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I recently came across the 1995 film The Scarlet Letter. Knowing that this is a story that is required reading in most US high schools, I was honestly surprised I had never seen it before (nor known about it). It stars Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, Gary Oldman as Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale and Robert Duvall as Roger Chillingworth (aka, Prynne). Overall, I enjoyed the film. The sex and birth scenes were a bit long, and I wasn’t keen on Pearl narrating, but as a film on it’s own it was pretty good. It sure made me wonder how well I knew the book!
At first, I thought that this was more of a prequel to the book because it starts with Hester arriving in Massachusettes, and the credits said that the film was “freely based on the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne”, but by the end I saw that it was the book’s story, just unraveled in a different way.
CAUTION: The remainder of this article contains book and film spoilers!
In the film, we actually get to see and experience the relationship between Hester and Rev. Dimmesdale. We see them meet, connect, speak their love for each other, try very hard to stay separated, and experience their struggle. When her husband is thought dead (in the book, lost at sea – in the film, massacred by Native Americans) they can no longer hold on and even though she is supposed to wait seven years before taking on a new lover, they go nuts.
Of course if you know the story, the husband is not dead. When Hester is being punished with her red “A” her husband resurfaces, the difference being that Hester goes to prison in the book after that, and in the film they decide that the letter “A” is “putting the prison in her”.
He reveals himself to her that night in the house, rather than in her prison cell, and still changes his name to Roger Chillingworth and becomes the town’s physician. Hester runs to Dimmesdale to warn him, unlike in the book where she makes a vow of silence to her husband after he threatens her.
Most changes in the film were small and forgettable. In fact, I just spelled most of them out. However, the film took a few liberties, changed some things that I think are questionable, and added things that I am not sure are necessary.
When Roger Prynne is thought dead, he has actually been taken prisoner by the Algonquin. He learns their ways and his feel for the spirits actually scares the natives and they send him on his way, now with training in Algonquin warfare (apparently). Once he feels that he has tortured Dimmesdale and his wife enough he stalks out into the woods and thinking he has caught the Reverend on his way out of Hester’s home, he attacks him Native American style, slicing his throat, gutting and scalping him.
But it was not the Reverend and his actions spur on the war between the English and the natives, which I do not think was even a thought in the book. The idea of that kind of cultural tension and the “converted savages” was a small if even existent part of the book, so I wonder what it did for the film, other than save Hester and Arthur’s lives… which is the other weird change.
In the book, Arthur Dimmesdale is so guilty inside because Hester will not name him as her accomplice and he promises her that he will not admit it himself. It eats at him and he carves the “A” into his chest (which is how Roger Chillingworth figures out it was him), and then finally tells everyone in town that he is Pearl’s father on the site where Hester is pinned and then dies in her arms. This of course was after he and Hester had thought to run away back to England and start anew with Pearl – and Pearl is the one who will not acknowledge her mother when she takes off the “A” and does not want to go. Plus, Roger Chillingworth is supposed to be on the ship as well. So, there went that plan.
In the film, Hester can’t stand that Arthur seems to stand more with the law than with her, especially when the women are taken in as witches, but there is not as much inner turmoil. He goes to the platform where she was sentenced and cuts his hands on the wood there, and you can see it kills him every time she is asked to name him but she won’t. In the end, she is to be hanged as a witch as well as some of the other women we have met in the film.
The ending of the film gets interesting. After Roger scalps the wrong guy, Dimmesdale (who I believe has known that he was the husband in disguise all along) sees a pipe near the dead body. He tries to tell the town that it was one of their own that did it, not the natives, but no one listens. Somehow, he finds more clues, a part that lost me a little, confirming that Roger is to blame. He goes to confront him to find he has hanged himself. Which seems to be such a weak way to go out after turning everyone against his wife and manipulating the town to think of witches and the devil. Apparently the thought of having murdered the wrong person made him want to end himself, but you know, murdering the slave girl who worked for Hester, and attempting to murder Dimmesdale, that would have been totally fine.
After Dimmesdale finds him dead, he rushes down to the hanging, finds his courage and tells them all that he loves Hester Prynne and he is the father of the child. He says “if you need to hang someone, to appease your anger and fear, then hang me!” and puts his head in the noose that was around Hester. Even though he was their minister, they all chant for him to be hanged, and he would have been, if it hadn’t been for the Native Americans rushing in and doing massive damage. Thank goodness for that storyline!
So after all that, the dead are buried, Hester tells her husband to rest in peace and she takes off the “A” saying “This letter has served a purpose. Though not the one they had intended. So why would I stay here?” Pearl takes the letter and they get onto a cart. Reverend Dimmesdale basically says, “Not without me!” and they all ride off together. Pearl lets go of the “A” and it gets run over by their cart as Pearl’s narration tells the viewer that they all went down to the Carolinas, and besides some things that could have been considered a punishment, their love was great and it lives in her and will continue to in her children. You know, bunnies, flowers, rainbows, unicorns and all that!
Demi Moore reportedly said that she was fine with changing the ending, because not many people have read the book. Was she serious? As I said, in my school system it was a required book, so the thousands of people who came out of the Northampton, MA school system have read it and I can only imagine the thousands of others! In the end it was not her choice to change the ending, she just didn’t seem to mind. I chock it up to Hollywood’s Happy Ending Syndrome. Even a teacher of mine in the UK said that he felt all Hollywood movies had to have their happy ending, and I wanted to argue with him (I’m sure there are a select few) but it’s hard to disagree.
I always say that you can say a lot of truth in fiction, but now I can also say – books tell more truth than most films! The book kept the character of the times and society: a repressed puritan village filled with God fearing citizens and strict laws on marriage and women. Nathaniel Hawthorne may have called his story “a love story”, but there could be no happy ending for this couple.
The only thing I can say for the change in ending is that I think it is the way we all WANTED the book to end. It is such a heartbreaking tale of bad marriage, true love with just bad timing, a strange child birthed from adultery, and the way guilt can eat a man alive. So in this alternate universe, they get their happy ending just as the audience wants them to!