In general, I make an effort to read a book before I watch the movie that is based upon it. Often, this makes the movie more interesting, as I already have become familiar with who the main characters are and how they are connected to each other.
Sometimes, this backfires, and I end up sadly disappointed by the movie that doesn’t match the quality of a book that I enjoyed. Once in a while, I see a movie before I have any idea that it was based upon a book. Such is the case with The Hours.
My overall impression of the movie was that there was something going on that I was missing. What were these characters thinking about in silence? It must have been important, but I could not deduce what, exactly, it was.
Although I knew that Nicole Kidman was in the movie I failed to recognize that she was the one playing the role of Virginia Woolf until after the credits were rolling. To be honest, I barely knew who Virginia Woolf was when I saw the movie. That is to say, I knew she was a writer, because I once worked in a book store and recall putting her books back on the correct shelf. Beyond that, I knew nothing.
The movie was compelling enough for me to decide that I wanted to read the book. Watching the movie before reading the book left me with the uncomfortable feeling I would get when attending a class in college after having skipped the previous one. Everyone else must have received instructions that made what was currently going on crystal clear to them. How do I catch up?
The book focuses on three main characters: Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Dalloway. They are indirectly connected to each other through the book Mrs. Dalloway which was written by Virginia Woolf. So, its a book about an author who is writing a book that later affects two other women (whom she never meets). Upon realizing this, I cannot help but wonder if I should have read Mrs. Dalloway before reading The Hours (and then watched the movie after that).
Reading The Hours helped, because it filled in the missing pieces that the movie lacked. Most of the book takes place within a character’s own head, through her thoughts, which are rarely spoken. Capturing that in a movie, without the use of a “voiceover”, would be very difficult.
Mrs. Woolf, of course, is Virginia Woolf. The Hours is fiction, but it does include a little bit about someone who really did exist. She is struggling to finish writing the book called Mrs. Dalloway. The very first chapter describes Virginia’s suicide, including what she was thinking about during the event and shortly before it.
We later learn that she was suffering from what was probably a form of mental illness. She wasn’t eating, she slept at odd hours, and she was hearing voices. Her fear was she would never recover from the current bout of madness, and she couldn’t bear to put her husband through that stress and pain. There were times when she interacted with her sister, and her sister’s children, and this brought out in her a sense of longing that she couldn’t entirely sort out.
Mrs. Dalloway, in The Hours, is not the character that Mrs. Woolf was writing about. Her real name is Clarissa Vaughn, but her good friend, Richard, gave her that nickname. There was a time when the two of them were in some sort of undefined relationship, but it didn’t work out. Clarissa is throwing a party for Richard because his book won an award. However, Richard is seriously ill, and sometimes delirious, and doesn’t seem to want to go to the party.
Clarissa misses what the two of them once had (but doesn’t want to repeat it). She has a partner and the two women have a good relationship. The same cannot be said of Clarissa and her daughter, who have become estranged from each other. It is unclear what, specifically, happened to cause the rift. Maybe it was nothing more than “growing pains” as her child became a young adult. Perhaps it is just that Clarissa doesn’t like her daughter’s girlfriend. Either way, Clarissa is longing for things that she does not have, and that she misses very much.
Mrs. Brown is a married woman who has a very young son. She is pregnant and feels exhausted and overwhelmed (which is not unheard of). All she wants to do is lie in bed and read Mrs. Dalloway, but this is not possible, because she has a child to care for and a husband whom she feels would be disappointed in her if she actually did lie in bed all day. He has a job, and she stays home with her little boy, feeling very lonely. She has everything she is supposed to want in life, and yet, wonders why she is still so unhappy and unfulfilled.
The Hours is a look into the minds of three women who are desperately longing for something that is not present in their lives. How does one go on with life, acting as though everything is fine, when inside there is an emptiness and an overwhelming loneliness? To me, it seemed as though the three main characters were struggling to find the answer to that question.
The book is well written, and it filled in the pieces that I felt the movie was missing. I highly recommend reading the book before you watch the movie, to avoid the confusion I ran into. The Hours has sparked my interest in reading Mrs. Dalloway, just to learn more about the ways it connects with Michael Cunningham’s book.