A disturbing literary classic of the 1930s has been translated into a disturbing modern TV classic. Nathaniel West's novella ''Miss Lonelyhearts'' was adapted for the movie screen in 1959 by director Vincent Sherman, starring Montgomery Clift. It was a glossy, unsuccessful Hollywoodization.
Now a second-year student-fellows project at the American Film Institute (AFI) Center for Advanced Film Studies has adapted the West novella for PBS's brave new world of TV drama - American Playhouse (Tuesday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings).
Filmed in black-and-white (mainly for financial reasons), this one-hour production manages to capture the stark, despairing quality of the tragedy without abandoning the viewer to complete disillusionment. Its major point - that it is dangerous for human beings to attempt to play God, especially in this age of depersonalization - is made with devastating simplicity. Lonelyhearts is an ethical man forced into what he feels is the unethical position of becoming a columnist who dispenses superficial personal advice to troubled readers who write in. In this story, Lonelyhearts suffers - but so do many of those whom he so glibly guides. Viewers should be forewarned: it is not an hour of easy viewing but a short, shocking exercise which uses occasionally distasteful episodes to make its statement about human ethics.
The impact of seeing a film about the glitz and glitter of modern life in Los Angeles of the 1930s without the facile assistance of garish color has a sobering effect. The film has the same kind of unprepossessing deja vu that made Peter Bogdanovich's ''The Last Picture Show'' so introspectively nostalgic: It's like seeing a surprisingly good, if seedy, film of the period.
The four AFI students who are responsible for this tight, $100,000 production , which gets at the essence of West in one short hour, are Michael Dinner (director and co-writer), Lydia Woodward (producer), Bob Bailey (writer), and Juan Ruiz Anchia (cinematographer). An imaginative PBS consortium - (WNET in New York; WGBH, Boston; KCET, Los Angeles; and South Carolina ETV) - presents the series, whose artistic merits should be acknowledged. Creative initiative is needed in all the arts today . . . and now beginning to surface on public television.