Selective 'Memory' guts story Preview: Capote original was a hallmark in made-for-TV movie history. This sugarplum pales.

December 20, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you have never seen Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" with Geraldine Page, you might actually like CBS' "A Christmas Memory" with Patty Duke.

But if you have seen the Emmy Award-winning original and cried your eyes out at the most lyrical, exquisitely melancholy ending this far side of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," you will probably wind up throwing something at the television set tomorrow night.

The changes between the 1966 version -- which Capote helped adapt and for which he provided narration -- and this one from Hallmark Entertainment are monumental and mainly ill-advised.

"A Christmas Memory" is the story of a 7-year-old boy named Buddy, a 60-year-old distant cousin who cares for him, and their little dog, Queenie. It's a love story in the best sense of the term.

The setting is a hardscrabble farm in rural Alabama in 1934 at the height of the Depression. Buddy had been left at the farm with Cousin Sook and her two unmarried sisters, Jennie and Callie, by his absentee mother, who is now living in New York.

Sook is considered simple-minded by some. She essentially serves as cook and housekeeper to her sisters, who are not very nice.

Sook spends most of her time in the kitchen, which she has transformed into a safe and special place for her, Buddy and the dog. Her greatest joys are reading the Bible and listening to Buddy, a natural-born storyteller, tell her about the movies he sees at the small-town theater. Sook is Cinderella at 60 if the prince and the shoe had never found her foot. She has the soul of a saint and the imagination of an artist.

Despite their poverty, Sook bakes at least 25 fruitcakes every year for the holiday season. She gives them to neighbors and mails them to people with whom she has imaginary relationships, like Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in the White House, Joan Crawford in Hollywood and a couple of Baptist ministers from Borneo who spoke at a nearby church the previous year.

Capote's story opens on the first cold day in late November when Sook, feeling the chill in the air, looks out the steam-covered kitchen window and announces, "It's fruitcake weather."

"A Christmas Memory" is the story of Buddy, Sook and Queenie's last season of making magic and fruitcakes together before his other cousins sent him to military school. It breaks my heart just thinking about it.

Or maybe what I'm feeling is rage about the changes in this latest version.

The ramshackle farmhouse is now a large, white, two-story house with a wraparound Victorian porch -- the kind of home a prosperous banker might own in a Disney film set in an mythical, small-town American past.

Further obliterating any sense of the Depression and lower social class, the household now has an African-American washwoman (Ester Scott). And what a stereotype she is: large, motherly, superstitious and world-weary. She stops just short of saying, "Lord, the trouble I've seen."

And, just in case there are one or two black viewers who don't have problems with the depiction, the big joke about her is that she constantly tries to convince people she's a Native-American, not an African-American. Ha-ha, ha-ha-ha.

Screenwriter and executive producer Duane Pool also created another character out of whole cloth, a girl (Julia McIlvane) for Buddy to be friends with so he won't be so lonely: more cliche-ridden, Southern claptrap with Buddy and the girl in a treehouse sharing secrets. Buddy's supposed to be lonely -- his loneliness is crucial to the tone of the story.

So, why did they make all this stupid stuff up? To fill two hours and sell more ads. The 1966 version, produced and directed by Frank Perry -- whose first film, "David and Lisa," is another small masterpiece about love -- runs only about 45 minutes. So, hey, NTC let's just pad it out, and we'll be able sell another hour of ads.

The worst sin, though, is what they left out. This version excises ++ any sense of death, and death is absolutely at the heart of this story.

Perhaps it is hard to appreciate how outrageous the changes are unless you have read the short story or seen the film and heard Capote's voice doing the narration.

But it is as if a gang of Hollywood hacks took Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" and said, "OK, we have the old man, the kid and the fish. Not a bad story, but way too short and depressing. So, look, we knock a few years off the old man, maybe make him a baby boomer. Then we give him a love interest, maybe Charo. And we end on a freeze-frame of the old man at the pier, the full fish hanging behind him, and lots of women in bikinis cheering."

Let me not in my anger be totally negative. Duke turns in a fine performance as Sook. It's not the performance Geraldine Page delivered in the original -- which might just be the greatest made-for-TV movie performance I've ever seen -- but it is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. And, like I said, if you have never seen the original, this might seem just fine to you.

But it is wrong to do what they did to "A Christmas Memory." Capote wrote a short story that played like a sweet, sad song, and Hallmark Entertainment turned it into a commercialized jingle to sell holiday cards. This is our culture in decline.

Look what they've done to your song, Tru.

'A Christmas Memory'

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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