At which point a book becomes something else? How do film adaptations, street art and rap songs relate to literature? How can we analyze these texts and what can we learn about literature from them?

Worlds emerging from books

Every artistic text can give rise to multiple re-tellings which form complex and intricate universes. Some texts become more influential than others: The number of texts inspired by Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings is almost infinite and goes up every day. What initiates this process and how can a single text become the foundation for a whole world? In order to understand this phenomenon, we need to take a look at how culture works.

Every culture employs a variety of languages for mediating meaning, such as the languages of visual art, music, cinema, and so on. The languages of culture are constantly repeating the most crucial knowledge. Important texts can be translated in multiple languages: For instance, novels are adapted into movies, comic strips become plots for TV series, cartoons inspire the creators of video games, etc. Since full translatability between the languages is never possible, this makes such attempts inexact, unpredictable, and also creative. 

The process of translation is affected by numerous factors: cultural background of the author, artistic traditions, social context. Each translation has a dominant – “the focusing component of a work of art” that “rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components” (Jakobson 1997: 6). When the dominant is changed, the peripheral elements of the text may become more important, whereas the central ones are marginalized. For instance, modern re-tellings tend to highlight elements of the original which are more relevant to contemporary times: representation of women and minorities, ecological issues, political problems, and so forth.

How do transmedia worlds hold together?

Transmedia worlds are “fictional worlds constructed through a wide variety of media, such as films, TV series, books, videogames, webisodes, comics etc” (Koskimaa 2018). The audience takes active part in this process by producing fanfiction, reviews, Youtube reactions, parodies, and other texts. Both the authors and the audience share a mental image of “worldness” – a number of distinguishing features of the universe. These features emerge from the first version of the world—for instance, a novel—and can be elaborated and changed over time. 

Danish scholars Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca have developed a model for analyzing transmedial worlds. According to them, all versions of the text share a basic foundational story and only one version of an ethos, topos, and mythos (2004). The mythos includes the main conflicts and characters of the world; the topos refers to the setting of the world in a specific historical period, as well as to its detailed geography; and the ethos is the explicit and implicit ethics of the world shared by the characters. While analyzing various versions of the same story, we can notice how different authors play with these three dimensions.

part2 transmedia

Texts as codes

When some texts are constantly retold in different languages of culture, they can turn into text-codes (Lotman 1992: 150). We instantly recognize such texts, even if we encounter them in unusual forms and places: For example, when reading a story about a poor girl turning rich and famous overnight, we will remember the tale of Cinderella. Such texts can be divided into recognizable motifs: In Cinderella's case, that would be not only the life story of the main character, but also the motifs of a lost shoe or a pumpkin carriage. 

Each motif becomes a brick that can be used in new creations. It might even be unnecessary to get or be familiar with the original – people often use catchphrases and refer to certain plots without even knowing their source. This happens not only in the case of literary classics, but also with digitally-born texts such as memes: An original piece can be reused so many times that it is impossible to find the first version.


Jakobson, Roman 1997 [1935]. The Dominant. In: Newton K.M. (eds) Twentieth-Century Literary Theory. Palgrave, London, 6-10.

Klastrup, L., & Tosca, S. (2004). Transmedial worlds: Rethinking cyberworld design. Proceedings of the International Conference on Cyberworlds 2004, IEEEE Computer Society. Los Alamitos, CA.

Лотман, Юрий 1992 [1981]. Текст в тексте. Статьи по семиотике и топологии культуры. Том 1. Таллин: Александра, 148-161.

Ojamaa, Maarja; Peeter Torop 2015. Transmediality of cultural autocommunication. International Journal of Cultural Studies 18(1): 61–78.

Piļipoveca, Tatjana. 2020. Fairy Tales in Transmedia Communication: Fanfiction. PhD thesis. University of Tartu, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics.

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