Holmes May Be Watching, But the Audience is Listening: Internal Diegetic Sound in Gorris’ MRS. DALLOWAY
26 August 2012
British modern literature is not the easiest literary genre to translate onto film, yet it may be the literary genre with the strongest connection to cinema. Historically, cinema and modernism were born at nearly the same time. Therefore, cinema has a modern quality, and there is a cinematic quality to modern literature.
However, even though cinema often adapts literature, there are only a handful of films adapted from British modern literature. Generally speaking, modern literature’s refusal to conform to yesteryear’s Victorian literary standards makes it difficult for cinema to adapt modern writing. Some of the great British modern writers, specifically Virginia Woolf, wrote in the experimental stream of consciousness narrative style, which explores the mind by tracing thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories, and fantasies fluidly as they occur. That said, much of Woolf’s modern literature captures the internal workings of her character’s minds, and Woolf, like her contemporaries, shifts perspectives, from one character to another, frequently and with minimal to no explanation. Therefore, reading modern literature becomes tricky, as active readers are required to follow a character’s rapidly flowing internal monologues, and then attempt to realize when these internal workings have switched from one character to the next.
One novel exemplifying the modern literary style is Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925. In short, Mrs. Dalloway follows one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, and on this day she is giving a party. Clarissa, a middle-aged woman, spends her day preparing for her party, but constantly flashes back to memories of her youth. Her flashbacks include her carefree coming-of-age days with Sally Seaton and Peter Walsh, as well as her courtship with Richard Dalloway, her now-husband. Separately, the novel also follows Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering with severe post-traumatic stress disorder; inevitably, he commits suicide. Septimus and Clarissa are doppelgangers, kept apart, but each revealing details of the other. Septimus and Clarissa’s stories only cross in the novel’s climax when one of Clarissa’s party guests, a doctor’s wife, regales other partygoers with the news that one of her husband’s patients (Septimus) committed suicide earlier that day. This news triggers an emotional response from Clarissa, and, in the novel’s conclusion, she resolves her own struggles with her memories and feelings.
Under the direction of Marleen Gorris, and with the screenplay adapted by Eileen Atkins, the cinematic adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway follows Woolf’s narrative closely, and carefully explores what, if anything, cinema’s devices can contribute to a filmed version of Woolf’s work. Without question, Gorris’ cinematic adaptation is narrower than Woolf’s text. For instance, cinema emphasizes exteriors—characters, sets, and props—all filmed from specific angles and distances, with attention paid to lighting, colors, shapes, and sizes, not forgetting sounds. While modern writing has cinematically visual descriptions, accentuating colors, sizes, and shapes through written descriptions, the core of modern literature is not the visual; the core may be what the visual ignites or elicits for the characters, and perhaps even the readers. Nevertheless, Gorris does find many cinematic devices useful when capturing Woolf’s modern writing for the screen, and perhaps the most useful of these devices is internal diegetic sound.
Internal diegetic sound is sound one character, as well as the audience, can hear. (Infrequently two of more characters can hear internal diegetic sound, but that is rarely the case because the effect is typically used to isolate the internal workings of one character for viewers.) This internal sound can be anything, but most often it is voiceover work, revealing a character’s unspoken and inner most thoughts. Internal diegetic sound is entirely subjective, immersing the audience into one character’s mindset.
Essentially, modern fiction, specifically Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, is internal monologue, therefore internal diegetic sound is necessary to capture the work for cinema.
Gorris’ Mrs. Dalloway introduces her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave), to the audience using internal diegetic sound. As Clarissa looks at her reflection in a mirror, on the morning of her party, the audience hears her inner thoughts through voiceover. Gazing upon her middle-aged, immaculately put together appearance, Clarissa thinks, “Those ruffians, the gods, shan’t have it all their own way…,” and shortly after, while making her way downstairs, she considers to herself just how “dangerous” it is to live even one day. Immediately, only moments into the film, Mrs. Dalloway sets up the contrast between what the audience sees of Clarissa and what the audience comes to know of Clarissa from her inner thoughts. On the outside Clarissa has it all together, is the epitome of style and sophistication; on the inside she is frustrated, moderately depressed, and lost in deep thought. These inner thoughts are the crux of Woolf’s text, and Atkins’ inclusion of them through internal diegetic sound allows Gorris to translate Woolf’s work for cinema.
Later in the film, Septimus (Rupert Graves) sits in the park and hears bombs bursting and guns firing all around him, the sounds of war. These sounds are not occurring in the film’s reality (the park); instead, the sounds occur only in Septimus’ mind, as part of his grave struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Once again, this subjective sound allows the audience to experience Septimus’ struggle along with him; internal diegetic sound puts the audience in the character’s mind.
The use of this device never falters, and is perhaps most strongly used in the film’s conclusion, the party. As Clarissa greets her guests the audience is privy to the judgments she makes on each one, the fears that cross her mind about the party’s fate, and the ideas occurring to her as people circulate around her. Interestingly, in a scene full of so many characters talking and laughing, the audience, like Clarissa, remains isolated in Clarissa’s mind. When Clarissa overhears of Septimus’ suicide, she escapes the party, fleeing to the balcony outside her bedroom. Even when alone, Clarissa never utters a sound; the audience continues to hear voiceover of Clarissa’s abstract and unspeakable inner thoughts and feelings.
In part, Woolf’s text suggests a significant part of the human experience in inexpressible and isolating, and Atkins and Gorris support that discovery by keeping Woolf’s narrative style in Mrs. Dalloway internal in the film. The use of internal diegetic sound in Gorris’ Mrs. Dalloway was, perhaps, the only way the text could (and did) translate to film successfully.