Retro Film Review: The Scarlet Letter (1995)


Sometimes even bad films can have redeeming qualities. The author of this review experienced at least one in the case of The Scarlet Letter, 1995 period melodrama directed by Roland Joffe, based on classic novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Trying to find the reasons why the film was so bad, I decided to read the novel and I was rewarded for my endeavour with remarkable piece of literature.

After that I couldn't fail to notice that the script by Douglas Day Stewart gives new meaning to the phrase "free adaptation". Plot, that strikes very little resemblance to Hawthorne's text, starts in Boston 1666. Hester Prynne (played by Demi Moore), free thinking Englishwoman comes there in order to prepare home for husband Roger (played by Robert Duvall), who should accompany her later. Free-spirited and strong--willed Hester soon comes at odds with her Puritan neighbours and joins group of colony's outcasts led by cynical Harriet Hibbons (played by Joan Plowright). In the meantime she becomes attracted to Arthur Dimmesdale (played by Gary Oldman), charismatic young priest who preaches peaceful coexistence with Indians. After hearing news about Roger's capture and subsequent death at the hands of Indians two of them start a love affair. When Hester bears child, she is punished by Puritan community and forced to wear dress with letter "A" in public, thus being branded as adulteress. When her apparently alive husband returns from captivity, he takes different identity and begins to plot the revenge against lovers.

Complexity and richness of the original novel is here replaced with cheap melodrama and black-and-white characterisation that has little to do with Hawthorne's text. Hester becomes ultra-radical feminist, Dimmersdale is noble idealist, while cuckolded Mr. Prynne turns into sadistic killer that could fit better into horror films. 1990S "politically correct" makeover wasn't enough for film makers so they made few more additions, including skinny-dipping, female masturbation, witchhunts and deus ex machina ending in the form of spectacular Indian attack on evil white men. Even if people aren't familiar with the novel, all this looks false, mostly due to Demi Moore's tragic lack of ability to realistically portray character of Hester Prynne. Gary Oldman is somewhat better his efforts, but that is in vain, just as the great care about period details and spectacular reconstruction of 17th Century New England. The movie is simply too Hollywoodised version of history that never allows viewers to suspend their disbelief (and John Barry using Catholic-sounding motives in musical score set in Protestant town don't help either).

When confronted by press about film's faithfulness to literary source, Demi Moore said that it didn't matter because not many people have read the book. If the film makers thought about this little more, the film wouldn't suffer the same fate.

RATING: 2/10 (-)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on April 25th 2003)


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