Can the Film be Better than the Book? A case study of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’

Hello, everybody! Yes, this is a literature review, and no this is not what I was supposed to be writing this week, but due to a farce with finding employment (guys, do a degree because you’re passionate not because you think it’ll make you more employable) earlier this week my plans and usual upload schedule were shot to hell.

But in the meantime, I have bee venturing into feminist literature in the form of Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and I have some thoughts for you….

I came across Orlando (Sally Potter, UK, 1992) during my undergraduate degree and thought it was honestly one of the best films I had ever seen (WATCH IT, IT IS AMAZING), I was also given a copy of A Room of One’s Own for my birthday and read it rapidly with interest. My next project, post-degree, was to read Orlando.

Here’s the thing about Virginia Woolf – she is incredibly intelligent, and has fantastic ideas and it is interesting to look back on early feminism. Her essays are phenomenal. Her books are dense.

I’m not saying I didn’t like Orlando (the novel) because I did, truly. I enjoyed the witticisms of the narrator – including the section where she comments that she cannot narrate anymore because Orlando has shut herself inside reading and therefore the narrator has no room to comment, and the actual concept of the novel: a man who throughout the course of time turns into a woman – fascinating. (Side note, I do feel like Orlando was always effeminate and this is why he can transform – would you ever have a novel with a woman transforming into a man, or would it not work?)

The major problem of the work, and I found this with both To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway is that her writing – unlike in her essays – is dense, overcomplicated and sometimes difficult to actually understand. I find this baffling considering how fluent and easy to read A Room of One’s Own is – a forerunner in feminist literature! I think she had a tendency as a writer to overcomplicate her novels with philosophy, almost in the style of the 17th-century writers that she refers to in the text – Addison, Pope, Swift. For me, this is a stylistic choice which I find very difficult to grasp.

Personally, and this is a controversial statement perhaps, I prefer the film. When I was younger, before I studied Film as an Academic subject, I thought that you could only see a Film Adaptation of a book if you had read the book, and even then the Film was NOT ALLOWED to be better than the book. I now think that books and films are good in different ways, they can show different things and explore different angles – sometimes a book can elaborate more in a positive way, sometimes they can elaborate too much.

I think Sally Potter’s adaptation of Orlando is much more succinct, impressive and politically meaningful. The medium of film allows Potter to show the passage of time in way books cannot (see video clip below), equally, it has room to be funny and extracting the narrator to use Orlando himself/herself as narrator by breaking the fourth wall is a stroke of genius. Orlando (the book), despite the complex subject matter, is perhaps not Woolf’s best feminist text; indeed most academics agree it is a love letter to her lover at the time whereas A Room of One’s Own pretends to be nothing other than it is – an essay.

So here’s the crux: can a Film be more meaningful than the source text? Where do you stand on this issue?

P.S. With any luck next week I will be back to regularly scheduled programming, with one post a week on Wednesday evening around Bake Off O’clock (8pm) – and here’s a bigger question to ponder: will the move to Channel 4, without Mel and Sue, ruin Bake Off….?

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