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‘The Scarlet Letter’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 13, 1995

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," published in 1850, has endured as one of America's most revered novels. In this timeless call against moral hypocrisy, set in Puritanical New England, Hester Prynne and the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale suffer a lifetime of misery when their secret, adulterous affair produces a child.

Although imprisoned, humiliated and forced to wear the letter "A" (for "adultery") on her breast, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her lover. When her husband, presumed dead before she had the affair, returns with vengeance on his mind, Hester and Dimmesdale are beset on all sides. No one fares well, although Hester experiences a sobering redemption.

In the movies, literary classics are not sacrosanct, nor should they be. But director Roland Joffe's "The Scarlet Letter," starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, takes this free license and bombs with it.

Warning signals begin early when an opening title announces the movie has been "freely adapted" from Hawthorne's novel. The names of the characters, it turns out, have been mostly retained. But the characters themselves, as Hollywood Pictures describes it, have been "revisited . . . to speak directly to our own age." In English, this means Hawthorne's 19th-century polemic against adultery has become grist for the Calvin Klein-culture mill.

In the movie, newly arrived Moore shocks the humorless, straitlaced locals by renting her own place. Awaiting the arrival of stuffy hubby Robert Duvall, she falls in love with inspiring preacher Oldman—and he with her. When Duvall and his fellow passengers are attacked by Indians upon their arrival, there appear to be no survivors.

Moore and Oldman start their liaison, which produces baby Pearl, which leads to Moore's public humiliation. Moore goes to jail, wears the badge of shame and instructs Oldman not to reveal his involvement. But Duvall, who survived the attack and has learned the ways of Indians (including running around with an eviscerated deer over his head), comes back from the dead, finds out about the mysterious affair and seeks revenge.

If the story bears a certain similarity to the book, it's entirely different in every other way. Moore is a pretty, isometrically toned free spirit of the '90s, who tells those dour Puritans just what time it is. And Oldman, decked out in swashbuckler-meets-Puritan chic (and Daniel Day-Lewis hair), plays the reverend like a thinking-man's rock star.

In a bid to create his own symbolism, screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart throws in a red bird (actually a red-dyed canary) which flies symbolically around the Massachusetts woods, leading Moore into an excellent spot from which to see Oldman skinny-dipping. That winged lust-bird is also at hand when the young couple goes for the passionate gusto in a barn, and while Moore's peeping, mute maid sloshes around with sympathetic eroticism in a nearby bath. And to warm up this humorless town, Joan Plowright is rolled out as the colony's token liberal, a sort of wisecracking Good Witch of the North, who chortles at hypocrisy.

"How do you like our New Jerusalem?" she asks Moore, referring to the colony. "Sober enough for you?"

But the movie has saved its modern best for last: the book's bummer ending has been tossed out in favor of a conclusion that gives new meaning to the phrase "send in the cavalry." The contemporary finale, according to Joffe in preemptive-strike interviews, is the one Hawthorne would have wanted if he wasn't so repressed. Picture a reincarnated, aghast Hawthorne, standing poolside and listening to a semi-naked producer telling him, "Nate—can I call ya Nate?—this is a fun culture now. Work with me on this!" Then picture yourself trudging out of the theater with a letter "D" (for "disappointment") firmly pinned to your chest.

THE SCARLElence and free adaptation. T LETTER (R) — Contains sexual situations, nudity, violence.

Copyright The Washington Post

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