"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham | Skillshare Projects



"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham

The Hours is one of my favorite books. My initial attempts to read it--first in high school, next early in college--I was unable to finish it because schoolwork got in the way, and I needed a certain level of focus to really immerse myself in the story. Out of reverence to the narrative, I started over each time so I can fully absorb how intricately it played out, and I ended up rereading the first quarter of the book several times. When I finally did get to finish it, it was illuminating. I couldn't believe it took me several years to get through a book which I found so compelling and resonant.

The cover of the edition I first read was the Picador edition, with a cover by Henry Sene Yee. I borrowed it from a friend; it's still with me, hehe (sorry, Marie).


Surprisingly, there aren't as many iterations of the cover as I'd imagine a book of its prominence would have. Several design strategies emerge from the lot, with a few clear motifs and themes used throughout:

A. Transitoriness
Most of the covers strive to depict the passage of time, and the effects thereof. This is very appropriate, given the novel's interplay of the lives of three different women in three different ages.

1. Flowers
I begin with my first encounter of The Hours, which is the Henry Sene Yee design. In a single image, the wilting tulips manage to refer to major elements in the book: Clarissa Dalloway's penchant for flowers, death, and the passage of time. A series of Spanish-language editions also use tulips on the cover, though they are fresh and thus less evocative. (Interestingly enough, the tulip also resurfaces on the cover of another Cunningham novel, "By Nightfall," and features prominently on the author's website.)

Other European editions use an image of a woman underwater holding a bough of bougainvilleas. The image is also very effective; the woman in a body of water refers subtly to Virginia Woolf's opening scene, while the flowers, in their vibrance, speak of the temporality of beauty/youth, a beautiful living thing cut at its prime. (I find the French edition to be more effective, as much of the ethereal underwater feel is lost in the Spanish edition's crop.)

2. Still life
The first edition of The Hours features a set of 12 still life photographs. It is a haunting image that works well to represent the novel. The sepia tone and plain setting is timeless in a way that it is not specific to a particular era. The various arrangements of fruits speak simultaneously of recurrence, variation and similarity--so alike, yet so different as well. The shaft of sunlight speaks of quotidian drama, which perfectly encapsulates the tone of the book and its focus on the turbulence amidst daily domesticities. (Several subsequent editions seem to use this cover as a springboard.)

A similar feel--sepia, still life, timelessness--is employed in a Spanish edition, with a nostalgic photo of a chair. This one evokes the feel of what is left behind, the remnants of someone who leaves, the haze of memory.

3. Timepieces
A lot of covers have a very literal take on the title, using timepieces like hourglasses and clocks. This is not effective in my opinion. The Croatian edition incorporates books, clocks, sunsets, shadows, and Virginia Woolf all in one image; while the surrealist attempt is not amiss in the choice of elements, I find the overall effect too illustrative. I feel the same way about the Indonesian edition, which merges an hourglass, a woman, and two profiles.

A Portuguese edition shows a rather generic moonscape.

4. Depth of field
Two French editions employ the thoughtful use of depth of field to evoke nostalgia, hazy recollections, temporality. The eyeglass covers seem too generic and stock-photo for me, though. The woman in the mirror is far more evocative, adding a dimension of self-awareness, introspection and repetition which is more specific to the book.

B. Milieu
Another latent strategy is to visualize the book's setting literally.

1. Collage
Italian and Portuguese editions use a color-blocking scheme to introduce a collage of elements--writing, Virginia Woolf, cityscape, the first edition's still life. Rather convenient, but not horrible.

Two Finnish editions collage the same elements, but in a decidedly more cheesy manner. Again, the images are apt for the book (the yellow rose is particularly accurate, since it is used in the scene where the children bury the dead bird), but the overall effect is too literal.

2. Virginia Woolf
Some editions highlight the centrality of Virginia Woolf in the novel. I'm not too sure how effective this is, because it gives off the impression that it's a Woolf novel.

C. Suicide
Several covers highlight the suicide angle more blatantly. Two editions use a detail of a Pre-Raphaelite classic, John Everett Millais' Ophelia. The submerged hand is graceful and morbid at the same time. (I swear I've seen the Spanish edition in an Almodovar film. I can't remember which.)

An Arabic edition (I couldn't find a larger image so I can't see too well) features a similarly reclining woman. A Dutch edition has a submerged woman as well, though the purple color and typography gives it a fantasy/crime bestseller feel, which is very off tangent, hehe.

A beautiful edition by Harper Perennial features a pen-and-ink drawing of Virginia's suicide as well. With graceful lines and sprightly handwriting, and a spot of accent color, this is one of the best-looking covers in the bunch. (As if that wasn't enough, the whole collection, when put side by side, forms one continuous illustration. Stupendous.)

D. Female despondency
Several covers focus on the female figure. The strategy here is more an evocation of female despondency. One of the earliest editions features a beautiful profile of a pensive woman. Like the still lifes, the sepia is nostalgic and timeless, while the woman's period dress is combined with a very graphic and modern hairdo. The geometric (but still possibly period/deco) table similarly interacts with the very modern diamond pattern on the wall. The woman's expression is subtle but fraught with interior drama. One of my favorite The Hours covers as well, because it does not illustrate any character or element in particular, but the image manages to evoke the book's feel.

Another Harper Perennial cover (Kindle edition, I believe) shows a detail of a woman clutching her breast. It is delicate but troubled. Her scarf or jacket's rich feel and textile references Clarissa's favorite alpaca coat. (I hate the intrusive blurb though.)

An Arabic edition uses a very ambiguous purple profile. A Polish edition uses a rather odd image of three dress-forms in different outfits, which has a really 90s character to it.

D. The movie, of course
After the release of the film (which I also love), the obligatory movie covers appeared for both English editions and foreign translations. Most use the movie poster image itself. An Arabic edition collages the three characters around, um, a clock's hands. The most effective of the bunch uses a still of Meryl Streep clutching a luxuriant bunch of flowers; her downcast eyes are foreboding, and the image captures the everyday-ness (of buying flowers) as well as the temporality of the blossoms itself. While it uses a still from the movie to pander to commercial recall, it nonetheless hits the right messages.

Okay, now I have to work on my own design. Hmmm. Haha.



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