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Breakfast with Virginia Woolf

March 16, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds | 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.

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