Breakfast with Virginia Woolf

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Everybody’s happy. Paramount and Miramax are happy to have an intelligent movie up for nine academy awards. David Hare, who wrote the screenplay, is happy to have worked on a project in which so little had to be changed in the sometimes rocky journey from page to screen. Stephen Daldry, the director, is, well, happy. And Michael Cunningham, the author of the book of the same name upon which “The Hours” is based, is happy because he fell in love with Virginia Woolf’s language in her novel “Mrs. Dalloway” when he was 15. It is not supposed to be this easy. Only the British, whose critics, readers and moviegoers responded less jubilantly to “The Hours,” are less than happy, feeling slightly cheated out of a national heroine. American publishers, certainly, have every reason to rejoice. Before the movie, “Mrs. Dalloway” the novel sold a hearty 100,000 copies a year in the United States. Since the movie’s release, an astonishing 400,000 copies have flown out of the stores.

Book Review editor Steve Wasserman and myself met for breakfast with Cunningham and Hare on a chipper blue morning, clouds of war on the horizon but at bay, at the Four Seasons hotel on the fringe of Beverly Hills. Hare is boyish and open, with a beautifully modulated voice. Cunningham is tall and thin, all dressed in black, with a face that collapses in sheer childish glee when he smiles, reassembling quickly into rugged handsomeness. The conversation ranges from war (Hare has been delighted to discover in the last week that Americans are not as “gung-ho” as European citizens are led to believe) to Chekhov to Susan Sontag to La Canada Flintridge (where Cunningham grew up), to Primo Levi to the perils and mostly pleasures of adaptation.

Susan Salter Reynolds: When did you first read Virginia Woolf?

David Hare: Well, of course when I was at Cambridge, they had a terrible way of teaching literature. Milton, D.H. Lawrence, Pope, Charles Dickens -- these were some of the acceptable members of the canon. I wanted to write about Oscar Wilde and was told that was simply not acceptable. The only woman writer we read was George Eliot. But I can say that I slept in the very bed at Sissinghurst where Virginia and Vita [Sackville-West] were lovers. Michael was so jealous. But I have to confess that I felt not a single erotic emanation.

Michael Cunningham: I was drifting along at 15 in La Canada High School, sneaking a cigarette one day, trying to look dangerous, when I found myself standing next to the pirate queen of the entire school. (These were the ‘60s, when the poor teachers, desperate to look cool, had us analyzing rock lyrics.) She was beautiful and smart, dressed in the skins of the animals she’d slain, and I was desperate to impress her. I mentioned Leonard Cohen. “Have you ever thought of being less stupid?” she said and gave me a copy of “Mrs. Dalloway.”


Hare: Did you find it difficult?

Cunningham: It was opaque to me. I wasn’t so young and stupid that I couldn’t see the balance of those sentences. I was like an aborigine hearing Beethoven. She was doing with language what Jimi Hendrix was doing with music, recklessly flirting with chaos.

Steve Wasserman: One of the terrible divisions in the world is between those who are drawn to difficult things and those who give up. They are the ones who become the censors.

Hare: Yes, I agree.

Wasserman: It’s so great she gave you “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Cunningham: Yes, and it has remained my favorite. It’s like a half-finished sculpture by Michelangelo, you have a sense of watching the artists create.

Hare: Did you refer to it often when you were writing “The Hours”?

Cunningham: No, I was too nervous about mimicking her voice.

Hare: Just like me and your book. I read it several times and then put it aside. The actors referred to it frequently on the set. Julianne Moore, for example, arrived to play the book, and my script didn’t get in the way of that.

Wasserman: Sometimes it’s best not to have read the book at all. Would you agree?

Cunningham: When you adapt, you do whatever you can to get over the notion of the sacred text. You cannot consider the source as some kind of holy finger of the saint. I had to get over my reverence for “Mrs. Dalloway.” It was a draft; probably there are several things she would have liked to have done over.

Wasserman: Every work is the death mask of its conception. In one deep way, the book is the anatomy of a condition that transcends historical context -- melancholy, the porousness of certain people’s epidermis, a loss of proportion, a persistent and overwhelming sense of time passing.

Cunningham: Yes, that’s exactly right. Woolf’s suicide [in 1941] was not the most important thing, but it was built into my thinking all along. The reason she is so moving to me is that she suffered from depression. Depression is a planet I write about even though I don’t inhabit it. It’s hard to imagine anyone better acquainted with everything dark and dangerous and who also wrote about the pure joy of being alive.

Hare: It annoys me when people say the movie is depressing or difficult. To explain the suicide would have been vulgar.

Cunningham: Yes, you can’t judge an entire life by the way it ended. You know, decades later a list was unearthed of people who were to be rounded up by the Nazis if they had invaded, and Leonard [Woolf’s husband] and Virginia were on that list.

Hare: I have to say that I sort of dragged the war into the screenplay. I was brought up in the threat of war, though I was born in 1947, so I missed the main event. Virginia Woolf was of course very sensitive to war, and Michael included that in the novel. In the movie, the character Laura Brown [played by Moore] can’t seem to settle into life in 1949 Los Angeles. Her husband, who was in the war, just wants everything to be nice and normal, the house, the routine, and she just can’t settle in. Of course, the AIDS epidemic is also a kind of war.

Wasserman: You must be very happy with the response the movie has gotten.

Hare: Yes, although there is one critic in England who says he fears that people will now start reading Virginia Woolf again. Michael, what do you think is the source of hostility to Woolf?

Cunningham: Misogyny. Woolf insisted on the importance of women’s lives, on domestic particulars. Clarissa’s party is an epic occasion, a work of art, and should be treated as such.

Wasserman: There’s a little bit of Chekhov in Woolf, don’t you think?

Cunningham: Yes, in that both writers felt that all experiences are roughly the same size. But Woolf doesn’t have Chekhov’s humor.

Hare: White male heterosexuals are our biggest critics. They are the guys who tend to think the “real” world is real.

Cunningham: And they are the readers who say the book is too depressing. I love it when the critics who hated the book say that the movie didn’t do it justice.

Hare: I do think the British hate Stephen and me for making a successful movie about Woolf.

Cunningham: I think the success of this movie proves that people who go to the movies are not as stupid as we make them out to be. The idea of making a movie stupider than you are is so uncomfortable.... It’s like having a relationship with someone who is far too interested in you.

Wasserman: Yes, people rise to the occasion, don’t they? Readers and moviegoers are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. If you treat people as adults, they generally respond as adults. If you infantilize them, they will behave as children.

Hare: I come from a long tradition of people going to art houses to see my movies. To see this one come out of the art houses and into the shopping malls has been thrilling.