Intertwining Stories and Madness: Daldry and Cunningham Address Virginia Woolf

the hours

“The Hours” is a novel written by Michael Cunningham, a very well known homosexual author.    The novel is based around “Mrs. Dalloway,” published in 1925 by Virginia Woolf.  “Mrs. Dalloway,” is universally understood as one of the earliest and most famous examples of an English novel using stream-of-consciousness.  This is a narrative technique that is mean to demonstrate how the character’s mind is working; the reader is enveloped into the thoughts of the character.  Because of this, the style is written in a stylistically original manner, with word flow that defies convention and traditional writing methods.  This style often uses rhetorical questioning and thought processes.  “The Hours” acknowledges the impact of Virginia Woolf’s style.  A story of three women from different time periods whose lives are interwoven, “The Hours” also reflects upon the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Michael Cunningham’s novel was adapted to the big screen by director Stephen Daldry.  The cast is filled with well known and talented actors and actresses such as Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Ed Harris.  The film delves into the AIDS epidemic, but not to the extent to which the novel does.  However, the stream-of-consciousness technique is mirrored by the flawless interweaving of the three main characters lives.  The themes of imprisonment and regret are in each of the women’s lives, Ed Harris as well.  The imagery of repeating tract homes, neighborhoods of small, identical suburban homes, imprisons Laura just as Virginia Woolf feels immobile in her home outside the city.  For each character, suicide is seen as a recurring theme as well.

Translating any novel to a film is always difficult because there is a guaranteed loss.  With “The Hours,” it is almost impossible to keep a film audience engaged while using a stream-of-consciousness style of filming.  Rather, the Daldry uses intense scenes to portray the mood of the “stream-of-consciousness” rather than words.  However, because you can only see the actors, you lose some of the mental complexities that are found in the original novel.  The actors do a phenomenal job, and the film addresses many of the same these as the novel, but as we’ve seen in other films, the movie can only portray so much of the original work.  While some such as Daniele, claim that film and literature are the same, they truly are just different forms of entertainment.  Film is more akin to immediate gratification, hence huge blockbuster films.  Though there are certainly overlaps, films can create mood and build suspense, but they typically are not as introspective as a longer written work.  However, all the cinematography and other aspects of film can be appreciated in their own way.  This is why film and literature may be similar, and at times overlap, but are distinct works of art.

Here, Stephen Daldry is interviewed about his feelings on the film.  He states “I don’t want to deny anybody’s response to it (the film).  What I’ve enjoyed about following the film about a little bit is that people have responses we never thought about and are often quite imaginative and emotional… I suppose that at its core it’s about the very difficult choices people have to make in order to make their lives possible…the cost of the choices that, it seems to me, these women make, felt very truthful.”  Daldry is demonstrating that this film can be introspective, much like Virginia Woolf’s own work.  There is not a linear plotline to follow, leaving much more room for interpretation.

“The Guardian” examines the film and interviews Daldry as well, stating that Daldry loved the challenge of the original novel and translating that to film.  Additionally, he states that he did not want to address Virginia Woolf’s prose style, choosing to make his own film apart from Woolf.

Richard Sanchez gives the film four out of five stars, claiming that “Daldry has succeeded with orchestrating three very disturbing stories that ironically give living life a viable experience in the face of death… these themes of how life is defined by death are given color and feeling.”  He claims that the tone that extends into each of the three periods all link back to Woolf’s novel, using omniscient, “over-arching” tones of sadness.

Overall, the themes of madness and suicide are all themes that we find intersecting throughout the film.  While some may see it as “too much” or “melodramatic,” the film is hoping to address these issues so of course it is going to be dramatic.  The film requires multiple viewings to pick up on some of the nuanced references to Virginia Woolf.  Each time frame provides a distinct story and way of confronting self imprisonment as well as feminism.  The overarching themes can be identified for each time, but are unique to each story as well.

-Patrick Belson


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