HOLY SMOKE

By Anna Campion and Jane Campion

Miramax. 258 pp. $22.95

Nearly all novelists aspire to have their work adapted for the screen someday. Considerably fewer filmmakers aspire to find their way into print. With the publication of their collaborative novel, "Holy Smoke," Australian filmmakers Anna and Jane Campion attempt a fairly unlikely trajectory. Both sisters already met with success as writer-directors: Jane won the Academy Award for best original screenplay for her 1993 release "The Piano"; Anna wrote and directed "Loaded." Neither needs trifle with that antiquated narrative vehicle known as the book, given their respective accomplishments as cinematic auteurs. But trifle they do.

As its publishing imprint suggests, "Holy Smoke" is well on its way to becoming "a major motion picture," slated for release later this year. The same recommendation has been emblazoned on the cover of many a respectable volume by literary luminaries such as Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster and Henry James, who--being dead--bear the indignity in silence. If it weren't affront enough to have paperback classics merchandised as souvenirs of jaunts to the local multiplex, publishers now have the gall to produce books as movie trailers. Why waste perfectly good pulp?

In the interest of last-minute moviegoers who might want to get a little smackerel of something while the previews roll, here is a precis of the novel: Ruth (played by Kate Winslet of "Titanic" fame) has been forcibly removed from the cult she joined on her sojourn through India and has returned to a family farm in the Australian outback (filmed, no doubt, on location), where she meets with a weathered but sexy American deprogramming specialist named PJ (remember Harvey Keitel from "The Piano"?) hired by her dysfunctional family (composed of various and sundry character actors). Ruth/Kate and PJ/Harvey are required by due process to spend several days alone together. They do this on the mercilessly hot and heartachingly isolated fringe of the farm, where circumstances compel them to undress. Can tragedy be far behind?

That's a riddle best left to film buffs. Early on, readers of "Holy Smoke" will glean that nothing fruitful can come of this encounter. The novelization, loosely termed, opens with a flurry of expository faxes exchanged between Australia and the States. It then moves to a tedious he-said/she-said sequential narration. Neither Ruth nor PJ has a distinctive voice; in fact, they sound exactly like each other. Their love story is related in a telegraphic, pointlessly twinned present tense that communicates a kind of contempt for storytelling itself.

The lines practically shrug their indifference. At one point, Ruth observes of her own emotional state, "I am mad, angry mad." The "you know?" is implicit. Later on, she notes: "I am blank not furious, neutral." These constant updates from her emotional front are offset only by updates from his, lit with the same grunt-and-scratch insight. "For three minutes I put my face in the fan, bliss," he reports. "Next I walk heavily towards her door, I want her to know I'm coming. I knock, wait, open the door. She's on the bed, jumps off it, walks over and slams the door--bang, fine, I get a chair." If the inanity of the writing doesn't strike readers dumb, boredom surely will.

The Sisters Campion make some concessions to fictional technique, but so grudgingly that readers will wish they had spared themselves the trouble. There are a few cursory physical descriptions ("Next out was Fabio; I don't like ponytails"); some cued scene shifts ("5:40 p.m. Second tantrum"); pages of uninspired dialogue ("Nobody likes me." "They do, they care"); and endless stage directions and sound effects ("Honk, honk, the clowns are coming, reference her brothers"). "Holy Smoke" ends as it begins, with tell-all correspondence. This reliance on dialogue might be explained by the book's having not one but two authors. Yet they cannot even be bothered to write complete sentences, let alone coherent paragraphs. It is impossible to fathom why this book was not simply published as the screenplay it obviously aspires to be.

None of this is meant to disparage what may be a relatively interesting film. "Holy Smoke" revisits some of the themes that made "The Piano" potently original on the big screen: gender and power and will. While the text handles these subjects with greater sophistication than the average blockbuster would, the Campions' characters lack the verbal mastery and psychological depth to plumb them. No sooner do they start a serious discussion of the nature of religious belief and devotion than sex games distract them. Consider that a tender mercy. Earnest fiction would have the patience to explore that sort of material, but "Holy Smoke" hardly qualifies.

Kelly Murphy Mason, who teaches in the English department at George Washington University.