Done and Donne

HBO faithfully adapts Wit with authenticity

The near-universal acceptance of Margaret Edson's Wit suggests that the play isn't just popular, but in a way, indispensable. Perhaps it's because terminal illness has been dramatized so often and is faced by so many people. Edson's play puts a fresh perspective on facing death with dignity, and proves both cerebral and heartfelt.

HBO's television adaptation of Wit not only lives up to the considerable standards of the stage play, but sets a benchmark for the feature films of 2001, being finer than any cinematic release currently in theaters (give or take an Oscar nominee). HBO's Wit retains the virtues of the play while exploiting the advantages of video.

Wit's teleplay was co-written by its leading lady, Emma Thompson, and its director, Mike Nichols. Thompson and Nichols resist the urge to "open it up," and most of the action takes place in sterile hospital rooms. Thompson plays Dr. Vivian Bearing, a brilliant researcher of John Donne and metaphysical poetry, who finds herself the object of research when she becomes gravely ill with ovarian cancer.

As in the stage play, Bearing narrates the action aloud and shows us flashbacks to her life as a budding scholar, a demanding professor and a nonplussed patient shortly after her diagnosis. As in such TV movies as Gulliver's Travels, past and present overlap: When Bearing remembers being a little girl and falling in love with words, we see her late father (playwright Harold Pinter) in the hospital room with her. One line later, we may find ourselves in Bearing's childhood home, only we see her not as a little girl, but as a cancer patient, with hairless head and hospital gown.

The television treatment gives Wit one kind of authenticity denied the theatrical version. Any stage actress in Wit, like feisty Nancy Linehan Charles in the Alliance Studio production last summer, has to be visible and audible to an entire audience, and must balance vigor in performance with conveying a debilitating illness. In the film, acting to no one but the camera or a single co-star, Thompson can more accurately convey Bearing's diminishment and failing powers under a severe regimen of chemotherapy. Thompson's asides feel less like she's addressing a crowd than that she's confiding to her only friend.

Thompson may not be as severe an individual as Bearing tends to be played, but few actresses project as much intelligence or, well, wit. (With Eileen Atkins as Bearing's mentor, the telefilm casts English actors in the "literary" parts and Americans in the "medical" roles.) Having dedicated her days to a career within the ivory tower, Bearing only begins to appreciate life at the end of it, and Thompson shows how she warily shares such pleasures as a late-night popsicle with a sensitive nurse (Audra McDonald).

We also see, through Thompson's eyes, how she recognizes herself in Jason (Jonathan M. Woodward), a medical resident and one of her former students, whose passion for pure research and poor bedside manner mirror Bearing's own personality. Woodward may be too introverted in the role, although Jason's poor personal connection is partly the point.

Nichols gives Wit a nearly Zen-like stillness, contrasting with the moments of mass laughter and tears in the stage play. The strings on the soundtrack are appropriately stark, and one quiet montage shows the impersonal nature of hospital rooms, hinting at the tedium and tension that patients like Bearing must face. Wit's tone is the diametric opposite of the adrenaline-fueled "ER" (and indeed most other television programs), and the film offers a subtle counterpoint between the hospital's business as usual and Bearing's private suffering.

HBO's Wit is slightly shorter than the stage play itself, delving less deeply into the complexities of 17th-century verse. Ironically, the film embraces John Donne, particularly his "Death Be Not Proud" poem, a bit more ardently than the playwright. Edson comes across as having a greater appreciation for children's books like The Runaway Bunny in a scene that's just as tear-jerking on television as in a theater.

In the fall, HBO presents another adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning play, Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends, and one can only hope it's in the same class as Wit. Such commitment from the cable channel shows an unexpected sign of creative health on television, although it may be too soon to take it off life support.??