CHAPTER ONE: ADAPTATION
“One lesson is that to be second is not
to be secondary or inferior; likewise, to be first is not to be originary or
(Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, xv)
first, and arguably most obvious, way this essay will begin exploring the
relationship between the works of BTS, Hesse, and Le Guin, is through the lens
of adaptation theory. In its most basic and simplistic form, Linda Hutcheon
describes adaptation as “repetition, but repetition without replication” (A Theory of Adaptation, 7). What
Hutcheon means by this will become clearer as we go on; first, though, this
chapter will examine why creators adapt in the first place, the advantages and
disadvantages of adaptation, the particularly curious notion of cross-cultural
adaptations, and even reformatting, that is, adapting a story from one medium
(e.g. a novel) to another (e.g. a music video).
Adaptations, due to their inherently
repetitive nature, are generally viewed as inferior to the original or ‘source’
text. It is possible that a ‘source text’ could, of course, be a film, and not
a work of the written word at all. However, for the sake of convenience, the
term ‘source text’ will be used to refer to an original story, or the form a
story took, for the remainder of this chapter. Furthermore, while the music
video as a narrative medium will be discussed more thoroughly in the chapter on
Postmodernism, it is important to keep in mind that general attitudes towards
the music video as a form play an important role when looking at BTS’s
adaptation of Hesse and Le Guin’s stories. Hutcheon mentions two key words
relevant to attitudes towards adaptations: iconophobia, which is “a suspicion
of the visual”; and logophilia, which is the “love of the word as sacred” (A Theory of Adaptation, 4). Adaptations
are seen as inferior not only because they are inherently repetitive of the
source text, but also because often adaptations are reformatted to what are
largely considered ‘lower’ forms of media. Our logophilic tendencies dismiss
visual adaptations before we have even viewed them. Though film has
increasingly crept its way closer to the title of a form of high art, the music
video has yet to be taken seriously, especially in an academic setting. This,
however, is something that makes BTS’s adaptations of Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” even more
intriguing; they have taken pieces of high art and adapted them to a pop
culture form. In A Theory of Adaptation, Hutcheon
discusses this desire in adapters to “shift cultural level[s]”, though this
term is generally used when taking a piece of pop culture and bringing it to a
high art form. BTS flip this on its head, though it may be argued they are
still raising their own cultural level by doing so. In bringing prominent
writers like Hesse and Le Guin into their work, BTS make a statement about
their own artistic ambitions; of course, adaptations have long been used to
“engage in a larger social or cultural critique” (A Theory of Adaptation, 94).
There are a myriad of advantages and disadvantages to consider when telling a story through any particular medium, written text included. However, when it comes to adaptation, Henry Jenkins aptly states that “[i]deally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (2011, italics in original). As the Modernist poet T.S. Eliot put it, “art is derived from other art; stories are born of other stories” (A Theory of Adaptation, 2). Though adaptation is often looked at as inferior for its rehashing of a story already told, it may be more productive to instead look at adaptation as a contribution to the story, as Jenkins puts it, rather than a mindless retelling. Adaptations have been a huge part of Western culture for a long time. The Modernist movement in the early twentieth century prided itself on drawing heavily from other works, traditions, and styles, and applying them to a modern (often post-war) context; to “make it new”, as Ezra Pound famously stated (Firchow, 379).
One of the most interesting things about BTS’s adaptations, however, is that they are both reformatted (from written text to lyrics/music video) and also transcultural. This curious dynamic requires close scrutiny. Pop culture is often spoken about with “negatively judgmental rhetoric […], as if it is more tainted with capitalism than is high art” (A Theory of Adaptation, 31). When discussing a Korean pop boy band, for example, one is not usually met with intellectual curiosity. More often it is a condescending lift of the eyebrow. BTS are not Western artists; they are not white; they are all-male, but generally appeal to a female fanbase; they rarely sing in English; they rap; their general ‘sound’ is upbeat pop; and their visual presentation is androgynous. To compare them to high culture artists like Hesse or Le Guin is uncommon, but does not mean that there is nothing to gain from such a comparison.
Not only does an adaptation add its own
novelty to a story, but it also, whether purposefully or not, is stamped by its
cultural and historical space. There are variations in adaptations because of the adapter’s own personal
influence shining through in their work. Hesse, in the early twentieth century,
in the West, lived in a vastly different cultural context when writing Demian than BTS did when conceptualising
their “WINGS” album in 2016 in South Korea. The Demian story, with their adaptation, has been brought across
centuries, languages, and cultural borders – it has even crossed over from the
realm of high art, literature, to pop culture music and music video. BTS have
taken Pound’s advice and made Demian new.
Furthermore, before the twentieth
century, it was commonplace, even vital, to interpret works while keeping the
author’s biographical detail to the fore, as well as the political, social, and
historical context in which they wrote. However by the twentieth century, through
the growing influence of formalist approaches, the academic literary scene
stopped taking these factors into account so heavily. Yet when looking at
adaptation, biographical detail, and political/social/historical context, once
again become important to keep in mind. One must ask why they have adapted this piece, and from where their urge to
adapt came. Put simply, “[c]ontext conditions meaning” (A Theory of Adaptation, 145).
It may be interesting to note when reading Demian, for example, that as a child, Hermann Hesse was exposed to a kind of Christianity which “was a most intense pietism, combining a scrupulous soul-searching inwardness with a sense of sin and unworthiness in the presence of a transcendent and holy God absolutely revealed in His Biblical Word” (Mueller, 146). This doubtlessly leads one to think of the opening pages of the novel, that conflict between the two worlds Emil Sinclair finds himself caught between, as though good and evil were visible, tangible things he could see. In the second chapter, when Max Demian proposes Emil look at the story of Cain and Abel from an alternative perspective, Emil says that Max “left [him] standing there more baffled than[he] had ever been before in [his] life” (Hesse, 24). Here, Hesse’s biographical detail becomes undeniably intertwined with Demian – the themes of Christianity, of guilt and sin, and of incredibly intense inward reflection and deep thought. Of course, one can still read and enjoy Demian without reading into Hermann Hesse’s personal life; however, to completely ignore any sort of biographical detail or external factors relating to the context in which it was produced when dealing with the novel from a critical perspective, does seem to be purposefully naïve.
Moreover, Mueller describes the novel as
an “educational” one (149). He states:
Its protagonist is the symbol for clear, logical thought, the friend and guide, who gradually leads Sinclair out of “bourgeois” respectability, “proletarian” chaos, “romantic” irresponsibility, finally to meet and love Demian’s “mother,” Frau Eva, who symbolizes the love of this world with its painful contrasts and opposites (149).
BTS discussed their reasons for adapting Demian briefly in an interview in October 2016 with reporter Shim Yeon Hee on KBS, a South Korean public broadcasting service. Kim Namjoon stated that they “felt that there were a lot of similarities between parts of [Demian]and the things[they] wanted to say”, leading them to use symbols from the novel in their music videos (“BTS Talks About Using “Demian” In “WINGS” Concept). In a separate interview in November of that same year, Kim Namjoon describes the concept of the “WINGS” album as being “about boys encountered with temptations” (“BTS Special Interview”, 00:55).
The question of why BTS adapted Demian becomes
most clear, however, during their speech at the United Nations in September
2018. Kim Namjoon spoke about grappling with your conception of your self, and
coming to love yourself along with all of the mistakes you have made:
And maybe I made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s me is still me.
Today, I am who I am with all of my faults and my mistakes. Tomorrow, I might
be a tiny bit wiser, and that’ll be me too. These faults and mistakes are what
I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have
come to love myself for who I am, for who I was, and for who I hope to become (“BTS speech at the United Nations
| UNICEF”, 03:50).
calls Hesse’s writing “confessional, personal, functional, alive, written with
the heart’s blood”, and that is exactly what BTS have attempted to emulate in
their work, almost a century after Demian
was first published (151). It is less the logical narrative of a story that
BTS have adapted from Demian, but the
‘spirit’ of the novel, namely its nature as a bildungsroman, moving its themes, and even characters, easily from
the literary form, to the visual.
order to determine what Demian might mean to BTS, we must first look at what
Demian meant to Hesse. Frank Baron suggests that the character of Max Demian is
actually based on a boy Hesse met during his time at Maulbronn Seminary named
Gustav Zeller. Baron writes that in both Demian and Zeller, “one recognizes an
attempt to shape new myths in an age for which old beliefs are no longer
genuinely meaningful” (48). For Hesse/Sinclair, Zeller/Demian “was also Cain,
the unrepentant thief, a Messiah, the guiding spirit of Nietzsche, and a
symbolic representation of an outside force which Sinclair absorbed ultimately
in the process of self-realization” (48). Max Demian is not so much a character
as a concept, a way of thinking, a way of being; it is not unreasonable to
argue that even over a century later, Demian resonated with Bangtan Sonyeondan
for the same reasons Zeller did with Hesse.
The cross-cultural element to BTS’s “WINGS”
adds a fascinating dimension to their adaptation of Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. As Hutcheon
beautifully puts it, “stories travel to different cultures and different media”
(A Theory of Adaptation, 31). It is
also not a one-way system, however; both Hesse and Le Guin were interested in
and influenced by Eastern philosophy, and this carried into their writing.
Peter Roberts writes that Hesse was “a man of the West who turned to the idea
of ‘the East’ in seeking to understand himself and his society” (249). This
permeates Demian, where Emil Sinclair
turns to an alternative philosophy in order to understand both himself and the
world around him, also. One may term this as a ‘mutual cultural exchange’.
There is a back-and-forth between Hesse, Le Guin, and BTS. They each draw from
each other’s traditions, philosophies, and narrative styles, while putting a
novel spin on their work.
It is also interesting to note that the
music video is a Western creation. In much the same way Hesse and Le Guin
adapted Eastern philosophy for their own work, Bangtan – along with hundreds,
if not thousands, of other Eastern artists – have adapted the Western form of
the music video for their own work. This will be explored in greater detail in
the chapter on intertextuality. Of the three approaches dealt with in this
dissertation, adaptation and intertextuality in particular are linked most
closely. Adaptations speak to each other, particularly if one has encountered
the source text, or even a different adaptation of the same source text.
Additionally, one may be prompted to read or view the source text, having first
witnessed the story in its adapted form. In the year after BTS’s “WINGS” album
was released, the sales for Demian spiked
massively in South Korea. To Hutcheon, this challenges “the authority of any
notion of priority” (A Theory of
Through adaptation and intertextuality, the story of Emil Sinclair and Max Demian exists in a sort of continuum, rather than being simply confined to the original novel. BTS are contributors to this continuum, as twenty-first-century adapters; they have added their own shard to the mosaic, so to speak. But it would be an untruth to pretend we do not see the other shards. We need only step back to reveal the whole mosaic, and watch as each shard informs the other, as well as us. This brings us to our next perspective – intertextuality.
Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Wikipedia. By Aleister26 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.