The quintessentially modernist fiction of Virginia Woolf has never seemed especially suitable for translation into film. What is a director to do with all of her intermingling interior monologues, complete with flashbacks and reflections that wander hither and yon? One of Woolf’s most successful novels, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), was made into a movie a few years ago, but the result—a worthy if awkward retelling—was altogether predictable.
Woolf herself has experienced a different fate at the hands of Hollywood. A feminist icon by virtue of her well-known struggles as a woman and a writer, and a fixture on university reading lists, she has at last proved irresistible to the big screen. The Hours—a movie based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1998 novel of that name by Michael Cunningham, who used Mrs. Dalloway as the template for his own work—has won critical acclaim and an armload of awards and nominations for its presentation of the troubled lives of three different women living in three different eras, one of whom is Woolf herself. The New York Times, in a typically awestruck review, called The Hours “a sustained meditation on connection, human possibility, and the elusive dream of happiness.”
What most reviewers have failed to note, perhaps for fear of scaring off potential ticket-buyers, is the strongly feminist bent of The Hows. But that theme has not been lost on the film’s audience. The Hours has generated an almost cult-like excitement, especially among women. Sales of Cunningham’s novel and of Mrs. Dalloway are soaring, book clubs are buzzing, and none other than ur-feminist Gloria Steinem has remarked of the movie that “we find ourselves thinking about it, seeking out friends who have seen it, and eliciting lessons from it for days and weeks afterward.”
Mrs. Dalloway, the novel that started it all, is an experimental effort to present, in Woolf’s words, “a woman’s whole life in a single day.” In it, she employed the technique of stream-of-consciousness to capture the thoughts and perceptions of her characters during a June day sometime after World War I. As Woolf explained in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” her famous 1924 essay on modern fiction, the chief distinction of “Georgian” novelists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and herself, as opposed to their “Edwardian” peers (Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, H.G. Wells), lay in their determination to present the unfolding consciousness of their characters, to explore not the physical and social world of an ordinary “Mrs. Brown” but rather the inner mysteries of her mind.
The focal character of the novel is Mrs. Richard Dalloway, Clarissa, a fifty-two-year-old upper-class London wife and mother who, although often joyful at the simple pleasures of life, harbors beneath the surface a tangle of fears and insecurities. While planning for a large party that evening, Clarissa thinks back to the sense of possibility she briefly felt as a young woman, when she thought she might “reform the world” and when she shared an exquisitely forbidden kiss with her friend Sally. She recalls, too, being sought after by a young man, Peter, who seemed to promise her a more exhilarating existence, but whom she passed over for the safety of the conventional Richard.
An important subplot of Mrs. Dalloway concerns a young artist and shell-shocked veteran of the Great War, Septimus Warren-Smith, who commits suicide on the very day of the party by jumping from a window, an act that forms a kind of dark shadow to Clarissa’s efforts to face her own difficulties. Although at first appalled by the news, she finds that it leads her to affirm her own life and even to be grateful for the bulwark her husband provides against her tremulous sense of inadequacy.
As for the movie that is a second cousin to Mrs. Dalloway, it takes some liberties with Cunningham’s The Hours but is essentially true to his core themes and ideas. As in Cunningham’s novel, Woolf herself is one of the characters, portrayed here by Nicole Kidman wearing an ugly prosthetic nose; her suicide by drowning in 1941 opens the film, which then jumps back and forth among Cunningham’s three separate story lines, each following an unhappy, insecure woman as she faces the worst of her problems in a single day.
The first of the stories flashes back from Woolf’s suicide in 1941 to the June day in 1923 when she begins writing and conceptualizing the novel that will become Mrs. Dalloway. Having suffered severe mental problems and having made two attempts on her own life, Woolf has moved with her husband Leonard from noisy London to quiet suburban Richmond. Though the change seems to have soothed, or at least dulled, her misery, she nevertheless feels deeply oppressed by her environs and sees Leonard in some sense as her keeper.
In a second sequence, set in 1951, we follow the story of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an ordinary housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway and, it seems, identifying herself with the main character. Mrs. Brown—as Cunningham often calls her in his novel, alluding to Woolf’s essay—lives in a shiny new house in a shiny new Los Angeles suburb. She has a doting if uncomprehending husband, a loving little boy, and another child on the way, but she is, like Mrs. Dalloway, lacking in inner confidence, and, like Woolf, a miserable prisoner of her surroundings.
The third story, which parallels Woolf’s novel most closely, takes place in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 2001. Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is an editor in a publishing house who for ten years has been living in tranquil if uninspired lesbian domesticity with her partner Sally. She also has a college-aged daughter conceived by artificial insemination. But the great love of her life is Richard (Ed Harris), a homosexual poet, dying of AIDS, with whom she had an affair one summer in their youth. The experience has ever after remained the benchmark of their greatest happiness, although it was hardly sustainable in light of their separate preferences and Richard’s erratic nature.
Richard is to be honored that evening with an award for lifetime poetic achievement. But he is bitter, suffering in myriad ways, mental and physical. He feels that he has failed to achieve his artistic vision and scorns the award as a consolation prize for his illness. Like her namesake in the Woolf novel, this Clarissa is also planning a party for that evening, to celebrate Richard’s award. And this Clarissa, too, is feeling a rattling sense of dissatisfaction with the mundane quality of her life, bound up as it is in trivia and details. Her low-key relationship with Sally contrasts not only with the larger flush of possibility she once enjoyed but with the sense of aliveness she can still feel with Richard, whom she knows will soon be lost to her.
Indeed, when Clarissa arrives to take Richard to the party in his honor, he has decided to die. He tells her that she must let him go, that he cannot continue to stay alive for her in such misery. Conjuring up their youthful happiness together—and borrowing some of the words heard at the outset of the film in Woolf’s suicide note—he heaves himself from the window. Needless to say, Clarissa cancels the party.
The Hours has been intelligently adapted from Cunningham’s novel by the English playwright David Hare, and was directed by another Englishman, Stephen Daldry. The related plots are interwoven with a definite glossy skill, and there is an elegant if somewhat contrived artiness in the visual motifs that link the stories, particularly the recurring female imagery of flowers, parties, cups, cakes, eggs, cooking, kitchens. Pleasing too is the distinctive look and feel that Daldry has given to each of the three sequences. Woolf’s story takes place in the muted brownish tones we associate with films set before World War II; Laura’s in a nostalgic sepia-tinted 1950’s veneer, the plump vintage cars all polished to a preternatural shine; Clarissa’s in a plainer, less manipulated register that makes her life look familiar and of our own time.
As for the acting, Meryl Streep is spectacular as the modern-day Clarissa, Ed Harris searing as the bitter dying poet, and their scenes together are luminous and moving. On the other hand, her Golden Globe award for best actress notwithstanding, Nicole Kidman’s performance as Woolf is for the most part a one-note, zombie-like affair, marked by a scowlingly blank expression and a voice artificially cracked and lowered. Also one-noted is Julianne Moore’s Laura, with her puzzled open-mouthed misery seeping from every pore. Indeed, at times the film seems to do little more than drift from one catatonically frozen female face to another. Still, with the music by Philip Glass underscoring the circular monotony of the characters’ turmoil, the movie succeeds on its own terms as a gloomy, well-made women’s weepie.
What gives The Hours its feminist punch—and perhaps explains its appeal to the likes of Gloria Steinem—is its effort to create a cinematic triptych describing the modern Progress of Woman. As portrayed on screen, Virginia Woolf is stymied by a repressive society, hemmed in by a culture that, after all, has only just granted female suffrage and can scarcely comprehend a complicated woman, let alone a woman artist. Though she does eventually have it out with Leonard, convincing him that they must return to London, she is obviously dependent on her husband, and sees him as her link to sanity.
The story of Laura represents a later age. Women have obtained political rights, but they are still everywhere in chains, suffering from what Betty Friedan famously called “the problem that has no name.” Despite all that postwar America can deliver, and that her World War II-veteran husband is proud to provide, Laura is deeply depressed, agonizingly anxious, suffocated by her mid-century American family life. So desperate is she that, as we discover late in the film, when her story is brought up to the present, she abandoned her family soon after giving birth to her second child. In the unfolding feminist saga, she would seem to be a step closer to liberation than Woolf—a woman capable of leaving her husband and children and managing somehow to live on her own.
Finally, with the story of Clarissa, we have the full flush of freedom in our own day. Although struggling with insecurity and unhappiness, Clarissa has obviously had choices unavailable to the other two women. She can earn a good income, live openly and unremarkably with another woman, and even have a child apart from a man. In the unfolding “herstory” of The Hours, this means that her life can turn out more happily than the others’, a point brought home in the closing scenes in which we discover that none other than Laura—the desperately unhappy housewife of 1950’s Los Angeles—is the mother who deserted the child who would grow up to be the tormented Richard.
A curious but unmistakable theme of the women’s history presented by The Hours is the redemptive possibilities of lesbianism. When, in the first story, Virginia’s lively sister Vanessa comes for tea with her three children, Virginia kisses her full on the mouth, an effort, the film suggests, to draw vitality from another woman as well as to give expression to her own confused sexual identity. Similarly, in the second story, when a neighbor drops in on Laura, the bedraggled housewife kisses her on the lips in an attempt to feel connection and, clearly in this case, out of repressed lesbian longing. As for Clarissa, having finally been jolted by Richard’s suicide into an appreciation of her own substantial contentment, she seals her self-knowledge by bestowing a long, grateful, determined kiss on her neglected partner Sally. Of all the female-female kisses in the film, this is the one that represents true and ultimate fulfillment, like the finally completed chord of Tristan und Isolde. The thrill of her long-standing heterosexual flirtation behind her, Clarissa can at last settle into stable domesticity.
Though The Hours does not claim to speak for Virginia Woolf, it obviously draws inspiration from her work, presenting itself as an up-to-the-minute reimagining of Mrs. Dalloway (The Hours was Woolf’s original title). In comparing the moral and social world of Woolf’s novel to that of the movie, however, what is most striking is not their similarities but their radical divergence.
Despite her own personal torments and her ambitions as a literary modernist, Woolf remained enough of a Victorian to want to affirm the institutions of ordinary life, even to suggest their larger normative dimensions. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa has her moments of anxious self-doubt, to be sure, but she is redeemed ultimately by the conventional choices she has made. We learn that her girlhood friend Sally—the one with whom she shared that forbidden kiss—is now a happily married mother. We discover that Peter, the suitor who promised Clarissa a deeper, more stimulating existence, is something of a failure. And we get to know her boring but dutiful husband Richard, a conservative Member of Parliament (of all things) whom Woolf portrays with genuine sympathy. Perhaps most emblematic of all, Woolf’s Clarissa, having meditated privately on the terrible suicide of Septimus, goes back to the party she has planned and the larger social world that it represents. As we are told when Clarissa returns to her guests, in what is the final line of Mrs. Dalloway: “For there she was.”
The Hours, too, concludes on something of an affirmative note, with the quiet satisfaction of the modern-day Clarissa. As one rapturous critic put it, it is a film about the “hard-won celebration of life as it is meant to be lived, hour by hour, moment by moment.” But what dominates the film is something quite different—not the “hard-won” happiness of its female protagonists but the very unhappy connections from which they must break free.
This Clarissa, unlike Woolf’s, never makes it to her party. This is true not just in the literal sense that she must, after Richard’s suicide, cancel the celebration intended to honor him but also in a deeper sense—she becomes whole by shedding at last the one part of her life, a lingering romantic attachment to a man, that has the look of a traditional commitment. In this, as in its portrayal of the natural family as a soul-crushing prison house, The Hours seems to suggest that only in a world from which men have been ruthlessly banned or dispatched can women hope to achieve a modicum of genuine happiness.
Virginia Woolf, at least on the evidence of her art, knew better. But it is not the social world of Mrs. Dalloway, with its sober appreciation of traditional relations between men and women, that the makers of The Hours have chosen to dramatize. Rather, it is the tragic story of Woolf’s own suicide, an episode that serves as a framing device for the whole movie. As The Hours begins, we see Woolf walking toward the river where she will drown herself; the closing shot shows her in the act yet again, her head just above the water.
The “lesson” we are to draw from this, I suppose, is that women must bravely confront the choices before them: either take the radical, even countercultural, paths that are necessary to bring them contentment, or end their misery. For my part, I cannot help thinking that Woolf—not the gray, disgruntled, emotionally wracked little wren portrayed in The Hours but the writer and thinker—had a truer understanding of her sex.