The 1978 miniseries is over 3 hours long. The 1997 movie is 1 hour and 45 minutes long. Yet, every event in the 3 hour version is in the shorter version. The reverse, however, is not true. Five crucial events of the story are visible in the 1997 (shorter) version but are missing from the 3 hour version:
(1) the first conflict between Mr. Tulliver and Mr. Wakem, in which Tulliver wins, then insults Wakem. This shows why Tulliver thinks he'll win again and is strung along by a lawyer until he has mortgaged everything. It also provides motivation for Wakem's vengeful act of buying the mill, which in the longer version is left unmotivated. We are merely told that he is fed up with Tulliver.
(2) The selling of the mill to Wakem. In the 1978 version, we are told that it happened. In the 1997 version, we see it happen.
(3)The selling of the furniture of the Tullivers. This makes their homelessness visible and visceral.
(4) The scene in which Tom pays his father's debts. In the 1978 three-hour version, we are told that it is going to happen; then we see Tulliver on the way back from the meeting. We need to see this climatic event. In the 1997 version, we do.
(5) The restoration of the deed to the mill to the Tullivers.
The picture quality is acceptable in both versions, as is the music, but are better in the 1997 version. The casting is acceptable in both versions. The acting is acceptable in both. So, why do I give 3 stars to the 1978 version and four and a half stars to the 1997 version?
The screenplay. Since both screenplays tell the same story with almost the same events, this comparison provides an excellent study for those interested in screenwriting.
The 1978 version appears to have been written by a stage playwright (and not a good one at that). Each scene is set. People chat for a few moments. A character enters. Whatever is going to happen in that scene happens. Characters exit. Next scene.
The 1997 version is written like a movie. We are thrust into a scene just as something is about to happen. It happens. We cut to the next scene, where we are again thrust into the moment when something is about to happen. This makes for far more effective storytelling.
Also, the nitty-gritty of the scenes is better done in the 1997 version. It isn't the acting. It is the fact that the actors have a script that will let them make the emotions effective, and they do.
If you compare either version (or any movie version) with the book, then of course you can call it Cliff Notes. That tells you nothing.
The ending is better in the 1978 version and is also faithful to the book. The beginning of the 1997 version is also a mistake, while the beginning of the 1978 version is acceptable.
The problem is that the 1997 version is only available on VHS and hard to get at that. So, get the 1978 version if you can't get the videotape or don't want to; otherwise, wait and hope that someone will have the sense to put the 1997 version on DVD.