Monday, July 07, 2008

Michael Cunningham: The Hours

Reading this novel by Michael Cunningham felt a little redundant after having seen the (excellent) film adaptation, specially when you realize that there are so many other books left unread and waiting to be picked up but I have found that, generally speaking, reading the book and watching the film enriches the experience of both. You begin to think what would a suitable visual analogue for some abstract idea expressed through words in the novel would look like on screen and conversely how can a mood created by a complex mise-en-scene (editing, music, composition, set-design, acting etc) be transformed into words on the page and can they ever have the same effect or even are they supposed to have the same effect? Is one medium more cerebral and distant than the other? It makes you think about the formal aspects of both artistic media.

Coming back to the book, I think the screenplay was able to capture almost all the details of the story in the book and if there are more details in the book they don't necessarily change our conception of the characters in the movie. One significant alteration was in the Laura Brown section of the story. In the book her depression and incipient madness comes across as more of that of a poet who hasn't yet found words and a voice of her own. In the film her character is much more generic - housewife with angst, direct out of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (another book I finished reading recently). Julianne Moore of course is astonishing in the role and it never really becomes a cliche. In fact I believe it is the strongest of the three sections, at least in the film.

There is also one more serious problem which is there in both the book and film. Cunningham is obviously trying to impersonate Virginia Woolf and write his own "Mrs Dalloway" but his novel is not a work of "woman's fiction" at all, not in the sense of what Woolf meant in her essay A Room of One's Own and indeed when she wrote "Mrs Dalloway". In The Hours there are sections in which we get access to the interior voice of Clarissa but most of the time we are watching her from the outside. It is sympathetic and understanding gaze, a gaze that never denies the complexity and depth of the subject but it is still a gaze. There is one major scene which makes the difference between Woolf's and Cunningham's novel clear. In Mrs Dalloway the character of Peter is shown through Clarissa's perspective and it is he who breaks down in front of her but in Cunningham's novel Louis (Peter's stand-in is now the lover of Richard) watches Clarissa as she breaks down in the kitchen ("I seem to be unraveling," she says).

I also had another major problem with the film which is there in the book too: that is, the way the character of Viriginia Woolf is imagined and described. I haven't read any of her biographies or letters, notes etc so I don't know how accurate or "true" those recreations and speculations about her thoughts really are. But even if they are from her diaries and notes and the real life incidents, still in the end it is too much rationalisation and demystification, something that can never fully explain where "Mrs Dalloway" came from. There are also lots of cliched sequences (like the one involving the dead bird) which felt awkward to me. I am also curious if she ever really said that line about how the poets and visionaries must die so that the rest of us can continue living. I guess, if it were a normal character it would have been okay with me but those thoughts were a little too simplistic and somewhat cliched to be coming out from Woolf's mind. Then again, it is perfectly possible that they are from her notes and diaries. Cunnigham lists a number of volumes of secondary literature on Woolf in his "note on sources" in the end. It is certainly a very well researched book. The New York section particularly is very rich in clues for those who remember Mrs Dalloway very well and have read it deeply and attentively. I need to read it again but one particular detail amused me very much. In Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway sees a face in the car window and thinks she might be the queen or the prime minister (or some important political figure, I forget which one exactly) and in Cunnigham's novel Clarissa sees a movie star and thinks it might be either Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave. Yes, Cunningham had the film adaptation already in his mind, complete with who is going to play who!

This is, in the end, a very fine novel... a nice companion piece to Mrs Dalloway and also to the excellent film. I can't say if it deserved the Pulitzer or if it is a "modern classic" as one of the quotes on the back cover proudly exclaims. I personally doubt both. Also, am I the only one who finds this style of writing in present tense annoying and pretentious? It is there is so many contemporary novels. It really puts me off.

And finally to end, a morbid passage from the book:

"Yes, Clarissa thinks, it's time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep - it's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of the windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we're very fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds or expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."


neha vish said...

I saw the film when I was in a particularly "vulnerable" mood - and I don't recommend that to anyone.

But you're right about the gaze part. No matter how sympathetic it is, it still is not an internalized view of things.

Alok said...

Yes it does fetishize pain at places which can be difficult for people who are trying to recover from their own depression. And the philip glass score is a little heavy too.