Investigating the Authority of the Literary Text in Critical Debate


Katherine Anne Limmer

Yeovil College - Inglaterra



Establishing Textual Authority: The death of the Author and the birth of the Auteur


The fact that the commonly accepted term for the originator of a literary text has the same root as the term authority should alert us immediately to the fact that it is not merely a description of the person deemed mostly responsible for producing the work. The term ‘author’ encapsulates a whole set of critical assumptions about the production of literary texts that have held sway over literary studies since it became an academic subject. It was this set of assumptions that Roland Barthes intended to question and ultimately overturn when he (in)famously declared the Death of the Author. The impulse behind his move was theoretically and politically inspired. The structuralist/semiotic theories which he, along with other critics at the time, had embraced, approached the literary text as an autonomous object of study. This focus on the text as a producer of its own meaning led to a rejection of any appeal to intentionality to validate the critic’s response. But it was also a radical democratic urge against all forms of authority that replaced the author as the source of textual meaning with the reader as the focus of meaning production. The effect of Barthes pronouncement , along with the whole structuralist post-structuralist project, has been profoundly felt in literary study at degree level and above. Although not without its critics, it has re-shaped the theoretical field to such a degree that his ideas have to be engaged with even by those who disagree with them. The limitations and false assumption that using the term author can be seen to imply can explain the increase in the use of the more theoretically neutral term writer by many academics.

During the establishment of Film Studies as an academic discipline, a theoretical movement in almost exactly the opposite direction occurred, which could appear perverse; an attempt (mostly successful) by theorists to establish a single figure of authority responsible for the production of meaning in a film text, similar to the one Barthes’ theory had overthrown in favour of the reader. The impulse behind this move though, however conservative theoretically, was equally radical culturally. The young French film critics who formulated the ‘politique des auteurs’ did so order to elevate certain popular Hollywood films to the status of art and thus to make them worthy of serious study. The choice of the term ‘auteur’, the French for author, illustrates the parallel they were attempting to draw between the creator of a film and the writer of a literary text. Although the concept of a single author/authority responsible for the text’s meaning has since been rejected as romantic and politically conservative, it was also an extremely successful move in the struggle to give cultural weight to texts that had previously been dismissed or derided as purely commercial and irredeemably popular. Transposing the culturally valued position of author or auteur onto certain film directors, allowed their work to be elevated into the realm of art and treated with the seriousness and intellectual analysis previously reserved for more culturally respected forms. From the enthusiastic way that this theory was taken up by film critics and burgeoning academic course in film studies, one can see that the concept of author was by no means as dead as Barthes had pronounced it.

The ‘auteur’ theory, as it was re-christened in the United States, was used to formulate canons of film texts not unlike the literary canon established over one hundred years of literary study. The impulse to seek and establish a textual authority from which the critic can then justify their responses and readings can thus be seen to extend beyond the purely literary. But the weaknesses evident in autuer approaches to film can alert us to the weaknesses of it as an approach to literary texts too and the radically different ways of approaching texts offered by film studies may, equally, offer new directions for literary study.


Textual Authority in Rita, Sue and Bob Too

The differences between literary and film studies approaches to texts is evident even in the matter of referencing. When referring to the play text Rita, Sue and Bob Too the only additional information deemed necessary, beyond the title of the work, is the author’s name; Andrea Dunbar. The practise in films studies is to give the date of production, the director and the country of origin thus Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986, Alan Clarke UK). The inclusion of year of production and country of origin means the reference acknowledges the influence on the film text of historical and social influences, as well as the personal contribution of the director, whereas the literary reference in its reliance on a single name insists on individual creativity and refuses to acknowledge historical and social specificities.

It became necessary to trace these distinctions in order to successfully challenge a critique of the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too by John Hill, in which he explicitly contrasts the earlier play text with the film text in order to justify his criticism of the latter. His criticism of the film can be seen to emerge from his dislike of the film’s moral stance; which he criticises thus: ‘the apparent amoralism of the film’s detached comic gaze is, in fact, an endorsement of a certain kind of male irresponsibility’. In order to justify his interpretation John Hill relies heavily on the differences between the film’s ending and that of the play script, preferring the original text and appealing to its authority as we can see in the following comments:

"This is particularly clear in the way in which the film departs from Andrea Dunbar’s original play. In this, Bob marries Rita but Sue does not move in with them. Moreover the play ends with a conversation between Sue’s mother … and Michelle… who begin to forge a certain bond… In this way the play offers a – feminine- perspective on events, as well as a distance from Bob’s actions that the film entirely removes."


The author versus the auteur

What John Hill is suggesting here is that a clash of authors can be seen struggling for authority in the film text and that it is the voice\ perspective of the male director that finally triumphs. His objection to the morality of the film mostly stems from its presentation of the character of Bob, as can be seen in his comments on the film’s final scene "Although the girls may be seen to be there on their terms …they are also in a position of apparently accepting Bob’s shortcomings and his desire to have them both. As such, they may have taken over his house but they have also done so on terms which appear to favour Bob the most (and reward him for his seduction of under-age schoolgirls)." He also highlights the fact that; " the original play places much more emphasis upon the fact that the girls are only 15 and that Bob could be sent to prison." That there clearly are significant differences between the play script and the film is indisputable, but what generates these differences can be seen to be due to far more complex factors than simply a male auteur’s perspective overwhelming that of the female author.

John Hill Marshalls an auteur approach when analysing the influence of Alan Clarke on the material. In so far as he finds Clarke’s ‘signature’ mostly within the film’s formal features, particularly his distinctive editing techniques and camera position and movement, "In a manner typical of the director Alan Clarke, the film draws upon an observational (or documentary realist’) style based upon long takes and the avoidance of point-of-view shots and reverse-field cutting." The presence of these ‘typical’ features is used to justify the argument that the film is therefore controlled by the director, to the detriment of the writer of the original text. But as critics of auteur approaches have made clear, the idea of the director as the sole, or even most powerful, creator of meaning in a text fails to take into account the realities of film production and consumption.

Auteur critics focus on the formal features of a film to trace the auteur’s signature because they are the area of the film’s production over which the director has a high degree of control. They are not necessarily the only or indeed the most influential on the films meaning, however, although for the purposes of auteur theory they have been elevated to such a position. This has led to a focus on the power of mise-en-scene, in particular, and film form in general, as the site of meaning production and a concomitant underestimation of the contribution of aspects such as script/narrative and performance in auteur study and by extension film study as a whole. This approach allows John Hill to ignore the fact that the film script was also written by Andrea Dunbar. His insistence on referring to the play as the ‘original’, encourages us to view the play text as somehow more authentically her work than the film script. Her authority as the author of the script for the play Rita, Sue and Bob Too cannot logically be greater than her authority as the writer of the screen play for the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too. In producing the screen play she included material from an earlier play ‘The Arbor’ so it clearly is a different work, but no less her own.

Perhaps it is worth considering here what we can gather about her status as writer of both these texts. John Hill’s references to the ‘original’ play and its ‘feminine’ perspective seem designed to create the impression of the play script as offering somehow unmediated access to the mind and ideas of the author Andrea Dunbar, which has been lost in the process of film production and the intrusion of a second author/auteur; namely the film’s director. It cannot be disputed that film is indeed a collaborative production, and that the influence of the director will be one of the stronger influences on the films eventual meaning. What I do dispute is the assumption that any text can simply transmit the author’s perspective free from the influence of social and historical forces. The production process of the play scripts The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too, as far as it can be traced, illustrates these influences at work explicitly.


The author versus the producer

Andrea Dunbar came to the attention of The Royal Court Theatre when a piece of writing she had produced for her GCSE English course was entered for their young writers competition. Max Stafford-Clark, the Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre wanted to produce the play and invited her to attend rehearsals in London. Even at this stage we can see institutional factors at work shaping the writing she produced. The demands of a national curriculum and examination board were as much the inspiration for the work as any personal motive. Similarly, during the rehearsal process the influence of actors and producer altered dramatically the text’s meaning, as Dunbar herself recognised. She ‘was amazed to find how much she laughed at the scenes she had written. "it weren’t so funny when it were happening", she commented wryly". Max Stafford-Clarke’s explanation of how such a change to the writer’s stated intentions could have occurred is revealing in its coyness; " Somehow the alchemy of theatre often turned her scenes into something hilarious as well as brutal". The ‘alchemy of theatre’ is a useful phrase for eliding the actual intervention of real social forces in the production of the final text. That the experiences Dunbar turned into writing were performed in such a way as to appear funny, was due in a large part to the cultural gulf that existed between her working class world of northern council estates and the metropolitan, middle class values and environment of The Royal Court Theatre. The situations she describes in her work, though commonplace to her, become extreme and exotic when presented on the stage and one reaction to that is laughter. When Stafford Clarke himself comments on her life, "She had no desire to move away from Buttershaw and had little curiosity about life elsewhere." The difference between their values and aspirations are unmistakeably.

Some of the differences in meaning between Dunbar’s conception of the play and its eventual meaning can thus be seen to be produced by this confused clash of cultural expectations, but other aspects of the play’s development can be traced to more overt intervention on the part of Stafford-Clarke, as the play’s producer. In his description of the writing process he describes his role in encouraging Dunbar to extend the play for a full performance, "A full length version of the Arbor existed in my head but I wasn’t altogether certain the same play occupied Andrea’s thoughts" And then during rehearsals "I badgered her for more detail and invariably she provided it." When he commissioned a second play his role in its production was just as active, "I would suggest scenes to move the play along." This investigation of Stafford-Clarke’s contribution is not made here to belittle Dunbar’s role in the production of either text but to challenge the simplistic idea that literary texts don’t include as many competing perspectives as film texts do.

Isolating the literary text from its historical and social context, which illuminates many aspects of its meaning and effect, is as theoretically bankrupt as refusing to analyse film texts seriously as valid cultural forms due to the collaborative nature of their production.


Other Authorities: Institutional Forces at Work in the Text

This discussion of the role other people may have in the generation of textual meaning in both film and drama texts has I hope shown how the questions and approaches film studies uses in analysing text can also yield insights into the production of literary texts. .

But it could be argued that play texts are a special case, their very nature as texts for performance means the influence of other factors, including the performers and producers make them more comparable to film than novels or poetry. But there are also other, less easily traced influences on a texts meaning that the whole auteur/author debate may blind us to; genre for example casts its authority over both the form of a text and its reception. Even such writerly texts as novels and poetry, which can be produced with minimal input from other agents, are influenced by institutional factors that pertain to the production of their work

This film is commonly described in popular reviews as a ‘sex comedy’, not a highly respected genre but one with quite a tradition in British cinema. A sex comedy is bound to take a very different attitude to the sexual behaviour of the characters than a stage play for the Royal Court Theatre, which is famous for producing politically radical work. The demands of genre then, rather than the male perspective of the director, could be seen to account for the differences between the play and the film that John Hill most objects to; the upbeat ending of the film in which Rita, Sue and Bob are all in bed together and the lack of explicit reference to the fact that Bob could go to prison for sleeping with underage girls. Clearly in a sex comedy the emphasis will be on the humour of the situations and such a threat would be inappropriate, similarly a comedy demands a cheerful resolution to fulfil genre expectations. An investigation into the demands of genre on a text’s meaning and form also illuminates the play text. The Royal Court Theatre’s self-avowed intent is to ‘encourage writers across society and address the problems and possibilities of our time’ and the use of the term ‘problem’ here alerts us to the genre of play that there mission invariably encourages; the social problem play. These generic demands can be seen to account for other differences between the film and play text that John Hill didn’t highlight, probably because they didn’t fit his argument that the changes lead to the film’s failure to punish Bob. There’s a scene in the play, for example, in which Bob gives the girls an impromptu political seminar on the evils of Thatcherism that isn’t included in the film. While it fulfils the demands of the social problem genre, commenting on the problems of our time it would be out of place in a sex comedy and never makes it into the film. These more complex generic demands can be seen to lay behind the differences between the two texts, moving the debate beyond the different contributions of writers, directors.


Adaptations in Film and Literature

This comparison of two texts demonstrates how much more fruitful readings arise when the concept of an ‘original’ text and an appeal to its authority is discarded in favour of an objective analysis of both texts on their own terms as autonomous texts worthy of study. But perhaps this investigation of an adaptation could be taken further. The adaptation of concepts that are used regularly in film studies but rarely in literary approaches can open up new areas of analysis and ask new questions of literary texts. As a teacher of both Film Studies and English Literature at A level I am often frustrated that the new and interesting approaches taken in film studies are given no place in the English Literature syllabus. Rather than relying merely on adaptations of text to film in the classroom, English studies should be considering adaptations of film methodologies to enrich the whole subject.



Dunbar, A. and R. Soans. (2000). Rita, Sue and Bob Too and A State Affair. London: Methuen Publishing Limited.

Hill, J. (1999). British Cinema in the 1980s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This text will also appear in the proceedings of the 13th Oxford Conference on Teaching Literature organised by the British Council.