'Right Stuff' lacks the good stuff in the book - verbal brilliance

Movie critics are supposed to review movies, not books, even when one borrows from the other. But sometimes the original book shines so strongly through a film that it can't be ignored.

So it is with The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe's best seller. The incidents, the structure, even the real-life characters of the movie, come straight from Wolfe's pages. So do key lines and catchwords scattered through the screenplay, written by Philip Kaufman, who also directed the picture.

All that's missing is the book's tone, and this is a pity. Wolfe gleefully demythologizes the Mercury program and its astronauts, skewering every foible with quick thrusts of language. Kaufman, more interested in blunt images and broad personalities, reduces Wolfe's irony to theatrics, often stressing the vulgar rather than the visionary.

The movie is fun most of the way, but it's a very obvious one, missing the sly blend of observation, respect, and outright skepticism that make Wolfe's approach an adventure in style - even if that style leans crudely on italics!

Take the astronauts' first press conference, for instance. Wolfe makes this a crafty fugue of subtly noted details. Reporters ask meaningless questions; facts give way to sentiment and cliche; John Glenn grandstands while others grope for words.

The movie gives the event without its essence. True, the most important details are present, and director Kaufman lets small actions speak for themselves, as when other astronauts exchange wry glances while Glenn speechifies. But the barrelhouse humor of Wolfe's prose has vanished in translation - the very prose that made this incident worth rehashing in the first place, by peeling away appearances and exposing the all-too-human attitudes underneath.

Other examples abound, including some that misrepresent facts. I'm not saying Kaufman should have imitated Wolfe more carefully. Rather, he should have come up with his own distinctive approach so the Wolfe connection wouldn't be such an issue. Or he should have found a screen equivalent to Wolfe's style.

I don't mean to praise Wolfe too highly. There are plenty of pitfalls in his writing style, which has a smart-aleck, superior air that hasn't changed since ''The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby'' back in the mid-'60s. But when he hits his stride in ''The Right Stuff'' he doesn't just get his message across, he knocks it out of the park with wallops of wit and insight. The movie, for all its big effects and smashing performances, never finds a similar panache. Mediocre adaptation

More problems plague Beyond the Limit, a mediocre movie based on Graham Greene's moody novel ''The Honorary Consul.''

The story adaptation is quite faithful to Greene, down to the seedy Latin American settings and somber tone. As in the book, the intellectual main character gets roped into helping a political abduction, which grows sticky when the wrong man - a gentle, bewildered nobody - is kidnapped by mistake. There's a modicum of suspense and emotional resonance.

The film is undermined by its casting, however. Richard Gere is talented, but he belongs to the preening-young-charmer school of acting. Why twist him into an introspective physician, with an English accent, yet? And why inflate a minor character (a manipulative police chief) into a showpiece for British actor Bob Hoskins, who sounds equally ill at ease with the Spanish inflections of his role?

Of the main players, only Michael Caine comes across well, as the honorary consul who is sustained by love for his wife, a former prostitute he wants to salvage. The real substance of Greene's novel - ambiguities of character and unexpected moral dilemmas - glimmer through the stilted performances, but director John MacKenzie could have explored them to better effect with a more suitable batch of actors.

'The Dead Zone'

Fortunately, there is at least one current movie that doesn't downgrade its original book - though that book, ''The Dead Zone,'' by Stephen King, is no great shakes to begin with. In making the screen version, director David Cronenberg has set aside the exploding heads and high-tech monsters of his ''Scanners'' and ''Videodrome,'' giving us a calm and cautious retelling of King's yarn about a psychic who must save the world from an evil politician.

There's a little disgusting gore, as if Cronenberg owed his followers a sop or two, but most of the going is almost classical in its restraint - just as King's novel is a scaled-down, conservative counterpart to his sprawling (and more interesting) apocalyptic adventure ''The Stand.'' The performances are thoughtful, especially Christopher Walken's as the hero, and much of the filmmaking is crisp. It's good to see a new maturity in horror specialist Cronenberg; let's just hope he hasn't permanently misplaced his old audacity.

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