Film

A is for Axe: The Filmic Butchering of 'The Scarlet Letter'

As is often the case with classics, what could have been a brilliantly updated film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter was consumed by the Hollywood machine that instead spits out a shallow and action-packed romp with a glossed-over ending.

Publisher: Simon & Brown
Length: 198 pages
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Book: The Scarlet Letter
Format: paperback
Publication date: 2010-08
Director: Roland Joffe
Cast: Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert DuVall, Roy Dotrice, Joan Plowright, Joan Gregson, Robert Prosky, Edward Hardwicke,
DVD: The Scarlet Letter
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
DVD release date: 2002-06-04

Privacy in the United States and the rest of the world is quickly becoming extinct. Facebook, a platform for airing your business voluntarily, now has more than 500 million active users. When the choice of privacy is taken away from us however, things get invasive. Case in point: The US recently introduced the traveling public to the notorious TSA airport body scanners that photograph travelers -- right through their clothing.

On a similar note, it was recently reported in Michigan that St. Joseph Mercy's Saline, Ann Arbor and Livingston hospitals have obliged their employees who don't get flu shots to wear face masks, even those who work in clerical offices ("U.S. hospitals mandate that workers get flu shots" by Robin Erb, Detroit Free Press, 09 December 2010).

Coincidentally, The Daily Mail has also published a report about a staffing company in Norway that forces its female employees to wear red bracelets when they are on their periods in order to let the bigwigs know why they frequent the bathroom so much. ("Boss orders female staff to wear red bracelets when they are on their periods" by Ian Sparks, Mail Online, 30 November 2010).

Such tyranny is reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's tale of Hester Prynne, a married puritan living in 17th century Boston who has an adulterous affair with a minister, is the granddaddy of such busybodies in our culture. Prynne, whose affair results in her daughter, Pearl, is forced to wear a red letter "A" pinned to her breast for her crime of adultery, and is publicly chastised for her indiscretion, yet she refuses to give up Pearl's father's identity. Prynne is driven to the outskirts of town while being regarded by the town's residents as a sinner and a slut.

Like most Americans, I read the book in high school. I remember being shocked by the public shaming of Prynne (this was before I knew much about the frequent mistreatment of women in other areas of the world) and I admired her as a rebel for not revealing her lover's name, despite the scrutiny she faced. I also thought of her as a Christ-like figure in her willingness to accept her punishment while simultaneously refusing to succumb to a stricture she didn't believe in.

When we read the book in school, we watched a film accompaniment – a four hour miniseries filmed in 1979, directed by Rick Hauser. Meg Foster played Hester Prynne and her strong features and excellent acting are still fresh in my mind. While the budget was low and the overall look of the production was pretty poor, the acting was terrific and the story stuck tightly to Hawthorne's. As a result, it continues to be shown in class rooms to accompany the book.

Something like the 1995 film version could never be shown in schools, and if it is, I'd be surprised. Fifteen-minutes into the film, Demi Moore is spying on a stark naked Gary Oldman. Directed by Roland Joffe, this adaptation is much looser than the 1979 version in more ways than one. It also takes liberties with Hawthorne's story and plays up the sexy Moore-Oldman combination, making the film more of a titillating bodice/bonnet ripper than the powerful lesson it ought to be.

To be fair, the film states it is "freely adapted" from Hawthorne's work, but that's an understatement. Instead of a story about a strong woman victimized by an uptight community who uses her as a scapegoat, we get a steamy romance with softly lit sex scenes and Native Americans gone wild.

In Joffe's version, Moore, who plays Prynne, is supposed to be viewed as a feminist, coming to the colonies ahead of her older husband (who later is believed to be dead) and taking a black female slave named Mituba to help her work the land. In the meantime, what she's really busy with is undressing, Oldman, who plays Arthur Dimmesdale, with her big, brown peepers.

Masturbatory bath scenes ensue, and did I mention Mituba likes to watch? When Moore and Oldman finally do consummate their desires, Mituba watches them. This is soon after spying on her mistress naked in the tub. Unbeknownst to Moore, her husband, Roger (played by Robert DuVall) is still alive and hanging with the Natives whom the townspeople thought had killed him.

While the sin of adultery takes center stage in the novel, Joffe's film makes a mockery of it, which brings to mind the tabloids that hound Hollywood stars these days and bring their supposed adulterous affairs into the limelight for the salivating public to eat up. Curiously enough, there were rumors earlier this year that Ashton Kutcher, Moore's husband, had an affair with a young Hollywood blonde.

Unfortunately, Moore doesn't have the acting chops to pull off a convincing Prynne. Instead of a strong-willed woman we get a brassy flirt. Oldman, who is normally an excellent actor, is overly dramatic (his sermon at the beginning of the film is long-winded and exaggerated). Perhaps it's about as good as he can be, taking the hackneyed screenplay into account. When Robert DuVall, who plays Prynne's fiery husband, Roger, shows up, fixed on getting vengeance for the affair, his histrionics are also unconvincing and laughable.

In addition to the movie's cheap romance, the clichéd background choir music and the script (which is unfaithful to the novel) are evidence that Joffe's attempt to recreate The Scarlet Letter is not only eye-rollingly absurd, but a slap in the face to Hawthorne. All anyone has to do is look at the DVD cover of the movie to see what I'm talking about. It looks like puritan soft-core porn. Overall, the film is anything but sexy -- it's downright corny.

As is often the case with classics, what could have been a brilliantly-updated film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter was consumed by the Hollywood machine that instead spits out a shallow and action-packed romp with a glossed-over ending. Hawthorne's tale and Joffe's film are both reminders (for different reasons) of how we can be stripped of our character in order to serve the needs of society.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image