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A different Peter Sellers, but better than ever; Being There Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by Hal Ashby.

By and large, people take books more seriously than films. Mention the "movie version" of a novel, and everyone thinks of some literary masterpiece whittled down to 90 minutes of Hollywood flimflam, with Big Stars instead of Big Ideas.

There are times, though, when the "movie version" carries more weight than the original book. Such a case is "Being There," adapted from the brief, sardonic novel by Jerzy Kosinski.

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In both the book and the film, the main character is a man known only as Chance. The plot has him suffering from severe brain damage. All his life he has lived on the estate of a wealthy man, working in the garden. Now the old man has died, the estate is being closed down, and Chance finds himself adrift in the world.

The prospects seem bleak, but not as bleak as Kosinski's view of contemporary American life. By accident, Chance bumbles into the life of a rich woman who introduces him to the highest echelons of society -- including the president of the United States, who hobnobs, with her feisty old husband. The joke is, nobody recognizes Chance's drastically retarded condition. Rather, they use his vacant personality as a kind of blank screen on which they project their own wishes and expectations. By the end of the story, Chance is a top adviser to the American government, and still on the way up. It's a grim parable, full of wry comments on the self-involvement and limited perspicuity that Kosinski evidently sees all around him.

On the printed page, "Being There" is a slight and almost weightless affair. Chance is as blank for us as for the other characters, except that we have the narrator to explain his inner workings to us. Though it is cleverly developed, the book consists of only one satirical idea, stretched over several chapters. At its heart is not a living and breathing man, but a walking plot device.

The movie version is more substantial and more engaging. Credit for this goes jointly to director Ashby and the star, Peter Sellers, who have meshed into a fruitful artistic collaboration. Resisting the natural tendency of the story toward broad intellectual humor, Ashby and Sellers have brought a surprising dignity to the tale. Thus we are able to care about Chance -- or Chauncy, as his friends call him -- and to empathize with his condition far more than the book invites us to do. While the novel fully reflects Kosinski's icy vision of human experience, the film allows measured portions of warmth and emotion to creep into the corners of the plot, affecting characters and audience alike. The effect is richer than anything in the stripped-down pages of the book.

Ashby has tackled more than one tricky project in the past, from "Harold and Maude" to "Coming Home." Never has his style been more controlled than it is in "Being There." Even when a scene seems badly miscalculated (as in a weird, offensive sex interlude with Shirley MacLaine), one notices that the book contains even more such material, which has been eliminated from the screenplay. Helped by the exquisite camera work of Caleb Deschanel (who also photographed "The Black Stallion"), Ashby has turned "Being There" into his most quietly assured work so far.

Meanwhile, Sellers transforms Chance into one of the most fully realized characterizations of his career. In the novel, Chance is a ruggedly handsome man whose physical charm might account for a large part of his appeal. On screen, Sellers relies on manners rather than physical appeal -- drawing us to him without resorting to cheap tricks of any kind. After demonstrating his slapstick brilliance in the "Pink Panther" pictures and his fascinating versatility in the multiple roles of "Lolita" and "Dr. Strangelove," Sellers takes on a whole new strength in "Being There." Like the movie itself, it is an impressive achievement.


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