Old Hollywood: From Page to Screen Woolf and Waugh

Although it took a while Hollywood eventually discovered two of England’s most enduring authors and adapted their work into some extraordinary movies and television films. 

Virginia WoolfAdeline Virginia Stephen was born in London in 1882 (and died in 1941).  She began her writing career in 1900, moved to Bloomsbury after the death of her father and in 1912 married Leonard Woolf.  Known for the stream of consciousness in her novels, many felt her work was not suitable for adaptation.  However, in 1983 the BBC produced a 2-hour TV adaptation of her brilliant 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.  Faithfully adapted by Hugh Stoddard, the film followed the Ramsay family as they summered in Cornwall.  Starring Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough and a young Kenneth Branagh, the film received stellar reviews.

Loosely based on Woolf’s 1928 wild and satiric novel, Orlando: A Biography, the movie starred the sublime Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I.  Sally Potter, who adapted the novel, also directed.  Inspired by the family of Vita Sackville-West, Orlando has been adapted for the stage numerous times.  Virginia Woolf’s brilliant haunting novel, Mrs. Dalloway  (1925) was adapted for the screen in 1997 by Dame Eileen Atkins and starred Vanessa Redgrave as the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, who while preparing for a party, reminisces about the past.  Interesting trivia:  The working title of the novel was The Hours.

In 2002 director Stephen Daltry directed an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Hours, in part based on Mrs. Dalloway. The film starred Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Best Actress Oscar winner, Nicole Kidman.  Renowned playwright David Hare wrote the screenplay.  Dame Eileen Atkins starred in a one woman show in 1993 based on Woolf’s writing – A Room of One’s Own.  The hour-long television film was directed by Patrick Garland.   Once again Dame Eileen returned to Virginia Woolf and wrote, with Chanya Button, an original screenplay called Vita & Virginia.  The film tells the story of Woolf’s brief love affair with Vita Sackville-West in the 1920’s.


Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born in London in 1903 and died in April 1966.  A prolific writer of fiction, travel, essays and reviews, Waugh attended Oxford and was known primarily for his satire, as well as his lyrical and skillful prose writing.  The first Waugh novel, he wrote 16, to get the Hollywood treatment was The Loved One in 1965 based on his short novel (1948) of the same name. Adapted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, the film starred John Gielgud, Roddy McDowell and Tab Hunter.  An 11-part serial of Waugh’s most famous novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) was produced in 1981 by Granada Television. The screenplay, adapted by Derek Granger, among others, was initially written by John Mortimer, but his version was scrapped.  Starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, the series aired on PBS’s Great Performances.  In 2008 Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies wrote a two-hour film based on the novel, which starred Emma Thompson and Matthew Goode.  Interesting trivia:  In 1947 Waugh traveled to Hollywood to discuss a film version of Brideshead Revisited for M-G-M, but the movie was never made. 


A television version of Waugh’s satirical novel Scoop (1938) was produced in 1987 and adapted by best-selling author William Boyd.  A send up of the world of sensational journalism, the movie starred Denholm Elliot and Michael Maloney as the hapless William Boot.  Interesting trivia: This film is not to be confused with Woody Allen’s 2006 flop of the same name. 1988’s adaptation of A Handful of Dust (1934) stared James Wilby, Dame Kristin Scott Thomas and BAFTA winner for Best Supporting Actress, Dame Judi Dench.  Charles Sturridge, Derek Granger and Tim Sullivan wrote the screenplay.   Waugh’s second novel Vile Bodies (1930) satirized what was then known in Britain as the Bright Young Things – playful, carefree aristocrats and artists in 1920’s London who, after the shock of World War I, threw themselves into partying and drinking.  In 2003 actor and author Stephen Frey adapted Vile Bodies into a film calling it Bright Young Things and starring Emily Mortimer and Michael Sheen.


In 2017 the BBC produced a three-part television series based on Waugh’s 1928 social satire Decline and Fall.  Adapted by James Wood, this comedy/drama series starred David Suchet, Douglas Hodge and Jack Whitehall.  Writing about his World War II experiences, Waugh created a trilogy – Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961.  In 2001 a three-hour television film was produced by Gillian McNeill and written by William Boyd.  Entitled Sword of Honor; it starring Daniel Craig. The movie received polite, but very mixed reviews.


Virginia Woolf was an original and inventive author, who created a large body of work, not always easy to read, or understand.  Yet, despite her unstable mental health, she prevailed in her writing and her work stands the test of time. Evelyn Waugh found modern life to be chaotic and difficult.  His own miserable life is testament to that sentiment and yet, he too produced a great deal of work and is still thought of today as one of England’s top tier authors. 


Next Up:  New Hollywood:  Film Adaptions from 2000 - 2021