The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

If I’ve ever bought you a book as a present, loaned you a book or just recommended a book to you then there’s a good chance that it was ‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham. It is my favourite novel and I like to share it.

‘The Hours’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999 and was adapted into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore in 2002 so I suspect everyone is familiar with the story by now, even if they haven’t read the book.

Cunningham tells the story of three women who have all been affected, in some way, by Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’.

The first is Virginia Woolf herself. Although the prologue opens with her suicide in 1941 it is actually a fictionalised day in 1923, when she is beginning to write ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (the working title for which was ‘The Hours’), that Cunningham chooses to focus on for the remainder of the novel.

Laura Brown is living in Los Angeles in 1949. As we join her she is reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and planning a birthday celebration for her husband, a World War II veteran.

Clarissa Vaughan is living in New York at the end of twentieth century. She is planning a party for a dear and dying friend, he has AIDS, who has won a poetry prize. Clarissa Vaughan is very much a modern incarnation of Clarissa Dalloway.

What unfolds over the course of 226 pages is a beautifully written, poetically so in some passages, ‘riff’ (to use Cunningham’s own description) on ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ that touches on the banality of everyday life, our own internal discussions with ourselves, writing as not just an art form but a way of being, why we read, mental health issues, how past relationships affect our present, sexuality, and how people cope with illness.

It reduced me to tears the first time I read it and it still has the ability to floor me with every re-read, even though I know the story inside out by this stage. It stays with me for days after I put it down and a re-read of Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is never far behind.

So much of the novel is made up of the inner monologues of Woolf, Brown and Vaughan that it seemed impossible to translate into film. But adapt it David Hare did. Directed by Stephen Daldry, ‘The Hours’ is a stunning film but there are differences from the book.

Turning the characters inner monologues into something external made that inevitable. For me these differences are at their most evident in the scene between Clarissa and Louis and, again, with Laura’s trip to the hotel and the scenes involved in the run up to that.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the film and re-watch it every time I re-read the book. Screenplays being different from the novels they adapt is nothing new, it is why nine times out of ten I’ll prefer the book.

If you are new to ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and ‘The Hours’ then I suggest you start with ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. It is not a prerequisite for understanding ‘The Hours’, but I think it’ll enhance the experience. And if you haven’t read ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ in years then ‘The Hours’ is sure to have you reaching for it again.

Note – I found myself starting to wander off on many tangents about my love for Virginia Woolf’s writing while writing this, so expect a separate blog post about her at some point.