Virginia Woolf defines and dissects the dichotomy between film and literature by establishing, deconstructing, and reassembling the relationship between the two. In the opening of her essay, Woolf states, “People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious.” (86) This statement, in regards to film, attaches a connotation to the medium that implicates it as being a lower, more sensory, form of storytelling; however, she combats this connotation with an immediate retort in defense of film.
Woolf’s piece struck me as being well balanced in the way she explores the duality between text and film from a middle ground. By addressing film’s reliance on the senses, she is able to display the dissonance between film’s physicality and the imagination inherent in novels. This also implies the damaging effect the two mediums have on one another. With a strong reliance on senses, the film does not rely on the building and imagination of novels; therefore, the film, in this instance, cheapens and hollows the original text when it adapts it; however, this initial condemnation of film is remedied through a reappropriation of the existing relationship.
The key in Woolf’s deconstruction of this relationship is the severing of the idea that film and literature are suited for one another. By breaking the symbiosis (86) between the two mediums, both are able to better sustain themselves, each with their own set of pros and cons (88-89). A film can not adequately capture the same imagination and thorough mind of a novel, and a novel does not have the same sensory appeal of film. The use of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the performance of Dr. Caligari as examples highlight the strengths both mediums can possesses if they shed their symbiosis, and create separately.
In her opening, Woolf implies their is a savagery in film in regards to how it translates a novel; however, at her conclusion, she presents a counterpoint, “while all the arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully clothed.” (91) The savagery of film can be cultivated and shaped, but independently. Film has many possibilities to explore outside of adapting the abstractions of a novel. Woolf’s statement here expands on the idea that film is young, and though it is imperfect, there is a room to grow and better establish its own set of strengths separate from the novel.