- Woolf & Film
IN HER less than enthusiastic, even trenchant, take on the cinema in its infancy, Virginia Woolf lamented, among other things, the passivity of the viewer: “the eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think” (“The Cinema,” 1926). But she also had the good sense (and foresight) to acknowledge that judging the potential of this new medium for storytelling was akin to listening [End Page 546] for Mozart in the rhythmic striking of two iron bars. Nevertheless, she foresaw a limitation in the medium’s emphasis on exterior rather than interior realities that she believed it could never quite overcome, which as Ingersoll points out, is akin to what she saw as the limitations of literary realism in communicating the inner lives of its characters in her more famous essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Acutely attentive to how word and image combine to communicate meaning in each attempt thus far at bringing Woolf’s novels—and most recently a simulacrum of Virginia Woolf herself—to the screen, Ingersoll shows that all it takes to film Woolf’s signature “stream of consciousness” is a little—well, actually more than just a little—imagination. More precisely, what is required is a cinematic imagination for finding “graphic equivalents for the interior monologue.” Ingersoll’s chronological study of film adaptations of novels by and about Woolf offers nothing less than a window on the evolution of the recent cinema as a narrative art.
“So much depends upon distance,” Woolf wrote in To the Lighthouse (1927). The emphasis on seeing in this novel, on frames of reference, on looking and being looked at, on what lies (or lurks) behind what we have come to call “the gaze,” could provoke an inspired adaptation, but Ingersoll does not find it in the Hugh Stoddart/Colin Gregg 1983 BBC made-for-television production, despite the fortuitous casting of Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Ramsay and a young Kenneth Branagh as Charles Tansley. The small screen (before flat screen High Definition) simply did not lend itself to such visual effects and/or meditations, and the limited time frame worked against ample character development. On the other hand, Woolf’s early interest in newsreel footage as “a vision of a world without any defined consciousness” looks forward to what she set out to achieve in the middle “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse and to this adaptation’s success at communicating it. “We see life as it is when we have no part in it,” she wrote of newsreel footage, and we sense that “this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish, whether we behold it or not.” Ingersoll, wisely or not, does not pursue the influence of the cinema upon Woolf’s artistic development, or even the relevance of this quotation to what Clarissa Dalloway felt in Mrs. Dalloway. His focus is on the adaptations, and this one, for reasons not entirely explained (or perhaps even explainable), accents all the wrong notes in every character and in every relationship, and only captures the tone of the short middle section almost by default. [End Page 547]
In taking up Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of Orlando (1928), Ingersoll faces the daunting task of ringing the changes on gender identity that Woolf’s novel, and the casting in the film of Tilda Swinton as the eponymous hero/heroine, engenders. The permutations are enough to set one’s head spinning. (When Swinton’s Orlando kisses Sasha, is it as a man or as a woman?) Ingersoll meets that challenge by calling to his aid feminist theory and feminist interpretations of the novel, which lead him to conclude that the film, while finding cinematic equivalents for the playful, fabricating self-reflexivity of the novel, and highlighting how gender is culturally constructed, soft-pedals its lesbian content by “heterosexualizing” Orlando, “polices gender boundaries” and fails at capturing Woolf’s feminist vision (let alone the novel’s status as a...