Saturday 18 July 2009

Hours and Hours

It is many moons ago that I promised to write about The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and the 2001 film adaptation. And now, finally, I'm doing it - I daresay you haven't been nervously scratching away at the computer keyboard, wondering when it would be posted about, but it's always good to keep one's promises. (On a side note - my surname is Thomas, and my parents used the phrase 'Thomases Don't Cheat' throughout our childhood, in a bizarrely successful attempt to instil partisan responsibility in us. It's only lately that I've been thinking 'Thomases Keep Their Promises' would have been equally noble, with the added advantage of rhyme.)

Anyway. Onto The Hours. Like many people my age, I suspect, the film of The Hours was my first introduction to Virginia Woolf. Having really enjoyed watching it, but remaining rather confused, I went away to read Mrs. Dalloway and the novel The Hours - setting me off down a Ginny track which hasn't stopped, and which has significantly influenced my research at university. Mrs. Dalloway remains one of the books I have read most often - I think four times, maybe more.

Does anybody not know the plot of The Hours? Perhaps. I'll summarise the premise as quickly as I can... the novel follows three separate trajectories. In 1923 Virginia Woolf is writing Mrs. Dalloway; in 1949 Mrs. Brown is reading Mrs. D, and in 1998 Clarissa Vaughan's life in many ways mirrors Mrs. Dalloway's. Michael Cunningham had originally intended simply a modernising of Mrs. Dalloway, the thread with Clarissa Vaughan, but eventually decided to write a more nuanced, and much cleverer, novel. The strands are all complete in themselves, telling in miniature the struggles and triumphs of three different women, but the true greatness of this novel (and it is great) comes from the ways in which the strands reflect upon each other. Mrs. Brown is trying to cope with marriage to the war veteran, popular at school, who feels that he did her a favour by marrying her. The scenes where she tries to pull on the guise of motherhood for the sake of her son, while feeling utterly adrift, are powerful and excellent. Clarissa Vaughan, similarly, is trying to find her place in life - a lesbian regarded by others as abandoning a 'cause', and another slightly bewildered mother, her qualms about the superficiality of her life are those shared with Mrs. Dalloway herself. And the difficulties of Virginia Woolf's life are not secret - the novel opens with her drowning herself, in 1941.

As well as an involving and ingeniusly-crafted novel, I'd argue that The Hours is a fascinating piece of social history investigation, and a not inconsiderable contribution to an understanding of Virginia Woolf. No novel, least of all one with three competing heroines, could wholly encapsulate a novelist's life - but Cunningham certainly develops a credible and well-researched angle from which Woolf can be viewed. (For another excellent portrayal of Woolf's life, through fiction, see Susan Seller's Vanessa and Virginia).

So that is the book, deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999. Onto the film. Did it do the book justice? Well, my quick answer to that is YES, since it's my favourite film ever. I should add that I am not particularly well versed in film history, and my points of reference are probably not that sophisticated - but it's still my favourite film, and you might well like it too, if you haven't seen it.

Stephen Daldry's direction is spot-on - what is best about the film, and impossible in the book, is the swift comparison of the three strands. This is best demonstrated in the opening sequences, the morning passages of the three women, viewable here (about halfway through). The scenes shift between Virginia, Laura and Clarissa going about their morning rituals, and is done very cleverly, as the actions of all three conflate.

The lead performances by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep are all quite brilliant, any of them would have been worthy of the Oscar (and, no, Nicole didn't win because of the fake nose any more than she did for the fake hair. Why do people say that about her, and not about the make-up-frenzy - not to mention snooze cruise - that was Lord of the Rings? Cat now officially amongst pigeons). The Hours is one of those rare films where all the casting is incredible. Aside from the three leads, the film can also boast Ed Harri
s, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, John C. Reilly, Eileen Atkins, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Dillane, and Allison Janney. Quite an embarrassement of riches. The way it is shot, the script adaptation by David Hare, the beautiful soundtrack by Philip Glass - The Hours doesn't put a foot wrong. The portrayal of Virginia Woolf may be simplified a bit (film doesn't have the scope for characterisation that novels do) but, again, it shows an angle of her. Both book and film The Hours are exceptional, and should be classics of their respective media for decades to come.


  1. Like you, I thought it was a spot on interpretation of the book. I was admittedly a bit anxious about that book before I read it. Mrs. Dalloway is probably my favourite book and my fear was that Cunningham was taking liberties with a classic. I found that fear was unfounded when I read the book, however, and loved it.

    I found Meryl Streep's performance heartbreakingly real. As always.

  2. How interesting! I did it the other way round from you - first I read Mrs Dalloway and loved it, then some years later I read The Hours and loved it, then saw the film and loved it. This is most unusual for me, as I often think films are a let-down after reading the books.

    Now I want to read the books again and see the film!

  3. You have reminded me just how much I enjoyed The Hours and that it's time to sign it out from the library again. "Down the Ginny track" tea almost went the wrong way!

  4. Great post, Simon. I love The Hours, the book and film, and you have reminded me that I need to revisit both. I studied Mrs Dalloway (my first Woolf) before reading The Hours in the early noughties. Initially I struggled a little with Mrs D but The Hours helped me appreciate it more and I have re-read it several times and consider it my favourite Woolf so far (I've read most of her novels, short stories and essays but not all).

  5. I read The Hours after reading Mrs Dalloway and was blown away by it - in fact, The Hours gave me a new appreciation for Woolf and I enjoyed Mrs Dalloway much more on rereading it after reading and watching The Hours.

    The Hours is one of my favourite books - I thought it was absolutely magnificent and beautiful and haunting and certain lines stayed with me for weeks after I read it. The film was brilliant too - a rare thing for a literary adaptation. I wouldn't say it was my favourite as I do prefer my films to be a tad bit more upbeat, but it was certainly excellent and I couldn't fault it.

  6. I enjoyed the film - then, read Mrs. Dalloway (haven't read The Hours).

    I was already involved on my own 'Ginny track' since I find Woolf interesting as a person.

    My problem with the film was with Nicole Kidman's interpretation - she played her as _angry_(!!!), almost foot-stompingly angry. Heck, Meryl Streep could have played her character and that one as well - she could do 'depressed', a description that I think fits Woolf much more than angry. Kidman's movements were so fast, snappingly so, zip-zip - I cannot visualize Woolf as such. I didn't enjoy Kidman at all - and the built-up nose was SOOOOOO unnecessary!! _Whose_ idea was _that_?? I did enjoy the setting / scenery and the clothes, the whole period bit.

  7. I loved The Hours, book and film. There is a bit of a literary anachronism in the film version. In one of the Julianne Moore scenes one of the novels on the floor next to the bed is Iris Murdoch's first novel Under the Net. If I remember correctly, the scene takes place in 1951, but the Murdoch novel wasn't published until 1954.

  8. Oh, this makes me want to re-read and re-watch!

  9. This post has reminded me of my love of both the books and the film. I read the book when I heard that the film was going to be released because I always prefer to read the book before the film (and books are usually so much better than the literary adaption). A while later I then read Mry Dalloway and then the Hours, which gave me a greater appreciation of both books. I also need to go on a re-read, re-watch spree :)

  10. What a great post! The book was one of my favorites the year I read it, and my 16 year old daughter is now its newest fan. Not sure how I missed the movie, but it's going to the top of the Netflix queue - now!


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