The Film

The Book

The Scriptwriter

The Author

FWA Discussion Board:
The Danish Girl
-A Refresher for Screenwriters

The Danish Girl

A Refresher for Screenwriters

The Danish Girl (The Film): Nov 2015 (USA) Jan 2016 (UK and worldwide)

Oscar Academy Award -  Alicia Vikander (Best Supporting Actress)

Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon. Director: Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl (The Book): 2000 (USA & Australia)

Author – David Ebershoff

Publisher - Viking Press in the United States and Allen & Unwin in Australia

‘The Danish Girl’ received good response from the audience and critics alike. It was also appreciated in the International Film Festivals where it bagged several awards under different categories, espeically  Alicia Vikander, who probably got highest number of awards this year including the Academy Award for Supporting Actress.

Needless to say all these weren’t possible if the Writing wasn’t outstanding. The Danish Girl Screenplay too, received Critics' Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

This Screenplay (Danish Girl) is an exemplary piece where we can look forward to many lessons in Dramatic Writing. And the best part is, it's not fiction but a true story that lives the adage ‘stranger than fiction’.

We are going to discuss various aspects of Scriptwriting in context with ‘The Danish Girl’. This article is divided into two main parts written by two authors within which they have discussed more sub-topics.

The first part is authored by Prof. Punam Mohandas, who will introduce the readers to the life of Lili Elbe, the book and the film. She will then try to discuss the nuances of adaptations from real life – to print – to celluloid.

The second part authored by Sanjay Sharma, Scriptwriter, is an attempt to understand the Screenplay w.r.t. certain key aspects of Dramatic Writing.

PART I – Prof Punam Mohandas (Author, Film Critic & Journalist).

The facts: The Danish Girl is based on the true lives of Danish artists Einar Wegener and his wife Gerda Gottlieb. Einar is known to be one of the first transgender people in the world who opted for sex reassignment surgery (SRS.) All of the following appear to be true facts: Einar (born 1882) was a landscape painter in Copenhagen, while Gerda was a portrait artist. It was a love marriage (1904;) he had actually been her teacher in art college. He was much more successful than she was. One day, Gerda asks Einar to sit for her so she can complete the portrait of her friend Anna, an opera singer, that she is working on; all he has to do is wear the stockings and shoes the model did, so Gerda can get the details of the legs right. Einar agrees to oblige his wife, understanding the demands of a fellow artist, although this triggers off the feminine side in him which he had done his best to suppress all these years. From here on, he allows the woman in him - whom Anna names as Lili - to emerge and she is introduced to society as Einar’s cousin sister. Gerda is a most supportive partner however, seeing Einar’s confusion and self-doubt, she takes him to see a doctor who subsequently sends them a letter threatening to expose them to the authorities for indulging in perversion and unnatural acts. The couple then hastily move to Paris where Lili is seen more and more frequently, shedding her identity of Einar behind. She also stops painting, attributing it to an association with Einar, while Gerda becomes famous almost overnight for her portraits of Lili in various moods and poses. (In 1913, society as well as the art world were shocked to learn that the model was actually the painter’s husband.) Einar was now falling prey to depression after almost two decades of believing he was a woman trapped in a man’s body and had even chosen the 1st May 1930 as the date on which he would commit suicide. However, they now hear of a doctor in Dresden, Germany, who is experimenting with SRS. Einar insists on travelling to Dresden alone to have the operation (1930.) At the clinic, he gives his name as Lili; when asked for the last name, he looks out at the river Elbe flowing past and decides instantly that Lili’s last name would be Elbe. This surgery and the rest that follow it, paid for by selling Einar’s paintings, are successful and Lili now becomes the darling of the media in Denmark and Germany. Lili also managed to get her name and sex changed legally and a new passport. Since Einar no longer officially existed now, she was unable to divorce Gerda and it required a special dispensation from the King of Denmark, Christian X, to annul the marriage in October 1930. By this time, Lili had already moved out of the home she shared with Gerda and hoped to marry art dealer Claude Lejeune. She returned to Dresden in June 1931 for her fourth and final surgery which involved transplanting a uterus and creating a vagina, both experimental procedures, however, she developed infections as her body rejected the transplant, and eventually passed away three months later, on 13th September 1931.

Real Einar and Lili Elbe..

Einer to Elbe

The Danish Girl is based on the novel by the same name, written by David Ebershoff in 2000, albeit with a lot of literary license and is therefore NOT a true account of Lili’s life. It has too many tangents that did not exist, such as changing her name to Greta and creating a twin brother for her (Gerda had two other siblings but was the only one who survived to adulthood) and also that she was an American of Danish heritage; Ebershoff freely admits that much of his Greta character is invented by him. Lili herself worked on her book - Man into Woman – which was published by her friend Niels Hoyer after her death.

The screenplay in turn differs from the book in several aspects, but not so as to affect the story. Indeed, it has been commendably handled, making the story crisp and a smooth telling. Coxon worked on the screenplay for a decade, with close to twenty drafts, although some details have been altered, such as that the movie shows Lili died after her second surgery, when in fact she died after the uterus transplant (the fourth operation.) Strangely, while the book depicts Einar as small, scrawny and not particularly appealing while Gerda is taller and large-boned, in the movie Gerda is petite and pretty whereas Einar is tall, slender and not overtly effeminate. This could be because Redmayne was always the first choice for the part, although the female lead underwent several changes before finalising on Vikander.

QUESTION FOR DEBATE: Why did Coxon tamper with Lili’s actual end by claiming this to be the second surgery when, in fact, it was the fourth and fatal one? Does this impact the reader’s understanding of the real life person’s travails? Should cinematic license allow the changing of the facts?

In my opinion, except for the end, the screenplay has been streamlined to retain the essence of the Wegeners, going in for subtlety rather than unnecessary frippery. Einar’s disgust with his male body is brought out tellingly in a frontal nude shot where he stands in front of a mirror and tries to tuck his penis away and then presses his legs firmly together. He refuses to attend Gerda’s exhibition night in Paris, because, as Lili, he is dissociating from the art and art world that is a big part of Einar’s life. Gerda comes home to find a mascara-ed and lipstick-ed Lili who has cooked dinner and set out the candles lovingly. Gerda is overwhelmed by frustration and a near sense of hatred, brought out very well both by the director and Vikander’s own sense of theatrics; in truth, ‘Man into Woman’ quotes the real Gerda as having said that she was, to a certain extent, the cause of creating Lili and thus becoming responsible for a disharmony. This particular scene with Gerda’s brimming hurt and Lili’s intractability, both of them with tearful eyes and smudged mascara, has not only been emoted well but written well. A truly classic case of where a few words rather than a lengthy dialogue suffice to convey the essence of what needs to be said.

(A Film's Screenplay needs to be tighter, so the Scriptwriter usually skips repetitive facts for compact screenplay. Such cinematic liberties are often taken with Biopics).

QUESTION FOR DEBATE: Should writers know when less is more? If a scene can be made more powerful by the emoting rather than the words, should writers pay heed to this?

Where the screenplay differs dramatically from the book as well as real life, is in showing Gerda’s disillusionment with the Lili persona and therefore, her husband, early on in the telling; I suppose, being a movie, the director wanted to hurry up and get on with it. In real life as well as in Ebershoff’s version, Gerda seems to have been remarkably patient and forgiving of Einar’s feminine side, going so far as to buy clothes for Lili.

QUESTION FOR DEBATE: We agree that this is a movie screenplay and therefore, that the audience is time-bound. However, can facts be altered in such a drastic way so as to present a different picture of the real life protagonists? Members of the audience who have not read the book will not get the essence of Gerda, the wife.

Also, while the book as well as the screenplay tell us that Gerda fell in love with Einar’s childhood friend Hans, in truth she married an Italian military officer who ran through all her savings. (They eventually divorced and an impoverished Gerda died in 1940 in Denmark.) It seems this has been done to create a sense of drama, just as it is never mentioned that the real Lili intended to marry an art dealer. Both versions mention that doctors diagnosed Einar with schizophrenia and gave him radiation therapy, something that appears to have happened in fact as well. In the book as well as the movie, Lili is introduced to Parisian society as Einar’s cousin however, unlike these versions where Lili is portrayed as timid and demure, the real-life Lili apparently flirted with men. With regard to the name, in real life, Anna, a friend of the Wegener’s, arrived at their home suddenly to find Einar standing-in for her in her dress while Gerda was finishing off her portrait, and named him ‘Lili.’

QUESTION FOR DEBATE: The screenplay should also have addressed the fact that the marriage between Gerda and Einar was dissolved and that Gerda eventually grew disillusioned with the relationship.

Neither version highlights the real Gerda’s own sexual leanings (there is speculation that she may have been a lesbian, given her penchant for erotic paintings, or perhaps that Einar’s flirting with femininity brought out Gerda’s own latent lesbianism, or even that Gerda married him because they were both homosexuals, but none of these are established facts) or that the relationship, which had withstood many tests so far, had pretty much come apart after the dissolution of the marriage; in fact, Gerda was not with Lili during her final operation.

QUESTION FOR DEBATE: Should this point have been dealt with by the screenplay in order to underline why Gerda was accepting of Einar’s sexuality to begin with?

I would like to go into detail in the scene where Lili makes her first public appearance. The couple are invited to the Artists’ Ball which Einar doesn’t want to go to, however, Gerda persuades him to go as Lili. He is excited yet apprehensive, constantly seeking reassurance from Gerda: “Am I beautiful?” At the ball, Lili comes in for a lot of male attention. One man, Henrik, invites her to go out and sit in the garden, and then kisses her. This is the first time Lili has been kissed by a man. She has tears in her ears and an array of emotions flit across her face: shock, a touching wonder at being accepted for a woman, tremulousness as she kisses Henrik back. Meanwhile Gerda, who finds Lili missing from the room and sets off to look for her, watches the scene unfold disbelievingly through a window.

*****Watch the scene here *****

I believe this scene is the pivot of the entire movie. It is the very crux of the screenplay. Hitherto, we have seen a strong and sure Gerda, a Gerda who is so much in love with her husband that she can be mature enough to overlook this foible of his, even going so far as to get sexually excited by seeing him dressed in her negligee under his shirt and trousers. Gerda is playful; she does Lili’s make-up and goes shopping clothes for her, as if she was her best friend rather than her spouse. But as she watches the kiss, her emotions are clearly mirrored in her eyes; pain, a sense of loss, disbelief, repugnance. The quivering lips, the eyes welling with tears, wide with a childlike sense of betrayal. It is now brought home most forcefully to her just what it will entail to lose Einar to Lili, that Einar, her husband, as she knew him, is now lost to her forever. You can see the dawning knowledge and regret in her eyes as she realises the role she herself has played in creating this persona. When they reach home, she rails at him: Have you ever had sex with a man? Although Gerda continues to be supportive of Einar/Lili, she now has to deal with the complexity of her own emotions as Lili is seen more and more frequently and Einar is becoming just a memory. A Lili who, as her confidence grows, wants to be a woman in every sense of the word, i.e. fall in love with a man, get married, have a baby.

QUESTION FOR DEBATE: Should the movie have been more emotionally dramatic? Should the screenplay have lingered more on Lili’s persona, her emotions? Shouldn’t it have discussed in some more detail that Lili tells Gerda while they were still married, that she would like to marry a man and have children? The script should have dealt with Gerda’s emotions at this point.

Einar/Lili is played convincingly by Eddie Redmayne, who has come in for some flak as a cisgender (a person whose self-identity conforms to the biological gender) male playing a trans-woman. Alicia Vikander, as Gerda, is the perfect foil for him. If Redmayne has brought to life the hope, the despair, the susceptibility to the jibes of the repressed society of the 30’s, the growing conviction to accept who she is, i.e. a woman trapped in a man’s body, Vikander matches him expression for expression. It is hard to recall an actress in recent times who has such mobility and sensitivity flit across her face. You can literally see the metamorphosis from the perky, pretty girl into this dull, confused woman in front of your eyes.


PART II – Sanjay Sharma (Scriptwriter).

  1. Conflicts:

The Danish Girl is an excellent example to study conflicts. Einar and Gerda are happily married and pursuing their independent careers. But one day when Einar dresses up like a woman to model for Gerda, his feminine self wakes up and he is no more the same Einar. Slowly she starts realizing her true nature and eventually wants to live as a full woman.

Brilliantly performed by Redmayne; Einar is initially reluctant to wear the stockings of woman to pose as model. The internal conflict that seeps in gradually, takes him over when he wants to be she and learn every feminine gesture to finer details. The transition is gradual, slow and rising. It reaches the crescendo when she is ready to risk her life to realize her true identity. ‘To rectify an error of Nature.’

For Einar, the Internal Conflict initially is about her identity. Once she’s sure about it, the internal conflict changes its form to another internal conflict where now the question is her love for Gerda. What happens to that? If she becomes a woman, she will no longer be Gerda’s husband. Their love will be lost. This also leads to the inter-personal conflict between them when Gerda pleads her to stop thinking herself as Lili. I am calling it inter-personal conflict though theoretically it is an external conflict because, I am using the term ‘External Conflict’ for the resistance which they face from the society/law.

Though Lili tries to go back to Einar to save her love, but she can’t. Lili’s mind is clear what she wants. She decides to risk everything to realize her true self. Her love for Gerda and even her own life.

However with Gerda, things are more complicated. She loves Einar so much that she wants to be beside him even when he changes to Lili forever. (I am discussing only wrt the Film; things were different in real life and also the book as discussed above. This is so to keep the discussion focused).

Initially when she requests Einar to wear those stockings and he’s reluctant, she tries to comfort him and allay his inhibitions. After this when he wants to do this more, she supports him, possibly due to her love for him, if that’s his kink sometimes. She even shops for Lili now and trains her in feminine gestures.

But when she sees Lili with another man like a woman, that’s where Gerda’s conflict triggers. She sees her love slipping by. If Einar becomes Lili, he will no more be hers.

The beauty of both the Internal Conflicts here is their origin. Given their original characters, such conflicts weren’t there even in the imagination. But when it strikes, it is super-dramatic. Gerda would never imagine that her supporting Lili would cost her Einar.. She even demands Lili to disappear. Even when Lili tries that unsuccessfully, Gerda has a problem if she were causing her any kind of agony. Gerda’s love for Einar, whether he is Einar or She is Lili, comes right and clear. She appears helpless in her love for that person irrespective of what the gender is. We see, she even distances herself from Hans who tries to comfort her. 

The sudden inception of both these conflicts accompanies with change in the key character i.e. Einar. This is a unique feature of Danish Girl’s Conflict. A drastic change – not just change of a biosketch but biology. While writing we mostly try to stay true to characters, but here the very character undergoes radical change. Yes, the feelings were there in Einar, but latent. Even as a child he once tried dressing as a woman, but it could have been some innocent act. Both the characters aren’t aware of this characteristic, until the twist in the tale.
Folllowing one scene shows two things - Einar's feminine inclination since childhood and Gerda's interest in Hans, just w.r.t. Einar. 

Character undergoing change, leading to intense conflict is a novelty of this story.

We will skip the other External Conflicts this couple faced in those times when people couldn’t follow such sensibilities. It is easy to imagine how hard it would have been then, when to some extent it is still considered a taboo in many societies.

2. Truth is Stranger than Fiction and Pushing the Envelope--

This cliché adage keeps haunting all creative people time and again. When we think we can imagine something out of the World, something from the very World comes as a shocker to us; we wouldn’t have imagined.

I watched ‘Court’ a Marathi Film, on 19th April 2015 at Mumbai. It is a saga of a poet’s litigation, who’s accused of instigating a hopeless Dalit to commit suicide. It happens so that this poet sings some song in a slum of Mumbai, and 2 days later that Dalit man commits suicide. The verses of the poem are found provocative and he’s arrested and tried. The idea of defence here (given by Poet’s lawyer or the Scriptwriter) is how could someone instigate a person to commit suicide after two days?

See, the coincidence, 3 days after this, on 22nd April 2015; in a rally of Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi while he was addressing a gathering, a farmer committed suicide right then and there. That was such a flabbergasting shocker. We all know Kejriwal had nothing to do with it. But just see how truth shocked it more than Court film’s fiction. When the film tried to use the 2 days period as defence, the truth’s defence was that it was the same instant but still it couldn’t be a provocation.     

This for me was biggest eye-opener. Real life can throw bigger shockers than we can think in our wildest imagination.

Truth has cut in more closer time-wise in fact closest, leaving fiction gaping…

So coming to ‘The Danish Girl’. I find this transgender story much more hitting and touching than any crafted fiction on this subject. It has so much drama, so many emotions, connection and surprises which some imaginary story by best creative brains might not have. Moreover it happened in the times when our imaginations didn’t even go in those directions. Even the coincidences of real life, that Gerda who was not doing well in her career as an artist, becomes famous overnight when she starts making portraits of Lili. Isn’t it filmy coincidence, but it is real..

Same is true with many epic stories and mythology. Something which we can’t imagine, we can’t believe it could have happened. The above are the examples which can kill that myth.

3.  Identification:

One more lesson we can pick up from The Danish Girl. Most writers who create weird characters meet strong resistance from others – creative/commercial people, when they say – how could such characters exist? They are not life like, or how can we identify with such chimerical characters?  

The Danish Girl’s Einar is a real life character who is a befitting reply to this resistance. How many people in 1900 AD, would identify with a transgender protagonist? But we do empathize with her feelings, problems and we want her to succeed in her goal. That’s the power of creativity, which again is real but stranger than fiction..

So please take Danish Girl as an inspiration and encouragement and don’t restrict your imagination. Even if your character is not a known creature of the universe, but if you are able to present it properly in the story, s/he will have the readers/audience footing for him/her.

So The Danish Girl, has a lot to teach Writers and Actors. Something we have tried to discuss here, there could be lot more. It was running in Mumbai till last weekend. It’s worth a watch if you can find a show. Here we tried to give to all important scenes which will help you understan the arguments as you read and watch. 

Finally The Musical Summary ..


Also watch Director Tom Hooper analyse his favourite scene.. https://youtu.be/ZV99rFBkfa0

*Written exclusively for The Film Writers Association of India.      

-Punam Mohandas

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