In 1926, when film was still a young and emerging artform, Virginia Woolf wrote the essay ‘On Cinema’, considering the medium with all its possibilities and limitations. In it, she is particularly outspoken on the issue of literary adaptation, likening film to a predator who falls upon its prey, literature, “with immense rapacity”, but with disastrous results for both. The alliance, she says, is unnatural – even lazy, as filmmakers rely on well-known pieces of literature to form a solid base for their film.
The adaptation, then, makes a story superficial: whereas in literature the reader knows characters almost entirely through the insides of their minds – what they think and feel – in cinema, the audience is presented only with their surface. Losing this level of interiority, emotions are translated into actions. As Woolf writes, “A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse.” – all the while losing the depth of a novel of hundreds of pages.
Adaptation as Translation
Indeed, in the many decades following ‘On Cinema’, films have easily and often fallen into the trappings of adaptation she mentions here, and sadly continue to do so. Marleen Gorris’ 1996 adaptation of Mrs Dalloway is a clear example, with a faithful script by Virginia Woolf expert and actress Eileen Atkins making for an extremely literal translation.
The 1925 novel is concerned primarily with the interior life of its two protagonists – Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith – and Woolf renders these beautifully in her exquisite language. In the adaptation, the question of how to make known the thoughts and memories of Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave) is solved by voiceovers and flashbacks; and while both are legitimate means of storytelling, the voiceover in particular is used here in a very heavy-handed way.
What cannot be told visually is narrated by Mrs Dalloway herself, often with closeups of Redgrave’s face. Her casting and performance stand out, but the adaptation remains very conventional; the film version has little to offer that’s unique to this newer medium.
Woolf’s arguments continue to be relevant today; but while she likens film to a parasite, she is still able to see its potential, wondering how this emergent art form can flourish beyond the realms of unimaginative adaptations. She asks: “what, then, are its devices? […] At present it is only from hints that one can frame any conjecture”; yet she has spotted possibilities in the expressionist cinema of the Weimar Republic, which relies less on conventional narrative devices than moods conjured by shadows and shapes.
She recognizes clearly that film has much more to offer than mere retellings. There is the potential in this “secret language” to reach the audience’s emotions on a far deeper level. If rendered skillfully in cinema, the “likeness of the thought is […] more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available, than the thought itself.”
Alongside Mrs Dalloway stands Orlando, Sally Potter’s astonishing 1992 adaptation, achieving what Mrs Dalloway does not. Subtitled A Biography, the novel Orlando (1928) narrates the extraordinary life of its eponymous protagonist, which spans three centuries – from Elizabethan England all the way into the early twentieth century – and holds at its heart a unique change of sex. Written as an homage to Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, Orlando has been called literature’s “longest and most charming love letter”, and cleverly weaves details of Sackville-West’s own biography into that of Orlando. It is an unparalleled meditation on society and gender, and seems the far more difficult novel to translate into a feature-length film.
Potter, however, has crafted a cinematic masterpiece which can stand well on its own, while also making a beautiful companion piece for those who know the novel. Tilda Swinton makes a mesmerizing and perfectly androgynous Orlando, but beyond her performance, the film uses the potential of the medium extremely well, adapting the material not only to the screen, but also to advanced time – setting its ending in the 1990s rather than the 1920s.
Fiction and Biography
Though firmly embedded in the Western canon of literature, Virginia Woolf seems nonetheless more well-known for her life than her writing. A rare case of a female “mad genius”, Woolf’s biography is a fascinating one – no wonder, then, that it has time and again served as inspiration to artists of all disciplines, filmmakers among them.
Perhaps the most famous cinematic homage to Woolf is Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002), which in fact combines both her life and work. Itself based on a novel by Michael Cunningham, The Hours follows the stories of three women, each relating to Woolf – and in particular her most famous novel, Mrs Dalloway – in various ways. There is Virginia Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for her performance) as she begins writing the manuscript in the 1920s; Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) who picks up the novel in California in the 1950s; and ultimately Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) who curiously lives out the story of Clarissa Dalloway in New York in the early 2000s, beginning with the famous phrase “I’ll buy the flowers myself.”
The cast, of course, is a stellar one: without a doubt, the performances of Kidman, Streep, and Moore are some of the best of their fruitful careers, attracting both fans of Woolf’s writings and newcomers alike. It’s a delicate and beautiful film which respects – and loves – both Virginia Woolf and her character Clarissa Dalloway.
“A woman’s whole life, in a single day, just one day, and then that day, her whole life,” the fictionalized Woolf says of her novel in the film; The Hours echoes this structure (though it follows three women rather than one), framing it with Woolf’s 1941 suicide by drowning. All three women brush death in some way during that single day, and each of those encounters serves as a memento mori moment. This, too, can be traced back to the novel, where the suicide of war veteran Septimus Warren Smith sends a ripple all the way through Mrs Dalloway’s party.
Weaving together biopic and literary adaptation on several levels, the various strands of narrative – often linked together by similar visual cues or dialogue in the film – create a beautiful tapestry, showing the long-lasting effect of one famous book, as well as the greater depths of human emotion. This Daldry achieves firstly through the intimate and moving performances of his cast, who let silence speak as much as dialogue, but also in no small measure thanks to Philip Glass’ incredibly effective score.
A Dramatisation of Letters
Biographical films are always adaptations themselves, often based on written biographies, or otherwise diaries and letters; it is a rare case indeed when there is no textual basis. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia (2019) is an adaptation and dramatisation of the correspondence between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, with countless letters documenting their relationship, from their first meeting until the end of Woolf’s life. Though same-sex couples were slowly becoming more accepted in the early 20th century, particularly in certain artistic circles, it is still rare to have available such rich source material – particularly between two women. This literary affair is doubtless one of the great LGBT love stories in history, and is long overdue a film treatment.
While the letters are essential to understanding the nuanced dynamic between them, however, Button and co-writer Eileen Atkins rely too heavily on these written texts: much of the film is merely narrated by the actresses Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki (Vita and Virginia respectively) as they look directly into the camera. This is no inventive or effective fourth-wall break, but a lazy and unoriginal device which focuses on the time spent apart, rather than what happened in between. But it is exactly this – what readers cannot gauge for themselves from the correspondence, which has been published in various editions – which would make the biopic interesting.
As it is, much of the nuance, the joy and the wit of the letters is lost. Virginia Woolf is portrayed as the nervous object of desire, while Vita pursues her with single-minded interest – when Woolf was, in fact, just as fascinated by Sackville-West. In Vita & Virginia, the chemistry between them is never allowed to develop organically. Always remaining on a surface level, Button fails to make her film anything more than a literal translation of text into actions: to return to Woolf’s essay, no thought is “rendered visible without the help of words”.
Adaptation and Beyond
Beyond those films which use Virginia Woolf’s life and work as direct reference material, there are traces of their influence in many more. Most recently, her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), a feminist tract on women and their ability to create art, was alluded to by the set design of Olivia Wilde’s teen comedy Booksmart (2019). And of course there is Mike Nichols’ gloriously savage adaptation of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Yet there continues to be a distinct lack of Woolf’s novels on screen, which stands out particularly compared to the frequent adaptations of her contemporaries like D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster. Is the adaptation of her writing – the essential interiority of her characters – a task too intimidating for today’s filmmakers? If that is the case, there are several more conventional titles, such as The Voyage Out (1915) or Night and Day (1919). These novels contain early seeds of feminism, and well deserve to be revisited in film (or even in miniseries form), offering Woolf’s unique perspective on women’s rights in the 1910s and 20s – a period which remains rarely explored on screen.
And yet, the real challenge would be to find and capture the cinematic language Woolf speaks of in her essay, and to pay tribute fully to her magnificent writing. How interesting would it be to see a director like Josephine Decker, who has shown in the past a uniquely impressionistic approach to her films, take on Woolf’s deeply modernist novels To the Lighthouse (1927) or The Waves (1931)?
We can only hold out hope for what the cinematic future may bring.
Woolf, Virginia. “On Cinema”. In: Virginia Woolf: The Complete Works. Reading Time, 2019.