Hours, The: Daldry’s Screen Version of Cunningham’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novel

Three eras. Three stories. Three women coalesce smoothly and brilliantly into a narrative and psychological continuum that flows through The Hours, the dazzling, provocative film version of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel.

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.

After years of complaints that there are no substantial roles for middle-aged (or even young) 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 surprising, transcendental 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. He was therefore pleasantly surprised when he read playwright David Hare’s screenplay and realized how thoroughly and accurately it managed to maintain the unique spirit and tone of his novel.

For his part, Hare (one of Britain’s most prolific dramatists) thought that, “telling three stories without the reader being able to understand the way they are connected was completely fascinating.” He perceived his task as finding a suspenseful format that “will sustain the viewers’ interest even though they don’t know exactly how the various pieces fit.” Hare says he knew that at the end, when audiences do understand how the parts fit into a coherent whole will result in profoundly satisfying experience.

Hare recognized that the script would need a different structure from the novel’s. He proceeded by finding his own way of mixing the stories up, making new connections. “In film, you can’t have inner voices unless you have voiceover,” observes Hare. But in lieu of using the convention of voiceover narration, Hare invented a certain number of events which expressed the interior thoughts and emotions of the three protagonists without ever spelling them out.

Despite a protracted production process, that was delayed due to the death of Streep’s mother, Moore’s pregnancy, and the aftermath of the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks, The Hours represents a testimonial result of an inspired collaboration by some of Hollywood’s most creative and accomplished talents. A co-production of Paramount Pictures (which distributes the film domestically) and Miramax Films (which releases the film internationally) meant minimizing the risks involved in making such an audacious, but basically arthouse movie.