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‘Letter’ Writers Change Story A Lot

Fri., Oct. 13, 1995

Fidelity is not nearly the virtue in a film adaptation that it is in a marriage. Still, if you’re going to start screwing around with a literary classic, you’d better have something darn good in mind.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” a woman named Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a red “A” on her clothing as a sign of adultery.

The new film based on the 1850 novel ought to be marked with an “A” too - for adulterated. At least there’s a note at the start of the movie, warning that it’s “freely adapted from” Hawthorne’s novel.

I’m not sure what director Roland Joffe (“City of Joy”) and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart (“An Officer and a Gentleman”) were thinking when they were making this muddle of movie. Joffe has been quoted as calling the novel “a badly thought-out polemic against adultery” - an amazingly reductive statement suggesting that he might not have been quite the man for this particular project.

Although the adaptation is pretty much a botch, Demi Moore isn’t necessarily an inappropriate choice to play Hester - a headstrong woman in Puritan New England.

Moore carries a certain gravity with her that is right for the scorned and passionate Hester. And with Moore in the role, it’s easy enough to believe that the character is capable of defying convention.

Soon after arriving in colonial Boston, Hester falls madly in love with Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman), the community’s handsome young reverend, who falls for her too.

Hester is married so they resist their urges. But that becomes much harder after word arrives that Hester’s husband has been killed.

Hawthorne structured his novel so that information about the characters is revealed gradually and strategically for maximum suspense and impact. The filmmakers abandon this diabolically effective approach in favor of a straightforward, chronological one.

As for the novel’s craggy, Old Testament language, it has been so thoroughly sanded and buffed in the adaptation process that you could practically use it for surfing.

The simplification of the novel’s themes is what hurts the most. Unlike Hawthorne’s novel, this “Scarlet Letter” ends happily, and that’s almost the least of the thematic changes.

Hester, who ought to feel both pride and shame, is required only to experience the former here. And the damage that filmmakers have done to Hester’s little girl (a fascinating, arguably central character in the novel, rendered bland and marginal in the movie) almost qualifies as a form of child abuse.

Where Hawthorne offers an unsettling - even frightening - glimpse into the human heart, the film is a more-or-less typical love story. I say “more-or-less typical” because Joffe and Stewart unfathomably invent all kinds of plot developments that only get in the way of the sort of uncomplicated tale that they seem to want to tell.

The filmmakers belabor some parts of the plot and race through others so quickly that they are barely coherent.

In this disappointing “Scarlet Letter,” the nicest surprise is Oldman’s performance as Rev. Dimmesdale.

Oldman has played Beethoven in “Immortal Beloved,” the count in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK.” His work is always technically impressive yet this is the first time that I’ve sensed the vulnerable human being behind the role.

The cast also includes Robert Duvall as a vengeful doctor and Joan Plowright as a freethinking older woman who befriends Hester.

Both Moore and Oldman have nude scenes here. These aside, “The Scarlet Letter” resembles nothing so much as one of those sprawling, utterly hollow television miniseries - the ones with dreary “distinguished” casts, tedious “grand” passions and obtrusive “mood” music.

The TV press tends to praise these big white elephants, but I can’t take them for very long. This movie isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

Maybe that red “A” ought to stand for avoid.

xxxx “The Scarlet Letter” Location: East Sprague, Newport and Showboat cinemas. Credits: Directed by Roland Joffe; starring Demi Moore, Robert Duvall, Joan Plowright, Gary Oldman and Lisa Jolliff-Andoh Running time: 2:15 Rating: R

Other views Here’s what other critics say about “The Scarlet Letter:” Dolores A. Barclay/Associated Press: Where Hawthorne tackled thorny moral and spiritual conflicts, Joffe and Stewart provide a superficial story and cardboard characters who are about as complex as the imbeciles on “Melrose Place.” And the filmmakers tumble even further into the pit of banality by changing Hawthorne’s ending to a snappy Hollywood tale of “happily ever after.” Pish posh. There is only one way “The Scarlet Letter” can end that makes sense and preserves the dramatic arc of the story and what the movie attempts simply isn’t it. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: There’s no room for complexity here. Hester’s choice between her husband and lover isn’t compelling, because the husband has been made into a standard-issue psycho. The impact of Hester’s punishment on her child, Pearl, isn’t an issue, because the movie all but eliminates Pearl in the process of turning “The Scarlet Letter” into your basic love story. Truthfully, the ending is the least problematic change this “Scarlet Letter” makes. They’ve added a “Last of the Mohicans” subplot, a “The Crucible” witch-burning and a mute slave girl who masturbates while her pet canary looks on passionately (I wish I were kidding).

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