Meet the man of 'The Hours'
It's not hard to find authors who take the money for movie rights to their books and never look back. After all, writers traditionally saw Hollywood as the place where their beloved novels go to die.
But for Michael Cunningham, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "The Hours," the opposite is true. Cunningham is so pleased with the film version of his book, which recently won two Golden Globes, he is actually out promoting it.
"One of the great things about this experience is that I felt a part of it from the beginning," he says.
Though he had no official role in the big-screen adaptation of his book, filmmakers were in constant contact with him, even during the shooting. When they got stuck, they'd call to ask for his advice on details like what type of music Meryl Streep's character listened to, Cunningham says.
When he finally saw the film, which also stars Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, he heartily approved.
As with all books made into movies, details are lost in the translation, Cunningham says, but in the big-screen version of his novel "you gain Meryl Streep's ability to separate an egg in a way that tells you everything you need to know about her character."
Though Cunningham is sorry that some scenes and characters were omitted in the interest of clarity and time, he doesn't disagree with the filmmakers' decisions.
"I'm very happy that the film feels like a companion piece to the novel," he says. "I never wanted a Masterpiece Theatre version."
"The Hours" intertwines the lives of three women by tracing them through a single day. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) has begun writing her first great novel, "Mrs. Dalloway," in which she describes the life of a her protagonist by showing her in the course of one day. Cunningham uses that model to follow Woolf, a 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) who is reading "Mrs. Dalloway," and an editor (Streep) in the present day who, like Mrs. Dalloway, is consumed by the details of planning a party.
Cunningham says he was impressed by how the actors added layers of meaning to his characters. For instance, he appreciated Kidman's ability "to be simultaneously insane and compelling.
"I was a little bit afraid that Virginia Woolf would merely be a crazy person," he says. "Nicole makes us understand that Virginia is supremely difficult but also the most luminous, interesting person in the room."
Some movie-goers have found the story too sad, because it ends with Woolf's suicide several years later, as well as his two fictional characters facing their own tragedies.
Cunningham, however, argues that the story is life affirming.
"I don't know another writer who writes more persuasively about the joys of being alive," he says of Woolf. "It is, finally, the only kind of optimism I trust."
In spite of the tragedies characters in "The Hours" face, life goes on for most of them, and that is the affirmation Cunningham hopes readers and viewers will get from the story.
Interestingly, he had no interest in adapting "The Hours" himself.
"I had taken these people and their stories as far as I could take them," Cunningham explains.
He is, however, currently adapting one of his older novels, "A Home at the End of the World," for first-time film director Michael Mayer, who previously worked in theater. The movie, which begins shooting in April, will star Irish actor Colin Farrell.
He compares the experience of compressing a novel into two hours as "like doing a gigantic puzzle," he says. "It was a great lesson in the art of economy."
Despite his foray into filmmaking, Cunningham still considers himself primarily a novelist.
The southern California native remembers the years when he was struggling for attention - first to get published, and then to have his books noticed.
With a Pulitzer and the reflected glory from the film, he's amazed at how different his life is today from when he was a struggling would-be novelist.
"A fiction writer is the one who wouldn't give up," he says.
He admits that after "The Hours" was published and it won the Pulitzer in 1999, he "was a little freaked out over what to do next."
Then, an editor at Random House called to ask him if he'd like to tackle a small nonfiction project. He jumped at the chance. The project involved writers chronicling places they knew well.
Cunningham's book, "Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown," his most recent, hit bookshelves last August.
Now, he's happy to stay in the world of the serious reader, his dabblings in Hollywood notwithstanding.
"If a novel sells 500,000 copies, it's a huge hit. If a movie sells 500,000 tickets it's a failure," he notes.