You can almost hear Michael Cunningham shifting in his seat on the other end of the phone as he struggles to explain why his novels constantly orbit around the themes of insecurity and isolation—most notably in The Hours, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and now an acclaimed film. Each of the three female characters in The Hours—Virginia Woolf while writing Mrs. Dalloway; a 1950’s reader of this novel who has a young son named Richard; and a present-day lesbian nicknamed “Clarissa Dalloway” by Richard, now dying of AIDS—finds that her internal longings are continually bumping up against outside demands, and she’s spinning toward physical and emotion self-destruction. “Happiness doesn’t much interest me,” offers Cunningham. The troubled times are the ones that demand our attention, while “Kodak moments [are]just fine on their own.”
“Why Virginia Woolf?” is a question Cunningham was routinely asked after The Hours was released in the fall of 1998. And when the film came out early this year—starring a trifecta of stunning performances from Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep—more people were brought face-to-face with this troubled and brilliant literary figure. Cunningham answered questions about his fascination with Woolf in a way that left no doubt about his assessment of her genius or her impact on literature: “Because she was a genius and a visionary, because she was a rock star, because she was the first writer to split the atom, because I’m in love with her, because she knew that everyone, every single person, is the hero of his or her own epic story” (from www.thehoursmovie.com).
“The Hours” was actually Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway, notes Cunningham, who says he began writing The Hours at 43, the age at which Woolf completed Mrs. Dalloway. “It was initially just a modern-day version of Mrs. Dalloway, but it expanded during the writing into these three linked stories, each of which takes place in one day in the life of a particular woman: A modern day Clarissa Dalloway, a wife and mother in Los Angeles just after World War II, and Virginia Woolf the day she started writing Mrs. Dalloway. It seemed right that the book should include a character, a reader, and a writer.”