Some of those critics who deplore the predictable cliches of much of television-style drama have pointed to a sorely neglected source of scripts wtih substance: the American short story.
The problem is that it's not that easy to turn a good short story into arresting television drama while remaining faithful to the author's style and intent. The short story is, after all, a fragile creation, often internalized, often centered on a single motion or telling moment, and therefore quite different from film, which depends so much on dialogue and action for its story-telling.
But public TV is giving it a try this spring in a new series beginning April 5 that will bring to television the short stories of nine distinguished American writers - among them John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The project, supported by a $2,043,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has attracted top headlines talent from television and the theater. Ron Howard, of ABC's "Happy Days," portrays a young man serving an apprenticeship at a small Ohio race track in Sherwood Anderson's "I'm a Fool." LeVar Burton, so impressive in the first episode of "Roots," appears in Richard Wright's "Almos' a Man," the story of a black youth's passage to manhood. Irene Worth, of the stage, and John Housman, of the movies, appear together in "The Displaced Person" by Flannery O'Connor.
The O'Connor script was written by Horton Foote the playwright who did the screenplay for "To Kill a Mockingbird." The directors include Joan Micklin Silver, of the highly-acclaimed "Hester Street," and John Korty, whose credits include "Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."
"The challenge has been to capture, on film, the perceptions, style and narrative power of the author. Fidelity to the author has been one of our principal concerns," says Robert Geller, executive producer of the series and president of Learning in Focus Inc.
A skeptical John UPdike, the only living author represented in the series, saw the film of his story, "The Music School," and called it a "wonderful, loving and inventive" transfer of the "almost untranslatable verbal interweaving of my rather essayistic story." Korty both directed and wrote the Updike teleplay, and Actor Ron Weyland relies almost exclusively on movement, expression and gesture for a stunning performance with hardly a line of dialogue.
In their dedication to tell the author's story faithfully, the producers and directors of "The American Short Story" were not trapped within the time confines of commercial television. The stories will range from 28 1/2 to 56 minutes the time necessary "to capture the short stories themselves on film and not merely turn out adaptations or dramatized interpretations," Geller emphasizes.
Two literary advisers worked wtih each set of scriptwriters, directors and actors. Before the nine short stories for the series were selected, more than 500 titles were considered. These were finally weeded down to a "governable 100" by Geller and his staff and turned over to a committee of literary scholars headed by Calvin Skaggs of Drew University.
"A short story might be a great Henry James but that doesn't maen that it would have worked for our series," Geller explains. "We wanted an important work, one that deal with continuing themes of American writers, and a story that gave social insights fresh and pertinent today. And then it should have dramatic and entertainment potential on TV."
One of the nine stories finally chosen was an unusual Hemingway tale, which deals with a young soldier who left Kansas for World War and returns home with a sense of alienation from his town, neighbors and family. It is an experience of other soldiers of other wars, including Vietnam, Geller points out.
"And we chose a Fitzgerald story - 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair' - that a lot of people probably don't know and think of F. Scott Fitzgerald only as the author of 'The Great Gatsby.' But 'Bernice' has a special kind of relevance today in telling what it means to be a young woman."
With a bout $150,000 budget for each show, which is perhaps a half to third of what a commercially produced episode would cost, the series staff learned to use ingenious ways to stay within a modest budget and yet not skimp on production costs.
For Anderson's "I'm No Fool," some of the extras were Methodist churchgoers paid in part with a paint job for their church - for appearing in a scene showing a horse race. Star Ron Howard - as all the actors in the series - was paid public television's fees. Geller said when he showed "I'm No Fool" to a junior high audience the teenagers quickly related to Ron Howard because they recognized him from "Happy Days." But also, he adds, they related to the story as adolescents who know how easy it is to lie when you are not satisfied with yourself and then find to the story as adolescents who know easy it is to lie when you are not satisfied with yourself and then find that is impossible to undo the lie.
For the fillming of Fitzerald's "Bernice," the series producers persauded two families with lovely old homes sprinkled with fine antiques to move to a motel for a month.
John Housman and Irene Worth and the rest of the cast went to the old farm outside Midegeville, Ga., where Flannery O'Connor lived and wrote her moving short stores, to film "The Displaced Person." It is the story of what happens to a Polish refugee brought to work on a Georgia farm in the 1940s and how he disrupts those who have lived their lives in the microcosm of a contained society. John Gielgud, the British actor, saw the O'Connor film and remarked to friends that it was the best American TV that he had seen.
O'Connor herself once owed that she would never agree to having another of her short stories adapted by television after being appalled at one or two versions of early TV. But a showing of the new film brought warm acceptance from her mother and friends and a copy has been added to the O'Connor collection at Midgeville College. At 56 minutes, "The Displaced Person" runs the longest of the short stories.
"People have been asking where the American writers are. They're sitting on the book shelves," Geller says.
Commercial TV has been rummaging through the book shelves for novels to turn into miniseries like "Rich Man, Poor Man" (there are those who would argue that Irwin Shaw's strength is not as a novelist but as a shortstory writer), and "Once an Eagle." There was a go at short stores in the "golden age" of live TV dramas in the early and mid-'50s when there were some 60 minute adaptations of stories by such authors at Steinbeck and Faulkner. But fidelity was not a hallmark of these adaptations.
To feed television's enormous appetite, many good short stories remain on the book shelves, Geller points out; he feels that commerical television will soon discover them.