In her essay “The Movies and Reality,” Virginia Woolf is very mindful of using a particular set of words to describe the ‘unnatural alliance’ between film and literature (88). Disastrous. Parasitic. Savage. This isn’t to say that Woolf derides all film as somehow being beneath the luminous feet of literature, but rather that films, and in this case adaptations, that rely too heavily on their source text do a disservice to the original work, becoming slaves to the author’s words and language, and never quite elevating the text into a more cinematic language.
Woolf criticizes the usage of relatively “simple” symbolism in an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina stating, “A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse” (88). The character of Anna is made known to readers “almost entirely by the inside of her mind – her charm, her passion, her despair.” Woolf’s problem with the film version is that it relies too heavily on external appearances and circumstances in order to “lurch and lumber” through the novel (88). Tacking on the symbols listed above only makes a shallow rendering of Anna Karenina superficially less banal.
Can the cinema, then, ever rise to the same level of art as literature and drama? Can the best filmmakers ever stand in the same echelon as our greatest novelists and playwrights? Absolutely. Woolf’s challenge to filmmakers is to make use of a visual language that relies little, if at all, on the written word. An author will use words, sentences, paragraphs, pens and pencils, the size of a page, etc. in order to create characters, stories, moods and atmospheres, plots and conflicts. Filmmakers have cameras, camera techniques, light and shadows, the tools with which visual language can be communicated directly into the eyes of the viewer. Using these tools, Woolf claims a “new symbol for expressing thought [can be] found…something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art” (90).
Since this article was composed, have filmmakers stepped up to the challenge to create films that use a more visual language to convey their narratives (if, indeed, they have a narrative to convey)? Have any film adaptations stepped out of the shadows to become valid works independent of their origin texts? Are there any adaptations that would have made Virginia Woolf smile? I don’t know for sure, but perhaps this clip from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (note – not Stephen King’s!) reveals something of this visual language Woolf describes.