FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN: ‘The Hours’

DAVID S. COHEN is a freelance writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker. His articles on film and television have been seen in print outlets around the world, including US Weekly, Premiere and Variety special reports.

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(Left- Claire Danes and Meryl Streep in The Hours, written by David Hare.) (Right – Julianne Moore)

Let’s face it: literary novels rarely get turned into movies. For one thing, literary fiction isn’t popular. In fact, “popular” or mass-market fiction and literary fiction are separate categories in the publishing world, and in any event, few novels with serious literary ambitions wind up on best-seller lists. This is a problem for filmmakers. After all, it costs tens of millions of dollars to produce a studio feature, and that expense means a story must attract an audience of tens of millions, which literary fiction isn’t written to do.

If this literary barrier weren’t enough, there is the adaptation problem. Internal action, the hallmark of serious contemporary fiction, presents a thorny problem for screenwriters. Often, it’s the characters’ thoughts, as much as their actions, that make a novel compelling. Short of laying voiceover narration on top of the action—a risky strategy for even the best screenwriters—how does a movie reveal a character’s inner journey to the audience?

Then there’s the genre problem. Movie studios love genre categories because they make movies easier to market. Yet literary fiction eschews genre. In a recent NPR commentary, critic Andrei Codrescu spoke repeatedly of the “genre-bending  literary novel” as if genre-bending were what makes modern literature, well, literature.

The Hours is a perfect example. In this acclaimed novel, writer Michael Cunningham re-imagines Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham weaves together the stories of three women in farflung locales and time periods, linked primarily through Woolf’s book. It’s a literary novel based on another literary novel, and it glorifies reading and the power of literature. It’s not light or upbeat, at least on the surface; death hangs over the story like the promise of a chill November downpour. The Yale Book Review called The Hours “one of the most daunting literary projects imaginable.” And just as Codrescu might have predicted, it’s a genre-bender if ever there were one.

The Hours earned extraordinary praise, to be sure: the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the PEN/Faulkner Award, named Best Book of 1998 by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. Yet most people thought it was unfilmable.

So to become a movie, The Hours needed a very special kind of writer: someone who liked and trusted actors, who could write roles that they’d line up to play. A demanding maverick, uninterested in regurgitating Hollywood formulas. An artist in his or her own right, who could stand in line with Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham without being either intimidated or dwarfed by them.

Enter David Hare.

Hare certainly wasn’t intimidated by The Hours. Take the genre problem for example. No genre? No problem. For Hare, who’s written nine Broadway plays, that’s what drew him to the project in the first place.

“I think that the cinema is dying from this exhaustion of genre,” Hare told Script Magazine by phone from New York. “Cinema just gets duller and duller as it settles into genre. Every movie you go to, you know within two minutes what genre it’s in. It’s an action movie, it’s a teenage comedy movie, it’s a thriller, it’s a film noir. Nearly all the cinema to which I’m responding now is films where you can’t instantly consign them to genre.”

“The Hours is not a women’s picture, it’s not a literary picture, it’s not a heritage picture; it’s just very, very unusual. Whether you like it or dislike it, it’s of its own kind. You can’t compare it to similar movies. There are no similar movies.”

That evaluation sounds like death here in Hollywood, where the very essence of pitching is making your story sound like a “fresh” combination of tried-and-true ideas.

But Hare, of course, is not of Hollywood. He is of London and New York, and of the theatre, of a world where the writer’s words are king and if they’re good, they can stand for centuries. He was just the man to make The Hours work as a film, and make it work he did. His script snared three of the best actresses working in movies and one of the year’s most accomplished ensemble casts. Hare is likely to get an Oscar® push for Best Adapted Screenplay,
if only for the sheer difficulty of his task, let alone the skill with which he accomplished it.

The Hours is a joint presentation of Miramax and Paramount, produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Fox, directed by Stephen Daldry. The three female leads are Nicole Kidman, unrecognizable as Virginia Woolf, Julianne Moore as a 50s housewife, and Meryl Streep as a modern-day version of Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway. Supporting them is a veritable all-star team: Ed Harris, Allison Janney, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Dillane, Toni Collette and John C. Reilly.

(Julianne Moore and Jack Rovello) (Sophie Wyburd and Nicole Kidman)

A Life in a Day

The genesis of The Hours, of course, goes back to Virginia Woolf herself, and her first great novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In 1923, Woolf penned the story of a single day in the life of an upper-class Englishwoman. The conceit of the book is that all of the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway’s life, from her memory of a single passionate kiss with another schoolgirl to her acceptance of death, can be encapsulated in just one day as she plans and prepares a party for her husband, Richard.

Woolf battled depression and mental illness her entire life, and feeling her sanity slipping away, she committed suicide in 1941. Decades later, a copy of her work fell into the hands of an American high school student named Michael Cunningham. “Mrs. Dalloway was the first great book I ever read,” recalls Cunningham. “I was more interested in rock ’n roll and smoking cigarettes. Then this girl I liked a great deal sort of became exasperated with my stupidity and shoved this copy of Mrs. Dalloway at me and said something like ‘Here, read this and try to be less stupid.’ I wasn’t positive I wanted to be less stupid, but I wanted to give it a try.

“So I read the book and of course I didn’t understand it, but I did get the complexity and density and beauty of those sentences, and they were a revelation. I remember thinking she’s doing with language something like what Hendrix does with a guitar. It sort of opened up the world of books to me.”

Later on, Cunningham read Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf, which made Woolf and her life even more intriguing for him. He was inspired to write a present-day version of Mrs. Dalloway, taking the title of his book, The Hours, from Woolf ’s original working title.

The Hours does more than update Woolf ’s story; it extends her conceit, a woman’s life revealed in the course of a single day, to three women: Woolf herself who faces a crisis with her husband Richard during the writing of Mrs. Dalloway in 1923; a housewife named Laura Brown in 1951 Los Angeles, whose life is altered forever as she reads Mrs. Dalloway; and a book editor named Clarissa Vaughan, who is a contemporary version of the Mrs. Dalloway character. Clarissa revisits the entire arc of her own life over a single day as she plans a party for her AIDS-stricken former lover, Richard.

Writer, reader, character: these three storylines show the relevance of Woolf ’s ideas across generations and reveal the power of a book to change our lives.

The story does present a paradox for an adaptor, though. The Hours is about (in part, anyway) the power of literature. When a reader enjoys the book, he/she is sharing the same experience as Laura Brown, and can be moved in exactly the same way. It’s a powerful structure that helps draw the reader into the story.

Films sometimes use “movie within a  movie” scenes to achieve a similar effect. The Hours had a book within a book. To turn it into a movie meant a “book within a movie” scene, but is there anything less “cinematic” than watching someone read? It’s yet another reason most thought the book was unfilmable. Producer Scott Rudin
thought otherwise, though, and decided to send The Hours to Hare.

David Hare, screenwriter of The Hours (PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Locus)

“Do Something Else.”

The 55-year-old Hare is best known as a playwright. Nine of his plays have been mounted on Broadway, including Plenty, The Blue Room and Via Dolorosa, a one-man show which he performed himself. Hare has written several films, but he generally prefers playwrighting to screenwriting.

Rudin came to know Hare while producing some of Hare’s plays on Broadway. “Scott knew how reluctant I am to work in the cinema,” says Hare. “But he was convinced that this was something I would want to do, and he was right.”

“In fact, it has a very cinematic idea which is: there are three stories, you don’t understand the way in which they connect. You play and tease with the idea that they will eventually connect; and when they connect, I hope it’s satisfying.”

Hare, Rudin and fellow producer Robert Fox began developing the script in 1999. Hare began with exactly one meeting with Cunningham. “He talked to me for six hours. I just let him talk,” recalls Hare. Cunningham revealed that he had originally written a much longer book and had created detailed histories for all of the characters, so Hare was able to pick Cunningham’s brain about even the most intimate details of the characters’ lives.

Hare’s questions gave Cunningham great confidence in the screenwriter. “He knew exactly the things to be talking about before you work on a screenplay,” remembers Cunningham. “It was not so much particulars of the story and how to manage the transition from one medium to the other, as who are these people? Where do they come from and how did they get to be the way they are?

So before they parted, Hare remembers, Cunningham told Hare that “‘I’ve done one thing with this material, I now leave you free to do something else.’ That was a wonderful act of trust from the author of a book to a screenwriter.” From then on, until Daldry came on to direct, Hare worked only with Rudin and Fox.

Slicing Away Subplots

Besides the intricate structure, there were some story elements he was determined to keep. One was the characters’ fluid sexuality. “The characters are neither gay nor straight,” says Hare. “On the contrary, sexuality is almost an electric charge which at any point can suddenly flow between two characters of either sex, almost arbitrarily. There was a modernity to the sexuality that I thought was very original and which we haven’t seen a lot of in the contemporary cinema.”

There would have to be changes, though, too. The book reveals Clarissa’s memories of a summer when, as a young woman, she lived in a menage a trois with Richard and another man, Louis. Hare spent his three years on the project fighting to keep those scenes out of the movie.

“By and large, our memories of how our most powerful feelings are exist in our heads. I wanted to summon them up with words and the actors’ intensity, not with a whole bunch of young people who don’t even look like the young Meryl Streep and the young Ed Harris and the young Jeff Daniels. That just seemed to be a nightmare.”

He made other cuts as well. One of Woolf ’s themes is that all lives are interconnected. To develop that idea in the screenplay, Hare needed to pare away anything in a given story which didn’t somehow connect to the other two stories. That meant that many subplots had to go, especially one involving Clarissa’s daughter.

“In the book, she’s being besieged by a gay woman teacher at her university who is desperately in love with her and who makes Clarissa feel very bourgeois. So there’s an argument there about whether sexual politics is or isn’t radical politics. I simply didn’t see how I could incorporate that in a way which illuminated all three stories.”

Hare also realized that while two of the storylines are inherently dramatic, the third is not. In 1923, Virginia Woolf is either going to leave the suburbs or kill herself. In 1951, Laura Brown realizes she is going to have to either leave her family or kill herself. In 2001, Clarissa Vaughan is going to host a party—and it could be spoiled.

“So to me,” says Hare, “the texture of the story was harder to find because it is essentially Richard who is the suicidal character, not Clarissa Vaughan. [I had to] make Clarissa’s story seem not self-indulgent. After all, she’s a rich, well-off person in a stable relationship, with a lovely daughter. What’s her problem? The cinema audience could easily have become impatient of her. So balancing out the modern story with the two old stories was for me the biggest challenge of the screenplay.” In the end, of course, Clarissa’s story turns out to be the most dramatic of all.

Revealing Bits

The internal-action problem plagued Hare for months. In Cunningham’s book, like Woolf ’s, the reader knows what Virginia, Laura and Clarissa are thinking. Hare wrestled for months with the challenge of bringing their thoughts onto the screen. For awhile, it looked like a voiceover narration would be inevitable, but he was determined to avoid it. The alternative was to invent new scenes and to expose the characters’ thoughts.

“That’s the whole challenge of it,” says Hare. “You know what Meryl was going through by the way she walked through the streets. Or you put in scenes of the party planning and so forth. Those are all my scenes—not Michael’s scenes—but if you forego the right to go into somebody’s head, then you’ve got to write new events.”

“In Laura Brown’s case, there is a sequence of cross-cutting where she’s driving and her son is building a toy house. It represents his connection to his mother, his need for his mother. The film is full of those completely invented sections to illustrate what is going on inside the characters.”

Hare invented a birthday party scene in the 1950s story, in which Dan Brown, Laura’s husband, explains the vision of happiness that led him from his service in World War II to this tidy home and family. The irony, of course, is that by the time this scene plays out, we know Laura is miserable beyond words.

It’s one of the story’s unifying themes: we all make choices for happiness, but those choices often make those around us miserable. The characters discuss their moments of happiness (usually in the past), or their longing for it, in words that echo from story to story. Those echoes, and the small  bits of action that echo in the three stories as well, help give the screenplay a coherent structure. They also give the film a slightly eerie tone.

Hare also juxtaposed long scenes with much shorter ones. “I deliberately wanted to jumble up, to work the way Virginia Woolf worked: very, very short scenes sometimes with very, very long  scenes. This film is marked out by far longer scenes than movies usually support.”

He points to Clarissa’s first scene with Richard, which lasts almost 20 minutes. “Everybody said ‘Oh, we’ll shoot it, but, of course it won’t appear in the final film in its full form.’ Well, it’s pretty close to its full form [in the final cut].” Similarly, there is a very long scene between Virginia and her husband Richard near the end of the film.

Nicole Kidman in The Hours

Hare did send the script to Cunningham at one point, and the pair recall only one point of disagreement, one that actually became a lingering argument. In the book, Laura Brown carries bottles of pills to a hotel and once there, realizes that she is capable of killing herself. The moment was too subtle and internal for film, so Hare had Laura find a gun in the house and bring it with her to the hotel, suggesting she’d shoot herself.

“I said ‘There’s only one thing: I don’t know about the gun,’” says Cunningham.  But [Hare] and Stephen both felt fairly insistent about it, and I felt pretty insistent about how wrong it seemed. Because she wouldn’t shoot herself, that’s just not something this woman would do. She wouldn’t maim herself like that. She wouldn’t do that to the people who’d find her. She wouldn’t do that to the linens.”

Hare’s version won out until Julianne Moore weighed in. “She said, ‘I  don’t see this. I don’t think I can play it,’” says Cunningham, adding with a laugh that “I learned when you’re losing an argument, try to get a movie star on you side.”

Bespoke Tailoring

Hare worked for a year, getting notes only from Rudin and Fox. Only when they were satisfied with the script did they approach a director—Stephen Daldry. Daldry came to the attention of movie fans for his 2000 film Billy Elliot, but like Hare, he has received his greatest acclaim in the theatre. His revisionist production of An Inspector Calls won him a Tony Award® and is still running in London’s West End. He had also directed Hare’s one man show, Via Dolorosa, which Hare performed in London and on Broadway.

Rewrites continued as the cast was assembled. Moore had fallen in love with the book and jumped at the chance to play Laura. In fact, says Hare, Moore really wanted to play a character in the book, not the character in his screenplay, and worked with that in mind. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, loved the book but worked strictly according to the screenplay.

That helped build a give-and-take with Hare. Daldry and the actors went through an unusually long rehearsal period before shooting started, which let Hare and Daldry refine the cuts and transitions between the stories. It also gave Hare the chance to incorporate the actors’ performances.

“One of the great pleasures of this film is that with so many great actors, once you see a rehearsal of a scene, you want to change the scene because of what they can express or bring to it without words or with different words,” says Hare. You know, if you watch Meryl Streep rehearse, you’re a fool if you don’t tailor what you’re doing to what she can bring to it, the extra dimension she can add to it through her gifts.”

Hare calls his arrangement on the film “utopian.” He was included for the entire process, including filming and post-production.“I’ve been treated better than any screenwriter could reasonably ask to be treated, and not a single word has gone into the picture that wasn’t my word,” he says.

Different Laws of Physics

When Script Magazine spoke to Hare and Cunningham in mid-November of this year, they had not yet discussed the film. Hare suspected that Cunningham would be uncomfortable with his changes, but Cunningham told Script Magazine he was completely happy with the film. “

They did a great job,” said Cunningham appreciatively. “That’s one of the things I have loved about this experience, from writing it on to this moment: the idea that an impulse that started with Virginia Woolf almost a hundred years ago just lives on and on and on, and keeps changing and keeps evolving, and stays in some ways the same and becomes in other ways enormously different. I think it is a huge tribute to the notion that there are great works of art that just stay alive, long after the people that produce them are gone.”

One of Hare’s changes is a subtle bit of poetic license. The film is bracketed by scenes of Woolf ’s suicide; the only dialogue in these scenes is Woolf ’s suicide note, read by Kidman in the film’s only voiceover narration. The screenplay’s final words tie the film together like a final musical coda, echoing words and themes from earlier in the film—even the title.

Yet those final words are not in the published version of Woolf ’s suicide notes. Asked about where the lines came from and who wrote them, Hare grows uncharacteristically quiet. “I wrote it,” he finally confesses. “I wanted to restate the spirit of the suicide note, but I didn’t want to use exactly the same words. So I was faced with what I regarded as a moral problem: could I write a piece of Virginia Woolf that’s not by Virginia Woolf? I’m not wholly at peace with it.”

For his part, Cunningham was pleasantly surprised by the moment. “If asked before they shot the movie, I would have said no, I think it’s a bad idea. Then when I saw that scene in the movie, it seemed perfect and dead right, which if nothing else gave me to understand that there are sort of different laws of physics at work in the movies.”

For Hare, though, there’s also the knowledge that movies become history, and from now on, many will believe that those final lines were the last thing Virginia Woolf ever wrote. “I’d be a bit pissed off at having lines attributed to me that I didn’t write,” says Hare, “Particularly if I were Virginia Woolf, who struggled so hard to write exactly what she wanted to write and nothing else. I apologize to her ghost.”

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