Television adaptations of minor literary classics often reveal just how minor the ``classic'' really is. Or perhaps it is that they prove how difficult it is to transpose the literate sensibility of the written word to the literal sensibility of the screen. In December, the TV adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's ``The Sun Also Rises'' proved to be not only a weak TV miniseries, but caused some reevaluation concerning the superficiality of the novel itself. Now, a new TV version of a minor classic by Erich Maria Remarque, Arch of Triumph (CBS, Wednesday, May 29, 9-11 p.m.), should set literary revisionists hopping. It is a tepid, bloodless production of a novel that was intended to be a tempestuous tale of passion and revenge in Paris on the edge of World War II.
What has emerged from this sketchy teleplay by Charles Israel, with perfunctory performances by Lesley-Anne Down and Anthony Hopkins, is a thin, contrived, pseudo-melodramatic trifle. ``Arch'' is more like a run-through than a final production. It may cause you to wonder if the novel itself, seemingly pertinent and contemporary when it was first published in the '40s, is also actually a contrived, unbelievable piece of theatricality masquerading as dramatic relevance.
The Paris of 1939 was a somber city seething with conspiracy and early warnings of impending evil. Ravic (Mr. Hopkins), a German doctor who has escaped from a concentration camp and yearns for revenge against the Gestapo officer who mutilated him, meets Joan (Miss Down) a vacuous, unemployed actress who yearns to be secure and, perhaps, less vacuous. She is vacuously played, by the way, by Down, who has not fared very well since her delightful debut for American audiences in PBS's ``Upstairs, Downstairs.'' She does not manage to succeed in Ingrid Bergman's footsteps (Bergman did an unsuccessful movie version).
Anthony Hopkins is a fine, relaxed actor who unfortunately seems to be developing into a mannered British Rod Steiger in both looks and histrionics. Director Waris Hussein, whose name seems to crop up on some of TV's most interesting projects (``Little Gloria, Happy at Last'' a few seasons back), tries his best to make this a vivid period piece by concentrating on period, place, and costume, but in the end succumbs to the listlessness of both script and cast.
The story line is pure Gothic-Gallic melodrama, full of unbelievable twists and turns with an overlay of inexplicable emotions, seldom motivated. The portrayals alternate between underwrought and overwrought, except for Donald Pleasance, who plays the Gestapo villain with consistent, unredeemed, evil portentousness. Pleasance is my kind of Nazi.
``Arch of Triumph'' may cause you to go back to Remarque's novel and perhaps even to his reputed ``major'' classic, ``All Quiet on the Western Front,'' to reexamine his place in the literary world. Meantime, CBS's ``Arch of Triumph'' leaves no doubt as to its second-rate place in the electronic world.