Chris Bohjalian on Why the Small Screen Can Make a Big Difference

From the cover of <a href=Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian" />
From the cover of Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

The made-for-TV movie has come a long way since I was kid - which, in all fairness, was the Mesozoic Era. Everything has come a long way since I was a kid. Exhibit A? Vampires. In the late 1960s, we had to make do with Barnabas Collins.

But once upon a time, TV film fare consisted mostly of disease-of-the-week melodramas. There was no illness that TV filmmakers would not inflict upon mom or dad or one of the kids - or, in one particularly poignant and powerful made-for-TV movie, Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo. I am referring, of course, to the classic 1971 made-for-TV weeper starring Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, "Brian's Song," about the Chicago Bears running back who died of cancer in his prime. I was a boy and I loved that film. I am quite sure I wept when Williams, as fellow Bears running back Gale Sayers, urges sportswriters and players, "I love Brian Piccolo. And I'd like all of you to love him, too. And so tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him."

And, in fact, the first time one of my books was adapted for the small screen, it was my 1992 novel about a father who agrees to coach what would have been his son's Little League team, even though his little boy has died of leukemia. That movie, "Past the Bleachers," was produced by - you may have seen this coming - Hallmark and aired in 1995. In 2001, I savored a second of my novels as a TV movie, "Midwives," with Sissy Spacek bringing to life my beleaguered midwife, Sybil Danforth.

I remind you of those good old days when we watched something called a "movie of the week," because TV movies are much improved since then. Think of some of the recent ones you might have savored: "Temple Grandin" or "Recount" or "Nobody's Fool." Often they have the sort of exquisite production values we've come to expect from feature films, and the stories' melodramas are appropriately nuanced.

Later this winter, I will settle into the family room in my house and watch - complete with commercial interruption - another TV film adaptation of one of my novels: Secrets of Eden. The movie will premiere on Lifetime Television, starring both a Network TV star and a cable TV star (though the chasm that once separated network and cable personalities has shrunk dramatically): John Stamos as the deeply conflicted Reverend Stephen Drew and Anna Gunn as the fanatical prosecutor with the name of a Sienese saint, Catherine Benincasa.

Yet despite the newfound respect we have for TV projects - especially the elevated writing - a part of the appeal of the TV film will always be the reality that we watch it at home: A halo of domesticity envelops the experience of watching a made-for-TV movie in our bedrooms and living rooms. If you're my age, it harkens back to an era generations before NetFlix and video on demand - that period when you watched a program only when the networks or local TV stations said that you could. The commercial breaks are almost Proustian, an Oreo cookie masquerading as a madeleine.

At the same time, our expectations for a TV movie are different than for a feature film: Like the screen, they are smaller. Modest. We know precisely at what time the loose ends will be tied up, because we know exactly when the ending credits will start to roll. We know, if the movie is not on a premium cable station, there will be cliffhangers at the edge of commercials for laundry detergent - and we accept that because it's a part of the bargain we made when we tuned in.

Yet millions of people will watch "Secrets of Eden" - more than watch a great many movies on the premium cable stations or at bricks and mortar theaters. That is a huge gift.

And that also increases the odds that this small film can make a big difference in someone's life. "Secrets of Eden" is, in part, a story about a minister's remorse and regret, and his attempt to make things right. But it is also about violence against women, one of the least discussed and most appalling subterranean currents in American culture. To wit: Two-thirds of all homicides in Vermont - my state - over the last fifteen years have involved domestic violence. If Lifetime's "Secrets of Eden" encourages even one woman to escape an abusive relationship, it will have earned its two hours on TV many times over.

Make no mistake: I understand the esteem and prestige that comes with a feature film adaptation of a novel. How can you not love the late Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient? Or the big screen transformation of Tom Perrotta's Little Children, a screenplay that Perrotta co-wrote himself? (I think it is worth noting that Perrotta is right now adapting his most recent novel, The Leftovers, for an HBO television series.)

But I am thrilled that "Secrets of Eden" will be a TV movie - and I am looking forward immensely to watching it with, quite literally, all the comforts of home.

Chris Bohjalian's ghost story, The Night Strangers, was published in October. The movie, "Secrets of Eden," will air on Lifetime this winter.