Bryan Harvey
English Language Arts
Material Type:
Activity/Lab, Assessment, Homework/Assignment, Lecture Notes, Reading
High School
  • Analysis
  • Fiction
  • Humor
  • Nonfiction
  • Satire
  • Synthesis
  • License:
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike

    Education Standards

    Understanding adaptation and appropriation in art and literature

    Understanding adaptation and appropriation in art and literature


    The activities, assignments, and lessons included here are designed to help students read and write like artists who constantly take apart old ideas and texts in order to repackage them for the sake of contemporary humor, wisdom, and relevance. The activities introduce new vocabulary for discussing how texts work and play, as well as synthesis, analysis, and creativity. 

    Terms and objectives

    If the goal is to teach students to read and write like writers, then they need to read and write like writers, which means they have to be constantly taking texts apart and examining them and then rearranging and reinventing them in new ways. They kind of do this when they interact online with social media. Memes and Gifs do this, but often time, the humor is not explained--the sign is not taken apart and distilled. 

    The lessons and activities included here revolve around the following terms. Other terms might also be necessary for students to learn the language of analyzing adaptations and appropriations. The skills here are useful in AP and general education classes, as well as in language art electives such as Creative Writing and Film Studies. 

    The cited terms are from Julie Sanders' book Adaptation and Appropriation. Her book is about 160 pages long. I encountered it in graduate school, and it is definitely worth a gander. (All apologies: the word gander is pedantic, as is the word pedantic.)


    Students will be able to discuss and analyze how literature and art often borrow, adapt, and appropriate the ideas, forms, and styles of earliear artists, genres, and movements. Such skills are important for not only helping students appreciate writing as art but in helping them find pathways toward their own creative output. These are the ideas and skills that help writers become apprentices. 

    Key terms

    Genre: a category of artistic composition, as in music or literarture, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. Genre theory is a structuralist approach ot interpreting literature that treats each genre as a mechanized system in need of particular parts (tropes and conventions)

    Convention(s): The rules of a particular genre. These rules act as indicators or signs that a piece of a literature belongs to a particular genre. Indicators include but are not limited to: phrases, themes, quotations, explanations, archetypes, stereotypes, and situations that serve similar functions within a genre. When particular indicators defy convention, the result is often ironic. 

    Homage: Similar to parody, but the intention is to honor more so than to mock. It's a tip of the cap to those whose art was influential to the art being created (or invented) in the present moment.

    Pastiche: A work of art that is an imitation in style and structure of other art. Think of it as a collage.

    Appropriation: Appropriation occurs when art essentially lifts a stylistic component or convention from a particular genre or work but "affects a more decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain" (Sanders 26).

    Adaptation:  Adaptation occurs when a text "signals a relationship with an informing sourcetext or original" (26). Methods of adaptation include: transposition, commentary, analogue. 





    It's a reading rainbow

    In his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes: 

    The reduction of reading to consumption is obviously responsible for the 'boredom'

    that many people feel when confronting the modern ('unreadable') text, or the avant-

    garde movie or painting: to suffer from boredom. means that one cannot produce the 

    text, play it, open it out, make it go.


    I don't understand everything Barthes says, but I do latch onto the word "play" here and the idea that a text has something to "make it go." This activity, hopefully, invites students to start doing so (although I've found that to keep them doing this requires constant creative work on behalf of the teacher throughout the year). 

    Opening questions

    -What is a door?

    -What is a reading rainbow?

    (Keep in mind here the answers don't really matter as long as students try, and a teacher can tell a lot about a student who is or isn't willing to entertain the small, simple questions.)

    Adaptation versus appropriation

    Provide students with Julie Sanders' definitions for the two terms. 

    Have students watch the 1967 performance by The Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show. Hopefully, the experience is weird for them. The Doors were anachronistic and weird then, and they're even more so today. After watching the performance, have students discuss their reactions, ask questions, etc., but keep in mind the goal is not to have them really understand or appreciate The Doors. The goal is for the performance to be in their memory banks, to be part of a reservoir of random pop culture moments. 

    Have students watch the opening credits fo the PBS show Reading Rainbow. Go with the original version. Have students discuss and react just as you did with the performance by The Doors. 

    Finally, have students watch Jimmy Fallon singing the theme song from Reading Rainbow while impersonating Jim Morrison from The Doors. Here is where the work begins because what Fallon does here is take the supposed innocence and morality of children's literature and subverted it with the presence of a Jim Morrison caricature and all that The Doors and the 1960s counterculture represented or embodied. Is this performance an act of appropriation or adaptation? Have students support their answers with Julie Sanders' definitions. Have them consider qualifying their position. 

    Obviously, the source materials here are dated, and as the Fallon text slips more and more into the past, other examples may have to be gleaned from the cultural zeitgeist. Thank goodness we have the internet!

    King Kong and the mysteries of Pittsburgh

    Adaptation versus appropriation

    Provide students with Julie Sanders' definitions for the two terms. 

    Have students watch scenes from the 1933 version of King Kong, specifically the scene where Kong climbs the Empire State Building. Have students brainstorm subjects, topics, and themes this scene (or any other scenes) communicate to modern audiences. Does the film communicate the same concerns and fears and ideas to contemporary audience members as it did to audiences in the 1930s? This could be done as an informal discussion or as a journal entry. 

    Have students read the climactic chase scene from Michael Chabon's 1988 debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. (I believe the scene in question can be found in the book's twenty-second chapter: "The Beast That Ate Cleveland.") Have students discuss (or have them provide written answers) where they assess whether the chapter is an homage to or a parody of King Kong. Is it an adaptation or an appropriation? What's the purpose? What are the significances? How can the relationship between the two texts be interpreted? Is the connection between the chapter and the movie simply interesting or is it vital for understanding the text?


    Other Chabon texts to consider

    -The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) shares some amazing relationships with comic books and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The book is probably too long and dense for most high schoolers to deal with in a calendar school year, but it can be excerpted. 

    -The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) begins by announcing itself as belonging to a particular genre. How does it do this?

    -The essays in Chabon's Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands are especially useful to these kinds of discussions. 

    Declaration and adaptation: At play in democracy

    The following sources could be used to demonstrate a more serious side to Barthes' idea of how texts "play." Past documents inform present documents. Values and laws from one time period shape and interact with values and laws from another time period. Tracing the concepts (and quite literally the terminology) of 'happiness,' 'property,' 'freedom,' 'liberty,' and 'independence' in the following documents can be tedious work that pay dividends by the end of the year in terms of how students can start to perceive the long arc of an idea. 

    Excerpt Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave" from The Republic. Have students annotate the text or complete dialectical journals. Have students draw or construct models of the text. Discuss the differences between the text's purpose and its significances. Guide students through a close reading of the text's transition from allegory to politics. Guide students through a close reading of passage's conclusion. These are all options.   

    Locate a brief text where John Locke discusses the individual's relationship with 'property.' I have often used passages from John Dunn's Locke: A Very Short Introduction for doing so. Have students discuss his possible meanings and its consequences. Have students place Locke's ideas in relation to Plato's, specifically Plato's admonishment of concrete, physical wealth. 

    When analyzing The Declaration of Independence, be sure to include questions that place the text in conversation with Locke and Plato. Is Thomas Jefferson adapting or appropriating? Do his sentences pay homage or plagiarize? Does it matter? Does it lend credibility to his argument that his sources can be so easily identified in the fabric of his writing? Are these allusions or slips of the tongue? 

    Ask similar questions regarding Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. 

    Finally, have students write their own delcarations and treatises. After having them select a cause, have them express whether they intend to adapt or appropriate the ideas and wordings of past thinkers. Does doing so make their own documents more or less radical? 

    I oftentimes forget that these texts and readings do not have to be studied consecutively within a particular timespan. They can be spaced out and interleaved throughout the year. 

    Gangster films

    The problem with teaching genre conventions is that teachers often end up telling students these things you're noticing in the book are genre conventions. A more effective way to teach conventions is to have students observe, study, and analyze multiple texts from a particular genre. 

    In a high school classroom, this task is almost impossible due to time limits. With short stories, this task is more possible. In Film Studies is where I feel I've had the most success reviewing a genre's evolution over time, and while what's posted here pertains to the Gangster Crime genre, I've completed similar exercises and lessons with other genres in mind. I think the key here, though, is to present students with texts from different decades or, in other words, generational texts that share sort of a parent-child relationship.  


    First generation gangster films

    Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930)

    William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy (1932)

    Howard Hawks' Scarface (1933)

    New Hollywood gangster films

    Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972)

    Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II (1974)


    Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990)

    The Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990)

    Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco (1997)

    21st Century

    Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006)

    Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007)

    J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year (2014)

    Martin Scorsese's The Irishman (2019)


    Obviously some of these films contain mature content. In Film Studies, I've shown all of only some of them, and I have done so after parents signed permission slips. Some of these I have excerpted. I have also had students opt to watch them as choices for independent viewing projects. I picked these because I think any three could from different eras could be viewed in their entirities or excerpted to fill out the attached handout. 


    Independent practice

    Any sort of genre unit could conclude with an analysis that doubles as a synthesis of multiple texts, and this task is both useful and rigorous. However, ultimately, students probably need to perform the acts of adaptation and appropriation. This is what Jimmy Fallon does. This is what Michael Chabon does. And Quentin Tarrantino too. It's what Toni Morrison and William Faulkner did once upon a time, and it's what anyone involved with Star Wars or employed by Pixar does. It's also what makes Jordan Peele's points of view so interesting and refreshing in movies like Get Out and Us.  


    -Have students select a well-known but older film and either adapt or appropriate it (as Chabon did with King Kong). 

    -Have students put into the practice the comedic techniques of Jimmy Fallon. 

    -Have students see what happens to a genre's conventions if the gender roles of certain archetypes are altered. 

    -Have students reinvent a genre's conventions. 


    I'm leaving these options broad and general because these activities really, at least in my opinion, need to be student driven and selected. They need to be student adapted.