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The Scarlet Letter: "A" is for adulterated

October 20, 1995
Web posted at: 3:02 p.m. EDT

From Movie Reviewer Carol Buckland

(CNN) -- According to its opening titles, THE SCARLET LETTER is "freely adapted" from the novel of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Promiscuously twisted is more like it. This film is misguided to the max. High school lit students who are planning to use it like a cinematic set of Cliff Notes, beware. Any resemblance between director Roland Joffe's version of this famous story and Hawthorne's seem pretty accidental. While the names have not been changed to protect the not-so-innocent, the guts of this great tale about forbidden love, societal repression and spiritual pain have been torn out by Joffe (THE MISSION, CITY OF HOPE) and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart.

The bulk of The Scarlet Letter--the "freely adapted" film--is devoted to the back story of The Scarlet Letter--the strictly written novel.

Specifically, the love affair between the married Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) and the Reverend Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman). Thus, the moviegoer is treated (?) to the sight of Hester getting all hot and bothered by the sight of the Rev skinny dipping. There is also a slo-mo getting-it-on-in-a-grain-bin scene which is soooooooooooooo absurd it's almost funny (it is not, however, as unintentionally hilarious as the giant orgasm in the swimming pool scene in SHOWGIRLS).


In addition to all the added Puritan passion, the film also features a number of things Hawthorne (in his pre-Hollywood ignorance) neglected to include. Like a hot tub for Hester. And a mute, teenage mulatto servant. And ticked off Native Americans with flaming arrows. Plus (my total favorite) a highly symbolic crimson tweety-bird.

I think I hear the author spinning in his grave. And not because he was foolish enough to settle for profit points on the net rather than the gross take.

Anyway. Demi Moore looks fa-a-a-a-bulous in this film. Love the hair. Love the basic black with than chic-but-shocking crimson vowel on the bodice (as if Ms. Moore needed to call further attention to her bosom!). She glistens in the bathing scene and cries quite picturesquely. When it comes to acting, though, she seems clueless about Hester's strength or spirituality. Moore is definitely less (a lot less) in this film. Period work is not her forte.

Oldman scores a few points as Dimmsdale, but he's ultimately undone by the muttonheaded script. It doesn't help that his character's been turned into a kind of angsty hippie-dippie dude.

The great Robert Duvall shows up...eventually. He plays Hester's hubby, who's been held captive by Native Americans. His character (not a nice guy to begin with) has gone totally bonkers. Duvall chews scenery and--on occasion--sports a truly psycho deerhead chapeau. Needless to say, the riveting relationship Hawthorne set up between him and Dimmsdale (one of the most fascinating in American literature, IMHO) goes completely out the window.

There are some stunning visual sequences. The production values are generally lush and well-executed. But much of this professionalism was wasted on this reviewer because of the basic bungling of the story. I'm not a prude. I'm not even a die-hard literary purist. Still, why subvert a classic to no purpose?? This isn't even an effective job of "modernizing" the story!! And as for changing the ending...

Read the book. Forget this movie. If you can track down the PBS version of The Scarlet Letter of a number of years back (starring Meg Foster, I believe) try that. It's not great, but it is faithful to the spirit of the story.

The Scarlet Letter is rated R. That's for nudity (surprise!), sexual situations and violence.

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