This was fucking brutal. I thought Ikiru was emotionally tough. I had to put this one down a few times so as not to embarrass myself. I don't deal with the topic of suicide very well these days. I particularly hate it as a dramatic construction: it seems like a lazy solution, an easy way out for a dramatist stuck in a dilemma, or even worse, a cheap thrill. Oooh. Killed himself. Hea-vy. Instant drama, just add tears. In real life, the act of suicide rocks anyone near it so far beyond the cheap and shallow theatrics of most movies and plays, that they seem like graffiti scratched out by syphillictic monkeys on a shit house door.
Not this script, though.
I doubt if I'd ever have read this script except for the enthusiastic recommendations I'd heard, particularly by Charles Deemer. He thinks it may presage a new hybrid form somewhere between the standard screenplay form and the novel, drawing strengths from both but becoming something new.
So, what the hell, I hunkered down. It's a triangular story. On one end, Virginia Woolf working through the day of her suicide in a kind of flash forward, then during the inception of Mrs. Dalloway twenty years before. The other leg of the triangle is an L.A. housewife, reading Mrs. Dalloway and coming to terms with the meaning of her life in 1950. The final leg of the triangle is New York City, 2000 as a book editor puts together a party, much like the fictional Mrs. Dalloway. The party is for a poet dying of AIDS.
Yeah, I know. How does that gratingly arty premise have any right to work? I haven't seen the movie itself, and now I'm a little reluctant to, in the same way you don't want to have a favorite novel spoiled by an adaptation. On the page, it sure as hell works.
Because we're all struggling for meaning, whether we like it or not. Suicide is the ultimate refutation of the possibility of finding meaning, and suicide is never just an individual act. Ironically (and God loves irony), claiming that meaning can be equally harmful to innocent bystanders.
And literature helps us approach at least a tentative sense of what that meaning might be. Yet, literature can also harm us, twist us or even destroy us. The stories are concrete, well fleshed out, with vivid characters. You'd expect the Virginia Woolf sequences to be the richest, but each part of the triptych carries its own weight.
Each of the stories interlink with each other. This is not merely a matter of clever structure or literary legerdemain. In fact, they become resonant, reinforcing, and, finally, emotionally rich. They also deliver an occasional plot punch.
As Deemer says, the form of the script itself is more literary, offering the kinds of pleasures you get from reading a short piece of fiction. The action sections are fleshed out, describing the characters, their behavior and suggesting their emotions and thoughts. The dialog is written as in a standard screenplay. Yet, nothing about the prose is extraneous or useless, and if I'd been asked to direct this (heh) I would have found all of Hare's prose very helpful.
It's a remarkable achievement. First, in solving the problem of adapting a novel that's primarily based on the inner lives of its characters. Second, in managing the shifts in time and between stories. Finally, in bringing three woman so vividly to life -- a life which we struggle to understand.
The Hours, by David Hare. Based on the novel by Michael Cunningham
Michael Hare discusses writing The Hours here.