The theme of The Scarlet Letter is hypocrisy, and the new film version of this classic never embodies its theme more strikingly than in one of its opening titles: "Freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne." Yeah, right. Douglas Day Stewart's script has wildly altered Hawthorne's plot, to be sure, but in no sense was this a free adaptation. It feels more like it was done under duress--commercial duress.
Bad or mediocre movies are far more common than good movies, but movies as flatulently bad as this Scarlet Letter are even rarer than good ones. This film of perhaps the greatest of American novels--challenged only by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick--has hardly a scene in it that doesn't invite derisive laughter, yet it's too dull to work as camp.
You probably remember the story from high school lit. The heroine is Hester Prynne, a young married woman living alone in Puritan-era Boston. She had been sent ahead from England to set up house for her physician husband, and, while waiting for him to arrive, became pregnant by the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. When the nature of her transgression became clear, she was imprisoned and, upon her release, forced to wear a red letter "A" (adulteress) on her bosom.
Because Hester refuses to give up the name of her lover to the authorities, Dimmesdale grows more and more guilt-haunted. At last, Hester's long-absent husband arrives in town (from captivity with the Indians), incognito, and sets about the task of figuring out who has cuckolded him, in order to avenge himself.
This much the novel and the movie have in common, and that's about all. Hawthorne's vigorous, humane exploration of the dark secrets beneath the surface of piety and the liberating power of wearing your sin on your breast have been replaced by a wan and anachronistic attempt at a feminist love story.
The plot has been rearranged with the apparent object of reducing the suspense to the minimum level possible, and the film is packed with laughable P.C. revisionism. Pocahontas, as delightful as it generally was, had its irritating P.C. touches around the edges, but it was a marvel of clear-headed perspective compared to this Scarlet Letter.
For a long time, the film is just boring; it doesn't hit its first real groaner until Hester and Dimmesdale first make love, on a pile of grain in the barn. The scene is clumsily intercut, for some reason, with shots of Demi Moore's mute slave woman bathing, and of a red bird that has flown into the house. It's a hodgepodge, as if D.H. Lawrence, Gauguin, a Harlequin romance and The Field Guide to Birds of New England had been blended. Hester and Arthur's daughter Pearl is shrunk from full-fledged, significant character to omniscient off-screen narrator (the voice is Jodhi May's). Yet all this is nothing compared to the finale--Hawthorne's tragic ending is replaced with a jaw-dropping deus ex machina designed to keep test audiences from whining that the movie's too depressing.
Don't misunderstand--this is not some literati's complaint about how "books are always better." They aren't, always. But even if it weren't a desecration, this Scarlet Letter would be a stinker. It fails on its own demerits.
The film has been designed as a vehicle for Demi Moore as Hester, and even though her lush beauty makes her physically seem right for the part, she proves miserably miscast. Passion isn't Moore's long suit--she has a wholesome, sisterly likability and a dash of earthy humor, but she doesn't have the depth or height called for by this role. When she and Dimmesdale suddenly confess their love for each other in exalted terms, it comes out of nowhere. In the same scene, when Dimmesdale retreats, overcome with guilt, I wanted Moore to launch into a Puritan version of her lines from Disclosure--"Get thee back here and finish what thou hast started, Reverend!"
Gary Oldman, on the other hand, would have been excellently cast as the novel's tormented Dimmesdale, but the script's version of the character is just an ill-defined, lumpy romantic leading man. Joan Plowright turns up for a scene or two as an old Wiccan, and she's always good for a laugh, but the movie's funniest element--unintentionally--is Robert Duvall as the sinister "Chillingworth" (Mr. Prynne). When he shows up in the second half, the film turns into a sort of early-American slasher movie.
The director is Roland Joff, who made an impressive feature debut with The Killing Fields, but whose subsequent works mostly have been misfires. This Scarlet Letter is a slide even from his earlier failures. In the production material, Joff shamelessly says that "to be true to everything we had learned and everything he and Hester stand for today, we felt we couldn't let Arthur Dimmesdale be hanged. . . . Viewed from our perspective today, it seemed that we would root for Hester and Arthur to have the chance that Hawthorne, in his day, was unable to give them."
We always have rooted for Hester and Arthur, but to use this as a blithe excuse for sparing them on film is a bit appalling. It's easy--and justified--to laugh at this film's squishiness, but there's another level at which it's Hollywood sleaze at its most pernicious. Audiences, myself among them, have always preferred happy endings--for more than a century, the standard version of King Lear on the English stage was not Shakespeare's, but a 1681 adaptation by Nahum Tate in which Lear and Cordelia survived.
But, in a sense, what Joff has done to The Scarlet Letter is worse than Tate's Lear overhaul. Shakespeare's play is an almost surreal folktale with no real social context--it could as easily have ended happily. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is all social context, and the author--descendant of a judge in the Salem witch trials--knew the terrain.
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For a woman to resist the theocratic patriarchy of Puritan New England would be roughly equivalent to a Shiite Muslim woman doing so in modern-day Iran, yet, in Joff's film, it carries no more dramatic weight than if Hester had resisted joining a bridge club or a sewing circle.
Every woman--every person--who ever stood up to a repressive social order, and the rest of us who admire such people, have a right to be a little offended by this movie's flinching. These filmmakers should each be made to wear publicly a scarlet "W," for "wimp."
The Scarlet Letter: Directed by Roland Jeffe; with Demi Moore, Gary Oldman and Robert Duval.