Lucinda Coxon on adapting “The Danish Girl” and her next project with Sarah Waters

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Established playwright Lucinda Coxon first dipped her toes into writing screenplays in 1997 with the Italian film Messaggi quasi segreti. In 2002, she adapted Rosamond Lehmann‘s The Heart of Me for the big screen, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams as sisters in love with the same man. (Both actresses took home awards from the London Films Critics Circle and the British Film Institute, respectively.) In 2010, she followed it up with the Emily Blunt crime comedy Wild Target, and a year later received all kinds of accolades for her adaptation of Michael Faber‘s Victorian Era series The Crimson Petal and the White for the BBC.

But it’s Lucinda’s adaptation of David Ebershoff‘s novel The Danish Girl that has critics raving as of late, a screenplay that is 11 years in the making. The true story of Lili Elbe, the first trans woman to ever undergo gender reassignment surgery, and her wife, Gerda, The Danish Girl is a love story of a different kind; about the complications of identity and the steadfastness of true love through even the biggest of challenges and change. Lucinda’s ability to detail the roughest moments of honesty alongside those of bittersweet new beginnings is what has helped to make the film successful in its stranger-than-fiction storytelling. That is to say that people in 1920s Copenhagen were not nearly as brave nor as truthful as Lili and Gerda, which is why they are becoming a contemporary focus for not only Lucinda and director Tom Hooper, but researchers around the world.

"The Danish Girl" Washington, DC PremierePhoto by Teresa Kroeger/WireImage

We spoke with Lucinda about her process in adapting The Danish Girl and her next project adapting Sarah WatersThe Little Stranger.

AfterEllen: I read in the press notes that you originally didn’t think you were the right one to adapt the book for film. What was intimidating?

Lucinda Coxon: Not intimidating, but a novel arrives in the post and I think the cover says something about “It’s the story of the first sex change.” I think that was literally the bold kind of outline. I went “OK, maybe.” And then I started to read the book and it was so much more than—you know. It was just kind of so fascinating as a story. And it was fascinating on its own terms as a novel, but the idea it was also based on a true story that had been lost was more fascinating. And the more I was researching around, the more fascinated and more hooked I was. Just the opportunity to write about these two remarkable women and this journey that they went together and the story of this marriage and their incredible commitment to enabling and growing one another, I found really moving.

And I found it sort of personally challenging, the idea they had such vision and such courage. The idea that once you see something, although it might be easier to pretend that you’ve not and kind of find a work around, but to instead be the people that go, “No, that’s really what is in the room”—that’s to push through and follow your kind of destiny to its absolute conclusion. I found that really challenging.

 

AE: Like you said, the movie is based on a true story that has already been fictionalized for the novel, and there are differences in the film version from the book. What were the challenges in adapting something that already had two different versions? 

LC: Well, some of the changes were pretty straight-forward to make. In the novel, Gerda is American and her backstory’s been very heavily fictionalized. Actually, a lot of her story with Lili is not heavily fictionalized in the novel. So I kind of stripped out everything that seemed to have been willful fiction on David’s part and restored it and took it back as close as I could to the truth as we knew it.

The truth, obviously, is a slippery thing as well. We use that term very loosely, I think, when we talk about the story because certainly, when we began, there was even less research material available than there is now. There’s been a lot of research done in the last 10 years into digging up her story and trying to get to the bottom of what the medical procedures they went through were, and lot’s of Gerda’s art’s now kind of being found all over the place that had really been kind of missing for years. Lot’s of interest in the story, and that’s been something that’s been kind of ongoing that I’ve kind of been writing alongside. 

The challenges are the same as anything—do you believe it? Are you with them in it? And I think I wanted to—I always felt that it was, in a sense—for me—from Gerda’s point of view. Simply in the sense that she sees Lili; she sees Lili in the act of painting and loving her and painting her. Lili manifests in the world and it becomes possible for Lili to become fully realized as a person.

And so I felt that was the way in for me; that it was about looking through Gerda’s eyes, and about looking at the person that’s really in front of you; not that person that society has delivered to you. And I thought that was kind of remarkable gift that she had, even when you reach the point where it’s going to cost her, in a sense, her relationship. The thing that has the highest value—it’s going to cost her the person she loves in order to have the person she loves. But that moment where that marriage has to be dramatically reconfigured, I found very, very moving.

gerdaphoto via Focus Features

AE: Once Lili transitions fully, they could no longer be married because they were living as two women. Was that something you ever considered including?

LC: We did have it in the script, actually. We had that scene, and we had Gerda’s sort of distress. And not only that they couldn’t be married, but if Einar was deemed not to have existed—so his birth certificate was kind of corrected, but she was not a widow, so she wanted someone to mourn as well. So not only they couldn’t be married, but she had no kind of status and her past had been completely erased. So we did have it, but actually what we—we also had scenes where Lili gets her new passport with her name on it and actually, when it came to it, we just thought it was in the story and those scenes didn’t make the cut. It was already there.

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