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TV'S `A SEASON IN PURGATORY' LIVES UP TO DUNNE'S NOVEL

It isn't at all unusual for a novelist whose work is turned into a TV movie to complain about the result - sometimes bitterly. What is sort of unusual is Dominick Dunne's reaction to the two-part CBS mini-series adaptation of his novel "A Season in Purgatory."

He's "thrilled" with it.And it's not like he had any input in the final project - he's neither a producer nor a writer on the miniseries, which airs Sunday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2.

"I have to tell you, I am ecstatic about it," Dunne recently told TV critics. "I think the reason I loved the screenplay so much was that they stuck so close to my book, which doesn't always happen. I think there's so much of the dialogue that is the dialogue from the book. And what they had to cut, they had to cut."

Indeed, the "Purgatory" mini-series turns a great book into a very good TV production.

As always with Dunne's fiction - his books include "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," "People Like Us," "An Inconvenient Woman" - "A Season in Purgatory" is closely based on actual events.

"Purgatory" is the story of the Bradleys, a very Kennedy-esque family - wealthy, powerful, privileged and politically connected. The similarities to the Kennedys are numerous.

The family patriarch (Brian Dennehy) is a shady dealer and a womanizer who has political ambitions for his children - particularly the favorite son, Constant (Craig Sheffer). The family matriarch (Blair Brown) is completely in the Rose Kennedy vein, even down to being named a Papal countess.

There are various family tragedies that are hushed up as the Bradleys build an image as one of America's favorite families. And - not to give anything away - but some of the events in the book closely parallel events in the real-life Kennedy saga.

And, like the Kennedys and the Bradleys, Dunne has some insight into what it's like to grow up as the Catholic outsiders in high society.

"I grew up in a family that's very much like the Bradley family," Dunne said. "Not so rich as that, but a family like that in a WASP community where my family was the well-to-do Irish Catholic family. And so we were all in the same club, all went to the same school, but we were never quite part of it."

Unlike the Bradleys, Dunne's family didn't harbor a killer. At the age of 17, Constant brutally rapes and murders a neighbor girl in a crime that's covered up for years. And it's not a crime that Dunne created out of thin air.

"I don't create bizarre things that didn't happen," he said. "I stick very, very close to the actual events as we know them."

In 1975, 15-year-old Martha Moxley, who lived in a wealthy area of Greenwich, Conn., was found beaten to death with a golf club. The prime suspect was the 17-year-old neighbor, Thomas Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy.

"And because that fellow came from, or had associations with, one of America's most prominent families, nothing has ever happened. There has never been an arrest made," Dunne said.

(However, after "A Season in Purgatory" was published in 1992, the investigation into the Moxley murder was reopened. Recently, Skakel admitted to a sexual encounter with Moxley on the night of the murder. And both Thomas and his brother, Michael, have admitted they lied about where they

were on the night of the murder, although both deny complicity in the crime.)

Not that "Purgatory" is docu-drama. It's a fictionalized account.

In Dunne's version of events, Constant's friend, Harrison Burns (Patrick Dempsey), is persuaded to help cover up the crime. It's something that eats away at him for years, poisoning his life.

The fact that Harrison, like Dunne, is a writer is no coincidence. "The character . . . is actually the spokesperson in the novel for the author," he said. "I mean, all the things that I believe about justice and everything are put in the character that Patrick (Dempsey) plays."

"A Season in Purgatory" works very well as a miniseries. It's an intriguing story full of glitz and glamour, but with something to say about the way Dunne sees the world of power and privilege that he portrays.

And Dunne isn't shy about stating his beliefs.

"I absolutely believe that the rich defendant with the million-dollar lawyer is, nine times out of 10, going to get an acquittal for his client," he said.

His contempt for those million-dollar lawyers comes through in "Purgatory." When Constant is finally brought to trial, he's defended by Valerie Sabbath (Bonnie Bedelia), a character Dunne openly admits was based on defense attorney Leslie Abramson. And the books was written before Abramson represented Erik Menendez.

"She is a defense attorney that I think would do anything to get a client acquitted," Dunne said. "I think winning is the thing with Leslie Abramson."

Although "A Season in Purgatory" was designed to parallel the Moxley murder case, it has themes that echo a far more famous murder trial - that of O.J. Simpson. That theme of power and privilege - as well as the thread that those with the most expensive lawyers win - is a stark reminder of what happened with O.J.

"Of course, that played a part in this book. That's sort of a recurring theme in every book that I write," Dunne said. "You have almost never heard . . . of a millionaire with an expensive defense team who has gone to prison. I think that's gone on and on for a long time."

Dunne raised his own profile considerably during the O.J. trial as an analyst for CBS News. He never equivocated on his position - he believes Simpson is guilty of the double murder. Nor does he hide his disdain for O.J.'s lawyers.

"If you know that O.J. Simpson killed two people and you do anything - absolutely anything - to get him acquitted, this is a problem for me," Dunne said. "After the trial was over, Peter Neufeld, who was one of the lawyers on the defense team, said he thought it was unconscionable that people were not speaking to O.J. and not accepting him again. Well, to me it's unconscionable to win an acquittal for a person whom you know is guilty."

Of course, Dunne is going to get his own last word in on O.J. He's currently working on a book, titled "Another City, Not My Own," that follows a journalist who returns to Los Angeles after many years to cover a high-profile murder trial that closely parallels Simpson's.

And - chances are - it, too will end up being a miniseries, as have four of his other books.

Let's just hope it will be as good as "A Season in Purgatory."