One of the most difficult stories to retell on network TV has to be Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment." The great Russian novel of sin and redemption doesn't shout "mass appeal." It is intellectually complex, profoundly moral, and intense, dealing as it does with the darker regions of thought - and the awakening of conscience.
Yet once again it has been produced for the small screen (NBC, Oct. 11, 9-11 p.m.). This version stars Patrick Dempsey, Ben Kingsley, and Julie Delpy. And producer Robert Halmi Sr. is responsible for bringing a difficult work to a global audience. Last year he made "Moby Dick," a hit on prime time, and before that "Merlin," "The Odyssey," and "Gulliver's Travels."
"I wasn't expecting it," says screenwriter David Stevens ("Merlin"). "I got a call from Robert Halmi out of the blue saying, in his usual fulsome way, 'Crime and Punishment.'
"I stopped in my tracks, wondering who could this be for, and he said, 'NBC.' I was deeply puzzled. While it is a great novel, it is not a very accessible novel. But it was the kind of challenge a dramatist can't resist."
The story concerns a poor student named Rodya Raskolnikov (Dempsey) whose mother and sister are nearly reduced to desperation when the sister loses her position as governess.
Raskolnikov commits murder thinking he has the "right" to kill because he is "superior" and needs money. His victim is a nasty old pawnbroker, but he is surprised in the act by her innocent sister and kills her, too.
Because he is not entirely ruthless, his conscience attacks him. And the local police detective, Porfiry (Kingsley), rattles the cage of Raskolnikov's conscience until his remorse awakens. But he is helped on to the right choice by the help of a poor prostitute, Sonia (Delpy).
How does a writer turn a dense and cerebral novel like "Crime and Punishment" into an accessible form for a mass American television audience?
"I read the book again and almost turned [the project] down," says Mr. Stevens. "I hadn't read it in 20 years. And I realized that 50 percent of the story takes place in the protagonist's (Raskolnikov) head and the other 50 percent in his attic. So I just dove in - full of terror."
The first thing he had to do was change the opening.
"If you start as the book does with Raskolnikov already determined on the murder, then you have a Timothy McVeigh situation. Then you have to try to dredge up empathy for this person," says Stevens.
So Stevens took incidents from Dostoyevsky's own life (a flirtation with political activism that sent the author to a Siberian prison camp) to make the character more sympathetic.
But the film has some problems. The early revelation of the protagonist's good deeds tends to soften the dramatic tension between Raskolnikov's intellectualization of his actions and his conscience. The perverse nature of his crime seems somehow less terrible than it does in the book. And while Kingsley is riveting as the intuitive detective, Dempsey plays Raskolnikov too simplistically, and Delpy is miscast as the spiritually minded Sonia.
Yet, the universal message of this "Crime and Punishment" still hits home, and the public will grasp it. Stevens points out that in his experience the story has an extraordinary effect on male college students.
He believes they identify with Raskolnikov: The responsibility for being a breadwinner and provider is daunting, and then most young men think they can change the world. Still, for some reason they remember the book as a cat-and-mouse game between Raskolnikov and Porfiry.
"But Porfiry only appears in the book a few times," Stevens says. "He aggravates Raskolnikov's guilt, and I believe he really wants to save Raskolnikov. But the cat-and-mouse game is between Raskolnikov and his own conscience.
"It's not a detective story for me," says Stevens. "To me it is a story about Raskolnikov's battle for redemption - and Sonia's leading him to redemption. For me, it is a story about the redemptive power of love."
* M.S. Mason's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org