November 2022

The Scarlet Letter (1995)

DIRECTOR: Roland Joffe

CAST: Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall, Joan Plowright, Robert Prosky, Dana Ivey, Edward Hardwicke


That Roland Joffe’s film is “freely adapted”, as it puts it, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel isn’t necessarily an inherent problem. Book purists would grumble, for sure, but a movie adaptation of a book taking significant liberties is nothing new. The problem isn’t necessarily that The Scarlet Letter has been freely adapted into a movie, it’s that it’s been freely adapted into this movie, which cheerfully throws Hawthorne’s themes to the wind and turns his Puritan morality play into a feminist treatsie on sexual and religious liberation. Those themes are all well and good, but they’re not The Scarlet Letter, and what’s worse, it’s all wrapped up in a sudsy, overwrought romantic soap opera.

The movie opens far in advance of the novel’s first scene, and Douglas Day Stewart’s script gives us a sizable backstory that Hawthorne only implied at best. The chain of events begins with the arrival of Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) at the Puritan colony in 1666 Massachusetts, where her independent mentality and forthright tongue quickly sets other tongues wagging and earns her the consternation of the uptight elders (Robert Prosky, Edward Hardwicke, Dana Ivey) even before they suspect her of more severe transgressions. Those get kickstarted when she meets the fiery Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman), with whom she quickly develops a forbidden attraction that eventually produces a child. Dimmesdale can conceal his sins but the obviously pregnant Hester cannot, so she ends up thrown in the dungeons while Gary Oldman does a lot of impassioned but ineffectual fretting outside. Eventually Hester is released, but at the cost of wearing, you guessed it, the scarlet letter (to add to her public humiliation, the elders also helpfully appoint a drummer boy to follow her around). And matters only get worse when Hester’s creepy, supposedly dead husband Roger (Robert Duvall) turns up alive and doesn’t look kindly on what he finds. Of course, he could just publicly reveal himself and have her hanged for adultery, but this isn’t satisfactory enough, so instead he sets up camp, lurking around under the unsubtly villainous alias of “Roger Chillingworth” and passive-aggressively tormenting the lovers.

Roland Joffe, who previously directed The Killing Fields and The Mission, obviously has an axe to grind about the conflict between man’s law and God’s law, and who decides what constitutes “sin”. The problem is he’s inserted his own mindset into material where it doesn’t fit. In the novel, while Hawthorne did not believe Hester’s sin was unforgivable, and in fact had more scorn for Puritan hypocrisy than for his disgraced protagonist, he clearly did consider her a sinner. Yet here, Hester gets to be a full-blown feminist heroine who spouts lines like “who is to say what is a sin in God’s eyes?” that we’re clearly meant to side with. The real problem, though, is that The Scarlet Letter has been revamped into a full-blown romance and a sudsy melodramatic soap opera, complete with an eye-rollingly overwrought voiceover narration (by Jodhi May) that too often serves as a narrative shortcut. The novel’s Reverend Dimmesdale is the leader of the Puritan hypocrites condemning the very woman he secretly impregnated (albeit with an unbearably guilty conscience that slowly eats him alive), while here his affair with Hester has been bumped up into a full-blown love story. Meanwhile, the novel’s Roger Prynne, twisted by betrayal into a bitter, twisted shell, is reduced to a thinly-developed unhinged villain, and there’s a half-baked subplot about growing tensions between the Puritans and their Indian neighbors that seems to mostly exist to serve as an unforgivably contrived deus ex machina in the climax, where a hanging is interrupted in the nick of time by a convenient Indian raid. Throwing in a climactic action scene into an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter is silly enough, but there’s other odd choices on the part of the filmmakers. There’s a recurring appearance of a red bird that seems to represent Satan or at least lust/temptation (it seems to lead Hester into her first encounter with Dimmesdale), but nothing is done with this, and it seems to work at cross-purposes with the filmmakers’ romanticizing of what Hawthorne considered a sinful affair. There’s also a bit with a naked Demi Moore (less excitingly, nudity is also displayed by Gary Oldman, and even less excitingly, Robert Duvall) washing herself in a bath while her mute servant girl (Lisa Jolliff-Andoh) watches voyeuristically through a peephole, that feels like softcore porn with a tinge of pseudo-lesbianism (a sexy naked woman bathing while another woman peeps on her) thrown in to spice things up (later there’s another equally pointless bit where the servant girl bathes herself, intercut with Hester and Dimmesdale fornicating in the barn). Period details of colonial Boston are convincing enough, but that’s just a pretty surface when the narrative itself is lacking in substance.

The casting is questionable. Demi Moore is adequate, but isn’t quite at home in a period role and lacks the fiery passion that Hester supposedly possesses. Moore doesn’t do a terrible job, but it’s easier to see how a more forceful actress could have done more with the part, and Moore’s limitations are made more obvious next to Gary Oldman’s impassioned, tormented portrayal of Reverend Dimmesdale. Sometimes typecast as over-the-top scenery-chewing villains (especially lately), parts like this remind us that Oldman is an actor of great range and ability (though admittedly Oldman might not be everyone’s idea of a romantic leading man). Robert Duvall doesn’t show up until late in the proceedings, and when he does finally show his face he seems more miscast than Moore, not that this is a part of much substance anyway. Just as Hester and Dimmesdale have been romanticized into starcrossed lovers, so too is Prynne a one-note villain. A quick word on the dialects onhand: Moore and Duvall’s half-assed attempts at English accents are of the “kinda, sorta, not really” variety, while Oldman is—for no apparent reason— seemingly going for a thick Scottish brogue that at least sounds more credible but occasionally renders some snatches of dialogue difficult to understand. In the supporting cast, elder character actors like Robert Prosky, Edward Hardwicke, and Dana Ivey are relegated to playing the archetypes of the Puritan elders with sticks up their asses who would probably regard it as a sin if any of them ever smiled. Joan Plowright gets to have slightly more fun as a saucy friend of Hester’s, but she doesn’t get a whole lot to do either. Eric Schweig has an early walk-on role as the local Indian chief, looking like he came here straight off the set of The Last of the Mohicans,while another Mohicans alum, Jodhi May, stays offscreen but recites the overwrought narration. Hester’s daughter Pearl is played by two of Demi Moore’s (and Bruce Willis’) real-life daughters, as a baby by Scout LaRue Willis and as a toddler by Tallulah Belle Willis.

I’m not a stickler for strict fidelity in page-to-screen adaptations. Book and film are different mediums and should have the right to be treated as such. But this “free adaptation” of The Scarlet Letter has turned morality play into sudsy soap opera and lurid melodrama, overlaid with themes that are a poor fit for this material. I feel confident in saying Nathaniel Hawthorne would not be impressed, and neither will most moviegoers.

* * 1/2