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 Harris, 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.