Hours, The: (2002): Daldry’s Literal, Middlebrow Adaptation of Cunningham’s Seminal Novel, Starring Nicole Kidman

Stephen Daldry’s screen version of “The Hours,” the dazzling, provocative, and stylized novel of Michael Cunningham, who deservedly won the Pulitzer-Prize for the book, is a passable, well-acted film.  But it’s too middlebrow to fully capture the lyric qualities and complexities of Cunningham’s beautifully written tome.


The novel, which is short but dense, blends three eras and three stories, in which three women coalesce smoothly into a narrative and psychological continuum that flows through.  Each woman joins the other like a link in a chain, unaware that the power of a great work of literature will irrevocably alter the essence of her life.  The literary work at the center of “The Hours” is Virginia Woolf’s first great novel, “Mrs. Dalloway” (published in 1925), which she began writing just as she was sinking into madness.  (The 1990s film version of “Mrs. Dalloway,” which starred Vanessa Redgrave, also leaves much to be desired)


But first, the good news. After years of complaints that there are no substantial roles for middle-aged women, along comes a picture that offers not one but three major roles for women.  The trio belongs to different acting generations: Nicole Kidman, 35; Julianne Moore, 42; and Meryl Streep, 53.


An unrecognizable Kidman (sporting a prosthetic nose that changes the entire visage of her face) plays novelist Virginia Woolf, living in a London suburb in the early 1920s and battling with depression and insanity.  In one of the first and revelatory scenes, Woolf tells her husband, Leonard, that she has just found the first sentence for her new book, “Mrs. Dalloway.”


Cut to the late 1940s, the post-World War Two era, and Julianne Moore, as Laura Brown, a housewife seemingly living a quiet and happy domestic life with her husband and young son in Los Angeles.  Laura is seen reading Mrs. Dalloway with utmost intensity and concentration.


The story then moves on to contemporary New York City–the Village, to be precise, where Meryl Streep, a brilliant editor named Clarissa (a kind of a modern version of Virginia Woolf), is buying flowers and frantically preparing a party for her friend and former lover Richard (Ed Harris), a talented poet inflicted with AIDS.


The three stories and four time frames (which also include a brief interlude of Woolf’s suicide in 1943) intertwine and come together in a moment of shared recognition that life, with all its troubles and anxieties, is worth living to the fullest, day by day, hour by hour (hence the title).


Inspired by Woolf’s novel, Michael Cunningham wrote “The Hours” in 1998.  Hailed as a literary achievement of major importance, the book received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the PEN/William Faulkner Award, and was chosen as Best Book of 1998 by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and Publishers Weekly.


Praised as Cunningham’s “most mature and masterful work to date,” James Currier wrote in the Washington Post book review that the author “deftly created something original, a trio of richly interwoven tales that alternate with one another, chapter by chapter.”  The prestigious Yale Book Review commended Cunningham for undertaking “one of the most daunting literary projects imaginable.”  There was a consensus that Cunningham’s portrait of Woolf is not only heartbreaking but that he has also done the impossible, take a canonical literary work and, in reworking it, has made it all his own.


Despite the profuse accolades, Cunningham never believed his book could be made into an emotionally effective Hollywood movie, due to the text’s contemplative nature and complex structure, and his fears turns out to be valid.  Most of the narrative is pedestrian, down-to-earth (perhaps too much), but failing to convey unique spirit and poetic tone of his novel.


David Hare, who adapted the novel to the screen, tries to make the work more accessible and effective by finding new ways of mixing the stories up and by making new connections.  He must have realized that in film, you can’t have inner voices unless you have voiceover.  But in lieu of using the convention of voiceover narration, Hare invented a certain number of events, with varying degrees of success, which express the interior thoughts and emotions of the three protagonists without ever spelling them out.


A co-production of Paramount Pictures (which distributes the film domestically) and Miramax Films (which releases the film internationally) was motivated by need to minimize the risks involved in making such a literary art house movie.