Ryan Murphy, The Normal Heart, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo).

WHOLLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL and entirely polemical, Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, about the first years of the AIDS pandemic, opened at the Public Theater in 1985. I’ve read but never seen this seminal tirade but can easily imagine how bracing the play’s fury must seem when performed live, particularly during its long, initial off-Broadway run, when the piece was especially urgent, and even during its 2011 Broadway revival. In Ryan Murphy’s TV-movie adaptation of The Normal Heart, which Kramer himself scripted, new scenes and lines of dialogues have been added, others trimmed or excised. What’s lost in the transition from stage to HBO appointment viewing is the soaring ferocity, even though most of the original’s screed-like passages remain intact.

Part of that softening, of course, is the inevitable result of the passing of time: AIDS is still a scourge worldwide, as closing intertitles of the small-screen version remind us, though we are eons away from the terror and ignorance that dominated 1981–84, when the disease was known as “gay cancer” or GRID. Murphy’s production is an earnest tribute to that era, or, more specifically, to Kramer’s tribute to himself and to some of his colleagues during these anni horribiles, written while they were still unfolding. But its protagonist—Ned Weeks, the Kramer surrogate—is badly miscast; Mark Ruffalo never quite accesses the depth of rage and sadness (and occasional self-loathing) required to play the part. Also bungled is Julia Roberts’s take on an important secondary role, Ned’s physician ally, the intrepid, wheelchair-bound Emma Brookner. Previously directed by Murphy in his 2010 adaptation of the wealthy-white-woman walkabout Eat Pray Love, the actress conceives of her latest role as an exceptionally narrow interpretation of shout, fume, boss.

Ruffalo as Ned as Kramer suffers even more when one considers the searing impact the actual firebrand had on screen not too long ago. The Normal Heart, which tracks the development of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis—founded by Kramer and his comrades, some closeted, in the writer’s living room in 1982—is a prequel of sorts to David France’s 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague. This time-toggling chronicle about ACT UP—which Kramer was instrumental in forming in 1987—consists of present-day interviews with the direct-action group’s former members and archival footage depicting the coalition’s infamous demonstrations and fractious meetings. During one of these decades-old, prolonged exchanges between nasty, unseen cavilers, Kramer, caught on camcorder in extreme close-up, erupts: “Plague! We’re in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this! ACT UP has been taken over by a lunatic fringe!”

The outburst is electrifying, and just one instance of Kramer’s inexhaustible ability to shame and motivate—a quality that has made him, in his own (well, Ned’s) words, an “asshole,” but one whose zeal has been crucial in saving and prolonging untold numbers of lives. His self-righteousness, particularly regarding promiscuity, has also made him a pariah more than once in the gay community. One of the best scenes in The Normal Heart features a fellow GMHC member named Mickey (Joe Mantello, who played Ned Weeks on Broadway three years ago) unraveling amid so much death and sharply taking his peer to task for his virulent condemnation of licentiousness: “We have been so oppressed. Don’t you remember?” Despite its flaws, this iteration of The Normal Heart also exhorts us to remember: As an act of commemoration, Murphy’s TV movie is at the very least an important corrective to the sidelining of gays in last year’s abominable AIDS docudrama Dallas Buyers Club.

Melissa Anderson

The Normal Heart airs on HBO Sunday, May 25.