Monday, July 02, 2007

I'm Back/Literary Adaptation Review #1

I know it's been a long time since I've updated — but I think one of the reasons I haven't is I intimidated myself with my highly-organized movie review system. It's a nice idea to have all those stars, but I don't know how practical it is for someone with my less-than-organized brain.

So, I am going to start reviewing literary adaptations, and likely I'll cover many of the points on my Checklist 'O Fun, but don't expect to see fancy charts, OK?

First up is 1996's The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, Gary Oldman as Arthur Dimmesdale and Robert Duvall as Roger Chillingworth.

You may recall in my review of the book I referred this adaptation as "the trashy Demi Moore movie". That was based on my recollection of one viewing more than 10 years ago. I recently had a chance to see this film again and my perspective on it has definitely changed. To be sure, it still completely misses the point of the book — but I did find a little bit more to like about it in this go-around.

Books and film are different mediums. I have no real objection to the movie starting a year or two before the book's action begins. In fact, I rather liked seeing Hester and Dimmesdale getting to know each other. The look on his face when he finds out the pleasant young woman he was flirting with in the forest is actually a married woman — and therefore out of his reach — is priceless.

Part of what makes the book great is that we don't find out immediately who the father of Hester's illegitimate child is. I missed the "forest" scene that comes midway through the book and finally makes it clear Dimmesdale is Daddy. I understand, though, the literary tricks that make that scene great would be impossible to translate to film.

There was just enough retained from the book's opening scene, where Hester faces the public humiliation of receiving her Scarlet "A" (for Adultery) at the town stocks, to tantalize me. That scene, where the Rev. Dimmesdale speaks from above, entreating Hester to name the father of her child for his own good, is one of the most powerful that I've encountered in literature. Of course, a first-time reader may not realize that he's talking about himself. When Gary Oldman gave the highly-abbreviated version in the movie, it was still a meaningful scene — but not quite what I was hoping for. And, of course, having seen him and Hester literally rolling around in the hay together, we were all already clued in that he was Pearl's father.

So, that's the good. (Or, at least, the "not bad.") Now, what was still downright laughable/awful?

Lisa Joliffe-Andoh's mute slave girl character, Mituba — WHAT??? What did she contribute to the story? She's not in the book. Yes, we all got the P.C. reminder that Puritans kept African slaves — but this character was just awful. All she did was spy on Hester in compromising positions and giggle like a madwoman. Don't even talk to me about the candle scene. How creepy.

Robert Duvall's portrayal of Chillingworth — Again, WHAT??? How did a nice character actor like Robert Duvall get suckered into a goofy role like this? Yeah, Chillingworth was a little over the top in the book too, but he didn't go around jumping off big rocks and scalping people. In the book, he waited seven years to get his revenge through "scientific" means. He was "chilling" because he was so tightly reined in, not because he was certifiably bonkers.

The Native American war sub-plot — This was another thing that feels like it was in there because it was made in the 90's and we have to be acknowledge that these Puritans have taken over lands that belong to someone else. OK, point taken. I was kind of intrigued that Dimmesdale was trying to translate the Bible into Algonquin (Although did Algonquin even HAVE a written language back in the 17th Century?) But most of this plot just seemed to have nothing to do with anything else — and the final scene made no sense at all.

The Steamy Scenes — Granted, if there wasn't some adulterous sex going on, there wouldn't be much of a story. But did we really need the bathing scenes? Any of them?

And finally...

It misses the point — Ultimately, the story of The Scarlet Letter isn't "an erotic tale of forbidden love," as the movie poster tagline says. It's about hypocrisy and the hidden effects of guilt. Once she receives her "A", Hester's conscience is clear. She can't hide her sin, it's right out there in front for everyone to see. She is able to build a new life starting from scratch, until, at the end of the book, people don't even remember what the "A" originally stood for.

That doesn't happen to Demi Moore. She's too busy whining about equality and fair treatment for women.

Dimmesdale's story is supposed to be the exact opposite. He carries the same guilt around as Hester does, but he's too much of a coward to reveal it and face the public disgrace he knows would follow. He wants Hester to rat him out, but she absolutely refuses. But, with no way of relieving his secret, he grows more and more frail over the years as his conscience gets the better of him.

That didn't happen in the movie either. In the film, it's Hester that stops him from telling everyone he's the father. He's in a hard place, to be sure, but he still gets to drive happily away into the sunset at the end of the picture.

That ending left me feeling robbed, and that I hadn't just spent the last couple of hours watching the "real" Scarlet Letter.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home