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August 13, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | Robert Koehler is a regular contributor to TV Times and Calendar

Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is finding that the small screen is much friendlier to his work than the big screen.

It's been a long time since Vonnegut's brilliant "Slaughterhouse-Five" was made into a film by director George Roy Hill--1972, to be exact. But it was only four years ago that Showtime aired the acclaimed anthology of "Kurt Vonnegut's Monkey House," produced by Canada's Atlantis Films. And on Sunday, the cable network premieres the second Vonnegut-Atlantis TV collaboration, "Harrison Bergeron," based on Vonnegut's 1961 short story.

In every way, "Bergeron" represents a quantum leap from the "Monkey House" anthology as a TV adaptation. Unlike the "Monkey House" production of eight half-hour tales faithfully traced from the original texts, "Bergeron" explodes a seven-page fiction (also in Vonnegut's "Monkey House" collection) into a feature-length film starring Sean Astin ("Rudy").

Arthur Crimm's teleplay jumps off from Vonnegut's premise of a 21st-Century America where intellectual and physical equality have been institutionalized by "The Second American Revolution," and takes Astin's Harrison into the nerve center of the country's secret governing elite. Young, naive Harrison confronts chief John Klaxon (Christopher Plummer) and launches his own counterrevolution against mass mediocrity.

It is such a radical expansion of Vonnegut's coy, black, chamber piece that one wonders how happy the author of "Piano Player," "Cat's Cradle" and "Breakfast of Champions" can really be with it.

Really, really happy, as it turns out.

"It's been a lot of fun," says Vonnegut of the page-to-screen process. "There has been some care with it. I still have my story, it's still in print and you can go to the bookstore today and buy it if you want to. I will say that I would be hysterical if it were out of print and [the TV version] was the only one available."

While the earlier "Monkey House" series "really swallowed my stories whole, in this case they took my premise and went with it where they wanted to, which is all right with me," Vonnegut, 72, says.

"If it had turned out to be a stinker, it would have been [Crimm's] stinker, not mine."

By contrast to Vonnegut, whose mustachioed face, fame and bitter satire powerfully resemble Mark Twain, Arthur Crimm is unknown--a nom de plume (like Twain) for a writer who refuses to come forward.

Crimm's is actually the second TV adaptation of "Harrison Bergeron," which was first adapted as "Between Time and Timbuktu" on PBS in 1975. Cash-strapped PBS would now be very hard-pressed, though, to do the kind of large-scale filming achieved by director Bruce Pittman on a $3-million budget.

Impressed with Atlantis Films' TV anthology, "The Ray Bradbury Show," Vonnegut asked the science-fiction writer about "how he didn't get raped by TV. He told me about this group of Canadians, and I went to them."

"I think both the Bradbury and Vonnegut experiments have succeeded so well," says Atlantis president Peter Sussman, "because we've been allowed to produce free of network-type restrictions and censors. This was different from Kurt's previous experiences with movies." Atlantis' second "Monkey House" series is set for production this fall.

Although he's confronted with questions about the influence of George Orwell's "1984" on "Bergeron," Vonnegut insists that the story's real model is Aldous Huxley's equally dystopian "Brave New World."

How, for example, do you create conflict out of a supposedly perfected, conflict-free society? "Somebody can't conform to this future society," he observes, "and finds somebody else who also can't conform, and that's the way the story works.

"I write about lost causes, powerless people behaving decently. This story begins with the absurd notion that all men are created equal is to be taken literally. They're made equal thanks to machines, but Harrison's revolt against this is a strike for humanity. His dignity comes in knowing that he's going to lose."

"Harrison Bergeron" premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

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