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PAGE TO SCREEN : Bean Appeal

November 20, 1994|JOHN CLARK

The beauty of Carolyn Chute's "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" is that she makes her sometimes appalling working-class characters both funny and sympathetic. They chew with their mouths open, live in trailers surrounded by toys and rusting junk, and smell overpoweringly of rifles, rabbits, babies and yesterday's dinner. To read this is to feel a kinship with people most of us would ordinarily have nothing to do with.

The question for the makers of the movie, to be released on Nov. 23, is whether watching it will prompt the same reaction--and, if so, whether that will translate into good box office. A way around the movie-makers' legitimate concerns is, of course to Hollywoodize the material. Straighten Rubie Bean's twisted teeth. Excise his cousin Beal's plum-sized pimples. Tone down their neighbor Earlene's hymn singing. Make Aunt Roberta Beans' head bigger than a turnip and put her in touch with Planned Parenthood.

In fact, they've done (almost) all of these things and yet still have somehow remained true to the book. Principal among the changes was the decision to combine Rubie's second "wife," Madelaine, with Roberta, so that Roberta is a Bean only by marriage. According to scripter Bill Phillips, this achieved several objectives. It simplified the narrative, and it made the role "decent enough to attract a name actress"--the willowy and not at all turnip-headed Kelly Lynch. (Among the other photogenic cast members are Martha Plimpton and Rutger Hauer.) Indeed, Phillips says that some of his rewrites "were for the purposes of saving $500 here and there by striking speaking parts. We were really nickel-and-diming it."

The nickel-and-dimers were producer Rosilyn Heller and first-time director Jennifer Warren, who struggled for nine years to bring this book to the screen. The lengthy development process was complicated by the fact that Chute's representatives wouldn't sell them the property at first. According to Warren, it wasn't as if Chute didn't need the money.

"The money she made from the book, which was not a whole lot, was long since gone," says Warren. "Our first payment to her got her a truck. She still has an outhouse. She still has no hot water. She still has no heat. The literary world is almost as bad as the independent filmmaking world."

Aside from buying her that truck, the movie may serve to dispel some misconceptions about the book. One is that the Beans' lives are unrelievedly nasty, brutish and short. Chute apparently felt that readers would assume without being told that they have their good days, but the movie spells this out. Another impression many observers (readers and movie-makers alike) had is that the relationship between Earlene and her daddy is incestuous. Not so, in the movie, nor was this the author's original intention. In fact, says Phillips, Chute has been working on a new version of the book with changes that clarify this relationship. In this way, the movie has become a trailer for the book.

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