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I have a great idea for a movie.
It’ll be called Romeo and Juliet, and it’ll tell the tale of two teen-agers from feuding families who fall in love and marry in secret. Juliet will stage her own death to avoid being married to another, and Romeo, unaware of the ruse, will hear of her death and rush to the family vault. There, he’ll find himself the guest of honor at a large surprise party thrown by the now-reconciled families and his beaming bride. Somewhere in there, we’ll get to see them both naked.
How do I know this idea will sell? I’ve seen Roland Joffé’s The Scarlet Letter.
If Joffé’s film is any indication, we can expect a future in which world literature is the basis for an inexhaustible supply of upbeat screenplays: Wuthering Heights (Cathy gets better), Ethan Frome (Ethan and Mattie decide not to go sledding), Madame Bovary (Emma realizes Charles isn’t so bad after all), Anna Karenina (Vronsky whisks Anna from the train tracks), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Angel forgives all), even the New Testament (Romans run up the hill and rescue Christ from the cross; later, everyone has a good laugh at the misunderstanding).
Such scenarios are downright classy compared to Joffé’s staggeringly tasteless retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th-century masterpiece. The film’s credits grudgingly admit that its story was “freely adapted” from Hawthorne’s, but it would have been more accurate to credit the author only with providing character names. Since Hollywood dumbs down everyone from Jim Harrison to John Grisham for big-screen presentation, it’s hardly surprising that The Scarlet Letter is not scrupulously true to its source. But Joffé’s film goes so far as to subvert the very premise upon which the novel is based, recasting Hawthorne’s dark tale of sin and hypocrisy as a bodice-ripper.
The film’s press kit, a fascinating study in egotism and fatuity, reveals much about the filmmakers. (Director Joffé’s career trajectory has taken him from the multiple Academy Award-winning The Killing Fields to the wretched Patrick Swayze vehicle City of Joy, while screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart numbers Blue Lagoon and An Officer and a Gentleman among his credits.) The director wrongly characterizes Hawthorne’s study of the conflict between society and self as “a tale of redemptive love” before noting that it is “often looked at as a treatise against adultery.” Really? Not by those who hope to pass freshman English. As if such displays of ignorance weren’t bad enough, Joffé actually has the gall to criticize Hawthorne for leaving things out of the book, noting that the author “barely mentions” subjects the director thinks are important.
The Scarlet Letter-lite opens several years before the novel does. In the book, Hester has already had her baby when she is introduced, but the filmmakers are prurient enough to be more interested in the sex act than its consequences. As Joffé and Co. tell it, Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) is a young, married woman who emigrates from England to 17th-century Boston. There she meets charismatic minister Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman), and the two fall in love. When word comes that Hester’s husband has been killed in an Indian massacre, the pair share a night of guilty passion. Hester is thrown into prison when she becomes pregnant and, after the birth of her child, forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her breast as punishment for adultery. She refuses to name the father, and insists that Dimmesdale not bring ruin upon himself by confessing paternity. Soon thereafter, Roger Prynne (Robert Duvall) appears on the scene and, determined to discover the identity of his wife’s lover, insinuates himself into town life under an assumed name. Oh, and there’s a happy ending.
The film is not just an affront against literature. It’s also the occasion for some remarkably inept filmmaking. None of its developments seem even remotely plausible, even when the movie is taken at its own valuation. At the screening I attended, for instance, Dimmesdale’s precipitous confession of love prompted howls of laughter. Likewise, when Demi’s Hester brings a bathing tub to the new world, it’s apparently meant to signify her sensual nature, but snickering viewers will rightly deduce that it’s only a matter of time before we’re treated to a gratuitous slow-motion, soft-focus bathing scene. There’s even a Demi Moore in-joke involving a glimpse of Hester’s pregnant belly. Bad accents, overblown John Barry soundtrack, hamfisted symbolism (the couple actually have sex in a barn on a big pile of seeds)—it’s all here. Like last month’s Showgirls, The Scarlet Letter is so hilariously ill-conceived that it’s sure to become an instant camp classic.
Like Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women, Letter is intent on “modernizing” its period tale with historically inaccurate PC flourishes. Thus do Native Americans become an integral part of the story and Dimmesdale, the most wretchedly pathetic figure in all of American fiction, a sexy, skinny-dipping Indian-rights activist. In the film’s opening scene, an Indian chief calls the minister “the only one who comes to us with an open heart,” and Dimmesdale answers him in subtitled Algonquin. Meanwhile, Hester is portrayed as a 17th-century women’s libber who paves the way for her own social ouster by bucking the Puritans’ proscriptions for females. Such changes suggest that the filmmakers are unable to assign historical or aesthetic value to literature that, through having had the misfortune to have been written a hundred and fifty years ago, fails to address contemporary issues.
Which is just another reason that everyone involved in this tacky travesty should be forced to wear a scarlet “I” for contributing to the idiocy of the American public.