`The Yearling' Reworks Its Magic

WELL into ``The Yearling'' - a deeply compelling production that airs Sunday on CBS (9-11 p.m.) - Jody Baxter asks his father, ``Am I a man now?''

A fair question for a boy living in the Florida scrublands of the 1930s. After all, against his strongest instincts he has had to shoot a doe and cut out the liver. His father needed it to draw out poison from his flesh after being bitten by a rattlesnake.

But the unspoken answer, as we eventually learn, is no - not yet. The message of this magical story is that the passage from boyhood is a much harder even than that. Jody doesn't realize this until the end of the tale, and by that time viewers will have made the memorable journey with him.

The dramatization is based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 novel, one of the most penetrating father-and-son and growing-up stories I know. It is about a family's lonely struggle to farm a piece of land. Jody - an only child who lives with his father, Penny, and mother, Ora - adopts a fawn. As it grows older it begins to destroy the family's crops, and the conflict between Jody's love for the animal - which symbolizes his fleeting youth and innocence - and its threat to their livelihood is the basis of the story.

I recall reading ``The Yearling'' years ago and being drawn into the rich, rustic setting and the universal themes that it so brilliantly evokes. I also remember feeling that the 1946 movie version was an artistic triumph in its own right. But the great director Liviu Ciulei once told me, when he was head of the Guthrie Theater, that productions of the classics, no matter how good, are to be treated like a day's edition of a newspaper: You enjoy it, ``then you pack fish in it'' - that is, mentally discard it and get ready for a new adaptation.

So it isn't important that this TV production does not recapture the elemental qualities of the earlier film. One of television's more useful functions is to revisit such classics with different aims in mind. In the new film you may not be totally immersed in the enchanted world of the older version, but you are plunged into and out of arresting moments. And the new players make the roles their own, giving meaning to the sometimes guttural exchanges that are the vital communication of everyday physical survival.

As Penny, Peter Strauss nicely handles the back-country manners of a settler. His campfire bonding scenes with Jody are treasures. They set off into the forest - shot on location in South Carolina -

in pursuit of a marauding bear they call Slewfoot that has become their nemesis. The sun glints through the trees to create a half-lit world that reflects Jody's young soul, only half-seen to himself. Jean Smart offers a potent performance as the hard-pressed mother - clipped of speech, grieving underneath for earlier children she has lost. Tellingly, she shows us the impact of natural events on their emotional lives. Near the end, when she tearfully tells Jody she loves him, she is truly affecting.

Fourteen-year-old Wil Horneff goes to the heart of Jody's character, eager to prove himself and desperately attached to the fawn, Flag. It is a leaping, skittish, uncontrollable thing. When at one point Jody is seen lying in bed - with Flag standing on the bed towering over him on stiltlike legs - the fawn seems out of place and destined to disappear, like Jody's boyhood. When Jody has to make a harsh decision about the fawn to save the family from starvation, his searing emotion is almost too much to watch.

Afterward, Jody briefly runs away from home, then returns, hungry, to be greeted by his understanding father. Penny says, ``Ole man starvation has a face meaner than ole Slewfoot, ain't he?'' It's a hard truth, but Strauss delivers the line laughing - a brilliant touch. The compassionate Penny's laugh is a joyous realization: His son has navigated the passage from youth. Now he is a man.

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