'The Scarlet Letter' doesn't deserve an 'A'

October 13, 1995|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,SUN FILM CRITIC

I can see it now. Frail, intense, literary, the fiery Nathaniel Hawthorne is bent over his desk in the dark interior of that New York Custom House in the year 1849, writing dementedly with his feather quill, his fisle and says, "Hey, Morrie, if you shot a pilgrim in the throat with an arrow, would the blood spurt when it came out or would it just, you know, kind of dribble out?"

It probably never happened, but nevertheless here's a version of "The Scarlet Letter" for the big screen that suggests it might have. Hopelessly, comically revisionist, the film includes feminist preachings, state-of-the-art special effects, Indian attacks, witchcraft, nudity, good old-fashioned sex, action sequences and masturbation. Hmmm, who ever suspected the Puritans had so much fun?

It is of course pointless to hold the movie to the test of authenticity to the text, which is, after all, the most reviled and despised of all American novels; the one whose true claim to fame is that it made an eternal best seller out of the "Cliff's Notes" version. Besides, I can't remember the thing well enough to make a judgment, and I sure as hell ain't gonna read it again.

But, on its own terms, does the movie work? Er, not really. In fact, it's kind of ridiculous, particularly the ending, where the Indians attack to save the witches.

Hester, in the lush form of Demi Moore, is a strange kind of Puritan: the feminist hippy kind. She arrives in advance of her doctor hubby to the Massachusetts of 1676, wearing too much lace, and immediately sets tongues a-wagging by setting up house alone out by the heaving sea. She looks men brazenly in the face, refusing to avert her eyes. One day, out behind the garden, she espies the manly, buffed buns of the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale out splashing in the pond to cleanse himself. And what kind of minister is this? Well, the I-love-the-Indians kind, as portrayed by the sublimely uninteresting Gary Oldman.

When the word comes that Hester's hubby has given up the ghost in an Indian attack, she and the Rev one dark night do the dirty dog, and soon enough the lady begins to bulge. Everybody is shocked, but so pure is her love that she refuses to give away her lover's identity. So, after nine months in the joint, she returns with a kid and a scarlet "A" hung on her breast.

Meanwhile, the movie's most interesting character shows. This is her husband, who survived by going native and comes back to wage war against Hester for loving another. Robert Duvall plays Roger Prynne (hiding under the nom de guerre Chillingworth) as a fallen Faustian intellectual, a kind of fascinated voyager into the realms of evil. He sets in motion an evil plot against the two of them, cackling madly the whole time.

But "The Scarlet Letter" is really a "Sodom and Gomorrah" from the anti-universe. Its brainless agenda is to set up a sequence in which we can enjoy the fiery destruction of an evil city. But the source of the evil is the sin not of doing it, but of not doing it. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts is viewed as an empire of repression -- from its stuffy, white-boy elders to its prissy women to its smug, windowless architecture. Burn it down! Kill everyone! Enjoy its deconstruction at the hands of the righteous forces of "naturalness" and "passion" and "honesty."

Well, the truth is, they won. The evil repressionists have been banned even in Boston. America to Puritanism: Drop dead. Now anybody can have a baby without getting married. Look around at the paradise we've created! Is this a great country, or what?

'The Scarlet Letter'

Starring Demi Moore, Gary Oldman and Robert Duvall

Directed by Roland Joffe

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated R (nudity, violence)

Sun score **

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