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The Scarlet Letter

Review by Carrie Gorringe

Directed by Roland Joffé.

Starring Demi Moore, Gary Oldman,
Robert Duvall, Joan Plowright.

"Freely adapted" from the novel
by Nathaniel Hawthorne by
Douglas Day Stewart.

There is a disease that tends to affect second-rate actors who achieve sudden and monumental fame, particularly if that fame lasts longer than the aphorisitically-alloted fifteen minutes. After obtaining the fabulous salaries and right-of-first-or-at-least-second-script-refusal characteristic of being on Hollywood's "A" list, these actors don't know enough to take the money and run. Instead, their disease reaches the terminal phase, one in which they begin to believe their own press clippings. Suddenly, the money and the power just aren't enough; they want R-E-S-P-E-C-T, to coin a phrase. These actors become convinced that "culture" with a capital "C" is the missing link in their careers. So they find themselves a literary "classic" and attempt to put their acting imprimatur upon it, envisioning themselves as the next John Barrymore. Unfortunately, the results more often than not owe more to Drew's style of acting than to John's, for the very good reason that the relationship between the elegance and relevance of the work that they seek to interpret and their own abilities belong most definitely to that species of proportional relationships known as the inverse. Harry Zimm (he of Get Shorty) summed up this mindset of the hyper-egotistical and hypo-talented most succinctly: "He's the same schmuck who made it on his tight pants and capped teeth, but now all of a sudden he knows everything there is about making pictures."

Substitute the obvious change in pronoun and "controversial photo-spreads in 'Vanity Fair'" for "tight pants and capped teeth" and you have Demi Moore and her latest dilemma, the movie adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. The novel is indeed an unqualified classic, by American or any other standards. It addresses issues of group cohesiveness as a survival tactic and how much personal freedom can be permitted in the face of potential group annihilation by forces acting both from without and within. In the center of this debate, Hawthorne places one Hester Prynne, a woman who has given birth to a child which is not her husband's, but has been fathered by the local minister, a man whose piety and reputation has been deemed by his community to be beyond reproach. As punishment not only for her sin of adultery but also, and more specifically, her refusal to name her co-transgressor, Hester is made to wear a scarlet letter, denoting her status as an adulteress. For modern audiences, the notion that violating the seventh commandment is the equivalent of endangering the community at large might strike some as being a rather quaint notion. But, as cultural historian Leo Marx has rightfully indicated, the landscape in which Hawthorne's Puritans found themselves, now part of the state of Massachusetts, is not merely a backdrop for events; it is "inseparable from policy and action and meaning." Hester's judges are deadly serious: with the threat of Indian attack ever-present, they cannot afford to see her silence as anything but dangerously insolent willfulness. The speculation that will result from her silence will poison the community with speculation and suspicion, threatening damnation from God in the form of weakened moral fiber and group solidarity, making the community divided and vulnerable.

However, Ms. Moore, obviously not one for the finer points of literary significance or historical context, objected to the novel's unhappy ending and demanded that it be changed to reflect her conception of Hester as what can only be described as a misunderstood proto-Feminist "victim." Director Joffé apparently concurred with this interpretation; he has been quoted as referring to those who object to the wholesale makeover of Hawthorne's novel as "fuddy-duddies." It isn't that the film isn't faithful to the narrative structure of the book; in fact, upon a second reading of Hawthorne's novel, I was struck by how much the filmmakers had relied upon the novel in their adaptation. Unfortunately, their adherence was to the letter and not to the essence of the book, and therein lay their very fatal error. The problem with what can only be called a contemptuous approach to Puritan standards of morality, however well-intentioned and correct the outrage may seem by modern standards, is the unmistakable fact that those same standards are the very underpinnings of the book. Again, as Leo Marx has noted, The Scarlet Letter is not a psychological novel in the sense that its characters are multi-dimensional. Indeed, the characters are very one-dimensional, acting merely as allegories in response to the environment in which they live. Part of that environment consists of the moral standards under which they labor. Only by their actions within and against their environment do the characters' behaviors attain any relevance. Strip the moral-historical context away, and the one-dimensional nature of the characterization in Hawthorne's work becomes embarrassingly apparent, not to mention unintentionally hilarious.

This is exactly what happens in this adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Demi Moore's Hester possesses none of the necessary nuances of conscience provided by Hawthorne, who illustrates quite unequivocally that his heroine suffered for her crimes, both real and perceived by herself and others, from the very beginning. Her ordeal of public penance Hawthorne described as "all that nature could endure" and Hester later recalls her mindset on that day as one that was "abased by sin and half-maddened by the ignominy that was still new...." After seven years of such punishment, the literary Hester has lost no awareness of her shame; she is still wracked from time to time by moods of suicidal despair, wondering whether or not it would be better "to send Pearl [her daughter] at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice could provide." Moore instead opts to portray Hester as a scappy heroine who cares nothing for consequences. When she stands in front of the congregation, unrepentant, wearing a brightly-colored (by Puritan standards), off-the-shoulder dress, one half expects her to burst into a chorus, à la Aretha and Annie, of "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves//Standin On Our Own Two Feet...," and the tone of defiance never abates in her performance. Moore's idea of deep emoting is simply to lift her head ever higher in disdain for those around her -- apparently the very real threat of a death penalty is not a very strong deterrent. During her character's pregnancy, Moore demonstrates love in the face of intolerance by baring and caressing her swollen abdomen in extreme close-up; this Hester is preparing for a photo-spread in "Ye Olde Vanitie Faire." No doubt the audience is supposed to infer from this display that the sight of Moore's body is to act as a temporary distraction from her acting (in)ability.

Since Hester is not allowed to suffer in this adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, the other actors' roles have been written with sufficient indifference to nuance so as to enable the actors to suffer in her place, but their tortures are being inflicted on the rack of bad acting. As the not-so-good Reverend Dimmesdale, Gary Oldman resembles nothing so much as a rather intense California surfer who took a wrong time warp and ended up in the seventeenth century. Oldman alternates between making cow's eyes at Moore and slamming his fists on the pulpit by way of emotional expression when he isn't wandering around looking half-wild with something -- either a combination of religious zeal and guilt, or maybe it's the bloody flux. Robert Duvall's performance as Hester's vengeful husband takes a more serpentine approach; in a startlingly original conception, Duvall's character narrows his eyes and flares his nostrils to denote how evil and depraved he is. One half expects him to emerge swaying from a basket at appropriate moments. Nevertheless, these performances are fascinating in a macabre sort of way, somewhat like watching an impending train wreck, or like watching a usually fine actor like Duvall waste his time and career on chaff like this. Only Joan Plowright emerges with her dignity intact; as Mistress Hibbins, the local busybody and suspected witch, she provides much-needed comic relief, primarily because she is the only member of the cast who isn't suffering from the affliction of taking him or herself too seriously.

As might be expected, with no context to cement them in place, the visual signifiers are nothing more than the "spot-the-hair-motif" type, a.k.a. Symbolism 101. Passion is symbolized by -- surprise -- a red bird. This unfortunate avian specimen resembles nothing so much as a canary who lost a fight with a bottle of iodine; perhaps a cardinal wouldn't work for scale. Hester and the Reverend consummate their relationship on a pile of ever-shifting grain (intercourse on bed of grains equals fertility). Normally, Joffé can do wonders with the natural world; the landscapes in his films tend to resonate with significance (witness The Mission and The Killing Fields) but this time his instincts seem to have deserted him just when he needed them the most. The Reverend Dimmesdale, not surprisingly, is very fond of invoking the Deity when necessary. He even does so with his beloved, exclaiming with most annoying frequency, "God help me, Hester, I do love thee." Aside from the obvious question of whether or not the Reverend is heading for perdition on the grounds of violating yet another commandment, the invocation is in vain: God cannot help thee, for thou hast placed thyself in a very pretentious and badde filmme.

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