Literary Roles of Tilda Swinton

Posted by Rose Moore

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The incomparable Tilda Swinton has been on the big screen for over thirty years, bringing us characters who run the gamut from modern day mothers to fantasy ice queens, vampires and royalty, predators and angels. Her unique look and commanding presence is incredibly distinctive, yet it can be wrapped around a range of roles that most other actors would struggle to encompass. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Swinton has brought to life multiple characters from the pages of books—so many, in fact, that we aren’t even going to list them all. Instead, we take a look at her ten best and biggest—whether blockbuster movies, starring roles, amazing adaptations, or something else that makes these literary roles worth watching.


War Machine

Swinton’s latest role based on a literary character was in this year’s War Machine, a satirical look at the modern war, based on Michael Hastings’s The Operators. Swinton’s role is a small one, as an unnamed German politician—a great chance for Swinton to show off her accent work. She provides a voice of reason in a world of politics gone mad, with one of the biggest lines of both the trailers and the film that this is a war the US cannot win. It’s a line that is echoed at the very start of the film, and that is the core premise of the book itself—that the war being fought "just can’t be won, in any meaningful sense."



Doctor Strange

Swinton has starred in three different comic adaptations over the years: originally, as the angel Gabriel in Constantine, then, as Mason in Snowpiercer, and most recently, as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. One of the most interesting things about all three of her forays into comic adaptations is that all three roles were originally intended to be played by men. While angels are meant to be sexless, they are usually portrayed as men, Minister Mason was originally conceived as a man, and the Ancient One was originally an old Asian man in the Marvel comics. It is Swinton’s ability to play up androgyny and challenge perceptions of what gender should mean that makes her so perfect for all of these roles.



We Need To Talk About Kevin

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name (by Lionel Shriver), We Need To Talk About Kevin starts Swinton as Eva, the mother of a young man who committed mass murder in a school shooting. The film is an exploration of her struggles to come to terms with what her son has done, and it is a heartbreaking look at motherhood and tragedy. The role netted Swinton multiple awards and nominations, and the only surprise is that she didn’t win more.


The Chronicles of Narnia

As the White Witch of Narnia, Swinton gets to embrace her fantasy side, and rock some incredible costumes throughout the Narnia franchise. Of course, her biggest role is in the original, The Chronicles Of Narnia, although she also reappears in Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Her White Witch is absolute perfection, intimidating and icy cold, but somehow charming at the same time. While the casting throughout the film is wonderful, it is Swinton, as always, that stands out when bringing this beloved childhood classic to life.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Not many people realize that this Oscar-winning film is a literary adaptation, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (of Great Gatsby fame). In it, Swinton appears as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of the British Trade Minister. Her part is a relatively small one, especially in comparison to that of the main love interest of this tragic story: Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett. However, it’s a beautiful smaller role in an incredible film – and one that turned a short story into an epic feature-length romance.




Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Kern, Thumbsucker is a look at adolescent exploration as a young man attempts to deal with his thumbsucking in various different ways, including drugs both legal and illegal. Funny and poignant, Swinton shines as the mother, Audrey, who has her own neuroses and struggles to cope with them despite being in the role of the competent adult. A fantastic indie gem, Thumbsucker will resonate with everyone who struggles with their own imperfections…which is, of course, everyone!


The Statement

The Statement isn’t just a literary adaptation, but an adaptation of a novel based in real world events (written by Brian Moore). A tense conspiracy drama, it follows the fictional Pierre Brossard, a war criminal on the run and pursued decades after his crimes by Swinton’s tenacious judge Annemarie Livi, who uncovers a network of powerful contacts within the Catholic Church. Swinton isn’t the only big name in this star-studded cast, either. She is joined by Michael Caine, Alan Bates and Jeremy Northam.


Young Adam

Set on a Scottish barge in the 1950s, when Young Adam was released in 2003, it was as a period drama. However, the original novel of the same name by Alexander Trocchi was actually written in the 1950s, making this a fascinating look at how a contemporary novel can become a period film. Swinton stars opposite Ewan MacGregor as Ella Gault, the barge operator who indulges in a passionate love affair with MadGregor’s Joe. While the film is primarily about Joe’s shiftlessness and past crimes, Swinton is a perfect foil for him, and enjoys a role where she gets (for once) to really embrace her sexy and feminine side.


The Beach

One of Swinton’s earlier roles, her part as settlement leader Sal is an absolutely stunning one to show the actress’s range. Based on the novel of the same name by Alex Garland, The Beach centers on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Richard, but Sal plays a major part. Sometimes seductive, sometimes the gentle hippy leader of a commune-style settlement, slowly morphing into a fanatical and violent woman who rules with an iron fist under her bindis and loose clothing, Sal is a perfect role for Swinton, and remains one of her finest almost two decades later.


Which is your favorite literary adaptation starring Tilda Swinton? Tweet @quirkbooks and let us know!