The Scarlet Letter

1995, Movie, R, 118 mins


Yes, Roland Joffe's THE SCARLET LETTER, written for the screen by Douglas Day Stewart, is dreadful, though not perfectly so. In brief -- since star Demi Moore's petulant claim that no one has read the book may have some substance -- it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who sleeps with her minister, has his child and bears her shame alone, refusing to name her partner in sin. Shunned by Puritan society and tormented by her husband -- who's presumed dead, but returns and assumes a false name so he can ferret out her lover's identity -- Hester endures through sheer strength of will. It all ends sadly.

The Scarlet Letter is a hard classic to crack; it's gloomy, pessimistic and disheartening. Victor Sjostrom's 1926 screen adaptation, starring Lillian Gish, was widely considered successful, but the few subsequent versions, including one by Wim Wenders, sank without a trace. Is Joffe's SCARLET LETTER the worst ever? Probably not, but it lives up to the credit "Freely Adapted from the Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne." Joffe and Stewart have invented and altered scenes and characters, and reworked the ending so substantially that any resemblance between the movie and the book is only skin-deep. Fidelity to the book isn't inherently a good thing, and the new happy ending is awfully satisfying. But it's best if the new material isn't patently ridiculous, as much of the new SCARLET LETTER is.

The film reduces a complex moral fable to a clash between evil bluenoses and free-spirited proto-hippies (Hester even has flowers in her hair when she catches sight of a skinny-dipping Rev. Dimmesdale), and its most foolish inventions proceed from the attempt to conform Hawthorne's story to this simplistic model. Thus the transformation of Mistress Hibbins (Joan Plowright) from a malevolent, aristocratic sorceress to a cheerfully pagan bawd, the addition of mute black slave girl Mituba (Lisa Joliff-Andoh), who worships Hester for her freethinking ways, and, inevitably, a steamy love scene in the barn. (The latter is an apotheosis of soft-focus body parts and ecstatic grimaces, bizarrely intercut with shots of a smiling Mituba luxuriating in her first bath, in what appears to be a displaced masturbatory fantasy.)

Moore's sullen, bovine interpretation of Hester Prynne -- not to mention her primly affected accent, which she seems to have learned from old Hollywood costume dramas -- is both misguided and risible. Rage, love, defiance, confusion, fear -- Moore just sticks out her chin and makes her eyes brim with tears. She's the stolidly immovable object at the film's center, and there's no getting around her.

There are flashes of gold in the dross. Gary Oldman is a miserably tormented Dimmesdale -- not Hawthorne's Dimmesdale, to be sure, but potently affecting nonetheless -- and Robert Duvall is a chilling Roger Prynne. The film's rendering of the relationship between the English and the local Indians (they embody the natural longings the Puritans have so strenuously repressed) is astute. And a passing reference in the novel to Roger Prynne's past participation in native rituals is expanded into a scene that goes a long way toward offsetting the currently fashionable worship of all things Native American, suggesting that what's healthy release for the Algonquin may help drive the Englishman right 'round the bend.

Joffe and Stewart insist on lightening up a book defined by its doleful darkness, and the resulting film carries incongruously cheery messages: Be true to your own heart, speak your mind, don't bother about what other folks say and everything will work out for the best. The filmmakers (among whom Moore should doubtless be counted, given her box-office clout) are determined to make THE SCARLET LETTER the story of a great love that overcomes all obstacles. The tragedy of Hawthorne's Hester is that she abases herself for a coward, a man whose conspicuous piety gives him an excuse to let her suffer in his stead. Joffe's Hester is persecuted because people are mean and don't understand her free-spirited nature; her lover is silently devoted, always true to her in his heart. That's a perfectly good story, but it's not The Scarlet Letter. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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