Cinematic Possibilities in Woolf’s “Solid Objects”

A Critical Analysis of Virginia Woolf's sketch Solid Objects.

During Virginia Woolf’s career, cinema and literature both took on new forms. Cinema storytelling moved from documentary realism to experimental throughout the early 20th century, following the similar shift in Modernist literature. This shift was especially influenced by the German Expressionists, apparent in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920. These films developed and employed impressionistic techniques to tell stories, moving film into the Modernism era. Virginia Woolf observed this industry, and had mixed opinions about film and its relationship to literature. She was heavily interested in how literature might be represented in film. In her essay “The Cinema” from 1926, Woolf expresses both excitement in the possibility of cinema to convey vast amounts of information to the audience, and dismay that film will never fully replace the written word. “It seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression” (382), she writes.

Woolf’s sketch, “Solid Objects,” written in 1920, is an experiment in a cinematic writing style. She employs similar impressionistic techniques to that of the German Expressionists, plays with perspective and time, and uses dense imagery that could lend itself to film adaptation. Based on her writing style, and the filmmaking of her day, I think that Woolf intended for “Solid Objects” to be used as a crossover work, to bridge the gap she found between cinema and literature. Woolf uses multiple crossover techniques in this sketch, making it an ideal prototype for cinematic adaptation of literature.

But what makes an adaptation “good”? Is it the ability to convey the story in all accuracy and detail? Or is it the film’s ability to convey the same emotions as the written work? I believe Woolf would say both, and neither. In “Solid Objects,” the cinematic possibility is laid out, accessible, and ready to be translated. However, Woolf would not have approved of a direct cut-and-paste of her story’s action; she would want to acknowledge and utilize film’s unique capabilities to portray the emotion and meaning of her story, in the same way she uses language’s unique attributes in her writing. In addition to the dry action, a true representation of this sketch would need an imaginative director who will be “improving, altering, and making an art of their own” (“The Cinema” 382), not someone who will directly translate each moment as it comes. “Solid Objects” contains numerous ready-to-ship scenes with specific details easily translated to film, and scenes full of abstraction and open to directorial interpretation.

“Solid Objects” begins with a hazy establishing paragraph from the limited perspective of a narrator who is planted on a beach, near the ruin of an old boat. The approach of two young men toward the narrator is described in detail, at first as anonymous black spots on the horizon, then as a growing blob of a monster, and then finally becoming two men taking a stroll. This first paragraph of the sketch reads like directions in a overly-poetic screenplay, giving the two actors personality, and providing numerous cinematic and visual cues. In addition, the limited perspective of the narrator mimics the limited point of view that a camera would have, planted at one point on a beach as the characters approach. For the 21st century reader with plenty of movie-watching experience, this establishing shot feels familiar, and the technique has been used in numerous movies into today. In the following paragraph, the narrator moves from distant long shots to close ups in the second paragraph: “The mouths, noses, chins, the little moustaches, tweed caps, rough boots, shooting coats, and check stockings… Became clearer and clearer” (102), the narrator says. These explicit details of the two characters are visible to the reader, leaving little to the imagination. As poetic as her language is, Woolf’s intense imagery allows the reader to distinctly envision the clouds of smoke floating about these two characters as they “[fling] themselves down,” (102) and begin to busy their hands near the boat remains.

At the third paragraph, the reader finally stumbles into a brief moment of direct abstraction, a non-visual moment that wouldn’t translate directly to film. “You know how the body seems to shake itself free from an argument, and to apologise for a mood of exaltation; flinging itself down and expressing in the looseness of its attitude a readiness to take up with something new” (102) Woolf writes. Suddenly, these men turn from discussing politics to skipping rocks and playing in the sand, and the narrator uses this abstract commentary to create a transition in tone. These ideas, however, are not completely unsuitable to portrayal on the screen. In Woolf’s essay, “The Cinema,” she agrees, but also offers hope: “Something abstract… which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible… of such movements and abstractions the films may, in time to come, be composed” (382), Woolf wrote. Even these sections of abstraction, Woolf believed, would eventually become part of a cinematic experience, and this scene would give a creative director fuel to work with.

As John buries his hands in the sandy beach, his eyes glass over and he suddenly moves into a dream-like state, flashing back to his childhood and his imagination. He finds a piece of smooth green glass, and imagines the piece of glass in a necklace worn by a Princess, or left behind from a treasure chest. A sort of spell is cast on John by this object. In Virginia Woolf’s time, this scene would be near impossible to replicate in film. The intensity of color and specificity of light would need to highlight the glass, flooding the scene with an enchanting magic that highlights the spawn of John’s obsession. The film technology of the 1920s would not have been up to this task. Today, however, film technology has progressed enough to represent this encounter in sufficient quality, and may even be able to enhance the scene. As seen in the growing numbers of science-fiction and fantasy films, good cinematography design can create a sense of magicality surrounding an object, and can illustrate a growing obsession inside a character. For example, John’s obsession is reminiscent of the character Gollum in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In one enchanting scene, Gollum discovers The Ring, and forms an obsessive attachment with the object. The techniques Jackson uses to re-create this character in film could easily be applied to “Solid Objects,” as John finds this lump of glass, and it transports his imagination and instills a sense of wonder in him. These are, perhaps, the advancements in film that Woolf foresaw in 1926.

In the next scene, Woolf dives into John’s daily life after his encounter with the lump of glass. This montage-like scene includes passing images of the mantelpiece in his office, and of the lump of glass as it floats about his workspace as a paperweight. This scene portrays John as a busy man, standing for Parliament, and on the edge of a big career. But, John walks around the city, and catches glimpses of the green glass in odd places– or anything that reminds him of the original object. He begins to collect these odd pieces and objects, adding them to his mantelpiece and scattering them about his desk. His addiction becomes more apparent. This scene, and the later montage-like scene, play with fast-time in a way both literature and film capture well, but in different ways. In the sketch, Woolf provides a list of places John visits and things that distract him, while a montage scene in film gives brief glimpses of each place and thing. For an impressionist, these rapid-fire time-passing moments are full of creative potential.

Finally, John’s obsession is made complete by his attempt to retrieve a piece of china trapped on the other side of a sidewalk railing, and John misses an appointment in order to obtain the object. He brings the broken china to his home, and begins to examine the star-shaped oddity, leaving it on his mantelpiece opposite the green glass. The visual of this mantelpiece, with the two plain objects set across from each other, would translate vividly to film. Given the right lighting, perspective, and proportions, these solid objects scattered across the mantelpiece become the fascinating objects that John obsesses over. This is the turning point that highlights John’s transition from pursuing a political career to being an obsessed junk collector, and the mantelpiece is a visual representation of his journey from the day on the beach to the day he misses his appointment in search of these pieces. Now, John goes out of his way, and allows the habit to consume him in another montage scene. He explores abandoned and shady areas of London, looking for broken china, piece of glass, rocks, and other things that catch his eye. This second scene of John’s searching is more intense than the first, more dirty and desperate. He has become neglectful, and is declining into madness.

The final scene, of Charles’ reaction to John’s condition, contains the most diverse interpretations for film. This may be the one area where literature and film will never coincide wholly. The reading of imagery, especially in this sketch, places a fairly specific image in the reader’s mind, which is able to correlate directly to film using today’s technology. But character is a different matter. The text only give hints as to body language, facial expression, intonation and emotion. But, in her essay “The Cinema,” Woolf writes “Anger [in film] is not merely rant and rhetoric, red faces and clenched fists. It is perhaps a black line wriggling upon a white sheet” (382). In Woolf’s view, a scene like that between Charlie and John may not need a fully-articulated representation of the dialogue and action. Charles is confused, uneasy, and depressed about his friend’s loss of drive. John is content in his madness, glazed-over and distracted by his collection of objects. Perhaps a filmmaker need not ask an actor to interpret the character of Charles for this scene, but instead would take an impressionist and modernist approach to this final scene, and use another method to convey the emotion, even a technique that is unique to cinema. In this way, a filmmaker would remain true to Woolf’s intentions, if not her sketch.

The gap in capability between literature and film is vast. However, Woolf maintained hope for the film industry, and understood the potential of the format to convey emotion to an audience in a way that literature can not. It is unclear whether Woolf truly believed in film adaptation of literary work, and her criticism of Anna Karenina’s film adaptation in “The Cinema” is evidence of her doubts. However, “Solid Objects,” upon inspection, seems well-suited to film. Woolf may not have intended her sketch to be cinematic, but it is. With today’s film technology, “Solid Objects” has the potential to come alive on the screen, and with the right director, to pay homage to Woolf’s intentions and honor her beliefs regarding literature in cinema.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. “The Cinema.” The Nation and Athenaeum 34.13 (1926): 381-83. British Library. Web. 29 June 2017. Credit to The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf.

––– “Solid Objects” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. 102-107. Print.

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