On film, 'Paris Trout' misses subtle ambiguities of Pete Dexter's novel


April 20, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

Pete Dexter's "Paris Trout," the 1988 National Book Award winner, was a challenging novel. The story of a southern bigot's descent into murderous paranoia, it was brutally told, murky of theme and relentlessly depressing. It was also morbidly fascinating.

The Showtime cable network's movie adaptation of the book premiering this weekend, however, is just brutal, depressing and ultimately incomprehensible. In spite of a quality big-screen cast and a handsome level of production, it offers an unsettling couple of hours. (The movie can be seen at 9 tonight on the premium service, with repeats April 26 and May 1, 5 and 9.)

To begin with, viewers familiar with the book will notice a number of detail changes, apparently felt to have been required by transference to the small screen. But the alterations are irritating best and, at worst, rob the story of much of its nuance and depth. At times, they even fairly significantly change the perception of the characters involved.

Author Dexter wrote the screenplay, so at least it did not suffer from somebody else's ham hand. And perhaps it is not entirely fair to offer such comparisons -- although Showtime sent reviewers a new edition of the book, complete with a photo of the movie's stars on the cover and the cast credits on the back.

Regardless, those who don't know the book may simply find the movie version empty of much understanding at all -- if hardly empty of graphic violence and an admittedly captivating portrayal of unsettling lunacy by star Dennis Hopper (rivaling his Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet").

At the same time, the movie seems to relegate good actors Barbara Hershey and Ed Harris to secondary roles which help to focus Hopper's character. Yet in the book, these two were by far the more interesting characters.

Thus "Paris Trout" offers more proof that television may not be the medium for subtle explorations of ambiguity. The movie is in color -- a sepia-feeling period hue -- but the story is reduced to blacks and whites.

The year is 1949 in a small Southern town (Georgia in the book), and Hopper plays Paris Trout, a successful store operator who also loans money and sells items to residents of the town's black enclave, known as The Bottoms.

Hershey is Trout's abused wife, Hanna, who has assumed the voice of the flashback narrator in the movie. Harris plays attorney Harry Seagraves, a powerful influence in the town's white community. (The book delicately explored the patterns of favoritism, politics and moral ambiguity that made Seagraves, as well as the history that motivated Hanna to marry Trout. But none of this made it into the movie.)

When Trout matter-of-factly kills a young black girl while seeking repayment of a debt -- viewers should know the shooting scene is horribly graphic -- Seagraves becomes his attorney.

The film follows the resulting trial and its inevitably violent aftermath. (Another scene, involving Trout's rape of his wife, is also fairly brutally done.)

The obvious racial harshness of the time is conveyed faithfully from the book, as in a scene when lawyer Seagraves visits Trout's home and his wife demands to know why.

"It isn't anything scandalous, Miz Trout, I can set your mind at ease about that," says the lawyer.

Yet perhaps the greatest weakness in the film stems from the compression of time. The book simmers like a long, hot, southern summer's day, building excruciating tension. But that's impossible in the 100-minute run time of a movie.

Thus the plot developments here, such as the predictable Hanna/Seagraves love link, follow mechanically and unpersuasively.

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