Book Group

Book Group: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Wednesday October 3rd at 6:30

New Yorker March 24, 2003 Issue

How “The Hours” Happened

By David Denby

Michael, when you were writing this book, did you experience a moment of terror when you thought, My God, this is Virginia Woolf, and this is Mrs. Dalloway, and what am I doing?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Oh, sure, as any sensible person would. It was enormously daunting to think of writing a novel that presumed to enter the mind of Virginia Woolf, who was not only a person who once lived and was entitled to the respect that any person is; she was, of course, a great writer and a great feminist. I am, of course, a man—technically—and I decided to try to do it for no better reason than this: I thought, Well, why would you want to write a novel you know you can write? Why not just go down in big, green flames?

D.D.: Did you have any notion that it might be a movie?

M.C.: You know, I knew that crazy girl was going to be a gold mine the minute I . . . [audience laughter] . . . no, no, no. I think actually it’s important to mention this, because I’m sure there are some writers in the room or people who might be beginning to write. Neither I nor anyone involved in the book—my publisher, my agent—thought anything but this: this is my arty little novel, it will sell a few thousand copies and then march with whatever dignity it can muster to the remainders tables. And, really, everything that’s happened has been a surprise.

D.D.: I want to skip to David Hare now. In this book, there are pages that are omnivorous in their sense of detail, yet when I think of the screenplay it seems quite terse. How can you say to yourself, “All of that fabulous detail, I’m going to have to leave that to the camera, to the lighting, to the actors, I’ve got to find the dramatic part of this in a few words”? Is there some principle by which you do this kind of adaptation? Do you go on gut, on instinct?

DAVID HARE: Well, you assume that the director and the actors are going to read the book. [Audience laughter.] I think that it’s a serious point, and it’s particularly about Julianne Moore: the film concerns three different women, two of whom are hyperarticulate—one of them is Virginia Woolf, and the other is a publisher in modern New York—but the third of whom is not articulate at all, she doesn’t say anything. And I was able in the script not to give her anything to say because Julianne Moore had read the book. She read the book and rang the producer, Scott Rudin, and said, “I want to play this character in the book.” She arrived and gave the performance of somebody who knew who the character was. And when I said to Julianne, “How’s the script?,” she said, “Fine.” I said, “Have you got any problem?” “No. None whatsoever.” And that’s because the script didn’t positively get in the way of her playing what she’d read in the book, which is what she’d originally responded to.

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