Film adaptations of beloved novels always tend to stir my sense of curiosity, no matter how lean the source material. So, when I found out that Patricia MacLachlan’s outstanding Newbery Winner, Sarah, Plain and Tall, was getting a screen adaptation, my interest was piqued. The original book, at less than 60 pages, delivers an impressive punch with its minimalist descriptions of farm life and an undercurrent of raw, tangible emotion. Translating that charm and simplicity onto the screen would be a tall order.
In 1991, Hallmark took up the challenge and transformed this lovely little book into a film starring Glenn Close as the titular Sarah and Christopher Walken as the grieving father, Jacob. Glenn Jordan, an experienced TV movie director, does a commendable job capturing the essence of farm life with on-location shooting in Kansas and Maine.
MacLachlan herself was roped in to adapt her story for the screen. Unfortunately, the narrative suffers as the 58-page book stretches into feature length. The expansion tilts the balance of the story too far towards the themes of grief and mourning, overshadowing the gentle blend of emotions presented in the original prose.
Close does a fantastic job of bringing Sarah to life. She is charming, embodying the character and never making it feel as if we’re watching Glenn Close on screen. However, Walken’s performance as Jacob is a different story. His portrayal of a farmer is totally unconvincing, and he fails to add much depth and texture to the role except grimacing. His charisma and trademark mannerisms, instead of enhancing the character, make it hard not to see him as Walken the actor rather than 19th century farmer.
The child actors Malgorzata Zajaczkowska (credited as Margaret Sophie Stein) and Christopher Bell, playing Maggie and Caleb, bring a breath of fresh air and youthful energy to the film. Their emotive performances add a layer of authenticity.
Despite its limitations, Sarah, Plain and Tall maintains a certain charm. The pastoral compositions are beautiful. The film never comes off as cheap or uninspired despite being a Hallmark made-for-TV film. This dedication to craft, particularly in the streaming era, where the art of naturalistic lighting in particular seems to have been forgotten for any project not sent to theaters, is admirable.
The film is pleasant but slow, and, at times, somewhat boring. I suppose that’s the byproduct of turning 58 lean pages into a 90-minute run-time. However, as a dad, I did find joy in sharing this charming adaptation of a great book I had read aloud to my children.
Sarah, Plain and Tall can safely be skipped unless you have a particular affinity for the book or 19th century rural American period pieces. It’s an earnest adaptation with commendable production values, but it loses some of the book’s minimalist charm in translation to the screen.