The new production of "Huckleberry Finn" that premieres on public television tonight was filmed on the Ohio River, not the monstrous Mississippi that Mark Twain wrote of so passionately. That fact is symbolic of the scaling down that has been done for this four-hour miniseries.
The production, which will air in weekly, one-hour installments on PBS' "American Playhouse" (8 p.m., Channel 50; 9 p.m., Channels 28 and 15), captures much of the flavor of Twain's classic novel and features a slew of fine performances, most notably by Patrick Day, a heretofore inexperienced teen-age performer from Nashville who nimbly brings Huck to life.
But there is so much more to the novel that one can't help but be disappointed. Huck's brilliantly observed narration naturally has been lost, but beyond that, many events have been eliminated, the time frame has been compressed and the emotional river it runs is wide but not very deep.
Most significantly, however, the important growth that young Huck undergoes in his feelings about Jim, the runaway slave who joins him on the glorious, adventure-packed raft trip through the heart of 1844 America, has been diminished.
It is this relationship between the white boy and the older black man that is at the core of Twain's novel, and it is the focus of the miniseries, too. But the film makers fail to show us just how far Huck must sail from the conventions of his own conscience to accept Jim (played here with dignity by Samm-Art Williams) as an equal.
In the book, Huck is running away from his alcoholic, sadistic father and is in part motivated to continue traveling with Jim because he believes he can't go home again. Only in the novel's penultimate paragraph does he learn that his father has died.
In the miniseries, however, he finds out in the second episode, yet pledges loyalty to Jim and never thinks of changing course. Nor does he ever consider turning Jim in as supposedly the right thing to do, as he does one-third of the way into the book.
This alteration and omission from the novel serve to make Huck's friendship with Jim too easy. That he knows he is overstepping the bounds of society in helping Jim escape is clear; what's missing is any moral equivocation about Jim's fundamental right to be free.
It may seem subtle, but in terms of impact, it's the difference between tolerating equal rights and believing in equality.
There are other changes as well: Huck's encounter in the second episode with some quarreling raftsmen inexplicably has been resurrected from an unpublished chapter of the book; other scenes have been freshly invented by adapter Guy Gallo, including one where Huck returns to his own funeral, a la "Tom Sawyer," and the ending, which has Huck and Jim bidding each other farewell.
To some extent, the deviations from Twain's text can be understood as necessary to squeeze the novel into a four-hour package. Producers William Perry and Jane Iredale and director Peter H. Hunt have demonstrated considerable affection and respect for Twain in other laudatory television adaptations of recent years. Presumably, they did as much as they could with the production money that was available.
Still, how sad to think that American television couldn't do better by what is widely acknowledged to be one of the country's greatest pieces of literature. One thinks of how lavishly and faithfully the British translate their best novels to the small screen--most recently with the eight-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," for example.
Put another way, what does it mean that John Jakes is worth 24 hours of programming this season (ABC's "North and South"), while Mark Twain and "Huckleberry Finn" merit only four?