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An Offbeat Adaptation: Orlando

Timotheos Roussos

He—for there could be no doubt of his sex—though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it.[1]

So begins Virginia Woolf’s rather unusual novel Orlando. Sexual confusion and ambiguity is a main theme. The first line in both the novel and Sally Potter’s film version gives a clear indication that the story will play with conventions of sexuality.[2] And even though the film begins in the same way, it is less successful in leaving no doubt about Orlando’s sex. Tilda Swinton does a good job portraying Orlando, but is still too feminine to be entirely believable as a man. But does she need to be convincing? Part of the joke could be that we willingly assent to both the author’s and the actor’s gender bending and blending. It is to director Sally Potter’s credit that she tries to emulate Woolf’s determination to play with male and female roles. In the film not only is the male Orlando played by a woman, but Queen Elizabeth I is played by a man (Quentin Crisp). Though quite feminine in the film, in the novel Sasha (a female with a masculine Russian name) is portrayed in ambiguous sexual terms—is Orlando attracted to her masculinity? The moral of the story, if it can be called such, is that sex is as much a convention as gender, or any other role prescribed by society. It can be changed at will. It is the inner essence of people, male or female, which matters. Thus, Potter’s Orlando, on discovering he is now a woman, declares, “Same person, no difference at all,” to her mirror reflection. She then looks directly at us and adds with a smile, “Just a different sex.”

Books have always provided inspiration and material for filmmakers. With the recent successes of the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many others too numerous to mention, the question of “faithful” versus “truthful” adaptation has gained prominence. It was once generally accepted that adapting a novel to film was a constraint on the film. New sensibilities and concerns now colour our readings of all the old classics. A generation raised on MTV and Hollywood blockbusters has less tolerance for introspection and intellectual (as opposed to physical) activity. Today’s viewer/reader expects physical (often fast-paced) action, sex, “cool” visual effects. Can the filmmaker stay “faithful” to the original book while appealing to a contemporary audience?

In the case of Orlando society had changed drastically in the intervening six decades between publication of the novel and release of the film. The film’s opening credits appear amid a group of giggling girls singing and dancing in some kind of new-agey nature ritual which does not seem to bear any relationship, direct or indirect, to the narrative. In the book a third-person narrator tells us Orlando’s story, but in the film Orlando him/herself tells us the fantastic tale. Some voice-over is used, and in many scenes, Orlando looks at the camera and often speaks directly to the viewer. In contrast to the book which opens with Orlando’s violent game of “slicing at the head of a Moor,”[3] the film opens with our protagonist very passively reclining against a tree and reading poetry. In the film as well as the novel Orlando occupies himself with literature and writing. At the beginning of the novel Orlando is late to greet the queen because he’s been working on his five-act tragedy. In the film Orlando fancies himself a poet. By chapter two of the novel he’s written forty-seven plays, which he later burns. He saves only one piece, which he reworks and rewrites as a poem. The poem of the novel becomes the book itself in the film; the poem’s title “The Oak Tree” becomes a literal tree anchoring and providing a neat opening and closing image for the film’s narrative. (Like Orlando’s essential self, the oak tree also appears as a constant. Though it has been suggested that it symbolises England, it is more likely that the tree represents Woolf’s concept of the immortality of “worthy” literature, and “good” art in general.) Unlike the novel, however, in which Orlando continues to write through the centuries, the film doesn’t show Orlando writing again after he receives the scathing satire of his presumed mentor, poet Nick Greene. The only indication we have that Orlando has continued or returned to writing is a scene towards the end. Orlando is meeting with a London publisher who asks how long it has taken to write the enormous, leather-bound manuscript.

In addition to the central premise of Orlando’s fluid and variable gender, there are other instances of gender ambiguity and confusion. One such case is the sexual masquerade of Archduchess Harriet who is later discovered to be a man. In the novel, Harriet meets Orlando before he leaves for Constantinople. Orlando is attracted to her. It is only after Orlando’s sex change and return to England that Harriet is revealed to be Harry. The Archduke explains that he fell in love with the male Orlando’s portrait and so disguised himself in order to seduce Orlando. Now that Orlando is a woman, Harry comes again to proposition her. In the film, the Archduke has always been a man—he confesses to the female Orlando that he had been in love with the male Orlando as well. Because the gender is now appropriate (and since the person is still the same) Harry proposes to Orlando. Sexuality and desire are more flexible and adaptable than societal conventions. This is more than mere gender bending, it is a not-so-subtle hint at homosexuality—but turned on its ear. This is the sexual ambiguity of the transvestite, the confusion of a pre-operative transsexual. Orlando is violently opposed to such a marriage and runs away from Harry (which does not quite fit with Woolf’s image of the self-confident, emancipated woman. I should note here, however, that Woolf was not always keen on strength. Though she advocated a specified and individual freedom for talented women, particularly in A Room of One’s Own, she mocked the plainness and coarseness of some of the Suffragettes.). In the novel Orlando actually laughs Harry away, which is, I believe, a much more aggressive and appropriate reaction.

Woolf addresses the ironies of inequality and sexism inherent in the social, legal and political systems of the times. When Orlando returns from Turkey as a woman she becomes the subject of legal suits concerning her estate. The courts must determine “whether she was alive or dead, man or woman, Duke or nonentity.”[4] The parallels and contrasts set up in this sentence are clear. To be a man is to be alive and have social standing. To be a woman is like being dead, a social and legal nonentity. The legal questions are finally resolved in a “compromise” which guarantees the estate to male heirs. Woolf seems to say that sex, like paternity and property rights, is no more than legal wrangling. She wants the reader to acknowledge the tyranny of sex, the freedom enjoyed by men in male-dominated society.

Another theme in Orlando is “becoming,” the process of evolving and creating. It involves the artistic process and the act of writing, as much Woolf’s as Orlando’s. It is the movement away from the unquestioning acceptance of the status quo towards the ability to express one’s self freely. Orlando’s education in this process begins when he is disappointed in his first and greatest love. He rejects his fiancée for the deceitful and faithless Russian princess. Their affair begins with a shared laugh at the expense of acceptable social mores. It is significant that Sasha’s humor escapes Orlando’s condemnation because of her wit, even though he is satirized by association. Woolf also hopes the reader will go along with the joke and accept the gender-bending fantasy even though we are implicated in its criticism. Orlando loses all control in his blind passion for Sasha. He waits in vain at the appointed midnight hour and is sadly disillusioned when she does not come.

Fortunately for Orlando, this bitter disappointment is not fatal or debilitating, though necessary in his evolution. Sleep is often considered restorative, an agent of regeneration. This idea of “beauty sleep” takes on literal dimensions for Orlando. Almost like a hibernating narcoleptic, he is aided by deep and prolonged periods of unconsciousness during which he is able to ride out the transformations within and without. Woolf calls these trance-like sleeps “remedial measures … in which the most galling memories, events that seem likely to cripple life for ever, are brushed with a dark wing which rubs their harshness off and gilds them.”[5] When Orlando awakes he is renewed and reborn from one existence into another.

Woolf fiercely lampoons and criticizes the repressive Victorian society. “Love, birth and death were all swaddled in a variety of fine phrases. The sexes drew further and further apart. No open conversation was tolerated. Evasions and concealments were sedulously practiced on both sides.”[6] Orlando rebels against the conventions of the era, especially the Victorian imperative of marriage and motherhood as the goal and destiny of women. She declares herself married to nature. However, Orlando does end up getting married—to the androgynous Shelmerdine (is she attracted to his femininity?)—in a rather poetic and mystical ceremony accompanied by nature’s howls. The film skips this wedding scene: we see the effects of the southwesterly winds and watch as Shel mounts his horse and leaves for America. In the novel, Orlando appears to have succumbed to the restrictions of society by marrying and retreating indoors. Yet she manages “by some dexterous deference to the spirit of the age, by putting on a ring and finding a man on a moor, by loving nature and being no satirist, cynic, or psychologist”[7] to gain her independence. “Now, therefore, she could write, and write she did.”[8] There is great irony in Woolf’s assertion that, “As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking… and as long as she writes little notes nobody objects to a woman writing either.”[9]

But it is not only Orlando who “artfully dissembles her intentions by propitiating the jealous guardians of art.”[10] Like her own protagonist, Woolf also managed to disguise the “radically contraband” character of her writing.[11] The novel has been lauded as a lesbian feminist discourse. Completely missing from the film is the female cross-dressing Orlando who “enjoyed the love of both sexes equally.”[12] By omitting this section, the director parts with Woolf’s original intent. For Orlando is about more than just the arbitrary and elective nature of gender. It is not just about the freedom to select one’s sex, or to act without the constraints of traditional male/female roles. It is also about self-determined sexuality; the freedom not only to choose one’s sex but also to choose the sex of one’s lovers. “Though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had as a man.”[13] The idea is even more radical and progressive than our own supposed anything-goes approach to sexuality with its persistent arguments of nature against nurture, choice versus genetics. In the novel, of course, Orlando has a constant self: as a poet. Woolf felt the “artist” was essentially androgynous.

Potter plays with the ending in the film version. Woolf has Orlando wandering through her house, which is now a museum open to the public. She goes to the oak tree intending to bury the eponymous book. It has been published, received critical acclaim, and won a literary prize. She leaves the book unburied and calls out for Shel. Suddenly an airplane appears and Shel jumps out while a goose flies over his head. It is midnight and the lover has returned.

In the film Shel does not reappear. When he leaves on his horse, Orlando closes her eyes. She reopens them as a plane flies overhead and war breaks out. She runs through a battlefield in a daze, an echo of the Turkish revolution scene. She is pregnant. We assume Orlando has had a son when we see the young child wearing cap and goggles, riding in her motorcycle’s sidecar. But when they arrive at the house/museum, the boy is revealed to be a girl (another depiction of ambiguous gender). Orlando ends up sitting under the oak tree, the same one which she sat under as a boy at the beginning of the film. But now, instead of a plane delivering an earthbound Shel, there is a heavenly vision. The flying goose has become a cheesy singing angel while Orlando and her daughter are the image of a postmodern Madonna and child. And in this version, I think the film fails.

I was perfectly happy with Potter’s portrayal of Orlando as a modern, liberated single mom. Turning her into a sainted icon, or some type of transcendent role model, shatters our fragile belief in the fiction. The willing suspension of our disbelief is stretched beyond its sustainable limits, and a powerful mythopoeic narrative becomes mere allegory. In a case of one-too-many instances of playful gender blending, former Erasure lead singer, Jimmy Somerville, is the angel. In the novel Woolf links Orlando’s female and male lovers (Sasha and Shel) and describes both in sexually ambiguous terms. Furthermore, Orlando is abandoned by Sasha at midnight, while Shel returns to Orlando also at midnight. They are like two incarnations, twin avatars which embody or personify the male and female aspects of Orlando’s ideal lover. Potter also links Sasha and Shel in the film by casting Billy Zane and Charlotte Valandrey who resemble each other—besides the wavy brown manes, they even have strikingly similar smiles. If Potter’s androgynous angel is meant to bring closure, there should have been some resolution in terms of the Sasha/Shel connection. It may have been more effective had the angel looked like some kind of combination of the two. Somerville’s singing seraph, however, is a distraction which bears no resemblance to either Sasha or Shel. Though the lyrics (a clever variation on Woolf’s theme of “becoming”) were penned by Sally Potter and accurately reflect the message of the film,[14] they would have been more appropriate as background music—there was no need for these words to be made flesh.

In my estimation, films can never be truly “faithful” to the original novels because there is a change in art forms; from words on a page to action on a screen. However, despite the limitations and constraints inherent in adapting Orlando for cinema, I think Potter produced a well-made movie which, for the most part, adheres to the truth intended by Woolf. Virginia Woolf used satire, irony, and sarcasm to trace English history as well as its literary tradition. She used varied writing styles to illustrate and accommodate the different epochs, and much of the story is without dialogue. Throughout the novel we see the evolution of an artist who lives life at its most intense. With her lush cinematography, varied camera angles, and vivid use of color Sally Potter attempted to give a visual sense of Woolf’s writing. Despite the unnecessary and annoying angel vision, Potter does a good job of bringing the film full circle and tying up the beginning and end into a neat package. Orlando as a boy is sitting under a big oak tree. Orlando as a mature woman is back under the oak tree. We hear an echo of the opening line with the gender changed: “She—for there could be no doubt of her sex.”


[1] Virginia Woolf, Orlando, A Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1990 [1928]), 3.

[2] Sally Potter, Orlando (Civic Square, ACT: Ronin Films, 1992), video recording.

[3] Woolf, Orlando, 3.

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Ibid., 39-40.

[6] Ibid., 147.

[7] Ibid., 174.

[8] Ibid., 174.

[9] Ibid., 176.

[10] Maria DiBattista, Virginia Woolf’s Major Novels: The Fables of Anon (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), 139.

[11] Leslie Kathleen Hankins, “Orlando: ‘A Precipice Marked V’ Between ‘A Miracle of Discretion’ and ‘Lovemaking Unbelievable: Indiscretions Incredible’,” Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 182.

[12] Woolf, Orlando, 221.

[13] Ibid., 161.

[14] “I am coming! I am coming! / I am coming through! / Coming across the divide to you. / In this moment of unity / Feeling an ecstasy / To be here, to be now / At last I am free— / Yes—at last, at last / To be free of the past. / And of a future that beckons me. / I am coming! I am coming! / Here I am! / Neither a woman, nor a man— / We are joined, we are one / With a human face. / I am on earth / And I am in outer space / I’m being born and I am dying.” Sally Potter, et al., “Coming,” Orlando Soundtrack (London: Virgin Music, London Records, 1992).

Timotheos Roussos is originally from Cyprus. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. His main area of interest is in Anglophone postcolonial literature and he is writing his thesis on contemporary depictions of transgressive masculinities by indigenous authors. Timotheos enjoys writing poetry and recently won first prize in the University of Sydney Arts competition.