The Hours by Michael Cunningham

‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham interweaves the parallel stories of three women from different generations across one day in their lives through their connection with the novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’. The writer Virginia Woolf is in the process of writing ‘Mrs Dalloway’ in the early 1920s as she battles mental illness. Claustrophobic post-war housewife Laura Brown  bakes a cake to celebrate her husband’s birthday but all she really wants to do is escape and read ‘Mrs Dalloway’. Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed Mrs Dalloway, is a modern-day New Yorker planning a party for her friend and former lover, Richard. As well as the obvious connection with Woolf’s novel, the women are all connected in other ways. Notably they are affected by the same themes including madness and sexuality.

While I don’t think you need to be a devoted fan of Virginia Woolf to enjoy this book, ‘The Hours’ will be virtually meaningless to anyone who hasn’t read ‘Mrs Dalloway’ or at least seen the very successful film version of Cunningham’s work. At the same time, for those who are familiar with the book or the film, there won’t be any major surprises in terms of what happens in ‘The Hours’ if you haven’t read it yet. Nevertheless, the book didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for nothing. Cunningham skilfully uses many of the techniques and themes in Woolf’s original novel. For example, the eloquent prose contains the stream-of-consciousness style used in the original ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and this technique is difficult, if not impossible, to translate into cinema, or at least not with the same effect.

The reader will see how even the smallest decisions and changes in the lives of the three women can have the biggest consequences. I thought that the part exploring Woolf’s own life would be the weakest of the three stories but instead it contained some of the most affecting and intriguing moments in the whole book. Above all, I was impressed by the control that Cunningham had over the text by balancing and pitching each of the three strands perfectly. Most importantly, he knows when to stop. ‘The Hours’ is quite a short book and like the original ‘Mrs Dalloway’, it is powerful in its brevity.

For me, ‘Mrs Dalloway’ was a book I appreciated more after I had read it and possibly even more now I have read ‘The Hours’. The complex concept behind ‘The Hours’ could easily have come across as a limp parody, but instead, Cunningham has successfully produced an inspired homage to Virginia Woolf. Even if you haven’t read ‘Mrs Dalloway’ before, you will be compelled to do so after reading ‘The Hours’.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “The Hours by Michael Cunningham

  1. It also helps that Cunningham’s writing is so effortless!

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  2. His new one – By Nightfall – is impeccable and brilliant. Effortless is a good word for it.

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  3. Haven’t read the book, though I have it, but I thought the film was one of the most haunting I’ve seen and has such an incredible sadness running through it. The distinction between the outer and inner worlds of these people, and what happens when the two collide, is compelling and tragic. Thanks for your review article.

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  4. Ariel Price

    I love Mrs. Dalloway, and I enjoyed the movie version of The Hours. I think I’ll have to read it! Thanks for the review!

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  5. The Hours sounds really interesting, I haven’t read Mrs Dalloway but I will put it on my list! Thanks for the review

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  6. I agree. I read them side by side and enjoyed both thoroughly.

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  7. I guess I’ll have to get on to reading them both. I’m late on these. I do love Virginia Wolf’s works. so I think I’ll have to start with Mrs. Dalloway. Actually I have it on my shelf and it’s winking at me right this moment.

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  8. I do enjoy and admire Virginia Woolf but I found The Hours tedious and pretentious in its attempting to hook into the fame of VW to advance its imagined value.

    As to Stream-of-Conscousness not being adaptable to film: Nonsense. SOC is evident in many movies (American Psycho being a SOC film somewhat contemporary to The Hours). Here is an objectivist view of stream-of-consciousness: http://acg.media.mit.edu/projects/stream/dave-big.mov .

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  9. Pingback: Best Book to Film Adaptations | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

  10. Chris Sullivan

    I loved this book and the film. I bought this book with some trepidation many years ago as Mrs Dalloway is my all time favourite book. However, I found the book stunning. The film is wonderful and Meryl Streep, as she often does, gave a magnificent performance.

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