Viewers who have grown tired of violence and weary of war on their television screens get a break this week when CBS offers "Sarah, Plain and Tall" (Sunday at 9), a beautifully filmed story set at the turn of the century in the Kansas farmlands.

Patricia MacLachlan's 58-page book, published just over five years ago, won the prestigious Newbery Medal for children's literature in 1986 and quietly became a classic, selling more than a million copies.

As a television movie, it is the 168th sponsored by Hallmark Hall of Fame, which has established an admirable record of underwriting high-quality productions that often garner Emmys.

MacLachlan said she fielded many inquiries from filmmakers, but not until Glenn Close did she feel confident that she had found the right producer and star.

Few would describe Close, who plays Sarah Wheaton, as plain, nor is she particularly tall, but she didn't hesitate to take the role of the woman who leaves her beloved Maine to journey westward to Kansas and a family that needs a mother.

"I think of 'plain' to justify whatever is plain-spoken, unadorned," said Close. Sensible Sarah Wheaton of Maine is that sort of person. "She's the kind of woman I've always liked -- she's unselfconscious about her looks, and if anything, she's probably insecure."

And because Close, at 5-foot-5, is not particularly tall, her "Sarah" boots were equipped with 4-inch lifts, she said.

Close plays opposite Christopher Walken as Jacob Witting, a young widower living with his two small children on a farm growing shabby from lack of care. Because he needs a housekeeper and the children need a mother, he has placed a newspaper advertisement in a paper back East. And because Sarah Wheaton's brother has married, she plans to leave the home she shared with him and set out on a new life.

Like many Hallmark productions, "Sarah, Plain and Tall" is a story about love and family, and many who worked on it were veterans of earlier Hallmarks.

Close, who starred in 1988 in Hallmark's "Stones for Ibarra," based on Harriet Doerr's novel, paired in her first outing as executive producer with William Self, who made Hallmark's "The Tenth Man." His son Edwin Self is supervising producer. Director Glenn Jordan also directed Hallmark's acclaimed "Promise," "Home Fires Burning" and "The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer."

Christopher Walken, who plays the taciturn widower Jacob Witting, appeared in Hallmark's "Barefoot in Athens" back in 1966. Walken is also known for his stage work, having won an Obie, Theatre World and Clarence Derwent awards. And he won the best supporting actor Oscar for "The Deer Hunter."

"Chris Walken never does television," Close said. "I was thrilled when he wanted to do it."

Then there are the children, Christopher Bell, who in his acting debut strongly resembles a Botticelli cherub, and young Lexi Randall.

"Little Christopher is a gem," said Close. Walken said: "I could be Laurence Olivier in my scenes with him, and he'd still steal them -- he's that good."

Part of little Chris Bell's charm is built into the script: He is Caleb, the hard-to-resist younger child, who immediately falls in love with the woman he hopes will be his new mom.

It's his sister, Anna (Lexi Randall), who remembers their young mother and, like her father, fears that replacing her in the family means letting go of the memory.

Close also chose costume designer Van Broughton Ramsey, who had worked on "Lonesome Dove." "For me, when you do a period movie, your character isn't complete until you put on the clothes. They're tremendously important, and the costumes in 'Sarah' are superb."

Since her memorable performance as obsessive, psychotic Alex Forrest in "Fatal Attraction" in 1988, for which she won an Oscar nomination, Close has become a mother. So perhaps it's not surprising that she became interested in MacLachlan's book for young readers.

Originally, MacLachlan, born in Cheyenne, Wy., had written the book largely for her mother, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. MacLachlan wanted to write the story, based on a true event in her family's history, while her mother could read and appreciate it. She did not expect that the book would sell well and that several film companies would approach her to buy the rights.

"I was in no hurry to part with the rights," she said. "Somehow I knew that the right person with the right sensibilities would come along, and a film would get made that would do justice to the characters and the story."

That person turned out to be Close, who had read "Sara" for Books on Tape. "It was a busy time and I remember thinking I didn't have time to do it," she said. "But I went back and met Patty MacLachlan and she said there had been many inquiries {about making the story into a film}. It's really become a modern classic."

MacLachlan herself wrote the screenplay, filling out the characters that had been part of her family's lore.

"The way I've written it isn't exactly factual," acknowledged MacLachlan. "It was in my mother's family when she was a child -- someone who came from the coast of Maine to be with one of my uncles. When she got Alzheimer's disease, I decided I should write part of her past for her. The real story did take place in Kansas -- we filmed less than 100 miles away from where it really happened."

The movie includes two scenes with animals: One finds Sarah upset over the slaying of a lamb; in the other, she goes out in a tornado to find the family's cat.

"They're about Jacob being totally unfeeling," Close explained, "and his lack of emotion and his lack of involvement. She needed that to set her off."

Angered, Sarah forces Jacob Witting to confront the emotions he has tried to bury along with his wife. Like his daughter, Jacob must resolve his feelings if Sarah Wheaton is to join their family.

And like Sarah, Glenn Close found during the filming that she too had love to spare for the animals. The recipient in this case was a very fortunate stray dog.

"We used two border collies to play Guess {the Wittings' dog in the story}. But while we were there, I adopted a dog that had been abandoned. This poor, emaciated, starved beast came around the set and I couldn't let him go," she said.

She named the dog Chigger "because there are so many bugs in Kansas in the summer, and {New Yorker} Chris Walken hated bugs. And the most exotic bugs seemed to congregate on his head."

The movie was filmed last summer in Kansas (also the home of Hallmark Cards), on a 240-acre farm near Emporia; in Nebraska, where the filmmakers found a 1908 steam-driven train at the Sturh Museum in Grand Island; and in Maine.

Close crammed the making of "Sarah, Plain and Tall" around the production of two theatrical films, "Hamlet" (she plays Gertrude), made in England and currently in theaters, and "Meeting Venus," made in Paris and to be released in the fall.

"I had my tapes for the 'Sarah' accent and was trying to learn them between 'Hamlet' and 'Meeting Venus,'" she said.

While in Paris, Close, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the College of William and Mary, was asked to speak to a group of university students. She said she enjoyed the experience so much that she is considering spending a semester in France as an adjunct faculty member.

Meanwhile, MacLachlan is riding a wave of adulation. When she and Close appeared at the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association last month, MacLachlan received a standing ovation -- a rare experience for a writer.

MacLachlan said her husband's belief in her talent enabled her to stay home with their three children before they entered school and then to write children's books "without getting a real job. He said, 'No, I think there are some things more important than money.' Writers often need support like that."

One of those books, "Arthur, For the Very First Time," contains the first reference to the mail-order bride who becomes "Sarah, Plain and Tall."

This 168th production comes during Hallmark Hall of Fame's 40th year, and Jan Parkinson, manager for Hallmark's television programming, said that "our basic philosophy of the types of things we choose has not changed in our 40 years. We look for things that enrich people's lives. They're more than entertainment; they're of some special importance.

"Today we're more likely to choose a wider variety of things than we did 40 years ago ... We're likely to choose something unusual. ... Even those things that are basically children's in initial work, we choose them because the story has something universal in it that would appeal to a broader range of viewer.

"I think a lot of times other programming is put together for different reasons, perhaps for its ability to command ratings. But we choose properties based on the material first; the material has to be good. We look for things that are of the highest quality."

This is the first Hallmark presentation to be filmed in the corporation's home state, and the sponsor is delighted with Michael Fash's photography.

"We're pretty pleased about how Kansas looks," said Parkinson.