The Hours

1. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s first novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham replicates Woolf’s style, which was, at the time of its writing, groundbreaking in its experimentality; she wrote in stream-of-consciousness, which made Mrs. Dalloway famously difficult to adapt to film. Cunningham, too, wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style, though it’s been done so much since Woolf’s time that it is hardly groundbreaking anymore. The novel follows three strong female characters–Virginia Woolf herself, as she writes Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920s, Laura Brown, a suicidal 1950s housewife tortured by monotony, and Clarissa Vaughn, a modern woman dealing with the slow AIDS death of a past lover. All of these women are united by Mrs. Dalloway, and all three have deep emotional ties to both Mrs. Dalloway and to literature in general–Clarissa as an editor, Virginia as an author, and Laura as a reader.

2. The film adaptation, while thought to be impossible due to the unconventional narrative structure of the book, was actually extremely well done. It has an all-star cast–Meryl Streep as Clarissa, Julienne Moore as Laura, and Nicole Kidman (+ prosthetic nose) as Virginia Woolf. All of these women are exceptional actors, and some give the performances of their lives in this film; each portrays a tortured, complex, and thoroughly nuanced and dynamic character, and they all brim over with emotion and passion. The movie follows the women’s lives separately, but gives them each little nuances to show audiences that they are indeed connected–each character breaks eggs into a bowl, some put up their hair in the same way, some prefer the same types of flowers. Their connection is made obvious as they wander along their separate timelines.

3. As mentioned previously, the style of the novel is not very conducive to film, but if we’ve learned anything from this class, it’s that nothing is impossible. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare both adapted the book beautifully into an almost seamless narrative on screen. One of the major changes from the book, though, that critics seem to revile, is the connection the director chose to make between the characters’ separate storylines. At the end, Clarissa meets an aged Laura, who turns out to be Richard’s mother, who comes into town after his suicide. We learn that Laura left her family, and that Richard hated her for it, but the final scenes show Clarissa and her daughter Julie both sympathizing with Laura’s struggle. She knew she would kill herself if she stayed with her family, so she left, saved herself, and the final scene is one of forgiveness. Many critics think this disrupted the perfect triangular structure they’d managed to believably maintain throughout the movie, keeping the characters’ lives separate but parallel.

4. This article from Vertigo magazine condemns The Hours for being “theatre onscreen” instead of “performance,” citing Britain’s roots in classical theatre as a roadblock that prevents Brits from enjoying cinema. This brief article addresses a couple of factual disparities in the movie regarding Virginia Woolf’s life, including especially the rather poetic final letters she leaves for her husband and sister in the movie. This article is a review, but I had to include it because it’s absolutely disgusting. The author not only disapproves of the movie’s tendency to glorify death, but she is also a raging homophobe. She is “repulsed” by the “lesbian tendencies” of the three main women and refers to the movie as a “moral abyss.” This article is by no means a scholarly argument–I was more repulsed by it than the author was by the movie–but I felt I had to include it for its painful one-sidedness and cruelty.

5. “At one point, Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, says that a writer is lucky because he or she gets to live the life they’re living, and the life or lives of their characters. How does the film show that this kind of imagination can be unlucky? And how does this correspond with the experience of a film viewer?”

The film (and the book) show just how unlucky a writer’s imagination can be. Virginia is the obvious case here–she imagines a world in which she is allowed to roam free, torturing herself on the page by torturing Mrs. Dalloway. She is preparing for a party in her normal, everyday life, but all the while contemplates suicide as she realizes just how different this matronly life is from what she wants. Woolf imagines this character escaping from her binds, and so Woolf herself is able to imagine suicide as a viable option. Laura Brown, though not a writer, is also tortured by her imagination; she is so stifled by her mundane housewife role that she, too, considers suicide as part of a long battle with depression. She lives an entirely different life in her mind, prompted by her secretive reading of Mrs. Dalloway, and only when she breaks out and achieves her imagined life does she avoid death at her own hands. Lastly, Clarissa Vaughn is tormented by her imagination, but this time, she is imagining the past, not some ideal future. Clarissa knew happiness once; she mentions thinking that it was the beginning of happiness, but that it turned out to be the real thing. Since then, it’s been gone, and she’s romanticized the past with Richard so much that her average present is eating her up inside. While it is a writer’s gift to be able to imagine and live multiple lives, for these women, it was a curse.

This also parallels the viewers’ experience when watching a film, but maybe not in such a crucial way. These women are all made miserable by the vibrancy of their imaginations, while film viewers are, more often than not, enriched by the experience of someone else’s life unfolding onscreen. I think it’s a personal thing–I consider myself lucky whenever I walk away from a film feeling anything, good or bad. The main difference, I think, between the film viewer and the writer, is that the viewer chooses what movies to see, when to see them, etc. The writer, on the other hand, always has the movie playing in her head.


3 thoughts on “The Hours

  1. I do agree that having these two “lucky” lives is a curse for these women. I think that ones imagination and mind can become a prison of thoughts in which they cannot escape. Virginia Woolf was a great example in this film because she was fully aware that she was crazy, and yet her husband didn’t believe she knew. Frustration forms from this, only tormenting the imprisoned individual. I think Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughn are slightly different examples of this unlucky double life. While it is clear that they are aware of their own imaginations and thoughts, they do not feel they can share them with other people. I image this could be just as hard if not harder than having someone you love think you are unaware of your disposition.


  2. Nice job this time. Your analysis of the book, film, and adaptation are all well done. The same regarding your student research links. Your critical argument paragraphs raise many important points, though you should try to limit it to one paragraph. It also would have been stronger with a stronger thesis statement. Yours:

    “The film (and the book) show just how unlucky a writer’s imagination can be.”

    True enough, but this doesn’t really work as a thesis because it’s too general. Maybe something like:

    Rather than a source of liberation, the imagination is a curse for the characters of The Hours.

    Use that as a jumping off point. (But note that, since you don’t really discuss just writers, I took that out). It would be really interesting to talk about this in terms of gender difference: is it only the women who are tortured by their imaginations, and, if so, why is this so?

    10/10. Joseph Byrne. ENGL329B.


  3. I agree with the “unluckiness” you describe each character suffering from. Individually they are dealing with their demons, but in a similar sense. Each woman is searching for a type of escape, whether it be a distraction of planning a party for Clarissa, or the meticulous planning of suicide by Laura. They feel trapped by their own circumstance. Watching the film, I felt the emotional distress of each woman, and the uncomfortable tension in their interactions with the people in their lives. I really enjoyed your critical analysis paragraph.


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