“The Scarlet Letter” (1995)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Scarlet Letter" poster


Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” was among the many banes of my high school existence. Even with how voracious of a reader I was and how esteemed this story was in literary circles, the act of plowing through its archaically-composed text and analyzing its heavy themes in class weren’t my fondest academic memories. But while turning each page was a battle of attrition, I admired the novel’s ultimately gutsy message — one that its 1995 film adaptation missed entirely. A picture that kicks those dumb old thought-provoking concepts of shame and hypocrisy in favor of jacking up the romance factor, The Scarlet Letter doesn’t stop at just disregarding the source material; it’s proud that it’s done so. The credits declare the flick to have been “freely adapted” from the Hawthorne book, and press interviews back in the day had the cast and crew boasting about how radical their reinvention was. Presenting a new take on a classic work is fine, but when it’s presented in as misguided and laughable of a manner as the way The Scarlet Letter goes about its business, it more than earns the inevitable critical drubbing.

Our tale opens upon a time when the first American colonies were beginning to prosper. The Puritan populace has a difficult time as it is, what with maintaining a shaky alliance with the local Indians, but off the boat from England steps a new arrival who’ll come to shake things up in a big way: Hester Prynne (Demi Moore). Sent ahead of her husband Roger (Robert Duvall), Hester proceeds to set the town buzzing with her forward-thinking ways and mildly rebellious streak. She certainly attracts the attention of Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman), a preacher whose admiration for this woman explodes into a torrid romance once they hear word of Roger’s death. But Hester can’t hide the results of her affair, as she soon finds herself with child, becoming the recipient of the colony’s collective scorn. Forced to wear an “A” upon her chest as a symbol of her transgressions, Hester endures years of torment and ridicule but refuses to implicate Arthur in the matter…a position that becomes more precarious when Roger emerges from the wild alive and well.

The Scarlet Letter feels like one of those movies within a movie that a vapid actress character makes when she wants to be taken seriously. I don’t just mean that in the sense of the acting coming off as conspicuously overwrought (though that’s certainly the case, which we’ll get to in a second); the film as a whole seems engineered to resemble a spoof, something criticizing melodramatic conventions instead of buying into them hook, line, and sinker. There’s no way a sensible person could otherwise take seriously how the love scenes are shot like an ambitious Emmanuelle sequel or how the music is so forcefully weepy, you can practically hear the brass section bawling into their tubas. But straight and narrow is exactly how The Scarlet Letter director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) intends to play things, which should clue you into just how terminal the film’s delusions of grandeur really are. Now I’m not saying the book is better by default just because the film deviates from it so much, but when the latter so hilariously misses the point, not calling it out is a crime in and of itself. The novel simply was not meant to be turned into a romantic tale of forbidden passions being suppressed, for doing so does away with its condemnation of the cruelty of the pious and substitutes in its place a bunch of stuffy old farts pooh-poohing Hester for being different, a la Footloose: Pilgrim Edition.

As an adaptation and a film on its own merits, the list of things The Scarlet Letter does wrong is monumental. Inventing a slave girl character to ogle Hester in the bath for no reason. Turning Arthur’s inability to hop in the sack with his lover into the reason he’s torn up inside, instead of shame over having to attack her in the public eye. Cooking up an entire subplot about Indian unrest that plays a part in rewriting the end of the story wholesale. But The Scarlet Letter‘s gravest sin is making a competent and, frankly, quite enviable cast of actors look like they haven’t the slightest clue what they’re doing. Oldman tries like mad to instill this Harlequin romance interpretation of Dimmesdale with some dignity, though the combination of a rotten script and a Scottish accent that pops up whenever it feels like it don’t make this an easy task. Moore is okay, but her strong-willed portrayal of Hester (though commendable) is terribly anachronistic; she feels like a take-charge ’90s gal playing dress-up, and we don’t know nearly enough about Hester’s relationship with Roger before coming to America to get why she’d dive so swiftly into Arthur’s arms. But boy, does this flick do a number on Duvall. He certainly has it in him to play a part this insidious and conniving, but between his stiff delivery of the “thee”- and “thou”-tinged dialogue and awful pilgrim outfit, Roger’s evil doesn’t have a chance of leaving you quaking in your buckled shoes.

The Scarlet Letter was a notable financial and critical dud upon its release, and, in a rare instance, this reputation is well-deserved. It’s an example of Hollywood meddling at its worst, a costly and ill-conceived stab at buying prestige by adapting a famous novel but making it audience-friendly and, as a result, robbing it of any real impact it might’ve possessed. Hawthorne’s legacy will survive, but The Scarlet Letter is so boring and self-deluded, your brain cells might not be so lucky.