Michael Cunningham’s book, The Hours, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written in 1999 that surrounds the lives of three women as they struggle with the satisfaction (or lack thereof) that they feel about their lives. The three women, Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughan are each shown to have deep regrets as to what their lives have become, and all three have very obvious struggles with depression. It should be noted that these struggles are a connection between the three as much as they are palpable disconnect between themselves and the surrounding world. The themes expressed in Cunningham’s book are suicide (contemplated by all three women), dissatisfaction with one’s roles in life, and the notion of not living for the benefit of one’s self but instead existing for the sake of others.
The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry and based from the book of the same name, follows the same plot and structure of the book and shows the events of just one day for each of the three women. Thus, like the book, the reader (or viewer in this case) is shown the parallels between each of the characters’ lives, even though the events taking place are decades apart. The film maintains the same thematic elements as Michael Cunningham’s original novel as it shows each of the three women being held captive by their societal roles, obligations to others (e.g. their families) and the resulting depression that these notions bring about. Suicide, again, plays a very large role in their stories as they contend with the readily available option of escape. The film also affords the audience a visual representation of the changes in setting and atmosphere as it shifts between characters (and time periods). Most notably is the change in wardrobe between periods, from the 1920’s English garb and pronounced application of makeup worn by Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, to the more modern apparel of Meryl Streep (Clarissa Vaughan) in 1980’s New York. The film’s soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, adds a very somber tone to each scene, heavy with strings and slow rhythms whose rhythms remain largely consistent throughout, despite the change in periods.
In adapting Michael Cunningham’s novel into a more visual medium, some obvious issues that must have arisen were those associated with the difficulty in relaying the lives three different women from three different times into a coherent and watchable story, without the advantage of textual. Whereas the book had plenty of time to develop the lives of the three characters, the movie had a more finite period to work with which, due to a lack of narration, relied on the audience’s abilities of perception to grasp the concepts put forth. I feel that this film may have translated better into a mini-series consisting of perhaps, four episodes, each an hour long that would give the writers (and audience) more time with the characters. If this were the case, I believe the final scene in which Laura is revealed to be Richard’s (Richie’s) mother would not have been necessary as the connection between the two women would have had the opportunity to be a bit more fleshed out.
3rd Party Sources
A blog entry analyzing the parallels and differences between the book and film adaptations of The Hours including character analysis and the overall effectiveness of Daldry’s translation to the silver screen.
An interview conducted between MIT Arts Editor Allison C. Lewis and author Michael Cunningham that delves into his inspirations for writing and his feelings on Stephen Daldry’s film adaptation of The Hours.
An interview conducted between The Guardian’s Michael Billington and The Hours director Stephen Daldry, detailing the process of drafting the script and the difficulties in pulling three stories into one film.
*B. Reading this particular interview with Michael Cunningham is a very worthwhile endeavor as it grants a behind-the-scenes (or rather, behind-the-pages) perspective as to what his intention was when writing The Hours. During the interview, Cunningham reveals that, being a gay man, he is “absolutely a feminist” and was seeking empowerment on behalf of his “sisters” (not literal). In addition, he discusses the characters of Clarissa and Laura, the latter of which was loosely based on his own mother. Thus, after reading the interview, one can watch the film adaptation with these things in mind and know that, as admitted by Cunningham himself, it was indeed an effective translation that he was satisfied with.
Madness and suicide are central themes in the three intersecting stories in the film. Is it all too much, leading to over-heated melodrama, or does the film give us three nuanced and unique views of these themes?
In both the book and film adaptations of The Hours, each of the three characters faces their own respective frustrations with their lives which lead to the contemplation and in the case of Virginia and Richard, the act of suicide and although this theme is heavily dramatic, it is absolutely essential to the understanding of all three characters. The ever-present theme of one’s life as a prison and death as liberation speaks of the plight that each of these women faces and, more importantly, the distinction between them shown in the choices they make. For example, the first scenes following Virginia Woolf reveal a woman who is suffering from bipolar disorder and feels as though she is not in control of her own life. Her husband Leonard keeps a watchful eye on her and, when confronted by him, she states that if she is to live, it must be according to her own choices. Later, we are shown her eventual suicide, a fact which suggests that her inability to live for herself was too much to bear. In contrast, during Laura’s attempted suicide, as she looks in the mirror she realizes her commitments to the people in her life (such as Richie) and decides that because of others, she must go on. In Richard’s case, he spends the final period of his life being cared for by Clarissa and even though he is finally lauded for his artistic talents during the award ceremony, he still decides that an escape from his life stricken with AIDS is his only viable option. It is then revealed, in the final, scene that Laura’s leaving Richard as a child had a deeply impactful effect on him. Thus, without the weight that is carried with the themes of suicide and madness (in Virginia’s case), the impact that one’s life and actions has on the life of another could not have been relayed so effectively.