`Ethan Frome' Simmers With Tragic Passion

The film version of Edith Wharton's novel adds literary weight to commercial movie fare

LITERARY adaptations are back in style, and if you haven't noticed the trend, "Ethan Frome" is here to nudge your attention.

Based on a 1911 novel by Edith Wharton, it's the latest in a string of recent films that take their stories, characters, and themes from well-known books that preceded them by decades or even centuries. Examples range from "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Of Mice and Men" to "The Lover" and "Malcolm X," not to mention "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "The Muppet Christmas Carol."

The fact that a movie is based on a respected book doesn't mean it's a good movie, of course. Hollywood history is littered with low-grade adaptations of excellent novels and stories - and conversely, many a second-rate book has yielded a first-rate movie version.

It has even been suggested that bad books make better movies, since filmmakers don't feel tied down by the original and can let their imaginations fly. Auteurs from Orson Welles to Alfred Hitchcock have made masterpieces from "Touch of Evil" to "Vertigo" based on novels that few spectators ever found reason to read.

Yet it's still heartening when American filmmakers turn to literary sources as they've been doing lately, since it proves that remakes and "high concept" gimmicks aren't all the industry is capable of nowadays. "Ethan Frome" is no groundbreaking film, but its arrival is a refreshing antidote to the big-budget emptiness that marked so many of the holiday season's releases.

The plot of "Ethan Frome" is lurid enough, in its austere and chilly way, to make a juicy-sounding movie project. The title character lives with his perpetually sick and dominating wife, Zeena, on a desolate New England farm. Into their home comes Zeena's young cousin, Mattie Silver, who captures Ethan's heart in a way he's never known before. Passion flares, but in this setting and among these people it's obviously doomed from the start. The climax is predictably tragic - leading to a denouement worthy of a B-movie melodrama in its hopelessness.

Wharton was being rather adventurous when she wrote this tale in the early years of the 20th century, flouting the advice of a professorial friend who warned her - overlooking scores of classics - that "no great work of literature has ever been based on illicit passion." Literary critic Alfred Kazin quotes this remark in an essay on "Ethan Frome" that stresses Wharton's fascination with "the risk and ultimate tragedy of the illicit," even though she usually treats it more as a matter of temptation than o f actual behavior. She plunges directly into this feverish territory in "Ethan Frome," perhaps emboldened by the story's distance from the circumstances of her own life. The novel has undeniable power even if it lacks the subtlety of her most resonant writing.

As directed by John Madden, the movie version of "Ethan Frome" is crafted with a care and seriousness that suit the spirit of Wharton's book. The chief difference between reading the novel and watching the film is the sensory impact of the motion-picture screen, which gives an ironic visual beauty to the wintry atmosphere that broods over the home where Ethan works out his sad destiny. The movie's other chief contribution is a set of solid performances, most notably by Liam Neeson.

And now let's wait for the next Edith Wharton-based movie due in theaters soon: "The Age of Innocence," adapted from her extraordinary novel by director Martin Scorsese, in a radical change of pace from his usual contemporary concerns. Many movie lovers are breathless with anticipation.

* `Ethan Frome,' which has a PG rating, tells its story of illicit passion in a way that is comparatively restrained by current standards.

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