The Silly Brilliance Of Sally Potter’s ORLANDO

I have a book that’s been staring me in the face for years. It sat unread on my bookcase, mocking me, goading me to try again and again to finish it. It’s the collected works of Virginia Woolf, a writer I am fascinated by, have read biographies of, but cannot crack her actual writing. The stream of consciousness style is what does me in; I find it numbing and impossible to follow, and the fact that it so utterly defeats me is something of a sore spot.

That is, it defeated me until I saw Sally Potter’s Orlando. Making someone understand the original material may not be the goal of film adaptations, but her fantastically irreverent take finally made all the ferociously intelligent and referential critiques buried in Woolf’s flowing prose snap into place. On a personal level, that makes me incredibly grateful it exists, but my reaction is only possible because Potter absolutely nailed the adaptation, a feat that many people could learn a thing or two from.

Despite this success, Orlando remains something of a niche commodity. That weird movie from the ‘90s where Tilda Swinton doesn’t age and switches from a man to a woman lives on more as a cult movie than a widely celebrated piece, which is a shame because, for all its intelligence, what it really gets right is cutting and molding the novel into the spry medium of film. Orlando is a fun movie, endlessly watchable, and perhaps not what you’d expect an adaptation of one of the great literary figures to be. Potter managed to be very playful with people’s expectations while still honing in on the core elements that make the novel last, and that is a feat everyone should applaud.

What’s In An Adaptation

Orlando: A Biography (the full title of the book) doesn’t exactly lend itself to adaptation. Woolf’s style of flitting from this thing to that doesn’t make for the cleanest narrative, and its tale of a nobleman who lives from the Elizabethan era to the present day puts all sorts of logistical strains on a production. And if you’re really wanting to do Woolf, it’s odd to choose Orlando as the author didn’t even consider it one of her more serious works. It’s essentially a riff on her lover Vita Sackville-West (a draft title was Orlando: Vita) as well as a satire of social and literary standards. You know, the usual stuff that screams for a movie adaptation.

Still, the satire makes it a rather enjoyable book, and its incredulity about gender roles (as per usual with Virginia) makes it timeless. It sold very well upon release and continues to draw in readers, including Potter, who despite loving it knew she would have to be brutal when it came to translating it for film.

What she ended up putting onscreen is undeniably still Orlando; this isn’t a hack job where a premise was lifted and little else is recognizable. Her Orlando begins as a young nobleman who fancies writing, has a fateful meeting with Elizabeth I, embarks on a lauded career as an ambassador, changes from male to female, subsequently loses her wealth, has various romances along the way, and eventually ends up in the present day as a published author, just like in the novel. Where she got snippy was in updating themes to modern sensibilities and excising sections that had little current relevance.

The Silly Brilliance Of Sally Potter's ORLANDO
source: Sony Pictures Classics

The average filmgoer in 1992 wasn’t going to know about Virginia and Vita’s relationship, so any gossipy intrigue the book benefited from in that regard is long gone. Also a key change, which you can tell from its title, is the removal of the biographer, a device that allowed Virginia to interject occasional jokes about the rigidity of the genre. Not only would filmgoers not care about these literary standards, but this aspect of the novel in and of itself is another case of interpersonal intrigue audiences would probably know nothing about. Virginia’s father was an editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and much of these asides can be read as jabs at a father she had a complicated relationship with. But no one cares about this anymore, so gone, away with this fundamental framing of the story.

These and the other things Potter left out constitute some major changes to the story, and she even added an explanation for why Orlando doesn’t age, an occurrence that’s accepted without much comment in the book. It’s enough to bring up the age old question of fidelity to source material, whether fundamental changes to a story is good or bad when it comes to adaptations.

The question is age old because there isn’t really an answer; sticking to the plot is probably more important when you’re dealing with a thriller or a mystery than when you’re doing a lighthearted romp through the ages. Where Potter’s take on Orlando does provide some answers is in the justification for changes.

Her modifications aren’t to cut down on the runtime or to provide a streamlined narrative (the movie meanders from event to event just like the book, including decades passing in just a few moments). No, Potter’s approach was to figure out what could play on film and was still relevant to audiences, then forget the rest. She played up the critiques of gender roles and got across the incredulous side-eye that comes through Woolf’s prose, and neither of those required her to adhere doggedly to plot points. So she went loose, went weird, and it was a rousing success. Critics praised it, it had a surprisingly strong box office showing before fading from popular culture, and it’s now experiencing a minor resurgence since its chill take on gender has become rather fashionable (it was cited as a reference for this year’s Met Gala theme, but alas, the event is on an indefinite hold). That it just won’t die, the same as Woolf’s novel continues to live on, speaks to the fact that Potter identified its timeless elements and translated those to the screen.

Capturing Woolf’s Voice

Reading Woolf’s prose, it’s almost impossible to imagine how you can capture her strange air. It must be breathless, thoughtful, neurotic, arch, a whirlwind following vague narrative signposts. To ignore the sensation of her writing would immediately land you in adaptation failure, but also figuring out how to put that onscreen would cause more than a few headaches.

The Silly Brilliance Of Sally Potter's ORLANDO
source: Sony Pictures Classics

Luckily, Potter’s contemporaries were getting plenty weird themselves, and she was able to pull collaborators who were willing to think outside the box. Orlando is often lumped in with the work of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) and Derek Jarman (Caravaggio), of whom she shared production designers, costume designers, and her star.

Swinton as the timeless and gender-switching Orlando is obviously key, but we’ll get to her later. Who really brings out the wry, fantastical sensibility of Woolf’s novel are those designers, who go all out to create such heightened opulence that it’s impossible not to simultaneously luxuriate in its beauty and laugh at the emptiness beneath it.

Never is that more obvious than when Orlando goes to an 18th century salon expecting the great artists of the day to enrapture her with witticisms and insight. Instead she finds them banal and dismissive (Orlando at this point is a woman and as such is not expected to have many thoughts). It’s a disappointment lifted directly from the novel, one that has the exact same punch but delivered in a different way. Woolf spends a lot of time breaking down the illusion of greatness, but Potter can show it. The grand room and refined clothes set up certain expectations of importance, especially when you consider what kind of films usually get the budget to pull off something that lavish. These are quickly shattered by the weak turns of phrase and simplistic points of view of the people filling the room, and Orlando (and the audience) quickly see the folly of holding up such vapid characteristics as signs of greatness. It’s a communication of dichotomy through film language instead of written language, exactly the translation all book to film adaptations must achieve.

All of this is emphasized, of course, by the fleet storytelling, which speeds through the events of the novel in about 90 minutes and substitutes Woolf’s pointed asides with fourth wall breaks where Swinton stares directly into the camera. All the personality of Woolf’s writing is there, and that’s because Potter prioritized the effect instead of the method.

Gender Critiques Keep It Relevant

While Woolf had room to cover many themes in her book, there simply isn’t the space for all that in a movie. I’ve already detailed a lot of what Potter cut, but what she kept (in fact, what she emphasized) ended up being the exact thing that’s kept this story intriguing for almost 100 years.

What she plays up is the folly of gender expectations, hitting on a nonchalance that, compared to everyone else’s uptightness, is basically the point of the film. People have examined this through feminist, transgender, and genderqueer lenses, and that flexibility has simultaneously frustrated and thrilled. That’s because it’s more about breaking free of boxes than fitting into any one point of view, something Potter hits again and again, particularly with the film’s casting.

The Silly Brilliance Of Sally Potter's ORLANDO
source: Sony Pictures Classics

The big choice here is obviously the title character, which you theoretically could have multiple people play. Potter went with just Swinton, and honestly, if you’re looking for someone who can exist outside of all bounds, she’s a great choice. She fits into Elizabethan times just as well as modern day, which is to say she kind of does and doesn’t fit in. Her slightly odd presence is very well known and utilized now (and it’s gotten her in some trouble with Doctor Strange), but she wasn’t quite as known a quantity in 1992. Still, it’s easy to sense that her Orlando never quite gels with the surroundings, which is exactly how Orlando should feel.

Many noted that Swinton doesn’t play a convincing man, but that’s kind of missing the point. Potter’s Orlando is never really happy in the confines of man or womanhood, and it’s only once the character takes on androgynous traits towards the end of the film that Swinton truly appears comfortable.

You don’t have to wait to the end of the film, though, to find this message. The comfort with eschewing clean gender lines is there as soon as Elizabeth I enters the picture. Serenaded in by the pop singer Jimmy Somerville, she is strikingly played by Quentin Crisp, a well-known writer, openly queer, who Potter described in an interview with Penny Florence for Screen as a “Queen of Queens” (get it?).

This is massively playful casting, not there to be an anachronism but to be a statement about how loose we can be, and the plot change to have this Elizabeth bequeath Orlando the time to discover a place in the world says it all.

Most of the film is a side-eye at people trying to put Orlando in a box, an impossibility that Virginia lifted straight from Vita Sackville-West. That Potter manages to capture the delight and ease with which this drew Virginia to Vita, and that she passed this delight on to the audience, is what makes Orlando such a resounding success. adaptation.

Have you seen Orlando? If so, do you think it was a successful adaptation? What are some of your favorite adaptations? Let us know in the comments!


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