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The Scarlet Letter



I watched three films based on The Scarlet Letter, the iconic 1850 story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). My small sample (there are at least nine movies based on the story) confirms that Hollywood really can’t stand the story as Hawthorne wrote it.

In 1934 (rated G, 69 minutes) Colleen Moore played Hester Prynne and Hardie Albright played Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in the tale about Puritan condemnation of adultery and children born out of wedlock. Hester is sentenced to wear an embroidered scarlet letter “A” on her bosom, and Dimmesdale endlessly rationalizes his decision to conceal his role as the mysterious father of little Pearl. The movie reflects the production limitations and typical dramatic direction in the 1930s—there’s a lot of staring into the camera, and crowded action scenes.

Meg Foster played Hester and John Heard played Dimmesdale in the 1979 TV miniseries (60 minutes) about The Scarlet Letter. There are recognizable scenes from the book. The script is nondescript. It’s a ponderous distillation of Hawthorne’s words.

The 1996 version (rated R, 135 minutes) with Demi Moore as Hester and Gary Oldman as Dimmesdale apparently is the latest in the unsatisfying series of film versions of The Scarlet Letter. It is an almost lurid mal-adaptation of the book. The hot scenes featuring Hester and Dimmesdale attracted to each other are a complete invention —Hawthorne eschews any explicit reference or description of physical intimacy between his principal characters. Demi and Gary get it on, but it ain’t Hawthorne.

In all three films, the role of little Pearl is deliberately underplayed. The child is a principal factor in Hawthorne’s story—her feelings, her joie de vivre, her contemplations, her maturation are fully explored in the book, and ignored in the movies.

The mental and emotional quagmires that are explored and endured by Hester and Dimmesdale are generally ignored in the movies. None of the movies uses the ending that fulfills the book.

The movies are scandalously thin and false charades of the powerful drama of Hawthorne’s story that was published very successfully in 1850.

In short, if you want to claim that you are familiar with the themes, plot, and denouement of The Scarlet Letter, you have to read the book.

If you think you remember reading it a long time ago, try it again. Then try the movies, and form your own opinion.


Request the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne through the Minuteman Network

Borrow the ebook of The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne through Hoopla

Borrow the audio book of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne through Hoopla

Request the DVD of the 1934 movie version of The Scarlet Letter through the Minuteman Network

Borrow the 1979 TV miniseries of The Scarlet Letter through Hoopla

Request the DVD of the 1996 movie version of The Scarlet Letter through the Minuteman Network



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