TV Reviews : PBS' 'Caddie Woodlawn' Alters Classic Book

The press release for PBS' two-part presentation of "Caddie Woodlawn" (at 8 tonight on Channel 15; at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 28 on "Wonderworks") describes it as "based on the classic Newbery Medal book that has captivated children for generations."

But, apparently under the assumption that today's generation might not be so easily captivated, Carol Ryrie Brink's original story about real people, inspired by her grandmother's childhood on the 1860's Wisconsin frontier, has been "tee-veed."

No doubt in the name of dramatic tension, writers Joe Wiesenfeld and Richard John David have dispensed with or altered characters, made a good guy a bad guy, and have had one sickly little girl (whom they inexplicably call Ella Mae rather than Katie) die instead of getting better.

Under Giles Walker's direction, it's all cardboard cutouts, outdoorsy footage and period clothes. The cast members, including Season Hubley and James Stephens, are simply satellites for freckle-faced Emily Schulman in the title role, except for Trey Parker as Caddie's oldest brother, who can be eloquent without saying a word.

The changes range from minor to major. A little frontier farm girl's pride in helping her uncle hunt for squirrels has become her pleasure in seeing that he doesn't shoot any. Caddie's mature discovery of her little sister as a person is gone. So's her little sister. And so on.

But was it necessary to change quiet Robert Ireton (Scanlon Gail), the hired hand beloved in memory for his humor and readiness with a song, into a racist rabble-rouser against peaceful Indians?

If anyone is inspired to read the book, a pleasant surprise awaits.

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