Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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.

“Room 237” – Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

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3 Responses to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  1. Sara Tener says:

    I agree with your selection of The Shining; it conveys a great deal of emotions and/ ideas visually. For me, that particular scene begins with a child’s innocent curiosity and ends with a feeling of panic, terror and claustrophobia. The contrast is not abrupt because of the atmosphere, but I believe that it’s still there.
    I can think of a few films, not necessarily adaptations, off-hand that also use images or visual symbols to articulate their narrative or the emotional elements of such. I feel that Hitchcock does this well in a number of his films. There are several scenes in The Birds and The Rear Window that come to mind. However, the scene where the crows are slowly amassing on the jungle gym and around the school yard is particularly striking to me. It creates such a feeling of suspense and terror wordlessly. More recently, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is largely a visual experience: it seems that every emotion conveyed in the film has a visual depiction. For me, it gives one of the best visuals of depression, despair/ hopelessness and love in the face of impending doom that I can recall.
    Nevertheless, I do not agree with Woolf’s opinion that films should strictly adhere to employing visuals to impart emotion and hold that which she considers literary apart from films. I believe that American Beauty, Into the Wild and Beasts of the Southern Wild, to name a few, effectively mix both. They contain scenes that are visual and also utilize narration, something that I do not believe Woolf would agree with, to heighten the viewer’s appreciation of the story and the visual images.
    I believe that a good test of whether a piece requires “literary” assistance or not is to watch it on mute and see if you are still getting the experience that you expect from the initial viewing. What do you think? Also, should we really be thinking that film should not make use of whatever art it sees fit? Please, comment on the films that I’ve mentioned if you’ve seen them as well!

  2. I think Woolf might liks some of the examples you mentioned–I don’t think it was the use of symbols she was attacking such as the use of “easy” or “obvious” ones. That’s actually something that is very much true of poetry–comparing love to a rose is way too cliched to get away with these days. But in something like The Birds, it’s much more harder to understand what the birds symbolize (and thus what to be afraid of).

  3. According to your post, you claim that the best filmmakers can ‘absolutely’ stand in the same echelon as our greatest novelists and playwrights. I completely disagree! I truly believe that there are too many people who value literature (for whatever reason) over cinema, and the amount of people in this category will never allow the notion of equality to exist between authors and filmmakers.
    I do agree, however, with your analysis of Woolf’s rejection of cinema. Woolf is saying that films are parasitic, but some could argue that novels are parasitic as well. The classic stories that have been told countless times must rely on cinema to keep them alive and energized, appealing to new generations of readers. For example, I am teaching Of Mice and Men to my 10th grade ELA class. When they found out that there was an accompanying movie to the novel, they were thrilled that the book was considered to be ‘important’ enough for a movie to be made. Classic novels survive off of cinema.

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