English teachers still wake up screaming in a cold sweat to memories of the infamous Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter. It has all the hallmarks of a swanky high-end product: lush visuals, a classic novel at its source, a prestigious director in Roland Joffé, and a talented cast that includes Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall, and Joan Plowright.
And yet somehow, this flick couldn't have missed the literary adaptation mark more. The differences between this silver screen version and the masterpiece from which it takes its name are deep and profound, making it less of an adaptation than simply a movie that has something vaguely to do with a book some guy named Nate once wrote. On the plus side, though, it instantly separates students who actually read the book from those who figured they'd Netflix the movie the night before the final and ace it. Ain't gonna happen here.
Hmm. Inasmuch as there is an actual scarlet letter, which Moore's Hester Prynne has to slap on her dress as a punishment for having a baby out of wedlock, the film stays close to the book. It also covers the overwhelming guilt of her lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale (Oldman) and the planned revenge of her husband, Roger Chillingworth (Duvall). It details Puritanical life in colonial America (a favored subject of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the cornerstone of his novel), and it touches on the sense of guilt that the Puritan lifestyle stressed so deeply.
That's about all we got because the rest of the book—including its most important themes—get chucked right out the window.
We'll start with Hester, the long-suffering heroine who must deal with the scorn and hatred of her community after giving birth to the ostensibly daddy-less Pearl. In the book, Hester just grits her teeth and bears it, accepting her punishment and going about her life as best she can, because a lady-Puritan doesn't have a whole lot of options. Reverend Dimmesdale, for his part, literally gets sick with guilt until confessing his sin and dropping dead on the spot. Hester wears her "A" for the remainder of her life, and serves to comfort and aid those spurned by the Puritanical community, because, again, she can't exactly run off to the Big Apple and start a new life.
Moore's Hester comes off more like a catchall feminist. She insists that she did nothing wrong, and that the rest of the town is a gang of stuffy old poopheads. She ditches her "A" at the end of the movie and moves away—with Reverend Dimmesdale and Pearl, no less—to live happily ever after as a liberated lady. Yes, really.
Ladies and gents, that's a big honking plot twist, if you ask Shmoop. Right off the bat, we've lost Hawthorne's exploration of how the Puritans internalize guilt, as well as the deep exploration of the way they lived their lives. Instead, it's all high-handed condemnation of the Puritan lifestyle… which pretty much misses the whole point Hawthorne was aiming for.
Most folks today agree that Puritanism was a tad too rigid for comfort, and that maybe they should have cut their citizens some slack. But to Hawthorne, the point is that they didn't cut anyone any slack, and he wanted us to understand why. In that sense, the movie injects 20th-century sensibilities into a 17th-century toil-and-shame world, and waters down Hawthorne's fascinating explanations of a long gone lifestyle.
The movie axes Hawthorne's more supernatural elements. The "A" appearing in the sky, the dangers of the woods, and the notion that the Puritans are living in a wild and uncivilized area are all ignored in favor of another, seemingly scarier foe.
In their place, we get Indians who show up to attack the Puritans in the climax, saving Dimmesdale in the process. Besides the fact that the supposedly pacifist Puritans break out with the guns pronto when the Indians attack, this choice glosses over Hawthorne's depiction of what it means to be a Puritan. Reading the book, we get a feel for what it's like to look out into the forest or up into the night sky and really, seriously be scared of an angry God ready to smite you at any moment. The movie's ending focuses instead on Hester's (and Dimmesdale's) power to forge her own destiny out on the frontier, which isn't really something the Puritans could do—at least, on an individual basis.
Nowhere does this become more obvious than with Pearl, Hester's daughter. She narrates the movie and basically acts like a good, obedient little girl throughout. In the book, she was a little a bit of a troublemaker, constantly asking uncomfortable questions and general giving her mother a hard time. Was she a punishment from God for her mother's sin? Was she the summation of the community's judgment, made manifest in a physical form? Those questions are key in the book, and nowhere to be found in the movie.
After reading our take, it probably wouldn't be much of a surprise to learn that the movie was universally panned. But what's really at hand here is the fact that the movie doesn't adapt the book to the silver screen. It takes the story, changes it in about twelve different ways, and makes a whole other movie out of it. That's all well and good, but if you're looking for a faithful version, you'll have to look elsewhere. If you're looking for Gary Oldman in tights, well, you've got your flick.
Those in search of a more faithful adaptation might check out 1926's The Scarlet Letter starring silent film siren Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne. This one touches on many themes that the modern take has left out.
Then, in 1979 public television also took a shot at adapting the novel for the small screen, giving us a faithful miniseries that's a favorite for in-class screenings.
Finally, 2010's instant hit Easy A put a fresh spin on the old classic. This loose interpretation (emphasis on loose) is all about a nice high school student who handles a bad rumor in the worst (and funniest) way possible. Plus it has the added benefit of demonstrating how Hawthorne's ideas about judgment and hypocrisy are still alive and well in today's world.