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SHOW OF WEEK

February 09, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN," Monday, 8 p.m. (50); 9 p.m. (28)(15)--Mention Huck Finn, and most Americans probably think of little more than a Mickey Rooneyesque kid whose wild capers on the Mississippi River run together like slats in a fence.

Yet this new four-part "American Playhouse" adaptation of Mark Twain's river classic (to be presented on consecutive Mondays) travels tributaries that went relatively unexplored in seven previous TV or movie dramatizations dating back to 1920.

The complete "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is far more than innocent escapism for kids. Executive producer William Perry and producer Jane Iredale (who have adapted five previous Twain stories for film) were determined to include Huck's violent relationship with his drunken father in this version of Twain's story that begins in St. Petersburg, Mo., in 1844. It is Pap Finn's merciless beating of his son that leads to the irreverent Huck's escape on the Mississippi and alliance with a runaway black slave known as Jim.

Patrick Day, a teen-age Nashville actor who previously had appeared only in TV commercials, was chosen to play Huck. Samm-Art Williams is Jim, and Frederic Forrest is Pap. As for those other Twain characters: Sada Thompson is Widow Douglas, Geraldine Page is Sally Phelps, Lillian Gish is Mrs. Loftus, Barnard Hughes is the King, Richard Kiley is Col. Grangerford, Butterfly McQueen is the Blind Negress and Jim Dale is the Duke.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was published in 1885. More than a century later, however, it remains a controversial work that some critics contend is racist. They see Huck's relationship with Jim as an endorsement of slavery.

Justin Kaplan, Twain's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, disagrees, writing that Huck and Jim represent "a fragile island between two shores of society." The two "are on the run from a nightmare society driven by bigotry,violence, exploitation, greed, ignorance and a sort of pandemic depravity," according to Kaplan.

"Twain's use of the authentic language of the time, no matter how offensive the word nigger is to all of us, is true to the period. It is not, I believe, an accurate indication or reflection of racial bigotry on the part of Mark Twain."

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