Cunningham's The Hours: The Mind of Virginia Wolf

Cunningham's The Hours: The Mind of Virginia Wolf

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While writing a fiction novel, I would think that the writer would have to dig deep into their mind and into their heart in order for them to convey realistic emotions through their characters. This process could almost be related to hypnosis where the writer relies on his or her inner thoughts and feelings to effectively add depth to their novel's fictitious characters. In the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf used a technique called stream-of-consciousness in which she attempted to write the novel in the same patterns as her brain's thought process. In doing this, Woolf gave birth to a piece of art that contained some of her deepest emotions and desires. Her novel has such a prolific substance that I do not believe that the work could be redone or adapted to any other forum of art, even through the magic of the silver screen. I must compliment Michael Cunningham in his loose adaptation of the Mrs. Dalloway story and the historical revisiting of Virginia Woolf in his novel The Hours. The many adaptations that had to occur in order to capture the very substance of Mrs. Dalloway are the subjects of this work; From the actors and directors in the film The Hours to the writings of Cunningham's adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway in The Hours, and finally to the source of it all - the mind of Virginia Woolf.

"Many people, including Michael Cunningham, didn't think the novel could be turned into a movie" (Ansen 21). The process of writing a screen play to ultimately accomplish the essence of a novel such as The Hours can be quite a challenge. A novel, as a piece of literature, contains inner thoughts and feelings that are felt by the characters of the novel. A work of literature also may consist of an array of emotional tones and characteristics that can only be portrayed in a piece of literature. For example, David Hare, the screenwriter for the film version of The Hours, felt that "the biggest challenge in creating the film was to convey what the three heroines were thinking without resorting to voice-overs" (Ansen 21). Eventually, the pair of Hare and director Stephen Daltry found a way to solve this problem. The film incorporates different transitional devices to keep up with the different actions of the three heroines whose stories are told simultaneously through different time periods.

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One of such device is the use of the third person narrative and another is the flawless performances of the primary actors.

Nicole Kidman, who plays the role of Woolf in the film, makes it a habit to do large amounts of research into the historical character that she actively takes on. She luckily had some help from the long deceased Woolf herself through her many published autobiographical journals that delve into her sordid life. "Kidman says she got involved with The Hours for the best of reasons: She wanted to make a movie of real substance" (Butler 1). Kidman successfully chose a meaningful and challenging role to play for this film. Woolf was a very innovative writer who successfully differentiated herself and her writing from other forms of literature of her time. While writing Mrs. Dalloway, although Woolf was at a high point in her stint of novel writing, she seemed to have been struggling with the approach in which she took the novel. I am sure that Woolf's life was a little more than perpetually composed during this time of dealing with the constraints of being out of the city which she loved so. Kidman seems to have done her research well thus she gives a truthful performance of Woolf as a figure who finds herself fraught with the complex issues of her life while attempting to depict her inner feelings through characters in her novel. Woolf comments on Clarissa's thoughts of life in the novel: "She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway" (11).

Julianne Moore acts the role of Laura Brown in the film The Hours. Mrs. Moore's choice to play the role in the film is "perhaps a little more systematic" than Kidman's (Butler 1). Moore attempts to balance her work with a soft and sometimes easy role next to a more challenging role such as Laura Brown. Laura Brown's character is in the midst of reading Mrs. Dalloway twenty years after it was written. While she finds herself experiencing the same doubts about her life as does the Clarissa Dalloway character in the novel. Laura Brown's character is also loosely based on a short story by Doris Lessing called To Room Nineteen in which a confused mother leaves her family to commit suicide in a hotel room. The two characters, Laura Brown and Susan Rawlings share similar exasperations about their lives, particularly because of their entrapped feelings of playing the roles of mother and wife. I believe that Cunningham chose to model Mrs. Brown after Lessing's character due to other parallels between the two authors. Critic Clair Sprague once wrote on the similarities of both characters Anna Wulf in Lessing's 1969 book The Golden Notebook and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway. Speaking of both authors, Sprague states that "like Woolf, Lessing has developed a unique multi-personal mode, a new time strata, a new way of disrupting narrative viewpoint and the continuity of exterior events"(Sprague 5).

The choice of such fine actors as Kidman and Moore plus the addition of Meryl Streep as the New York editor Clarissa Vaughn is definitely one Hollywood device that could effectively turn any literary conversion into a great film. Not only does the film shine as a remarkable screen translation of Cunningham's novel, it also inhabits the same spirit as the writer felt while trying to do the same for Mrs. Dalloway. "Michael was incredible," Hare says, "He told me, 'I inherited it from Virginia Woolf, and now you must go off and alter it as freely as I adapted Mrs. Dalloway'" (Ansen 20). I can only guess that the 'it' that Cunningham was supposedly innate is the true essence in which Woolf successfully captured in her novel. The personal issues within Woolf became apparently clear through the lives of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway (namely the literary correspondence of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith). In his novel, Cunningham stunningly enacted this unnamable Woolfian force into characters that are used in an attempt to clarify such a literary and emotional phenomenon as the meaning behind the words in Mrs. Dalloway.

In actuality, Cunningham's book pays homage of sorts to the strong feelings that Mrs. Dalloway captures. He knew that the Woolf's novel was too great a work for him to touch, as far as trying to develop his novel as an accurate retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. He even shows the true power that the Woolf novel possesses in The Hours by having the book relate to three different women in three different time periods. This relation of the three women through Woolf writing the novel, Laura Brown obsessively reading the novel and Clarissa Vaughn eerily more or less living the novel proves to the reader that the work itself is something of great importance and of a scope that has not yet been taken on by any other writer. Such magnitude could never be conveyed in any other fashion except through the means that Cunningham finds suitable in writing The Hours. Ultimately, the only way for the true mind-set of Woolf's novel to be released as a film was for it to be twice adapted. There would have been no way for the novel and all of its essence of that true Woolfian relationship to be placed upon the medium of film unless it was done this way. Stanley Kaufman once said of Virginia Woolf and the substandard first film adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway: "This is not remotely to argue a fixed superiority of literature over film, but it is to suggest that some novels resist adaptation to the core of their beings" (28).

Mrs. Dalloway is undoubtedly one of those novels. Within the pages and through the characters of the novel, Woolf openly questions her purpose and existence to the point of no return. Through Clarissa Dalloway the reader witnesses Woolf going through pains and disparities of questioning life. Through the character Septimus Smith we see her seeking out that possible answer; we see through him the horror that Woolf has had to endure in her life. Clarissa finds herself confounded by the looming air of the presence of Septimus in the novel, "Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here's death, she thought" (183). The novel consists of those perplexing questions of life swirling inside Woolf's head, being asked and answered on the pages right before the reader's eyes. At one point in the novel, Septimus has obviously lost all sense of reason and his inner thoughts are shown to prove this: "Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses, she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman's dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element." (MD 174)

Again, the novel proves to be a powerful tool to be able to account for the inner emotions of someone's mind and for this is why Mrs. Dalloway shall always be one of the supreme novels in modern and literary history. And although there is no mistaking the fact that the whole novel The Hours is written by Cunningham as an honest tribute to Woolf, "still it is remarkable to watch him demonstrate that there is no area of Woolf's extraordinary consciousness that, for reasons of modesty, he might shy away from attempting to recreate" (Dee 4). The Hours effectively serves as an account of how one piece of literature can ultimately survive as an implementation of destiny and how one author can successfully capture the true feelings of the mind and the heart and continue to affect readers for generations to come.

We never understand each other; neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed as well as the novelist themselves.

E.M. Forester


Works Cited



Ansen, David. "Mrs. Dalloway's Close-Up: A 1925 classic morphed into a 1998

Pulitzer Prize winner, then into a magical movie. Here's how it happened."

Newsweek 4 April 2002: 20 - 22.

Butler, Karen. "The Woolf pack: when it comes to world-class actors, the appeal of award-winning literature is strong." West Egg Comm. November 2002.

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1998.

Dee, Jonathon. Rev. of The Hours. Harper's Magazine June 1999.

Forrester, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. Quotation from Rev. of The Hours by Jonathon Dee. Harper's Magazine

Kauffmann, Stanley. "Abstract: Film adaptations of novels are variously successful". Rev. of The Hours. The New Republic 9 March 1998: 28

Sprague, Claire. "Multipersonal and Dialogic Modes in Mrs. Dalloway and The

Golden Notebook," Woolf and Lessing Breaking the Mold. Saxton, Ruth and

Tobin, Jean. New York: St. Martin's Press. Inc. 1994. 3-14.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Hogarth Press, 14 May 1925
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