Friday, March 21, 2003
It annoys me when publishers change the cover of a book to match the film adaptation. I know it sells more books ("The Hours" recently shot up to No. 5 on The New York Times bestseller list, and even "Mrs. Dalloway"—the 1925 novel by Virginia Woolf that inspired it—has been hovering at No. 11). The problem is, if the movie doesn't work as an adaptation, then the book covers are cursed with shiny, modern pictures of movie stars.
Although I was quite excited to hear "The Hours" was being adapted into a film, my thrill was crushed when I had to purchase the new movie-cover version of the book because I'd loaned out my copy last summer. I tried to focus on how much I loved the book when I read it a few years back, as a graduate student. I was blown away by its originality and vivid prose. This book isn't just fiction; it's something more.
The idea of a writer—Michael Cunningham, to be specific—taking ideas, voices and characters from one of the greatest writers of the 20th century (even using Virginia Woolf herself as a character!) to inspire the creation of his own novel was both scary and exhilarating to me. I wondered: Can somebody do that?! But when I read the first few chapters, I knew he'd pulled it off.
In the book, Cunningham brings Virginia Woolf to life in the midst of writing her novel, "Mrs. Dalloway," while battling with her suicidal demons. She is thinking about the first sentence of her book and trying to get it right: "Mrs. Dalloway said something (what?), and got the flowers herself," he writes.
Clarissa Vaughn (a modern Mrs. Dalloway) is introduced standing in her townhouse vestibule stricken by the moment of a lovely June morning in Greenwich Village. Cunningham writes: "As if standing at the edge of a pool she delays for a moment the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion. New York in its racket and stern brown decrepitude, its bottomless decline, always produces a few summer mornings like this." Clarissa is on her way to run a simple errand of buying flowers.
Then there's Laura Brown, a Los Angeles housewife in 1949, who awakens by opening the book "Mrs. Dalloway," which she attempts to read undisturbed before having to tend to her needy husband and young son. She reads the first line of the actual novel, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
Cunningham creates a profound story by connecting the three women together in a unified plot. With each short, vivid chapter, the book reveals the connections slowly and quietly by entwining the women's stories, while not revealing all until the very end. It was no surprise that "The Hours" won the 1999 Pulitzer for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, setting the bar even higher for the making of a movie.
Creating a film from such an innovative novel must have been as daunting as recreating Woolf's work. For the adaptation to be successful, the audience must feel that the actors portraying the characters from the book adequately match the already-created mental pictures of them. (Think: Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones = good. Elle Macpherson as Jane Eyre's Blanche = bad.)
The film's cast is about as pitch-perfect as any film adaptation I've seen. Meryl Streep is sad-eyed and complicated as the modern-day Clarissa Vaughn; she fills the role flawlessly and even possesses that "certain bohemian, good-witch sort of charm" (which is how Clarissa is described in the book). Julianne Moore perfectly captures the pent-up coldness of Laura Brown, a wife and mother wanting more than what's available to her in 1949. And Nicole Kidman is almost unearthly as Mrs. Woolf—with the help of her prosthetic nose and a frumpy wardrobe, I completely forgot I was watching a semi-overexposed actress on the screen.
Inevitably, some elements simply do not translate from book to movie. I was disappointed that the filmmakers seemed to miss the subtlety of the connections between the three women living in different time periods. Cunningham's ingenious weaving of characters was somehow lost in obvious back-to-back sequences of each woman waking up, washing her face, arranging flowers or listening to the garish "tick-tock" of three different clocks, each in the appropriate era. I wanted to scream: Hours! Time! Yes, we get it!
The story is not just about love, suicide and the repression of women. It's about what Clarissa says to her daughter in the movie when she's talking about good moments in life as being the sense of possibility and the beginning of happiness. Suddenly she understands and, in a small Woolf-ian epiphany, says: "It wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then." Aside from this verbal realization, Woolf's theme of experiencing blissfulness in the moment and Cunningham's lucid sentences lie buried under conspicuous cinematic milieu.
The movie creates a unified story with haunting scenes and rich images that reinvent the book while bringing it to life in breathtaking form. Although some of the writing gets lost, the end result is a story transformed into something fresh and provoking. Clarissa Vaughn says it well in the movie when her florist asks if the woman in Richard's "difficult" novel was Clarissa. "Oh, he's a writer," Clarissa explains. "He changes things. He takes them and makes them his own."
Yes, "The Hours" is Oscar-caliber, but be sure not to miss the book.