In adapting David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl for the big screen, writer Lucinda Coxon (The Heart of Me, Wild Target) had to wrestle with some significant changes in order to make the story of Lille Elbe–one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery–work visually. For example, “Gerda remarried before Lili died in fact,” Coxon says, “you can imagine there are many different versions of this.” To get to the heart of the original story, Coxon did her own in-depth research into the life of Elbe, digging though old records and examining the best way to relate the remarkable relationship between Elbe and her former wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), a marriage that lies at the heart of the Tom Hooper-directed film.
What was it about the novel that piqued your interest and made you imagine the screenplay?
Before I really got very far into the novel, it was realizing that Lili Elbe’s story existed, that this partnership between Lili and Gerda Wegener existed at all, because that was a piece of history that had escaped me entirely and indeed many other people. So, that was kind of intriguing. But then David’s novel is beautiful. It’s a highly-fictionalized account of the partnership. So, I think for me it was the idea of this marriage between two people, the change that it had to accommodate, but also the actual mechanics, in a sense, of that change. The fact that they’re both artists I found really intriguing and I suppose very specifically Gerda’s role as a painter and as a lover, as a partner, enabling Lili to appear; enabling Lili to manifest through her art. And you’ve got this very big, very potent love story played out against this really particularly fascinating period in history in these particularly fascinating cities. One of the things I was very nervous about was projecting a kind of 21st Century sensibility onto these two people from the early 20th Century. These were not people who existed in a landscape where transgender was a thing, where that word existed. I didn’t want to make it seem any easier for them than it was.
In the film, Lili dies with Gerda beside her, but in truth they were apart and Gerda had remarried in Morocco. How did you decide where to make changes to the original story?
“There were many different drafts of this script including drafts after the first operation and before Lili died, and certainly I looked often at that idea. It’s true that she remarried and they were no longer living together. But actually when Lili died, there’s a very moving account of Gerda preparing the room that Lili was going to come and recuperate in, because Gerda was going to mend her after this last operation. And going into the room and feeling it go cold and having some kind of premonition that she’d lost her. They were in many respects still together. Gerda was still caring for Lili in the wake of that operation. The marriage had turned into something else, but the profound connection between them remained as far as we’re aware. When you’re writing about real life or when you’re working with an adaptation, in a sense the result is defined as much by what you leave out as what you include, that’s always the way of it. And I suppose with Lili and Gerda they had already, in a sense, fictionalized themselves very much. They were very savvy about all that, and so Gerda had been painting very idealized versions of Lili. If you look at photographs of Lili Elbe and then you look at the paintings of Lili Elbe you see that there’s a great deal of imagining that’s taken place there. It’s a film and you have to tell the bigger story and you’re looking for sense of truth rather than the facts. For example, Lili had many more operations than we depict but nobody needs to see a half a dozen operations. And so, yes, there’s a judgment call to be made about what the central themes of the film are and I think for me it was really so much about the partnership.
You also don’t delve deeply into the bodily physical factors of what happens to Lilli
I think we were always at pains not to depict a journey that wasn’t really about what happens on the outside of that person, but about what happens on the inside. And I suppose the challenge in the writing of that character is to begin the film with Einar and for Einar to feel completely, plausibly heterosexually male, I wanted to present him in a complete male way. And I think by the end of the film you could hardly remember Einar ever existed and that’s just sort of the trick of it. And actually the transition is essentially surgical, there are no hormones involved. Its pre-hormones. So, actually it’s all kind of off the screen in a sense, that transition. I think the imagination supplies more than enough detail, and I think in this instance Lili Elbe felt that surgical intervention was what she absolutely needed to become a woman and that’s groundbreaking surgery. But there are plenty of people who transition without surgery. So, it’s not a medical drama in the end. It’s a drama about identity.
What was your reaction to the casting of Eddie Redmayne in the lead role? Could you visualize him there right away?
Well, I was thrilled about Eddie’s casting because I think he’s a remarkable actor. And in fact, having had quite a lot of disappointments with this film in the past in terms of it almost being made, I think when Tom (director Tom Hooper) came onboard, I felt we’ve got a much better chance now of it actually getting it made. But I think with Eddie, I thought, we’ve got a chance of getting it made fairly brilliantly. I just felt lots of confidence of in his ability to do it justice. His commitment to that role was phenomenal and kind of inspiring. So I was absolutely thrilled and very relieved really when Eddie was announced. He spoke to many, many people in the transgender community. I think he spent a year really needling around all this stuff and finding out everything.