It's hard to imagine a more American novel than ''Ragtime,'' by E. L. Doctorow, which takes place around New York in 1906. Many of its characters are familiar figures in the myth and history of the United States, from showman Harry Houdini to anarchist Emma Goldman. Others are fictitious, but seem just as typical of their time and place -- from the immigrant Tateh, who almost literally makes riches out of rags, to the black Coalhouse Walker Jr., whose wounded pride leads him to acts of violent revolution.
It's a colorful book, and its popularity made it a natural for Hollywood treatment. But it posed considerable problems for would-be filmmakers. Its plot is complicated, its characters are numerous, its narration is digressive and occasionally raunchy. Robert Altman, master of the overstuffed American myth-movie, wanted to bring it to the screen, but the project fell through. Milos Forman then took charge - a native of Czechoslovakia whose credits include such quintessentially American films as ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' and ''Hair.''
It is probably too late to hope Forman will return to the exquisitely intelligent and delicately understated style he developed in his best Czech and early Hollywood work, such as ''The Firemen's Ball'' and ''Taking Off.'' In his subsequent (and best-known) movies, he has sold out artistically - retaining his energy and technical command but turning his attention toward plot pyrotechnics rather than character development. Commenting on Forman's earlier work, his colleague, writer? Buck Henry, recently praised it for capturing ''behavior'' rather than ''acting.'' The same can't be said for ''Ragtime,'' big and brassy as it is. Yet it's the most consistently crafted and earnestly inspired Forman project in quite a while, and that is cause for celebration, if not unbounded joy.
The screenplay, by Michael Weller, is a substantial achievement in its own right, incorporating a remarkable number of the book's threads and themes, and largely cleaning up the yarn in the process, except for a few rough words and a brief nude scene. The hand of Hollywood can be clearly felt in the adaptation of the story, however. While the movie has received some critical praise for its social awareness and political consciousness, most of Doctorow's strongest sociopolitical points have been excised. Emma Goldman is nowhere to be found. Tateh is on board, but his radical socialism is barely hinted at, and we never hear of the bloody New England strike that is one of the novel's most dramatic episodes.
It's not that these people and causes need to be sung and celebrated in what is basically an entertainment movie. But they were part and parcel of their period, and their omission from the film reduces a potentially sweeping tapestry to something more like mere nostalgia. Only the drama of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the embittered black man, remains to sum up the nastiest nuances of the Northeastern United States in the early 20th century.
Still, considered as pure Hollywood, ''Ragtime'' has plenty of solid surprises. The cast is a wonder to behold, beginning with the return of James Cagney to the screen as Rheinlander Waldo, the police commissioner who has a final showdown with Coalhouse. Walker himself is played by Howard E. Rollins in a promising movie debut. Also on hand are Brad Dourif as the eccentric Younger Brother, Mary Steenburgen as Mother, James Olson as a toned-down but surprisingly effective Father, Mandy Patinkin as Tateh, and Kenneth McMillan in a fine portrayal of the coward Will Conklin, who precipitates much of the action.
Discussing the film in a recent Monitor interview at his New York apartment, Forman told me he was unfamiliar with Doctorow's novel when the project was first put before him. He promptly read it, and was impressed ''mostly with the story, but also the characters and the whole ambiance.'' He felt it was ''the most exciting and intelligent piece of literature I'd read in a long time,'' and decided he'd be happy to make it a motion picture, as long as he could retain final approval of the screenplay. ''I don't mind getting involved in a risky project,'' he says, ''as long as I don't have to stay married to it if the script turns out lousy.''
Forman started his career as a writer, so he hates to squabble with writers when he works with them. Before embarking on ''Ragtime,'' he met several times with Doctorow, who created the tale from a meandering mixture of whimsy, historical fact, and literary license -- borrowing not only from real life, but from other books, including the Heinrich von Kleist novel ''Michael Kohlhaas,'' which inspired the character of Coalhouse Walker. Eventually, the novelist gave permission for the filmmakers to play as fast and loose with the book as he had played with his material. ''I wanted to use the novel as a source,'' says Forman , ''and create my own vision. Just as Doctorow did when he invented the story.''
It was clear from the beginning that many characters and episodes would have to be abandoned. Forman and Doctorow met several times, reaching ''95 percent agreement'' on the general outline of the screenplay. This was then handed to Weller, who had collaborated with Forman on ''Hair,'' and the two thrashed out the final script in four months of daily work.
''The way one perceives a book and a film are totally different,'' says Forman. ''You read a book in the privacy of your room. You are the boss; you set the pace and rhythm of your reading. In the movie house, you can't do that.
"When you make a film, you realize that the audience will be powerless to stop it, or flip back to refresh their memories, or skip the boring parts. They are at the mercy of your storytelling. If you want to keep their attention for 21/2 hours, you have to follow the story. Whatever doesn't contribute to the main plot line has to be sacrificed. You make the choices instinctively. Only then do you analyze them rationally.''
A lot of Tateh's story was cut because it doesn't intertwine with the rest of the action. Similarly, the filmmakers tried hard to keep Emma Goldman in the script, but Forman claims that her scenes ''stopped the flow of the action.'' Anyway, the director says, ''those scenes are in the book to tell you about the class structure of the society then. But I saw no reason to underestimate the visualm power of the film. We don't have to talk about it, because we will see the class structure with our own eyes - how people dressed and walked and talked on the Lower East Side, and how the upper class looked and lived.''
Theme and image are close in ''Ragtime,'' and that's a key to Forman's brand of filmmaking. It's also a reason, he thinks, for his success with international audiences. ''Themes are more universal than you'd expect,'' he says, maintaining that ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' was watched all over the world, while ''Hair'' was twice as successful abroad as it was with American audiences.
As for ''Ragtime,'' the director feels it has ''a very universal theme,'' especially in the sequences that deal with Coalhouse, the black musician whose mistreatment by bigoted whites drives him into a sweeping and murderous revenge. As filmmaker Forman sees it, ''the basic drama of Coalhouse is not a racial problem. Rather, it's a man's pride being hurt. Because he's black, everything is much sharper, and that's good for the drama. But this kind of problem always exists, regardless of race. It has to do with a big dilemma, which every civilized human being faces: What do you call people like this, revolutionaries or terrorists?''
Though this may sound like a side issue to readers of Doctorow's freewheeling novel, it's at the heart of the story as far as Forman is concerned. ''I'm not talking about hired hands,'' he says. ''They are terrorists, and there's no excuse for them. And I'm not talking about people who choose violence when they could achieve a goal by peaceful means. There's a sadistic aspect to that behavior.''
''As for myself,'' Forman continues, ''I am absolutely against any violence. But what about basically honest people - not criminals - who are turned to violence after their pride is hurt? I can't call certain people terrorists, because I understand and feel strong compassion for a frustration that goes past certain limits, past what a person's pride can hold. Problems like this pose disturbing dilemmas for all of us.''
Forman is not condoning any violence; indeed, he emphasizes his opposition to violent acts. But he is concerned with the proper label for people who are driven to desperation, and feels that ''terrorist'' is too broad and imprecise a term to be universally applied. In part, ''Ragtime'' is an exploration of such moral and philosophical questions. But does the director feel it will actually trigger new thought and discussion among audiences?
''As always with art,'' he says, ''the answer is no for the majority, but yes for a few. It's very individual.''
Is it possible for the filmmaker to shape his work so it will communicate serious ideas - and stimulate serious thought -- in more rather than less of his audience? ''I don't think so,'' says Forman, ''because if you get too deep, people just won't come to your film. The movie 'Pixote' shows that,'' he continues, referring to a very responsible but very brutal Brazilian film of recent vintage, dealing with juvenile delinquency. ''It's very well done, artistic, and personal. But it's obviously a political statement, and people are staying away from it. I'm sure the people who do come have their thinking stimulated. But how about all the people who are being kept away?''
Is it impossible for popular films to be truly provocative, then? Forman answers: ''The main effect must be entertainment. Then, for the people whowantm other things, you can provide other levels underneath. 'West Side Story' is a fine example of this. So is 'The Godfather.' And there are others.''
Also, don't forget the financial realities of Hollywood moviemaking. As director Forman puts it, ''When someone puts up $22 million, I can't tell them to get lost because I'm doing this for my friends!''
This doesn't imply any cynicism toward Hollywood on Forman's part, though. In fact, he says, Hollywood is ''relatively the healthiest place in the world for films. It's way ahead of Europe, where an ambitious, good, meaningful film is a rare bird nowadays. American films are reaching in more intelligent and redeeming directions than any others.''
But there's nothing to be smug about. In the aftermath of the ''Heaven's Gate'' disaster, Hollywood may abandon serious filmmaking if certain movies -- such as ''Prince of the City,'' ''Reds,'' and ''The French Lieutenant's Woman'' -- don't fare well at the box office. ''The executives of Hollywood will panic if these flop,'' Forman says, ''and they won't put any more money into ambitious projects for the next two or three years. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed for all these films to succeed.''
As long as the studios stay active, Forman feels, there will always be a place for movies, even in the age of super-cable TV and home video that's supposedly around the corner. ''People will always want that community experience of watching a good film in the company of others,'' he says.
And one suspects he will always treasure that community experience of making ambitious films in the company of movie folks who share his own enthusiasm. He relished the shooting of ''Ragtime,'' especially when it meant fulfilling an impossible dream like working with the legendary Cagney -- who is still such a pro that he needs little in the way of directing, according to the director.
And it was fun discovering fresher talent, too, at which Forman excels. From conception to casting, he seems to relish every aspect of the filmmaking process. If his enthusiasm proves infectious, ''Ragtime'' should fare very well indeed.