer, C 2023, ‘'A waste of licence payers' money!' Great Expectations viewers slam BBC for CHANGING ending of the Dickens classic... with furious literature fans branding the show 'an abomination'’, Daily Mail Online, 1 May,>.

[10] Barraclough, L 2023, ‘Sadomasochism Scene in ‘Great Expectations’ Defended by BBC Content Chief, Writer Steven Knight Was ‘Reading Between the Lines’ of Dickens’ Novel’, Variety, 22 April,>.

[11] See Foucault, M 1978, The history of sexuality, vol. 1: An introduction, trans. R Hurley, Pantheon Books, New York.

[12] Stam, R 2005 ‘Introduction: The theory and practice of adaptation’, in R Stam & A Raengo (eds), Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, Blackwell Publishing, Massachusetts, p. 42.


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