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COUNTERPUNCH LETTERS : Hawthorne's Classic Touch Eludes the 'Scarlet Letter'

November 06, 1995

The one thing that Rosanne Welch and David Poland agree on in their assessments of Roland Joffe's "The Scarlet Letter" is that they hate Hawthorne so much that they did everything they could to avoid reading him ("Does Changing 'Scarlet' Make for a Red-Letter Day?," Calendar, Oct. 30). Welch sees the book narrowly as an anti-feminist morality tale, but to read Hawthorne in that fashion is to ignore the subversive, even feminist currents in the book. At the end of the book, a group of disenfranchised women began to come to Hester Prynne's cottage "demanding [to know] why they were so wretched, and what the remedy." They were comforted by Hester's vision of a "brighter period" in which "a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." These are the women who, in Joffe's version, are accused of witchcraft.

Poland criticizes Joffe for introducing Native Americans as "set dressing," and he may be right in this. But here, and in his introduction of a theme of witchcraft into the plot, Joffe seems to be building up on a larger reading of Hawthorne's works in an attempt to create a prequel to "The Scarlet Letter." Much of the movie, after all, is an attempt to imagine events that led up to the opening scene of the book, when Hester and her child emerge from the prison to face the Puritan crowd.

I don't mind so much the fact that three-quarters of the movie goes by before we get to the events of the novel, but when we do arrive, Joffe's interested guesses at what might have happened before the book starts push him into radical departures from Hawthorne's story that are simply not as interesting as the original. The film's overblown climax is pure Hollywood schlock.

Joffe's movie does make for an obvious allegory for contemporary society--Puritan oppressors murdering a slave girl, labeling single mothers witches, betraying the trust of Native Americans, and repressing women in general can easily be seen as Joffe's stab at the Contract With America, Dan Quayle's attack on single mothers, Pete Wilson's leveling of affirmative action, etc.

In this sense, it is a "Scarlet Letter" for the '90s. With sex, violence and political topicality, the film may be a good ride but it has no lasting interest. Even more than a movie's critics, we expect the director to be a good reader and to appreciate the subtleties and the strengths of the original. By abandoning his commitment to Hawthorne partway through the movie, Joffe abandoned all hope of making his film what "The Scarlet Letter" is--an American classic.

TONY BARNSTONE

Professor of American Literature

Whittier College

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