The Real Travesty Of The Scarlet Letter

“The real sin of this ‘Scarlet Letter’ [film] is that it doesn’t respect the concept of sin” (Ansen). Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter delves deeper into the explicitness of sin, shame, and guilt. Set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during Puritan colonization, the characters have strong relationships with God and a sturdy foundation in their beliefs and church. Puritans rely on the concept of predestination, the belief that God has decided whether one is saved or damned before their birth (Heyrman).

This gives some great security, but others become anxious and stressed due to the constant wondering. Many attempt to live the life they believe is the most pleasing to God as a way to prove they are worthy of Heaven, but this belief causes melodrama and a strict, pretentious lifestyle. The Scarlet Letter thoroughly encompasses this 1800s era conduct to a much better extent than the 1995 movie adaptation. The “freely adapted” movie scarcely attempts to emulate the book, merely pleasing the audience with a rough outline of the 1850’s novel. 

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The loose fiction begins with The Custom House, in which a seemingly unknown narrator begins to describe the way they happened upon the tangible Scarlet Letter and its history. Drawing close similarities to the author, the narrator is a Custom House surveyor, as was Salem, Massachusetts born Hawthorne. Hawthorne also has a notable Puritan ancestry, with his late relatives being religiously prosecuted (Reuben).

Working in the Custom House, he was fired due to political favoritism, as was the narrator. Through the novel’s introduction of the history of Puritan-age adultery, the reader is able to gain a better understanding of the reasons it was written. Hawthorne’s experiences and emotional engagement better assist readers in their perception of Puritan lifestyle, and give the author credibility in expounding upon the illustrated matters. 

Although Hawthorne’s novel is clear and relatively uncomplicated to interpret, director Roland Joffé weakly interprets the theme, characters, and plot development. A British producer and filmmaker, he is known for politically and sexually charged movies and is not inexperienced with a failed film. The general public and many critics view the movie version as “a briskly Disneyized version of Hawthorne’s dark, brooding prose poem of ambiguity…spectacularly superficial” (Oates). His young interpretation of a classic piece of American Literature lacks the emotion in which the book develops upon, more so emphasizing the freely in “freely adapted.”

Focusing on the theme of sin, the original novel does an excellent job of conveying the drastic measures and suffering Hester and Dimmesdale endure. Directly referencing the letter itself, Hester is viewed as “the mother of a babe…who had once been innocent—as the figure, the body, and the reality of sin” (Hawthorne 59). Society looks down upon Hester with shame and scornfulness throughout the majority of the novel, but near the end, begins to pity and respect her for her significant suffering. She is portrayed as responsible for the Reverend’s sin, proving how women were valued less than men-“…another ruin, the responsibility of which came partly home to her” (Hawthorne 130).

Contributing to the portrayal and blame of women in Puritanical society, journalist Jane Richardson argues that “[Hawthorne] was trying to point out the injustice of punishing women who commit adultery…in the 17th century some women who were found guilty for this kind of crime were punished by flogging, and in extreme cases were put to death.” She continues, “men…were normally handed down a less severe punishment, as the blame was given only to women.” Not only does Hester suffer here own personal shame, she agonizes over the guilt she has caused Dimmesdale. Through her refusal to announce the illegitimate child’s father, the adulteress carries the sole burden. In the book, Dimmesdale’s suffering is made apparent and tragic—he ages and becomes sicklier, but the movie reduces it to lust and meager guilt.

As the novel focuses on the separate sin and guilt of two lovers, Joffé’s interpretation lessens it to dramatic lust and shallow characters. Rather than conveying Hester’s internal struggle and transformation, it portrays her as a rebellious woman hoping to identify the inequality of women and men during this time period. The lightly outlined romance in the book is majorly emphasized in the film with ample liberty taken.

Rather than prioritizing the seriousness of sin, Joffé rewrites the classic “in a self-parodying mood, the tale now [containing] slow-motion love scenes and giddy horseback rides through the forest” (Oates). The movie also greatly departs in the ending scenes, where instead of killing himself, Dimmesdale narrowly escapes a Native American attack and leaves the settlement with Hester and Pearl.

If Dimmesdale truly believed he had sinned, as in the novel, killing himself would be the only viable option for ridding his soul of the torment and guilt he faces. The choice to have a much less tragic ending downplays the significant role of guilt and shame, depicting the characters as merely unaware and careless, tossing their Puritan values behind them.

Without reading The Scarlet Letter, another misconception viewers may hold is the shame Hester experienced. In the book, she deeply prods over her wrongdoings, knowing that having an illicit child is not just shameful, but against Puritan beliefs. Accepting her punishment, she remains in the Salem society rather than running away, knowing God is straightforward in his message to stand firm.

The cinematic depiction completely deviates from the theme of shame, having Hester literally fling the embroidered A off her chest and flee from the community with Dimmesdale. She also claims she has doing nothing wrong, going so far as to say (regarding the letter) “Why do you wait? Put it on, for it is not a badge of my sin but your own” (Hester, The Scarlet Letter). This representation tragically misses the point Hawthorne was making—it is more honorable to face one’s shame than to lessen it’s burden. This shame “Hawthorne consistently presents throughout the novel, as if it were a single character” (“Hawthorne’s Theory of Moral Sentiments”). The novel more successfully captures the shame Hester felt; she faces her punishment by enduring a long life in the settlement and excepting her sin. In the film, she runs from it. Facing ones sin and shame represents the Puritan values of the time, and the film completely disregards the key religious sentiments. 

Literary acclaims and criticisms pinpoint the vast differences in the 1850 and 1995 novel and film versions, respectively. Although there was much liberty taken by the director, the era in which it was filmed contributed to the differences. During Reagan’s presidency, people looked to him as the notorious good guy. Many were searching for simpler, more secure lives, and the promise of a “Reagan Revolution” brought change and hope. Named “the great rediscovery, “ –a rediscovery of our values and our common sense,” reasons as to why The Scarlett Letter was remade in the 1990’s (Gil).

Values of the two time periods were similar: Puritans wanted affirmation and security in whether they were going to Heaven or Hell, while Americans wanted security in virtually all aspects of their lives. Newsweek writer David Ansen provides: “[Joffé] pillories [Hawthorne’s] 17th-century villains on the rack of 1990s sexual politics.” Political columnist Linda Chavez agrees, arguing “The film version…is a perfect Hollywood amorality tale for our time” (Dunne). The Reagan and Bush administrations, one issuing from a previous Hollywood lifestyle, revolutionized conservative American values, still presently connecting to Puritan values.

Throughout the century between the publication and premiere, adultery was becoming a more normal occurrence and feminism was gaining ground, contributing to the stark differences between the two. The remerging cultural theme of transgression is viewed in both mediums, although the original classic, due to the time period it was written in, triumphs over the very freely adapted Hollywood film. 



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