The Scarlet Letter (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

What a mess this film is.

You can dispense with the notion that I'm going to spend some time rhapsodizing about Hawthorne's book, and telling you how this film is not fit to bear the same name as that famous work. There are two good reasons why I won't do that.


  • Demi Moore shows her buns and breasts in a bathing scene.

  • Gary Oldman shows everything in a skinny-dipping scene

  • Robert Duvall shows his butt in a solo shot.

  • Some other extras show their breasts (Algonquin Indian women)

1. Hawthorne's book bites the big one. And I should know. I used to teach it! I regret to say that America's literary origins were primitive, at best. Melville, Hawthorne, and Cooper are all but unreadable. Hawthorne is, in a cinematic sense, the worst of the three, because the other two wrote books in which something happened occasionally, so you could ignore their stilted prose and maybe even make a good movie from their stories. Moby Dick is filled with infinitely long digressions, but the basic story is good enough that we all remember it nearly two centuries later, and Melville himself was so deeply disturbed that he created memorable characters. Of course, I've only read about a third of the damned book. After about 20 consecutive chapters of whaling minutiae unrelated to the plot, I finished the story with Cliff's Notes and Classics Comics. Cooper couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, and his dialogue will make you laugh out loud, but he had some great stories to tell. Hawthorne, on the other hand, was basically into interior processes. In this novel that means "guilt", so his stilted writing is matched by a complete lack of action.

2. It doesn't matter, because this movie is almost unrelated to the book. In fact, it is basically a hodge-podge of colonial legends and lore, combining elements of Cooper, Hawthorne, and even a bit of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. It is filled with Indians who are betrayed by the scheming white men, horny women who are believed to be witches, a last-minute rescue from the gallows, and ultimately a happy ending in which Dimmsdale and Hester ride off into the sunset on their buckboard, as if they were Curly and Laurie in Oklahoma, fixin' to sing about their happy new life!

In the book, Dimmsdale was overwhelmed with guilt, not only for what he had done, but for the fact that he had hypocritically led the Puritans who prosecuted Hester when she failed to name the father. After his sincere confession of guilt, he bought the farm. The movie changed him from a hypocrite into a noble romantic, and let him live happily ever after with his lover and daughter.

The movie is sort of a prequel to the book, in which we see the details of how Hester and the Reverend got it on in the first place. Some of the events in the book are used in the film's plotting, but the spirit of the book is not really retained. I'm not sure it could be, except in a non-commercial movie targeted at a small audience. This particular film hoped for a mainstream audience, in fact required a mainstream audience to justify its $50 million budget; although, with the benefit of hindsight, that hope now seems to have been far-fetched, to say the least.

There are two redeeming virtues to the film: a very fine performance by Gary Oldman as Dimmsdale, and what looks to be beautiful cinematography. Why did I qualify it with a "looks to be"? Because the DVD is a dark, blurry transfer that looks to have been mastered from a camcorder bootleg. Of course, we can rule that out, since nobody would go to the trouble of bootlegging this boring film. I doubt if you could stay awake during the 135 minutes necessary to hold that camcorder on your shoulder.

Even though the photography can be beautiful, I wasn't very impressed with the way they used the footage. I'm not sure how you feel about montages and corny dissolves, but of you like those, you're gonna love Dimmsdale's sermon, in which his echoing words are heard behind multiple images of his face fading in and out in a romantic haziness, as if he were an additional character in that song about Abraham, Martin, and John.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Full-screen format

  • no features

The poor quality of the transfer is matched by the complete lack of features, and the fact that the only version available is in a pan-n-scan TV ratio (4:3).


Tuna's thoughts

The Scarlet Letter (1995), according to the best frame in the film during the opening credits, claims to be "freely adapted from the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne" Normally, that would be good news, as Hawthorn is far from America's most accessible author. I left parochial school for public in 11th grade, which meant that the last two years of High School were pretty much review for me. Because of this, and the fact that, for the first time, I was thrown in with something far more interesting than academics - girls - I concentrated on social development. English curriculum was developed by the district, and was pretty rigid. 11th grade English had to cover The Scarlet Letter, upon which a formal term paper had to be written, and some other novel that I don't recall for reasons that will become clear. To cut down on cheating, half of the classes would do Scarlet Letter first semester, and half second semester. So first semester, I was faced with weeks of discussion on The Scarlet Letter, and the requirement for a formal term paper. The policy was that if you didn't do the term paper, you failed. This didn't really conflict with my personal policy not to do formal term papers, and I learned that summer school dropped the term paper requirement because it was a six week course during the summer.

I had my solution, and to make sure I didn't get any further grief from the teacher, I transferred to a different English class for second semester. Unfortunately for me, second semester was The Scarlet Letter semester in that class. So, I got to sit through several weeks of classes about the Scarlet Letter. Since there were two semesters in summer school, this was still not a problem. However, U. S. History required a formal term paper. So, first semester of summer school, I took English, which did, you guessed it, The Scarlet Letter. Not only that, but it was a district wide class, so I got to hear discussion from students from every school in the district, and was also loaned Cliff Notes and other critical reviews. Unfortunately, I had to take second semester of 11th grade English in my senior year, but the formal term paper had been moved to the other semester. The teacher was in his first year, was rather insecure, and drooled. The class was immediately after lunch, which was my nap time.

Not a problem. After three semesters devoted to The Scarlet Letter, I just plain knew the book, all of the popular interpretations, and many obscure ones. I trained myself, when awakened, to stand and say, "Could you please repeat the question?" I would walk into class, put my head on the desk, and go to sleep. The teacher did his level best to catch me with a question, but the truth was that I knew the book better than he did.

All of this is to show that I know the novel, and there has never been such freedom before as that taken by the folks who adapted this screenplay. Given unlimited artistic license, they could have created a good film. Bottom line, they didn't. The transfer is as bad as the film, and is presented in a bare bones 4/3 ratio transfer that is noisier than a new VHS copy, dark, and over-saturated. The film is universally reviled, and rightly so.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: one and a half stars. Ebert 1.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4,

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it an atrocious and well-deserved 4.3/10. it scored fairly well only with girls under 18.
  • with their dollars: a complete disaster. Made for $50 million, it grossed $10 million. Whoever greenlighted this project should have realized that in advance.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a D+. (Tuna: D) A film rescued from complete atrociousness by Oldman's forceful, heartfelt performance and some good cinematography and period reproduction. But a very long, boring, sappy, improbable story that really has almost nothing to do with either 1660's New England or Hawthorne's book. I did learn, however, that Puritan women in the 17th century sometimes had surgically augmented breasts.

Return to the Movie House home page