Something Intricate and Many-Chambered: On Adapting Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”
By Julia SirmonsNovember 25, 2023
Woolf’s Orlando, effervescent and fun and profound, still seems a bit tricky to adapt for the screen. The book is full of splendor and action and sexy stuff, but it is firmly rooted in a literary kind of interiority. The wonder and wit come from Orlando’s private observations and ruminations, as well as the metatextual presence of a biographer, who alternately mocks and cheers them throughout their journey.
Nevertheless, Woolf’s novel has enticed filmmakers, as if Orlando’s themes of transition and transformation are so compelling that the novel itself is begging to be transformed. By exploring some of those chambers in Orlando’s being, three particular films summon Woolf’s work by embracing the sheer variety of bodily differences, from old carnival sideshows to a wide range of trans-identifying people today. They celebrate myriad beauties, from a pearl-studded doublet to a perfectly painted magenta lip. They propose that transition as a font of creativity—just one version of the pleasurable trick of finding nature and turning it into art. That these films, made by a lesbian, a heterosexual woman, and a trans man, could embrace Orlando’s styles, as well as their own political perspectives, speaks well of the capacious, many-chamberedness of Woolf’s novel and, in turn, reflects the generative power of reading from a marginalized point of view. These three adaptations of Woolf’s Orlando—Freak Orlando (1981), Orlando (1992), and, most recently, Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography (2023)—demonstrate how literature and cinema can take us beyond or away from the conventional bounds of selfhood and into more flexible, more insightful and playful realms.
Woolf’s novel is best known for its ahead-of-its-time sexual politics, but its appeal to filmmakers may well lie in the inventive ways in which Woolf draws the connection between sexuality and human experience writ large. The transition from one gendered body to another is related to the artist’s transformation of the natural and the artificial. Woolf’s prose is gorgeously overstuffed; each plant or animal Orlando observes sets off cascading, evocative descriptions and comparisons. His young poetic mind is full of “images, metaphors of the most extreme and extravagant.” He describes his first lover, Sasha, as “a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow all in the space of three seconds.” As they age, Orlando finds that their split identities—both a poet and a lover of nature—are not at odds with one another, but growing more entwined. (“Life? Literature? One to be made into the other?” Orlando ponders, on the edge of an epiphany.) Various kinds of transformation contain hidden mysteries and delights in a world where “[e]verything, in fact, was something else.”
Reading Orlando as a text of abundant aesthetic transformations, filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger uses Woolf as a springboard for a display of spectacular bodies and rich allusions. Her film Freak Orlando combines elements of Woolf’s book with those of Tod Browning’s cult classic movie Freaks (1932). As an artist situated within the experimental and queer factions of New German Cinema, Ottinger does not “adapt” Woolf’s book in any conventional sense; the plot, such as it is, differs completely. Ottinger sends her Orlando—who begins as a woman and then becomes a man—on a journey through five different episodes, where they take on different guises and encounter various kinds of “othered” subjects: dwarfs, punks, conjoined twins, mad monks, and amputees.
In some ways, Ottinger is less interested in Orlando’s androgyny than in their longevity. Orlando travels through time and space to witness the many ways that othered bodies are spectacularized, from religious persecutions to fairground performances. Her Orlando is played by the underground superstar Magdalena Montezuma, whose striking profile can look butch or femme, depending on the angle or the outfit. Her expressive eyes lock onto the “freakish” subjects with wonder, awe, and desire. Montezuma’s striking, silent movie–grade intensity brings Orlando’s inner monologue to the surface. Like Woolf’s Orlando, they are full of curiosity and the desire to understand and classify all that they encounter.
Where Woolf went with florid and aestheticized language, Ottinger provides spectacular set pieces, including a kind of medieval pageant with a performance based on the folk saint Wilgefortis. Wilgefortis was crucified by her father after she tried to avoid marriage by growing a long beard. Ottinger’s Wilgefortis is a kitsch diva, trussed up on the cross with a gold foil crown and a sparkly dress embellished with Christmas lights. She sings her story in a fragmented style combining jazz and opera with punk screams. The viewer’s reactions come in weird waves. As with Wilgefortis’s song, many other scenes of “freakish” display are sometimes splendid, sometimes uncomfortably comic. Film scholar Gertrud Koch praised Freak Orlando’s “generous image fantasies.” Ottinger’s endless visual imagination matches Woolf’s wild literary world. Ottinger’s Orlando takes in all the joys and wonders of different bodies, but they also learn more about the oppression these bodies can be subjected to.
Set against Ottinger’s work, Sally Potter’s Orlando seems to be the “faithful” adaptation, mimetic and respectful and the only version in the same language as the original novel (English). This is sort of true: Potter hits most of Woolf’s plot points and uses period-appropriate costumes and design. But it achieves something greater by figuring out how to translate the book’s air of knowingness and metatextuality, which Potter accomplishes with superficial technique, but also with great attention to design and mise en scène.
Orlando (played by Tilda Swinton) directly addresses the audience with wry little observations. There’s great and lively wit imbued in the film, down to its bones. It’s there in the stately arrangement of bodies in tableaux, in the slightly exaggerated gestures, in the arch dialogue, even in the luxurious but aggrandized costumes designed by Sandy Powell. The aesthetic is one of astonishment and play. Orlando is coming of age in the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts, where spectacle and play with gender were par for the course. The long processions and court dances, with their articulated steps and pronounced little bows, initially make it seem that the androgynous Orlando is very much at home.
In light of all this, it’s tempting to call Potter’s Orlando camp. After all, she cast gay icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I, and it’s a stately, delightful drag show. That designation clarifies things, but, at the same time, the film is passionately heterosexual in a way that camp rarely allows. The first half of the film, which follows Orlando’s life as a male, cemented Swinton’s reputation as the High Priestess of Androgyny. She’s perfect as a boy—coltish and dreamy, but with an undertone of the manly confidence that will be his birthright in good time. But after Orlando’s transition, the film develops new dimensions. Orlando’s experience as a man feels less like an experience in and of itself than a prelude to a more fulfilling experience of womanhood.
In the novel, Woolf uses her protagonist’s transition for some feminist commentary, and to explore her conflicted feelings about expectations for cisgendered heterosexual women. After becoming a woman, for example, Orlando realizes she must wear restricting clothes and has no power to shut up men who are boring her. At the same time, Orlando finds something delicious in being a woman, a languor in its presumed passivity. There is a “heavenly […] rapture” in the notion that a woman’s role is “to resist and to yield[,] to yield and to resist.” Potter’s film focuses more on the downsides: Orlando endures a long and insulting marriage proposal, Swinton swirls and crab-walks awkwardly in ostentatiously restrictive undergarments.
Orlando meets her lover Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) literally as she’s running away from society’s expectations of women, Desperate to be alone, she hikes up those wide skirts and runs through a hedge maze; when she finally gets out, her skirts slip and she falls flat to the ground. Shelmerdine, with an enviable mane of dark hair, rides out from the fog to save her, only to be thrown from his horse. The two face each other in the mud, having failed to properly fail to fulfill their gendered expectations, and sparks fly.
The first scene between them is sexy and bittersweet, because they are ships passing in the night: Orlando, after centuries, wants to stay in England, while Shelmerdine is still called by the sea. He tells her she wants a lover, not a husband. They could not have understood each other’s souls had Orlando not first lived as a man, but they are still separated by a very stereotypically gendered dynamic: the man who wants to leave and the woman who must stay put. And, right or wrong, Potter seems to suggest that it is Orlando’s experience as a man that helps her see that she can live and parent on her own.
In Woolf’s telling, Orlando and Shelmerdine marry, and he pops home now and again between travels. Potter ends Orlando’s story quite differently. Having lived through to the 1990s, Orlando finally sells the book she started writing 500 years earlier. She has a young daughter, who she takes, in a sidecar on her motorcycle, to visit her old family estate, (which she could no longer inherit when she became a woman). She ends up on the lawn of the old house, sitting at the base of the old oak tree where she loved to sit as a boy. Her daughter runs around the wheat field while an angel appears above and sings to Orlando that she is now free from the past, “neither a woman nor a man.”
Much of the second half of Potter’s Orlando speaks to the contemporary concerns of cisgendered, heterosexual women, namely how to live with a man unconventionally and how to raise a child alone. This in no way undoes the genius and the glory of Potter’s androgynous fantasias. Rather, it demonstrates how Orlando can be retold and molded from different marginalized perspectives, somewhere in one of those many chambers.
Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography, which opened in theaters on November 10, brings a much-needed trans perspective on Woolf’s work. Preciado, a Spanish writer and one of the most provocative and prolific philosophers of sex and sexuality, dives into Woolf’s text and sets it against the contemporary moment of trans expression and repression. In this French production, Preciado makes it clear that he’s not interested in just opening up Orlando and measuring it by history’s yardstick. Instead, Preciado treats Orlando as an old friend, with all the complexities that that relationship entails.
The book may occasionally rankle Preciado because of its reticence or its anachronisms, but it also knows him in ways that are heartfelt and hard to shake. At the beginning of the film, Preciado says he has found it impossible to write his own autobiography because “Virginia fucking Woolf” had already written it before his birth. (The “fucking,” he assures us, is a term of endearment.) Preciado seems to have decided that the only way towards his own autobiography is through a dialogue with Orlando. This dynamic gives Political Biography, which both celebrates and deconstructs its source text, a unique character and a wider wisdom about how our reading molds our selves.
Preciado doubles down on Orlando’s interest in shifting identities by casting multiple actors to play Orlando at various stages of their journey. (The actors are also all at different stages of their own transitions.) In their screen tests, the actors tell their own narratives: when they first knew, what treatments they are using, what they plan to do next, how they see themselves, and who they want to become. As we watch this testimony from various performers, we cannot help but feel the variety of current trans experience beyond Woolf’s comprehension. At the same time, the technique follows her orders: it satisfies her yearning for understanding and appreciating beauty in all its varieties and how beauty comes to mean something to the beautiful.
These scenes are cut with Preciado’s narration of trans history since Woolf’s novel, highlighting pioneers like Christine Jorgenson. He addresses Woolf directly, questioning her ideas and intentions, and rightly homes in on Woolf’s reticence about the process of gender transition. In the book, it is shrouded in mystery; Orlando transitions while in a deep sleep. She forcefully separates herself from these questions. “But let other pens treat of sex and sexuality,” she writes. “[W]e quit such odious subjects.”
Preciado happily picks up that pen and corrects this impasse by making the novel itself transition. He incorporates a sly, ingenious scene where doctors put a copy of the book on the operating table, cutting out sections of the book, including the word “violence.” It’s a bold vision of how he’s decided to continue to converse with Woolf’s novel: take what you need and leave the rest.
In another charming conceit, Preciado sometimes splices the talking head interviews with text from Woolf’s book. Suddenly, the performers will interrupt their own narratives and slip into snippets of Woolf’s descriptions of Orlando. This push-pull between art and reality jibes with Woolf’s and Orlando’s dynamic between the artificial and the natural. It also sums up the dynamic at play in all the cinematic Orlandos: how do you read with a piece of art that touches you, that even seems to know you, but is always a few degrees off? How can you live alongside that one character, one side plot, that you know should be scrapped in the dustbin of history? Woolf’s commitment to aesthetic capaciousness, and to the possibilities of transition as a literary and aesthetic phenomenon, has allowed directors the leeway and liberty to slip in between words and take off in new directions.
Woolf’s particular magic created a powerful touchstone that captured dimensions of trans experience, even though she never lived these herself. To find oneself in literature this way, Preciado knows, is no substitute for granting trans people the space to tell their own stories. But these two kinds of storytelling and reading are not diametrically opposed. Ottinger’s, Potter’s, and Preciado’s films all pose the question of what it means to consume and make art from the margins. In the absence of visibility, the marginalized must seek out art from the past that, in the right light, captures their sense of self. There is even something pleasurable about this secret gift of seeing yourself where others cannot, even in the context of the literary canon. This ability to decode binds you to a community of people who can, who choose to, read in this same way.
Ottinger told Cinéaste in 1991, “Minorities are a lot more flexible, witty, and active than the majority.” She saw Freak Orlando as “about the history of this relationship between minority and majority.” Perhaps Orlando persists as a rich source for feminist and queer filmmakers because of its flexibility that encourages new and multifaceted expressions of identities and gender. There’s no limit to what you can find, if you look at it the right way.
Julia Sirmons writes about style and excess in film, television, and performance.
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