Hardly anybody's favorite novel, "The Scarlet Letter," arrives with a thunderclap on public television tonight, but unfortunately it's the sound of only one thunder clapping.
Ambitious, studious, eminently respectable, faithful to its literary source and distinguished by a striking visual consistency, this American attempt to duplicate the popular high-tone serials public TV has imported from Britian is, in large measure, also stupefyingly dull and suffocating in language.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of the infernally preachy 1850 novel about transgression and redemption, certainly gave dramatists a challenge in bringing his work to any kind of life on the screen. Some of this challenge has been met defiantly and with style, and there are interludes of gripping intensity in the four-part, four-hour TV adaptation, which begins tonight at 9 on Channel 26 and continues through the next three nights.
But the story of Hester Prynne and how a fanatical Calvinist-puritan community ostracizes her for an act of adultery-hence the A she is condemned to wear-remains at most in this version by producer-director Rick Hauser and a team of writers, a one-note dirge on the themes of shame, disgrace, guilt and intolerance.
The tale, set in 17th-century Boston, certainly consititues a slice of American moral history, and one might think that here in the whoopie-whoopie '70s, a good strong dose of woe-unto-thee would have a sobering, even stimulating kind of impact. But a morbid mood rather than a narrative punch seems to be the goal here, and so the story is insufferably prolonged through the injudicious application of pauses, stares, repetitions, and a few more pauses.
If Hauser's intent was somehow to translate Howthorne's writing style into appropriate visual term, the aim has been realized at the cost of dramatic and emotional credibility. As Hester Prynne, the indisputably charismatic Meg Foster spends so much of the first two hours glaring wide-eyed into air that she suggests a near-sighted knockout adjusting her peeners to newly fitted contact lenses.
As the Rev. Dimmesdale, father of the child that stands as proof of Hester's indiscretions, John Heard, one Hollywood's brighter young actors, stares into the same air for a long while before the script finally allows him to degenerate into the literally self-flagellating wretch who is as much a victim of the community's vengeful moralism as Hester is.
Hauser has certainly captured the dark self-righteous essence of the book, but a viewer can hardly be blamed for tiring of the darkness after only minutes. The idea of returning to it night after night, rather than getting it over with in one large dose of misguided good intentions, is also more likely to put people off than lure them in.
It's a pity this production, so ambitiously photographed through the still unproven technology of one-inch videotape, so long in preparation and so meticulously detailed and researched, could not have amounted to a more accessible and satisfying viewing experience-more treat, less treatment.
This is not the kind of unsuccessful venture anyone wants to gloat over, because future productions of American works by American public television are only to be encouraged. "The Scarlet Letter" should probably be regarced the way Hawthorne himself came to view the embroidered symbol near the end of his laborious book: as "a type of something to be sorrowed over and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too."
From WGBH in Boston, Rick Hauser, the producer and director of "The Scarlet Letter," says he thinks that he and his compatriots proved "it can be done" by American telly as well as British, but when asked if he made the program to "counteract" all the British imports on public TV, he replies, "God, I hope not. We should still have the privilege of seeing that stuff."
For Hauser, "The Scarlet Letter" has meant four years of scholarship, preparation, and groveling for grants in the monstrously inefficient public TV system. At the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provided some of the funds, four separate proposals of 200 pages each had to be filed even before scripts were submitted.
"The Endowment panelists questioned every aspect," Hauser recalls, and at one point it was discerned that the scarlet letter itself was going to show up on color television as something other than scarlet. "Is it true the scarlet letter is gold, not red?" the NEH asked Hauser. Well, yes and no. As it happens, Hawthorne is a little tricky on this detail himself, referring in the book to "the letter A, in scarlet, fantactically embroided with gold thread, upon her bosom!"
Of course, you wouldn't expect the NEH to go so far as to read the book.
Then it was decided that "The Scarlet Letter" should be a four-part serial and not a six-parter as originally planned. So all the scripts had to be thrown out-even though each already had been revised five times Hauser says-and another total rewrite into four chapters began.This, in turn, was "revised extensively" during production, which was plagued with union problems and a budget that grew from $2.2 million to $2.9 million. A theatrical movie could be made for less.
Horror storeies of wanton cost overruns and frenetic revisionism came rampaging out of Boston during production. Of course, the British do these things more smoothly-they have had all that practice. And yet public television's meeting mania and complex grantocracy can't be anything but a big fat pain in the neck for anyone trying to produce a decent and honorable television program, which, for all its flaws, "The Scarlet Letter"is.
Hauser is not publicly complaining about any of this. He says only, "I was very surprised it finally got finished. That was a great jolt to me. My only concern at the moment is to move on to something else. I have 16 books sitting here right now that I'd like to do for television."
He still thinks Hawthorne's novel is "a great book," and says he asks himself about the production. "Are people going to take it into their ordinary lives, resoond to the people in it as people and make some identification with the problems of their own lives?"
It wasn't his decision to run the four hours over a four-night strecht. The format apes commercial television and a spokesman for WGBH explains that it offers "a greater promotional opportunity" for stations that carry the program. Dell has printed 100,000 new paperback versions of the hoary Hawthorne original to tie in with the telecast, the spokesman says. Ah, the moral superiority of being "noncommercial."
One rumor in this regard has been officially denied, however. Merchandizers are not planning to flood the country with "Scarlet Letter" T-shirts so that the rock-and-roll generation can wear with smirky pride the very same "A" assigned to Hester to wear with shame.
Such T-shirts do exist, "but there's only aboty 100 or so floating around WGBH," the spokesman says. Still, if somebody were to make the right offer. . .