3 min

Haunting depression

But cheer up - The Hours is good

Credit: Xtra files

“I don’t have a thing about the sacred text,” explains novelist Michael Cunningham over the phone from his home in New York. “I write the very best book that I can and then I let it go. So I really was fine about selling the rights to the book. Maybe it’s because I was raised in Los Angeles and being a whore for Hollywood comes naturally.

“But honestly, I might be the only novelist living or dead who is completely happy with the film version of my book.”

The book is Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, a lyrical exploration of the lives of three women who are all connected by the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs Dalloway. Fans nervous about how Hollywood would handle The Hours’ quiet and mostly interior dialogue and the book’s gay and lesbian characters, need not fear. Directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott) and written by playwright and screenwriter David Hare (The Blue Room), the film remains true to the spirit of the novel – the entire lives of three women told over the course of one day.

The first of the three stories is set in England in the 1920s. Virginia Woolf, played by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman in a prosthetic nose, is writing Mrs Dalloway and struggling with the depression and hallucinations that threaten to engulf her. In the second, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an equally depressed housewife in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb escapes from her stifling life by reading Woolf’s book. And in the final story line, a retelling of Mrs Dalloway, set in present day New York, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a 40-ish lesbian, plans a party for her best friend and former lover Richard (Ed Harris), a gay poet dying of AIDS.

It’s an artful and beautifully haunted film, with stellar performances by the three leads, all playing women struggling with issues of love, responsibility and freedom. And the film, which opens on Dec 27, along with its stars, is already getting mentioned as an Oscar contender (and just received seven Golden Globe nominations).

“It’s not an exact adaptation, but I don’t think total fidelity would work for The Hours,” Cunningham says. “Part of it is, after all, already an adaptation of Mrs Dalloway. But nothing has been dumbed down. Everyone’s complicated sexuality remains. All the kisses are there. Of course, the biggest difficulty for the film, I think, was that the book was so interior. So much of it was internal dialogue. You can’t do that in a movie, but what they did in the film was infuse each gesture and look with meaning. Meryl Streep cracking an egg speaks volumes.”

Rounding out what was already one of best casts in current cinema are several excellent performances in supporting roles including Toni Collette, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Miranda Richardson and John C Reilly. “I was really open-minded about the casting,” Cunningham says. “You know, as long as no one called me up and said that Sandra Bullock was going to play Clarissa. But I just about dropped dead when I heard who they were casting. These just aren’t just good actors, these are wildly, wildly gifted actors.”

Though he gleefully name drops “Meryl” and “Julianne,” Cunningham insists that he hasn’t “gone Hollywood” and says his outlook on writing has changed very little now that The Hours has been made into a film. The author of two previous novels, A Home At The End Of The World and Flesh And Blood, as well as the non-fiction Land’s End: A Walk In Provincetown, he is now at work on a new novel, a genre- busting combination of gothic, thriller and science fiction writing. “Walt Whitman is a character in the book, though, for the life of me, I don’t know why.”

But as far as writing novels as fodder for films, “I don’t,” says Cunningham. “I just keep thinking about the novel at hand and about how I can continue to grow as a writer. The world is so large and confusing and strange. I don’t think that the little confessional novel is big enough anymore. I’m interested in writing on a bigger scale. That’s what I’m aiming for. Where I’ll end up, we’ll just have to see.”

* The Hours opens in Toronto on Fri, Dec 27.