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Focus : Heidi With an Edge : DISNEY'S VERSION OF CLASSIC STORY SHOWS A GIRL WHO ISN'T ALL SMILES

July 18, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost everyone is familiar with the 1937 Hollywood version of "Heidi," in which Shirley Temple played a young girl living high in the German Alps who spread sunshine and joy to everyone she met. Though Temple shed a few tears in the proceedings, "Heidi" was pretty much sugar and spice and everything nice.

But that's not the case with the new Disney Channel version, which premieres Sunday. The four-hour adaptation of Johanna Spyri's beloved 1881 children's novel is much darker and complex.

Shot in Salzburg and the Austrian Alps, 'Heidi" stars Noley Thornton in the title role, Jason Robards as her gruff but loving grandfather, Jane Seymour as the overbearing governess Fraulein Rottenmeier and Lexi Randall as Klara, the wheelchair-bound girl for whom Heidi is a companion.

"What we tried to do by drawing it out into a miniseries is really invest the characters with much more dimensions and complexions," says Gary Marsh, Disney vice president of original programming.

Those dimensions and complexions are in Spyri's novel. "It's about a fairly troubled girl," Marsh says. "She hasn't had a fulfilling life. If you pick up a girl who has gone through what Heidi must have gone through, you come up with a very, very different character--about a girl in search of a home and meaning in her life and people whom she can count on."

Writer Jeanne Rosenberg ("The Black Stallion," "The Journey of Natty Gann") never read "Heidi" as a child. "I kind of remember the Shirley Temple version vaguely," she says. "I knew that wasn't what we were after."

Before committing to the project, Rosenberg read the book. Much to her surprise, "I found there was stuff in the book I didn't remember in any of the Heidi movies I had seen. They were all kind of pretty Pollyanna. She was always so upbeat. I found a darker edge in the book that was pretty interesting."

Rosenberg wasn't nervous about adapting a classic. Her goal was to do the story justice. "I felt it was a wonderful story and it had all of those elements that I liked as a kid," she says. "You get transported to another place and you get lifted up to the top of the mountains. There was something wonderfully appealing about all of that. This little girl's struggle was really interesting and in some ways contemporary. It resonated in a lot of ways for today."

And so did Klara's story. "This is a kid with basically a single parent who was too busy and doesn't have time for her," Rosenberg says. "If that isn't a description of the modern world, I don't know what is. She's a real troubled kid and gets very possessive. She can't let go of Heidi."

Klara did let Heidi return to her grandfather and the Alps much sooner in the book. But Rosenberg felt the tension between Heidi and Klara had to build throughout the four hours. "We needed to sustain that drama," she says.

"We also found in the second half of the book, Heidi was simply pleasing everybody else," Rosenberg says. "That didn't feel right. Maybe it's where we are coming from, but I wanted Heidi to be able to take a stand and to have found out something about herself so she could finally say, 'No, I am not leaving again.' That felt kind of modern, but really important."

As with "The Black Stallion," Rosenberg never viewed Heidi as a children's story. "They are great stories that you have to figure out how to tell them," she says. "They are simple."

It's their simplicity which makes the stories so special. "They touch on all of the emotions," Rosenberg says. "I guess I think that's why they work for all ages because they are really speaking to all of those emotional experiences that we have. There's loss and pain and joy and giggling fits."

The most difficult aspect of directing "Heidi," says director Mike Rhodes ("In the Best Interest of the Children"), was not working with children or herds of goats. It was keeping his focus.

"This was a big picture," he says. So Rhodes would arrive at the set hours early to contemplate the day's filming. "I could just sit quietly and try to get back into the feeling of what it would be like to really live here and what is the essence of the story we are telling."

Disney conducted an immense search to find their Heidi. "You can imagine there were little girls coming in with their hair in ringlets and little dirndls," Marsh says, laughing. "We were fairly resolute not to cast Shirley Temple because we knew we had a different script than that. To cast a girl with a permanent smile on her face is not what we thought the film demanded."

"What I was looking for was that special kid who had a special aura that said she can carry the show," Rhodes says. "I probably would have been less concerned if she had ringlets."

Marsh and Rhodes have nothing but praise for 10-year-old Thornton, who previously was featured in the NBC movie "Danielle Steel's 'Fine Things.' " "I think she is brilliant," Marsh says. "She really captured what we wanted. There was a sense of quiet dignity about her. I don't know how to describe it."

"There are certain qualities about her she really brought to the film which are part of her," Rhodes says. "She is a very centered kid. She just personally has a sense of depth and mystery, which was fascinating to watch."

"Heidi" airs Sunday and Monday at 7 p.m. on the Disney Channel; it repeats July 24 and 25 at 4 p.m.

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