Edith Wharton titled her second novel "House of Mirth," perhaps a cruel joke on readers who thought they might be picking up a jolly comedy. WNET, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has dramatized this tragic tale as the first of a three-part series of Wharton works, a worthy adaptation that will be aired on Channel 26 tonight.

Wharton, whose dissection of New York society in "The Age of Innocence" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1920, was sharpening her literary claws in "House of Mirth." Lily Bart (Geraldine Chaplin) is an impoverished young lady from a socially prominent family, "a poor person forced to live among rich people," whose one hope in life is to snare a rich husband, a possibility that is rapidly fading as she approaches the lamentable age of 30. The society of which she is a member is that of the turn-of-the-century American aristocrat -- coarse, pretentious, overfed types Wharton portrays as slurping soup out of their silver spoons.

Lily is a naive of neither great virtue nor terrible vice. She runs up debts gambling at bridge, keeping up with her companions in a manner she can ill afford, and entrusts her money to a man who says he will make her money on the stock market. When it turns out that the money he gives her is his own, not the product of investments, and he expects a return from her, she refuses him, keeping her honor but mortgaging her already tenuous future.

No white knight comes to rescue Lily; rather, her situation gets worse. Her reputation is ruined by unfair gossip, and she is unwilling to use the blackmail she could to staunch it; she is inept at working for a living and her chances for marriage evaporate. Her upper-class upbringing has not prepared her for hardship; she can't cope and ultimately gives in to her despair.

For once, Geraldine Chaplin's basically expressionless face serves her well, and her performance is perhaps one of her best. For once she goes beyond the insipid, catching the confused -- and surprised -- torment of a young woman who can neither succeed within the restraints of her society nor use courage or imagination to escape from it. William Atherton is mostly handsome as her friend and fellow dilettante, Lawrence Selden. Lois Smith is wonderfully decadent as the treacherous Bertha Dorset.

Adrian Hall, who also co-authored the screenplay, directed the 90-minute film with careful attention to period detail. Aside from a few incongruous Felliniesque detours, like snippets of a wedding scene filmed through a distorting lens, he proceeds subtly but surely down the path of Lily's misfortune, aided greatly by Karen Roston's gorgeous costumes and production design by Eugene and Frannie Lee.

The other two dramatizations in the series are "Summer," on Nov. 9, and "Looking Back," with Kathleen Widdoes as Wharton in a dramatized biography.