It sounds like a tragic tale of Hollywood hubris--a director gets his hands on a literary classic, and soon a stark rendering of defeated love is pumped into a steamy romance. The novel's dignified heroine is given a nude bathing scene and--gasp!--the ending is changed. And English professors across the land bow their heads and sob.
Controversy had already begun to swirl around director Roland Joffe's interpretation of "The Scarlet Letter" well before it opened Friday. The film bears the credit "freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne," and Joffe, with screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart, has altered and elaborated upon several key elements of Hawthorne's story of chastised adulteress Hester Prynne and her secret romance with the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in a 17th-Century New England Puritan colony.
Yes, the film's Hester--in the personage of Demi Moore--gets a nude scene. And yes, Joffe's ending is not Hawthorne's. But one thing becomes quite clear during a conversation with the director at his Los Angeles office: He did not approach his retelling of Hawthorne's story glibly or lightly.
Joffe, whose previous works include "The Killing Fields" and "The Mission," is intense, articulate and entirely forthcoming in explaining the decisions that led to his vision of a formidable classic.
" 'The Scarlet Letter' is certainly a classic," he says. "But I wanted to show that it's a classic because of what it suggests about love, and not what it suggests about guilt and punishment. I felt that to make this story now, we should take into account some of the things that Hawthorne hints at in the text but doesn't fully explain, such as Hester's past and some of the history around the colony. I wanted to do more than simply turn the 'Scarlet Letter' Cliff Notes into a film. And I felt I needed to say 'freely adapted from' because I didn't want Hawthorne spinning in his grave screaming, 'I didn't write that!' "
Joffe had been actively seeking a project with a woman as the central character and took on "The Scarlet Letter" largely to explore Hester's strengths and passions.
"She's a Puritan heroine as conceived by a Victorian writer," he explains. "I wanted to re-create Hester for these times. Some people told me Demi was wrong for the part because she had too strong a sexual presence, the Vanity Fair covers and such. But Hester's sexuality is precisely what makes her interesting. I wanted to present her as a very sensual woman living in a rigid, Puritan world. I felt if I didn't deal with that sensuality in the film, then I was being the Puritan."
Many of Joffe's additions to Hawthorne's story were designed to reflect upon current social issues. The destructive powers of racism are touched on in a new subplot involving the simmering tensions between the colonists and the Native Americans they have displaced. And questions of sexism and religious intolerance are raised in scenes of a village witch trial.
The director says he felt compelled to bring the tale to what he saw as a more logical conclusion. Hawthorne's Dimmesdale collapses and dies, leaving Hester to raise their child alone. The film offers a different ending.
"I really don't think Hawthorne's is the natural end to the story," Joffe says. "When I asked people how the book ends, many weren't sure if Arthur was hanged or Hester was hanged or what happened. We remember the story of a great love denied but not the specifics of the ending. That's because Hawthorne's ending is weighted with Victorian melodrama. He felt there needed to be punishment. But I felt that his inner story was a hymn to the redemptive power of love, and I knew when I started this project that I was not going to punish Hester and Arthur."
Even with such substantial plot changes, Joffe never considered abandoning Hawthorne's title. "I think not to call it 'The Scarlet Letter' would have been an act of cowardice, an attempt to hide what I'm doing. I couldn't very well make a film about a couple of characters who stand up for personal freedom and then back away from my own convictions. I consider the film to be a dialogue with Hawthorne's book, and I wanted his title all over it."
Culture critic Harold Bloom of Yale University has announced that "Hawthorne would be horrified" by Joffe's version of the story. But the director can count on at least some measure of support from the academic world.
"It's been a Hollywood tradition to use classics to reflect the moral and political concerns of the time," says Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University. "And I really dislike the holier-than-thous who shake their finger at naughty Hollywood. I don't see pop culture as a destructive force, and if a classic is truly a classic, it can make it through films and parodies and musicals and comic books. The classic will survive, and ultimately these works bring people back to the literature."
Joffe says he'll be very pleased if his film helps steer audiences toward their local libraries. "I made this film in honor of Hawthorne, and I'd be delighted if it encourages people to pull him off the shelves. And if this gets people debating the story around a good meal, that's terrific. The way I've come to look at it, 'The Scarlet Letter' is like the sun in its own solar system, and it's got many planets circling it. I'm proud and happy to have contributed a new planet, but it was certainly not an attempt to blot out the sun."