The Danish Girl
by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon
When I was first approached about adapting David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl into a screenplay, I wasn’t sure it would be the right project for me. The underlying story—of a transgender pioneer whose story had been largely lost in the tumult of mid-20th century history—was intriguing, to say the least. But at first glance, it was not necessarily a story I felt compelled—or even especially well-placed—to tell.
Then I actually read David’s fine book. It turned out to be the tender study of a remarkable partnership between two artists: Gerda Wegener and her spouse Einar Wegener—who would later become known as Lili Elbe.
The depiction of their marriage, and the investigation of individual and shared identity, that the novel contained were irresistible to me. I began to research the story of this extraordinary pair.
What emerged was the tale of two people of rare courage and imagination. People who were years ahead of their time, who changed the way we think about gender today.
Gerda Wegener was a successful, independent-minded woman whose portraits in the 1920s promoted and popularized a liberating new direction for women, a ‘look’ in fashion that did away with the corset and allowed freedom of movement. A ‘look’ that championed the idea of women’s new emancipated presence in the world, which clearly declared that the times were changing.
But what few people realized was that one of her favorite female models, Lili, was in fact the person most of them knew as her spouse, Einar, renowned at the time as a landscape artist.
In the Wegeners’ social circle, Einar would gradually be seen less and less. Eventually, Einar would cease to exist. But the bond between the artist and her triumphant muse—between Gerda and Lili—would remain.
The Danish Girl is a landmark account of gender confirmation surgery, but it is also—and for me, primarily—an exceptional and unpredictable love story. This is a love that was, in some regards, extremely unconventional. But it is one which had—at its heart—something very old-fashioned: ruthless honesty and commitment.
This, then, was the journey I felt compelled to take as a writer. A journey which asks us how far we will go for the people we love, how much truth we really want to hear, how much change we can bear before we break.
Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe are perhaps still years ahead of us. They certainly have plenty to teach us.