As a screenwriter Nathaniel Hawthorne never made it in the film world. Unlike Charles Dickens, who has had 168 films adapted from his writings, poor Hawthorne has had only 30 cinematic attempts based on his stories and novels. His intellectualism and obsession with sin just doesn't translate well to the screen. Not that filmmakers haven't tried. Twelve adaptations have been created from The Scarlet Letter, if we include Demi Moore's dreadful "hot tub" version, complete with contrived women's liberation messages, Indian wars, and ridiculous mechanical red bird to symbolize her "passion."
As a former English teacher charged with college preparatory classes in American literature, finding a suitable video adaptation for The Scarlet Letter had long been a priority. The pathetic 1934 Colleen Moore version was better left on the library shelf, and students continued to struggle with Hawthorne's weighty prose (or more likely, find ways to avoid reading it). But then a miracle occurred.
In 1979 the good folks of Boston's public broadcasting system put together a four-part mini-series starring green-eyed Meg Foster that was truly faithful to the text and remained dramatic enough to capture the attention of high school students obligated to sift though Hawthorne's symbolic romance. The biggest challenge was locating an affordable copy (initially the tape series cost $400), but now the WGBH production has tapes and DVDs available at affordable prices, so English teachers and students alike can rejoice.
Not designed for theatrical release, director Rick Hauser strives for a literate presentation with high production values, filmed primarily at Rhode Island's Fort Adams State Park. As with the book, the opening Custom House sequence is extraneous—serving only to grant credibility and believability, but the opening voice over sequence quoting a key ironic description of the Puritan community signals that this production will feature no silly hot tubs or extraneous diversions from Hawthorne's text:
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.
Not every symbolic detail from Hawthorne's text survives the cuts (like blatant visuals of the prison door rose or streams of light in the forest), but each character remains fiercely loyal to the text. Foster's Hester Prynne bears her punishment and isolation with the same strength that the fictional heroine endures, but she adds the emotional aspects that Hawthorne implies in key areas—her fears and frustrations over impish Pearl, her empathy for Roger Chillingworth (Kevin Conway), her deep rooted passion for Arthur Dimmesdale (John Heard).
In fact, the previews provided ample opportunity to trick the lascivious minded teens I was teaching to read the important Forest scenes closely to seek Hawthorne's "sex" scenes. Every year I used this version, it was easy to play off Foster's strong emotions and the fact that she was to meet her secret lover ... alone ... in the forest to convince students that Hawthorne's high minded prose was going to get down and dirty. Some things are better left to the imagination, and the producers for this version expertly tread the same path, teasing with passionate kissing but discretely leaving the rest off-screen.
What remains onscreen are literate dialogues culled directly from the text, and theatrically produced scenes that faithfully preserve Hawthorne's tale of "human frailty and sorrow"—visual Cliff Notes plot summaries. Of course, some discourses sound unnatural initially but so too does the original text. Occasional voiceovers effectively supply necessary nuances to the story to convey Hawthorne's intentional ambiguities while John Morris' evocative score adds to the melancholy tone.
Most of all the film clearly establishes the symbolic and allegorical nature of the tale. Each of the four main characters represents ideas and the stylized acting communicates this well—from Hester's noble strength, Dimmesdale's guilt ridden deterioration, Chillingworth's obsessive hatred, and Pearl's innocent impishness. Although the various children that play little Pearl come off especially mechanical, the three adults bring enough humanity to the morality tale to make it palatable.
Considering how difficult it is to film a deliberate allegory that dwells so much on theological issues about the nature of sin, Hauser's four part adaptation of The Scarlet Letter stands upon the scaffold as the most literate and definitive version of the classic. Never designed to play for mainstream audiences or attract a large public following, the mini-series belongs in the film library of every academic institution that teaches Hawthorne's "sweet moral blossom" as a starting point for exploring deeper levels within the literature. Boston's public broadcasting service has done well by not only painting the romance's essential plot accurately, but preserving its spirit—for that, the production deserves an "A."
Note: The DVD contains a few extras that may interest literature teachers. Besides some brief behind the scenes snippets, one useful resource is a series of open-ended discussion questions that primarily compare various aspects of the novel.