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Elizabeth McKinney

Dr. Rogers
English 2101
12 December 2012
Adaptation and Translation: from text to visual image
Good writers borrow, great writers steal.
T.S. Eliot
Authors have been appropriating work from other authors, probably since the first story
was written. Before that, storytellers incorporated other narrators words into their own stories.
Today, any literary work can be taken as an adaptation of another literary work; indeed, it is
difficult to find a text that has no major similarities to another text, in characters, themes, or
inspiration. Since films first started, directors have begun translating text into visual images.
However, a film adaptation of a novel can never both accurately and completely represent the
story a novel brings to life, because a movie version of a novel with every detail included would
be far too long for even the most dedicated fan to sit through. I argue this point with examples
from The Hours, a novel by Michael Cunningham (1998) and The Hours, a movie directed by
Stephen Daldry (2002). The Hours is just one interpretation of The Hours and, though accurate
and a well-directed film, it over-emphasizes the connections between the three main female
characters, which takes away from the novels portrayal of women who are questioning their
lives, sexuality, and happiness. The screenwriter, David Hare, and the director made the choice to
develop a main theme of relationships with a supporting theme of the big questions the women
are pondering. As an adaptation of The Hours, the movie failed because the profound impact
presented to the reader by the main characters through the narration of their ideas, theories, and
beliefs was last in translation from book to big screen.

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Many authors and critics, as well as regular individuals, have discussed the argument of
whether or not the book is better than the film interpretation of said book. Although not all film
interpretations fail, many do, and for a variety of reasons. In the article The Literary Adaptation:
An Introduction John Ellis writes Adaptation is a process of reducing a pre-existent piece of
writing to a series of functions: characters, locations, costumes, actions and strings of narrative
events (3). A book, written words, gives the reader the opportunity to use his or her imagination.
Words describe the images that readers form in their heads, but it is up to the reader to determine
what exactly that image looks like. In Millicent Marcuss book Filmmaking by the Book: Italian
Cinema and Literary Adaptation, he harshly describes adaptation as a way for filmmakers . . . to
fulfill a twofold ideal. By bringing literary culture to the masses, cinema could perform a
didactic service while reaping the obvious benefits of an association that would elevate it above
the vulgarity of its birth in the penny arcade (3). The film breaks down the novel into categories
and puts them together in a way that tries to please a wider audience than the novel did. A film
puts that image right in front of the viewer, eliminating the opportunity for the reader to develop
their own image. Where a book can give chapters upon chapters of interesting background and
history, a movie has to cram all of that into a couple of minutes, or fit it into the dialogue, or the
audience will get bored quickly. A book can seduce emotions while movies focus on action. But
more importantly, a book lets the reader into a characters mind, giving more details than one
could ever glean from an actors expressions or obviously-explanatory dialogue. In her article
A Life as Potent and Dangerous as Literature Itself: Intermediated moves from Mrs. Dalloway
to The Hours, Maria Lindgren Leavenworth quotes Virginia Woolfs idea of the physical versus
the mental components of a character: the Anna Karenina on screen was not Woolfs Anna
Karenina; she was her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet rather than her charm, her passion, her

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despair (503). Woolf was seeing the physical characteristics of the individual she had created,
but she was not seeing any of the characteristics that made Anna Karenina an individual. This
was, in part, due to poor acting, and in part to the difficulty of transforming a character from the
page to the screen.
The Hours defies at least the standard of mediocre character portrayal, thanks to the cast.
The three leads are played by some of the greatest actresses of all times: Meryl Streep, Nicole
Kidman, and Julianne Moore. These women jump into their roles and adopt the characters they
play. Kidman, especially, as Virginia Woolf, captures the essence of Woolfs tormented thoughts
through her facial expressions: her pained, thoughtful stares are entrancing and intriguing. They
make the viewer want to know what shes thinking and why, which is usually given to the
audience through dialogue. While the audience gets a good idea of her mental issues and how she
writes a novel, they dont get to know Virginias thoughts on children, servants, or her husband,
because those are not as easily revealed as her mentality. Streep embraces her role as a hostess
trapped in the past and plays it well. She maintains an in-control aura while planning the party.
When she does reveal her insecurities, though, she exposes everything in the manner of Clarissa
Vaughan, or even in the way of Mrs. Dalloway, even though neither book has her break down
visibly. Moore plays the role of Laura Brown, and has probably the easiest character to portray: a
conflicted mother and housewife who shows how guilty and suffocated she feels in regards to her
son. She is nervous about spending the whole day with Richie when her husband leaves for
work, and she clearly doesnt know how to act around him, but she cries when she leaves him
with Mrs. Latch, knowing that might be the last time she sees him. This strong cast comes
together to make the movie memorablenot to mention understandable and familiarby their
incredible acting and control over their countenances.

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The main characters in The Hours are three women who are trying to sort out the reasons
for their discontent. They ponder questions and thoughts about life, love, happiness, and
responsibility, and suicide. Each wonders if their life means anything, or if it will mean anything
after they are dead. They all have some sort of affair outside of their usual sexuality that has an
effect on their happiness. They also all worry about their responsibilities or others
responsibilities for them: Laura cannot kill herself because of her children and husband, Virginia
kills herself because she doesnt want to burden Leonard anymore, and Clarissa is responsible for
Richard staying alive as long as he did. All of these components add up and bring the women to
the thought of suicide. The fact that the three are connected through literature is of little
consequence; the story wants the reader to focus on the words more than the relationships
between the women.
Ellis states The successful adaptation is one that is able to replace the memory of the
novel with the process of a filmic or televisual representation (3). This definition, or rule, is why
the movie fails as an adaptation. Someone who hadnt read The Hours would have had a very
hard time following the movie. However, someone who had read The Hours might have wished
for the complexities of the novel that werent present in the film. When Hare wrote the
screenplay, he decided to make one of the books minor themes the major theme in the movie.
This decision was made, most likely, in order to make the movie more viewer-friendly. An
audience is more likely to sit through The Hours as it is than The Hours on a screen, because,
while it is a serious film, it isnt as grave and thoughtful as the novel. Ellis also says, however,
that the generation of a memory from a reading of a text will involve associations of a
contingent and personal nature (4); in other words, there can be no correct reading and

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interpretation of a novel, because every reader brings his or her own history into the reading,
which means no adaptation can be completely accurate to the original story.
The Hours uses various technical film techniques to help it set up the connections
between the three protagonists, such as match cuts, as Leavenworth explains in her article (510).
These visual links accurately, adeptly, and quickly establish the connection the director wants,
thus setting up the plot within the first few minutes of the movie. The problem with this method,
in relation to the book, is that the women are connected physically rather than through their
similar psyches, as in the novel. Leavenworth outlines these links in her article:
. . . the early morning opening scenes show us how Laura Brown still sleeps and how
Virginia . . .is curled up in bed in the same position as Laura. The third strand of the story
. . . is also introduced with Clarissa feigning sleep on her side of the bed. . . A series of
match cuts show vases of flowers lifted off tables in one setting and put down in another.
Indeed, the first scenes of the film are joined thematically and visually as the three
women get out of bed and open curtains. One washed face turns into another, thus
establishing clearly that these characters are joined and that their lives and destinies will
haunt one another. (510)
As Leavenworth later points out, Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa are connected not only through
the writing, reading, or living of Mrs. Dalloway but also through their suicidal thoughts, sexual
ambiguity, unhappiness, and loneliness (510). All three women weigh the pros and cons of
suicide, though each comes to a different conclusion on the topic. Virginia writes to Leonard So
I am doing what seems the best thing to do (Cunningham 6). Laura feels it would be deeply
comforting; it might feel so free but knows that she loves life and it would destroy her family
if she killed herself (Cunningham 151-52). Clarissa doesnt necessarily want to kill herself, but

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she feels as if she hasnt really been living ever since her one moment of happiness with Richard:
There is still that singular perfection, and its perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so
clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no
other (Cunningham 98). In addition, Richards suicide is what opens Clarissas eyes to the
wonder of living again.
The movie clarifies their reasons and realizations; Leonard reads Virginias note, Laura
rubs her pregnant belly and says I cant to the thought of suicide, and Clarissa tells Julia about
her one moment of happiness, but her new outlook on life at the end of the movie is not quite as
apparent. Laura and Clarissas questions concerning their sexualities are obvious in both the
book and in the movie. Clarissas relationship with Sally, although consistent and steady, is a
constant reminder of the excitement Richard provided Clarissa so long ago. Her memories of the
healthy Richard are what cause the doubt in Clarissas partnership with Sally, for it is
impossible not to imagine that other future, that rejected future . . . she could have had a life as
potent and dangerous as literature itself (Cunningham 97). Lauras kiss with Kitty is a result of
her discontent as a housewife and her attraction to Kittys sudden helplessness. Laura determines
she desires Kitty. She desires her force, her brisk and cheerful disappointment (Cunningham
143). The insecurities the main characters face lead to a great deal of unhappiness and loneliness
in each womans life. They all feel alienated because they have no one to share their concerns
with. The book is able to reveal this through their thoughts, but the movie cannot do this, so it
uses the book Mrs. Dalloway to connect the women and show the audience their similarities.
The movie also changes details from the novel that may not seem quite as central to the
plot of the book, but still make a significant difference in the story. One example of this is when
Louis visits Clarissa. The novel has Louis break down and cry about the memories of their past,

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but the movie shows Clarissa falling apart instead. This gives the film another chance to show
why Clarissa is so anguished and unhappy, and indeed, she tells Louis the same thoughts she has
in the novel, but they are presented through different means in order to develop the characters
and give them more of a purpose. Even though Louis plays a fairly prominent role in the novel,
he has just one brief scene in the movie, and the reason for this scene is to set up a revelation
about Clarissa for the audience. Leavenworth explains why the director does this as in the film
the memories are actively narrated and as the realistic speech act requires a recipient, this is the
role Louis . . . play[s] (508). Basically, Clarissa needs someone to listen to her explain her
troubles so the audience doesnt have to listen to a monologue.
Another drastic change is Clarissas relationship with Julia. They are not nearly as
strained and tense with each other as they are in the novel. The film gives us just two hints that
something is not right between the mother and daughter: the first is their brief and awkward hug
when Julia first enters the apartment. The second is when Clarissa tells Julia that her life feels
trivial when she is around anyone but Richard. This, of course, upsets Julia, and Clarissa must
backtrack quickly and say never with you! Then the two continue talking, Julia asking pointed
questions in order to reveal Clarissas doubt and confusion concerning her past, bringing the
viewer back to Leavenworths theory of active narration. This scene completely turns away from
the book: Cunningham has Julia walk in to see Louis with Clarissa, but after Louis leaves, Julia
and Clarissa can hardly carry out a conversation. It gets worse when Julia mentions Mary Krull,
who is not included in the movie but is one of the bigger wedges dividing Julia and Clarissa in
the novel. Clarissas troubling past and troubled relationship with Julia is hardly brought up at all
in the movie, because it is not necessary in the story of the Virginia-Laura-Clarissa triangle that
is the films main focus.

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There are many ways a book is better than a movie, specifically in regards to The Hours,
which hopefully has been made clear in my paper. The film is not all bad, though. It brings to
light an interesting connection that is much more difficult to find in the book. The theory is:
Virginia writes the story, Laura reads the story, and Clarissa lives the story. While this seems
simple and obvious, let me explain. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia writes the story of a greater
mind than Clarissas . . . someone with sorrow and genius enough to turn away from the
seductions of the world (Cunningham 154). She kills Septimus, the writer, the intellectual who
is crazy but is still able to see that death is where he will find solacejust as Virginia and
Richard think. Both Virginia and Septimus hear voices and see doctors who give advice that does
not apply to them. Richard, too, hears voices who give him misconstrued guidance. Laura reads
the story and finds herself relating to Mrs. Dalloway; she is unhappy in her role in her household
and is determined to provide the perfect party for her husband. Mrs. Dalloway and Laura both
consider suicide as an escape, but both realize they [love] life, [love] it hopelessly, at least at
certain moments (Cunningham 152). Mrs. Dalloway needed Septimus to die to realize this, and
Laura needed Mrs. Dalloway to discover this love before she could discover it for herself. Laura
is living through Mrs. Dalloway, imitating her thoughts and actions. Finally, Clarissa is living
Mrs. Dalloway. She is unhappy in her relationship with her steadfast partner and longs for the
excitement and spontaneity from her younger days. When Richard dies, however, Clarissa
considers his party still a party: a party for the not-yet-dead; for the relatively undamaged; for
those who for mysterious reasons have the fortune to be alive (Cunningham 226). Richard was
her poet and when he died, Clarissa was able to see the beauty in living. The movie presents all
of these connections to the audience in a way that is much clearer than it ever could have been in

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a book, simply because it is easier to show relationships with techniques such as montage,
juxtaposition, and match cuts than through words.

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Works Cited
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998. Print.
Ellis, John. "Introduction: Adaptation and the Literary Film." Screen 43.1 (2002): 1-4. Print.
Leavenworth, Maria Lindgren. "A Life as Potent and Dangerous as Literature Itself:
Intermediated Moves from Mrs. Dalloway to The Hours." The Journal of Popular
Culture 43.3 (2010): 503-23. Print.
Marcus, Millicent Joy. Filmmaking by the Book: Italian Cinema and Literary Adaptation.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. Print.
The Hours. Dir. Stephen Daldry. Screenplay by David Hare. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep,
Julianne Moore. TF1/Miramax, 2002. DVD.