It isn’t surprising that filmmakers have largely avoided adapting Virginia Woolf’s novels. The ellipses and fragmentary perspectives that characterize masterworks like To the Lighthouse and The Waves might lend them a certain “cinematic” quality—at the level of narrative structure, they are suggestive of montage—but the books resolutely foreground interiority while eliding incident. Her plots are often banal or hopelessly obscure, but the thoughts and feelings of Woolf’s characters, conveyed in stream-of-consciousness prose, reflect and sometimes critique their social, political, cultural, and historical circumstances. Her books are journeys of the mind particularly unsuited to the very literal medium of narrative cinema, which tends to reveal psychology through event (Woolf usually travels in the other direction). Marleen Gorris’s 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway, from a script by Eileen Atkins, is a perfect case in point: Vanessa Redgrave conveys warmth and a gentle weariness in the title role, but her knowing smiles and heavy sighs alone can’t make us care about her aging socialite or her over-planned evening party, nor does Gorris manage to bring the book’s disparate threads together into something that feels monumental rather than mundane.
Uncharacteristically for its author, Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, inspired by the life of her lover Vita Sackville-West and arguably the only of her books to serve as source material for a successful film, overflows with incident. Read the rest of Christopher Wisniewski’s review of Orlando.