Woolf on film

Androgyny and sexuality in Sally Potter's 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando

Sally Potter’s 1992 adaptation of Orlando is a truly breathtaking example of adapting a novel to the big screen, reflecting the craft and artistry of the filmmaker while remaining largely true and respectful of Woolf’s original work. Starring Tilda Swinton in one of her finest and most appropriate roles as the eponymous hero. Swinton wrote about the transformative effect finding Virginia Woolf’s novel had on her as a youth, and her dedication to the role shines through in the movie. Slender, androgynous and almost as posh as Orlando, she read the book not just as a frivolous fantasy, but as a ‘practical manual’ for living.

Woolf was a writer who experimented with form in a cinematic way herself, continually innovating within her novels through the fluid representations of character, time and consciousness. Woolf’s comedic thrust and arch authorial voice is interpreted by the knowing asides in the film, when Swinton breaks the fourth wall and her clear eyes gaze directly at the viewer. The dramatic leaps between time periods fit within the entirely logical structure of the film. Even without the impeccable writing and pacing of the film, Swinton’s hairstyles and costumes are enough to take the viewer along for the ride.

Despite the film version of Orlando glossing over much of the main character’s sexuality, it is richly transgressive in its own way. There is a wonderful moment in the film when Tilda Swinton awakes for the first time as a woman. After shedding the trappings of wigs and heavy brocaded clothes, the shimmering reflection of water playing on her skin, she turns to look at herself in the mirror. Transcendant, timeless and naked as a Greek statue, Swinton says the words ‘Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.’ A truly beautiful scene, and one that does justice to the radical sentiment of Woolf’s novel.

Clip from the film 'Orlando'

Literary queerness hasn’t often survived the process of adaptation to the screen. Films have committees and boards and funding partners behind them, that can cut representation of queer, trans or BAME issues even more dramatically than in other creative industries. The relationship between Celie and Shug in The Colour Purple is turned from an explicitly erotic and intimate sexual relationship into a sisterly kiss in Steven Spielberg’s 1992 version. The love between lesbians Idge and Ruth in Fried Green Tomatoes is sublimated into a very intense but platonic friendship in the film. However, there’s definitely a rich and ever-growing canon of queer lit and film to draw inspiration from. What are your must-watches and/or must-reads?

Penguin Pride

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more