Picture vs. Page – The Danish Girl

I have mixed feelings about the novel ‘The Danish Girl,’ I love the representation but once you start to get into the novel you find the representation is nothing like it should be. The story and historical setting are well crafted, but the psychology, physiology, and medical treatment around Einar/Lili are grossly fantasized. The author has little understanding of transgender, intersex, sexual orientation, sexual identity and what is means to live the experience any of these.

The first situation describing Einar and women’s clothing in the book was romanticised to the point of fetishism. I know Einar is meant to be transgender, but the description felt off – not really the type of experience a true transgender woman would have. The continual descriptions of Einar being small, tiny, frail, and acting in a passive way and how Greta was tall and the dominant of the pair painted a picture of them having swapped gender roles in a spiritual sense. I wasn’t quite sold on the characterisation – especially for the time period. I know this is based loosely on a true story, but it is obvious the subject matter has been romanticized and written from a cis white man’s viewpoint. In the film, Einar is obviously fascinated by women’s clothing but resistant at first, and is pushed into it by his wife Greta – who is played to ‘see’ Einar as feminine, her artistic eye breaking through the façade to view who Einar really is. Though, this is juxtaposed later when she starts to resist and pressure Einar for acting on their feelings. Like it was okay at home, as long as it fit her comfort level. But at the narrative progresses her thoughts transform after witnessing the pain Einar is in, and having conversations with Lili.

I get a strong sense like there is a mix of multiple personality disorder, fetishism, an intentional lens from the author of the novel that misses the mark on what it means to be a transgendered woman on so many points. The story had me squirming and uncomfortable. In the film they play a lot more to mental illness rather than identity – and Einar doing research to find his/her answer from medical and psychology journals alone.

The casting of Eniar/Lili was way off. The actor in no way represented the portrayal of Lili from the novel. Eddie Redmayne’s physicality in no way captured the character of Lili depicted in the novel. The actor reinvented the character for the film version, and while Eddie Redmayne is an exceptional actor, this character should have been played by a transgender actor. Having a cis gendered male play the part, contributes to negative stereotypes many have of male to female transgendered individuals – that they are playing dress up. Seeing Eddie Redmayne dressed and presenting as male in the public eye, as opposed to a transgender actress who lives the experience and presents as female, would help dismantle inappropriate myths spread about transgender individuals. There were an important points made like this in the Netfix documentary ‘Disclosure.‘

The film lacked the transition and personal history of Einar/Lili. Lili is born of drag in the film, where in the book she already had the physical attributes of Lili and did not need to learn how to be female, but embodied that side of her personality inherently.

In the movie it seems no-one is fooled by Lili – that she doesn’t ‘pass’ however in the novel it is much the opposite case. Again, the whole notion of ‘passing’ shows how little the author, and film producers of ‘The Danish Girl’ really understand about the transgender experience.

The movie shows a fully masculine Einar transitioning into Lili, a transgender narrative; where the novel shows in intersex Einar confirming her gender. In the film – 2 operations are required for the physical transformation, yet in the novel 3-4 operations are required (and include something medically impossible.) In the novel Lili goes back for a uterine transplant, where in the film she goes back to have a vagina constructed. This was so not representative of any type of gender confirmation surgery all I can do in reaction to this is a *facepalm*

The novel presents more of a dichotomy between Einar and Lili, like they are two separate people, but the film it is more Einar realising and wishing she could be Lili.

Lili\Einar is intentionally deceptive and selfish with a lot of their actions both in the film and the novel. Both the film and novel do injustice to the character when they deal with being transgender. There is more to a person than a single aspect. We go from a dynamic character, to a two-dimensional character. 

It’s hard to resolve this story with today’s understanding of being transgender and the setting of Coppenhagen, Paris, and Dresden in 1920-30’s. There are so many misrepresentations and inaccuracies I was quietly enraged.

The novel did feel altogether too long – Ebershoff frequently meanders with flowery language and asides of landscape, backstory, daydreams, and the like. It does match the dreamlike quality of his beautiful writing, but slows down the pacing of the story incredibly. I can see how this style of writing is best matched for historical fiction though.

The reveal of Lili later being intersex in the book confirmed my suspicions given the mostly feminine stature and physical attributes. And the journey of Lili’s operations for gender confirmation surgery are gruesome. Though while interesting reading and set a tone for the novel, feel poorly researched. Even for the time, medical operations and the healing of the human body afterward do not span the length of time described in the novel.

My opinion on ‘The Danish Girl’ (both film and novel) was a hodge-podge of concepts that were not thoroughly researched around identity, mental disorders, and medical knowledge. Though, like the art that Einar and Greta create, ‘The Danish Girl’ is merely an interpretation on Lili’s story. It’s is viewed through different lenses of the characters of the book. Like anecdotal histories, it is warped, interpreted and skewed by the narrator. And adapted by movie producers, again a little insensitive to the transgender experience.

Some notable instance where the film and novel diverge, is that Lili does not get caught going to naughty places in the novel by Greta. And most importantly, Lili does not die at the end of the novel, it ends on a hopeful note, even in there is a symbolic description that could be interpreted as her dying, though it does not describe a traditional death. It’s more a symbolic freeing. She has been set free to live her own life. The prospect of marriage. The scene in the book is of a boys kite breaking from its tether and drifting towards Lili and up into the sky, maybe depicting her rise to heaven. In the film, its Lili’s scarf that Greta is wearing, accidently blown away into the sky and Greta saying ‘Leave, it, Lili will find it.’ So the film depicts a certain death and the novel leaves it open to interpretation.

I have to admit actor Alicia Vikander as Gerda (Greta in the novel) was too short, petite and pretty in comparison to her literature counterpart. But Alicia Vikander was outstanding in her acting chops and is the standout in the film.

Regarding Lili’s first kiss: Lili was a willing participant in the novel, even excited about it, but in the film it was awkward, almost abusive, you could see she was pushing herself. I don’t quite understand the relevance of the scene in the film – they were trying to infer that she didn’t want to kiss because the gentleman whom she was entangled with thought of her as a man… again the tone of the film is that Einar is in drag, seen as a man. Where in the novel, Lili is a fully realised woman.

Greta/Gerda was much more supportive and accepting in the novel, she seemed more jealous and emotionally distraught in the film like it was a choice between Einar and Lili. In the novel Greta admired Einar’s feminity and softness. She lived for the opposite of societies norms. She was a rebel. So again we see the depiction of Lili’ transgenderism through different lenses of the same character, one where it is embraced, and the other where it is viewed as harmful.

In the film the nosebleed from Einar – symbolising a menstrual cycle happens only once; where in the novel it was happening a lot, even from downstairs (it is never stated exactly, but I’m assuming from Einar’s bottom – again this makes no medical sense.)

 The line “Lesbienne” is said from two men instead of children in the film, followed by the men harassing Einar/Lili in the park, and then physically assault her. This violence is not in the book, the scene is meant to show how Einar/Lili is passing as a woman.

Ultimately even though this is a fascinating story and character study, the novel was flourished with a heavy hand and I found myself putting the book down frequently because I was getting a bit tired. I almost wanted the narrative tied a little more to history, to events to ground the story. The characters are really well developed but difficult to relate to and even to love. They are all selfish in their own way and live out of step with the real world. Though in saying that, this creative bubble Greta and Einar lived in was the only environment which could have nurtured Lili in taking her first steps into the world.

I don’t really want to recommend this novel (or film) solely on the amount of factual inconsistencies – this read more like a fantasy novel than something based in historical significance. David Ebershoff admits in an interview after the publication of ‘The Danish Girl’ that the representation of Lili’s transgender journey in his novel is not representative of today’s transgender population and is purely fictional… I’m not sure if that is ignorance, damaging, or laziness. Why would you want to create a character based on actual events and not have the core motivation of that character also based on factual elements? It’s misrepresentation at its core. I would have preferred an ownvoices author’s take on this subject matter.

I feel like the film completely missed the tone and intention of the novel. It’s great to have the representation, but both the mediums that present this story are different creatures. The film feels like it is a tragic story that punishes the Lili for becoming a woman, and feels like Greta (Gerda) is the protagonist; whereas the novel made me feel like Lili was the protagonist who pushed the envelope too far – the untested exploratory surgeries – when she could of lived a fulfilling life without needing to bear children… The film is more realistic but loses the hope the novel had, and the book lacks the realism.

In the novel, Lili was living life as a woman, was in a romance and about to relocate to New York and get married, where in the film, there was no romance and she died before getting to live any aspect of her life as a fully realised woman. I feel like both film and novel, were a disappointment. It is so easy to research the facts, and have conversations with members of the transgender community to ensure that this kind of story does not harm, if unintentionally.

© Casey Carlisle 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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