How did Sally Potter approach the task of bringing to screen the literary exploration of gender demonstrated in Virginia Woolf\'s book?
Sally Potter writes down some ideas about what she feels Virginia Woolf's 'thesis' on 'the future for women' may have been. She analyses many of Woolf's works to get a feel for her ideas on gender. It is clear from these notes that Orlando was more than just a director turning a book into a film, Sally Potter had a personal relationship not only with the text but with all of Virginia Woolf's work, the key ideas of which she wanted portray faithfully.
Potter's focus on Woolf's personal diaries could suggest that she was hoping to deliver some essence of Virginia Woolf to the character of Orlando. If one accepts that the book Orlando was a sort of love letter from Woolf to her lover, Vita Sackville West, then perhaps it wouldn't be inaccurate to understand Orlando the film as Potter's love letter to a woman who clearly had a great influence on her life, Woolf.
Swinton/Orlando as male - Potter recognised the importance of Orlando's effective androgyny; the character/actor had to be believable as both genders but more specifically, the audience had to be able to relate to the character on a purely human level in a way which transcended the status of Orlando's physical gender. This transition was something Woolf was able to impliment fairly seamlessly because the visual indications of gender are not (or at least certainly do not NEED to be) repeatedly confirmed in a literary work, but Potter's Orlando is always physically visible to the audience and so Swinton's performance and her costume were of vital importance in delivering the concepts surrounding gender in the film.
Swinton/Orlando as female - these photos demonstrate the part that costume plays in indicating both Orlando's gender and the time period. As Woolf herself points out, a satisfactory metal image of visual reality can be constructed by just a few, carefully chosen written words, but a visual image requires full explanation. The film viewer has time to gaze at and take pleasure in a scene, much of which may be left unspecified in writing. Equally, literature is able to convey meaning in ways that the visual image cannot, and so a filmmaker must find other ways to signify equivalent ideas.
Gender and Casting - as with the casting of Tilda Swinton, the decision to have Quentin Crisp play Queen Elizabeth I demonstrates one tool a filmmaker has to hand (to convey meaning) that a writer does not. Crisp's existing 'star persona' served to add complexity to the character, instilling the scenes in which the Queen appears (and the relationship with Orlando), a multidimensionality that it would not otherwise have.
Sally Potter's preparatory notes indicate her approach to the issue of gendering Orlando's dialogue. This is another complication that the filmmaker faces in adapting Orlando to the screen - the protagonist's internal voice in the book is that of a genderless narrator, which helps imbue that character with an equally genderless quality. This perhaps could have been an option for the screen (although it may have been quite difficult) but as is made clear by these notes, Potter made a conscious decision make Orlando's overriding gender female by giving her a female narrator/internal voice. Whether or not this gives the film a different feel from the book is debatable.
"He stretched himself. He rose.He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess - he was a woman."
"But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been'
Orlando addresses the camera in this, and other, key scenes. Woolf does not give a sense in the book that Orlando is addressing the reader directly (it is not in the first person) - although the reader is given an intimate insight into his thoughts and feelings and the overall feel of the book is one of a very close personal identification with a person who, in essence, remains the same throughout. Potter develops this combined feel of a personal discourse and at the same time, a distanced observation, by having Orlando look directly into the camera at key points in the film. This crucial transformation to another sex is marked by a personal address, which assures the audience that their protagonist has not changed in essence - just in gender.
Potter's portrayal of Orlando's relationship with Shelmerdine further plays with visual explorations of the concept of gender. This still stresses the audience's connection to Orlando, her dominance over Shelmerdine, the couple's androgyny (neither are conventionally masculine or conventionally feminine), and their self-inflicted isolation. The two are alone, against a white backdrop, in their unconventional, timeless and identity-less relationship. Their genuine fondness for each other is the only condition of their relationship - no social structure or etiquette has brought them together. There are in love against a featureless backdrop.
This page of Sally Potter's notes doesn't focus on the idea of gender specifically, but it does demonstrate why she thought Orlando the novel had the potential to transfer well to the screen. Because it 'tells through images which distill and condense a wealth of information'. Potter felt that Woolf's book was already almost cinematic in the way it portrayed meaningful, poetic images.