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Scarlet Letter Novel vs. Movie

Films of this age are often criticized for lacking ‘substance’ and compensate for this discrepancy with explosions and elaborate camera work. Books, on the other hand, demand a bit more respect from the general public. Many believe that concocting a script is an unsophisticated mode of writing, a copper to the gold of a novel. After careful scrutiny of both, the novel, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and viewing the rendition of the Scarlet Letter by Roland Joffe, one can immediately comprehend the enormous amount of work put into both, as well as the innumerable differences and similarities between them. It is easy enough to discern the common and uncommon features but one must think of why the filmmaker may have used specific lighting, or how colours were used to symbolize themes from the book. Analysis answers the questions: How did the two differ? How were they the same? Why did the filmmaker make these decisions?

The film is freely adapted from the novel. The word “free” describing the modification is well used; there are major differences in regard to time usage, characterization, visual imagery and symbolism, narration, plot, and tone. The first hour of the movie was devoted to informing the viewer about the background. The film was set in motion when Hester arrived in the New World, not at the grim prison door she passed through on her way to the scaffold in the novel. Many characters not included in the novel were inserted into the film, several of whom were pivotal to the plot. Mituba, Hester’s introverted slave girl, Brewster, the coarse, undisciplined rule-breaker, Goody Gotwick, the mouthpiece of the community’s “pious women,” and Minister Cheever, the influential church leader who attempted to serve as the judge of the community’s morals did not exist in the novel. Mistress Hibbins’ relationship with Governor Bellingham was ambiguous and not well portrayed. It was almost as if they were acquaintances. In the book, their connection prevented her persecution, whereas, in the movie, no familial bond protected mistress Hibbins from the cruel witch trials typical of the seventeenth century.

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Her minor function in the book evolved into an imperative role in the movie. In addition to Hester, mistress Hibbins was as the only character that behaved according to her personal beliefs and not the traditional values of the Puritans. Dimmesdale’s character was stronger in the film and certainly less beleaguered. He did not appear to suffer any internal conflict and was actively involved in all occasions except for one involving Mistress Hibbins, when he became furious that Hester had hidden her from the magistrates. He longed for Hester to name him as her co-sinner and genuinely despised hiding behind a hypocritical silence. When Hester refused to name her lover in the book, Dimmesdale had this reaction: “ ‘She will not speak!’ murmured Dimmesdale, who, leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his appeal. He now drew back, with a long respiration. ‘Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak!” He was calmed by the fact that Hester possessed such strength.

The pressure was off him. He sighed and sat back while admiring her courage. In the same scene in the film, the viewer could see only Dimmesdale’s pleading physiognomy and a distorted mass of spectators while he begged Hester to reveal him, to purge him of his sin. Dimmesdale also displayed tremendous strength through tirelessly visiting Hester’s prison cell every day, disregarding the convention that she was to receive no visitors; each day he was wrestled from the prison door by several beadles. In the novel, Dimmesdale was not inclined to do anything with the possibility of arousing suspicion. Chillingsworth had little affect on Dimmesdale in the film. Hester provided her lover with an abundance of information about her ex- husband; within seconds of their meeting; Dimmesdale was very alert to the “black man’s” presence. Chillingsworth’s evil influence played more of a public role, not restricted to the slow consumption of a weak man’s sanity and conscience. Chillingworth stirred the community into hatred for the Indians. The characterization of Pearl in the film differed largely from her sprite-like appearance, “unencumbered by rule” attitude she adopted in the book. She appeared as a sweet, obedient child. Pearl showed no real interest her mother’ letter; it was she who discarded it beneath the horse carriage as Hester, Dimmesdale, and herself left at the conclusion of the film for their new life in the Carolinas. In Hawthorne’s novel, Pearl held the letter as almost an appendage of her mother’s. She sketch it, brood over it, and refused to speak with her mother the few times she removed it from her breast, intractably fixing herself on the opposite side of the stream from Dimmesdale and Hester; she was wild and untamed.

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More emphasis was placed on the outward lives of the characters because of the visual nature all film; one cannot hear their emotionally tortured thoughts. Hester, for example, seems to be living a reasonably happy life with Pearl and Mituba. She is viewed as taking the circumstances well because of her tough public face and her callous personality. Many hours of film devoted to displaying her thoughts and feelings would be required in order to effectively show the viewer what the reader sees.

There are also a number of plot differences between the film and the novel, some of which emanate from the introduction of new characters. Chillingsworth hung himself after accidentally scalping Brewster instead of Dimmesdale; in the book he died a year after Dimmesdale passed away on the scaffold. Hester’s affair was revealed when she gave birth to Pearl, but in the film she admitted it herself when Goody Gotwick told the magistrates she believed Hester was suffering from morning sickness.

Several other minute details differed in the film, such as the infamous “A.” The film version of the letter was fairly simple: a solid, capital, bright red “A” with a black background, definitely not a masterwork of embroidery. The “A” of the novel was finely sewn in gold thread on a blazing, fervent background; it was a renowned ignominy of both, passion and sin. The prison door Hawthorne acquainted the reader with was eroded and implanted with spikes, which encompassed gloom, and oppression, not newly built of entwined with iron.

The fates of the characters were much different as well. Hester and Dimmesdale escaped to live a blissful life in the Carolinas at the end of the film. Chillingsworth hung himself. Hester’s services to the community were minimal or nonexistent. She seemed only to relate well with Mistress Hibbins and some of the other women who are not part of the strict Puritan community. Pearl is narrator of the film. Pearl seems more impartial in her views than the narrator in the novel. There was more of a sense of having to achieve atonement for sin in the novel hence Pearl’s depiction as being almost a devil-child.

Some of the similarities noted in both the novel and the film are the concepts of original sin, lust, the symbolic use of the color red, Chillingworth’s evil nature, the theme of the uncivilized and witchcraft, and the Puritanical obsession with rules and order. Hawthorne and Joffe both placed an emphasis on the concept of original sin. Hester, upon first seeing her new home in the film, referred to it as a paradise, her version of “Eden.” The book’s early symbol of the rosebush gave the reader some idea of how the narrator felt about sin. While the rose was beautiful, it was guarded by thorns and bloomed directly outside the prison door; its positive and negative traits were inseparable. In other words, while love and passion are beautiful, they cannot be separated from the conscience and concept of sin. The city in the film was saturated with evil; it was governed strictly by rules alone. It was no more saintly in its virtuous beliefs than Hester and Dimmesdale. While the viewer had a sense that the narrator felt that what happened between Hester and Dimmesdale was “consecrated by God”, the theme of punishment for sin persists. Pearl, at the film’s conclusion, stated that her father’s death at a young age and her mother’s consequent loneliness were probably a punishment for their behavior. Lust is an important theme of the novel, and central to the film’s development. In his sermon, Dimmesdale spoke of the power of divine love, and how it must exist between Indians and free men and slaves. He also preached of lust, but not merely in the physical sense. With great force, he urged his parishioners to avoid lusting after what is not theirs, but interestingly used money and other trappings of power as his example.

The Scarlet Letter’s filmmaker, Roland Joffe, also utilized coloring in his film just as Hawthorne did. A slight, brilliant red bird was used as a visual reminder of Hawthorne’s metaphors. The bird first glided across the screen when Hester was planting her garden. Joffe silenced all background noise and music while the bird, in nearly slow motion, flapped out of the forest. The effect was abstract and dreamlike; all focus was on the radiant bird. Time resumed its perpetual course once again, and the bird flew into the enigmatic forest. Hester was as shocked as the Joffe intended the viewer to be, and followed the bird through the vegetation to a forest paradise, where she first laid eyes on Dimmesdale swimming nude in clear water. The red bird, obviously the inducement directing her to her co-sinner, was strongly linked to the themes of life, to the mischievous nature of the forest, and to Dimmesdale. The bird was used a symbol again when Hester and Dimmesdale were having their affair in the barn. During this scene, Joffe cut back and forth from the couple to Mituba bathing sensually with the red bird by her side. As Hawthorne used the color red to show Pearl’s passion and life, Joffe utilized the bird as an equally powerful symbol. Thus, Joffe created a different symbol to make a similar point. Joffe used a variation of scarlet in defining Chillingsworth’s character, rather than ebony overtones in the book, but once again to prove the same point of Chillingsworth’s evil. When he reunited with Hester, he wore a faded jacket of an unattractive, repulsive red. Brewster’s bleeding scalp was the same lifeless red. The use of the color red for Pearl’s blanket and clothing as a symbol of life, love and passion is used in the film and novel as well. In both works, she consistently dressed in a bright crimson dress or clutched a red blanket in stark contrast to the grays and blacks of the other characters in both the film and the novel. Chillingworth is the embodiment of evil in both the novel and the film.

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The symbolism of the forest is used similarly to the novel. Hester’s home is on the border of the forest and the sea; inside the forest in the novel displays her wishes to be as close to nature as possible. Her being near nature takes her away from the town, illustrating her alienation. Her link to the wild and witchcraft is strengthened in the movie, but was also evident in the book. The theme of the Puritan founding fathers’ evil is stressed. As in the novel, the characters are not portrayed as innately evil, but merely bound by laws at the expense of human suffering. At the start of the film, the founding fathers and magistrates were taken aback when Hester showed a will to live in her own way, and told her sternly “rules and order equal survival.”

Joffe took many liberties with the book. First of all, by beginning the film where he did, Joffe gave the viewer more insight into Hester’s character. Her strength and recklessness is seen immediately; she bids on Mituba, her indentured servant forgets to attend church, and live alone in her company. The town elders immediately disapprove. In adding characters, the viewer is provided with more insight into the filmmaker’s moral code. Mituba is the essence of loyalty, susceptibility and innocence; her violent murder acts as the first sign of Chillingworth’s completely cruel and volatile temperament. The development of Mistress Hibbins’ character adds needed warmth to the film; she has a weird sense of humor and upon first meeting Hester knows that she is in love with minister. She is portrayed as someone who can see the truth of the human soul.

Johnny Sassamon, an English-speaking Algonquin who is Dimmesdale’s best friend, is a minor character. The fact that the minister’s best friend is an Indian shows both his open mind and his good nature as well as his link to that which is “uncivilized” and not of Puritan ideals.

Brewster is first portrayed as a kindred spirit to Hester, who finds Hester her home. However, by the end of the film, he has tried to rape her and is seen as almost as evil as Chillingworth. His character is the result of a lack of rules, both external and internal. While Hester doesn’t choose to abide by the rules of society, her internal sense of right and wrong is powerful. Thus, Joffe makes the point that rules are important, but not all. In using Pearl as the narrator, Joffe gives a more personalized portrayal of the situation. Obviously, she empathizes with her parents’ situation. Also, she is expressing a more contemporary perspective; one that a modern audience could relate to more easily than the book’s narrator. His creativity enhanced this story in several ways. It is a story dealing with love, passion, and beauty, the use of picturesque images to convey these feelings certainly gave a level of quality to his work. The use of the bright red of Pearl’s clothing and the bird versus the faded blood red associated with Chillingworth is quite effective in portraying the themes of love versus hate. The casting is successful as Demi Moore, while not as beautiful as one may have imagined from the novel, pulls off an image of strength that many other actresses would not have. Her strong jaw and physical strength contrast to Gary Oldman’s slender build, long wavy hair and fine features. In appearance alone, she comes across as the stronger character. Pearl’s role is played by a little girl who shares a remarkable resemblance to both Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, which adds to the realism of the film. The addition of Mituba’s mute, sensitive character is important because her murder at Chillingworth’s hands displays his total corruption by revenge. Brewster’s character exhibits the traits of a person governed by no rules or order. The development of Mistress Hibbins’ character adds humor and interest to the film; Hester’s life seems less bleak with her presence. This, intermixed with the more positive ending, was probably aimed to appease the modern viewer who will always choose a less realistic, happy ending to a tragic one that pulls the story together. It was also interesting that in the end of the film, the town is at last seen in a state of total chaos; proving that the founding fathers wrong; rules and order do not equal survival, because the town did not survive. The Indians, however, did, and proved to be the ultimate downfall of this group of people governed only by austere external rules, not the rules of true morals.

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The change in the time frame was helpful in explaining how Hester evolved as she did. There was less of a sense of spirituality in the film, however. The scaffold scene where Pearl, Hester and Dimmesdale are on the scaffold at night with the brilliant light in the night sky was missing and would have added a more mystical sense. At times the film seemed more like a modern love story, once again, to appease the modern audience.

In the film, Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale move to the Carolinas to start a new life, while in Hawthorne’s novel, Pearl lives a full life, her mother serving the community and her father dying on the scaffold. Neither ending is “better,” one may be more satisfying and another may be more informative. One may favor the film over the novel or vice versa, but despite one’s preference the amount of work put into both cannot be overlooked. Using the novel as a foundation from which to gauge his work, the filmmaker created his own work of art, cutting and pasting different parts, as he felt necessary. The filmmaker’s rendition also reserved some themes and characters from the novel, for either higher ratings in the box office or for his own personal gratification. The film and novel have their similarities and differences, but both effectively keep the audience (or reader) in suspense, leaving them begging to know what happens next.

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