Any doubts that converting a 550-page novel into a two-hour screenplay is fraught with perils should be put to rest with Freedomland. A compelling, beautifully written and impossible-to-put-down book has been turned into a mediocre film that seems self-important and listless. That Richard Price penned both the book and screenplay makes this situation all the more tragic.

Inspired by the 1994 Susan Smith case-she's the mother who claimed her auto with two kids in it had been carjacked by a black man, only to be found out as a liar and convicted of infanticide-Freedomland takes this basic story outline and sets it in racially volatile northern New Jersey. Bloodied Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) is found wandering around the streets one night, and after she's taken to the hospital for treatment, tells detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) that a black man has stolen her car with her four-year-old son asleep in the back. This alleged crime soon sets off a chain of events in which the police force of an all-white town besiege the all-black projects of a neighboring borough looking for the culprit, while a volunteer group of mothers led by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) tries to find the child, and the whole affair becomes a major media event.

In the meantime, the suspicious Council, who thinks Brenda is hiding something, tries to earn her confidence so she will tell what really happened that night. And her out-of-control brother (Ron Eldard), a cop in the all-white town, is on a one-man rampage to find the alleged criminal. Suffice it to say-no spoilers here-that things are not what they seem, and Brenda has been covering up a tasty little secret.

The problems with Freedomland the film are manifold, but basically begin and end with Price's screenplay. Because he has cut so much material from the book, Price has been forced to write long exposition sequences that drag the story down. Towards the end, for example, Brenda gives a speech about her motivations that is a prime piece of acting on Moore's part, but goes on so long it seems to last for several reels. The screenplay also gives such short shrift to some key characters you're left wondering what they're all about. And director Joe Roth's nervous, handheld camerawork doesn't help; it's as if he wants to go the indie route with a big-studio budget. Add James Newton Howard's pretentious score, and you've got that Hollywood bugaboo, the liberal guilt-trip film that seems disconnected from reality and entertainment value. Wait for the DVD. Better yet, read the book.

-Lewis Beale