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Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ Loses in Transition to Small Screen

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The phenomenon that was Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” brought some of the pure shock of a Hitchcock movie to American literature. Jackson introduces us to an idyllic village and, in a matter of a few pages and a few minutes of action, reveals a savagery under the calm surface that rivals the worst ancient blood sacrifice rituals. This, plus the bonus that it was perfectly written, has made it a must-read in high schools for decades.

Yet all of the qualities that make “The Lottery” remarkable also make it nearly impossible to adapt to the screen. The first feature-length attempt at “The Lottery” airs Sunday on NBC, and it really amounts to two hours of bad decisions.

Because the 1948 story was in a timeless Anytown, USA, setting, it rose above psychology to gothic myth. Writer Anthony Spinner and director Daniel Sackheim, however, place the story smack-dab in the present and in the very specific place of New Hope, Maine. The mythic level is thus erased, and a standard psychodrama has to fill the void.

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Dan Cortese’s Jason, a Boston cabby whose father (Jeff Corey) dies and whose wife leaves him (because, we’re told revealingly, “it’s over”), goes to New Hope to spread his father’s ashes on his mother’s grave. Folks act mighty strange in New Hope, with everyone from the mayor (W. Morgan Sheppard) to the reverend (William Daniels) giving poor Jason long, suspicious glances. It’s about the time when Jason’s car gets torched and a villager calls him “a spawn” that Jason knows that something’s not right with the town.

Jason, understand, is not exactly Sherlock, though the script forces him into detective mode even while we’re several steps ahead of him. He can’t get anyone to talk about the town’s secrets and his mother’s death, not even pretty Felice (Keri Russell), who seems to have the hots for him.

Jackson’s shock effect is clumsily replaced here by suspense, but it is all too long a wait for the inevitable lottery, which comes off as flat and badly sanitized for television.

Jackson’s story so catches us in its grip that we never wonder how the village has been able to keep its bloody annual rite secret for centuries. Here, especially in ‘90s America, we do, so Spinner has outsider cops investigate the town, and conclude that Jason is nuts.

The only nuttiness, though, is thinking that a short tale presenting mass violence could be distorted into a malnourished thriller without surprises.

* “The Lottery” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on NBC (Channel 4).

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