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The Scarlet Letter: Novel Vs. Film

Films of this era are criticized for lacking “substance” and making up for this deficit with explosions and special effects. Books command a bit more respect from the general public. Many believe that devising a script is a juvenile form of writing, a shrub to the oak of a novel. Upon reading both the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and viewing the film produced by Roland Joffe, one can immediately notice the intense work put into both. , as well as the many differences and similarities between them.

It takes more thought to progress past these common and uncommon factors, to think of why the filmmaker may have used a certain lighting, or how colors 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 adaptation is well used- there are major differences in terms of time frame, characters, visual imagery and symbolism, plot, narration, and tone.

Nearly an hour of information the reader received only as background was on tape. The film began when Hester arrived in the New World, not at the dreary prison door she passed through on her way to the scaffold in the novel. Many characters were added to the film, several of whom were central to the plot. Mituba, Hester’s mute slave girl, Brewster, the lewd, undisciplined rule-breaker, Goody Gotwick, the mouthpiece of the community’s “pious women,” and Minister Cheever, the powerful church leader who attempted to serve as arbiter of the community’s morals did not exist in the novel.

Mistress Hibbins’ relationship to Governor Bellingham was of a citizen to ruler nature. In the book, their relationship prevented her persecution, whereas in the movie, no family ties protected mistress Hibbins from the cruel witch trials characteristic of the 1600’s. Her character progressed from minor in the book to a supporting role in the movie. She served as the only character besides Hester who behaved according to her personal beliefs, and not the conformities of the Puritans. Dimmesdale’s character was stronger in the film; less tormented.

He did not appear to have heart trouble, (although it was mentioned when the film commenced that he died before Pearl reached her teens) and took a dynamic role in all occasions except for one involving Mistress Hibbins, when he became angry that Hester hid 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! urmured 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 soothed upon discovering Hester’s strength. He sighed and sat back, the pressure off him, while he marveled at her courage. In the exact scene in the film, the viewer could see only Dimmesdale’s pleading face and a blurred mass of spectators while he begged Hester to reveal him, to liberate him of his sin.

Dimmesdale also displayed his strength through tirelessly visiting Hester’s prison cell every day, disregarding the rules that she could receive no visitors, and each day he was wrestled from the prison door by several beadles. In writing, Dimmesdale was not inclined to do anything with the potential of arousing suspicion. Chillingsworth had little influence on Dimmesdale in the film. Hester provided her lover with a wealth of information about her ex- husband; within seconds of their meeting, Dimmesdale was fully aware of the presence of the “black man.

Chillingsworth’s evil influence played more of a public role, not restricted to a gnawing one weak man to wretchedness. Rather than making vague, fleeting comments to Dimmesdale on their sprawling walks, he agitated the community into hatred for the Indians. Pearl’s film characterization differed largely from her sprite-like, “unencumbered by rule” attitude she adopted in the book. She appeared as a sweet, tractable child. Pearl showed a lack curiosity of 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 organ of her mother’s. She drew it, pondered it, and refused to talk to her mother the few times she removed it from her breast, stubbornly planting herself across the stream from Dimmesdale and Hester, an animal of the untamed forest. Because of the visual nature all films, more emphasis was placed on the outward lives of the characters; 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. The viewer, however, sees what the townspeople do- only her callused personality. Hours of film of her thoughts and feelings would be needed to effectively show the viewer what the reader sees. There are a number of plot differences between the film and the novel, some of which stemmed from the introduction of new characters. Chillingsworth hung himself after mistakenly scalping Brewster instead of Dimmesdale; in the book he died a year after Dimmesdale passed away on the scaffold.

Hester’s affair was brought to light 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, certainly not a masterpiece of needlework. The “A” of the novel was finely worked in gold thread on a flaming, exuberant background; it was a prominent stigma of passion and sin.

The prison door Hawthorne acquainted the reader with was weather-stained and gloomy, not newly built of intertwined iron. The fates of the characters were much different as well. Hester and Dimmesdale escaped to a fulfilling life in the Carolinas at the end of the film. Chillingsworth hung himself, and no mention is made of Hester giving back to the community as in the book. 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 also used as the narrator in the film. The narrator of the novel seems to express more personal opinions than Pearl does and clearly holds some Puritanical ideas himself. When Hester and Dimmesdale perished, he explained that their headstones were not together and implied that they should not be, for example. 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 and the more religious discussion of the letter A.

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 her “Eden. ” When she was shown in the forest, the symbol of passionate and uncivilized life, she wore her hair down, adorned with vines and flowers, looking very much like artists’ renderings of Eve.

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 protected by thorns and bloomed directly outside the prison door; its positive and negative traits 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 one saturated with evil; it was governed strictly by rules alone. It was no more divine in its righteous beliefs than Hester and Dimmesdale.

While the viewer had a sense that the narrator (and thus the filmmaker) 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, an important theme of the novel, is central to the film’s development also. 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 exhorted 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, mastered the coloring of his film just as Hawthorne did. An interesting visual cue he used was a slight, brilliant red bird. 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 hazy and surreal; all focus was on the radiant animal. Time resumed its interminable course once again, and the bird flew into the dark depths of the forest. Hester was as stunned as the Joffe intended the viewer to be, and trailed the bird through the labyrinth of underbrush and thick vegetation to a forest paradise, where she first laid eyes on Dimmesdale swimming nude in pristine water. The red bird, obviously the temptation leading her to her co-sinner, was strongly tied to the themes of life (planting), to the unruly nature of the forest, and to Dimmesdale.

The bird was used as an unmistakable 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 strong 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, sickly red. A pitcher of reddish liquid was plainly visible on a table behind Chillingsworth when he met Dimmesdale. 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 as the epitome of evil in both the novel and the film.

He is referred to as the “Black Bird of Satan” an interesting juxtaposition to the symbolism of the red bird that Joffe uses. 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- displaying 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 vigorously stressed.

As in the novel, the characters aren’t portrayed as inherently evil, merely bound by laws at the expense of human suffering. At the start of the film, the founding fathers were shocked when Hester showed a will to live in her own way, and told her sternly that “rules and order equal survival. ” Why did Joffe take such liberties with the book? 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 prefers to live alone.

The town elders immediately disapprove. The viewer also learns that she may never have loved her husband but was offered to him in payment of a debt her father had incurred. The viewer is informed of her father’s bitter temperament. In adding characters, the viewer is provided with more insight into the filmmaker’s moral code. Mituba is the epitome of loyalty, vulnerability and innocence; her violent murder serves as the first absolute indicator of Chillingworth’s completely vicious and unstable nature.

The expansion of Mistress Hibbins’ character adds needed warmth to the film; she has a dry sense of humor and upon first meeting Hester knows that she is in love with Dimmesdale. She is portrayed as someone who can see the truth of the human soul, just as Metacomet was able to see that Dimmesdale was the only Puritan with a “true heart. ” 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 heart 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; a fellow rule breaker 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, although not necessarily all rules. In using Pearl as the narrator, Joffe gives a more personalized portrayal of the situation.

Obviously, she is sympathetic to her parents’ situation. She could be mirroring the producer’s own feelings and sympathies. Also, she is expressing a more contemporary perspective; one that a modern audience could relate to more easily than the book’s narrator. Was the filmmaker successful in his rendition of the Scarlet Letter? His creativity enhanced this story in several ways. Because it is a story dealing with love, passion, and beauty, the use of gorgeous 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 are quite effective in portraying the themes of love versus hate. Water imagery immediately shows the viewer a link between Hester and Dimmesdale before they even meet. The viewer’s first glimpse of him is swimming nude; both Hester and Mituba are seen defying the Puritan mores by taking warm baths. The casting is successful as Demi Moore, while not as beautiful as one may have imagined from the novel, radiates a strength that many other actresses wouldn’t.

Her strong jaw and physical strength contrast to Gary Oldman’s willowy 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 bears a remarkable resemblance to both Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, which adds to the reality of the film. The addition of Mituba’s mute, sensitive character is important; her murder at Chillingworth’s hands displays his total corruption by revenge. Brewster’s character plainly exhibits the result of a person governed by no rules or order.

The expansion of Mistress Hibbins’ character adds humor and interest to the film; Hester’s life seems less dour with her presence. This, combined 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 last seen in state of total chaos; thus proving 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 final undoing of this group of people governed only by external rules; not the rules of true morals. 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.

Also, the language was altered to be more understandable to the viewer; this can be seen as another area where the filmmaker was perhaps taking too many liberties with Hawthorne’s story in order to gain more popularity at the box office. In the film, Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale move to the Carolinas to begin a new life, while in Hawthorne’s novel, Pearl lives a full life, her mother working for the community and her father dying on the scaffold. There is no set answer as to which ending is “better,” one may be more fulfilling, another may be more informative, another could touch a child, the other, a parent.

One may favor the film over the novel or vice versa, but that person could not overlook the great care that went into the making of both. Using the novel as a base from which to work, the filmmaker created his own masterpiece, changing and adding elements as he felt necessary. Whether for increased popularity or his own personal satisfaction, the filmmaker’s version also kept some themes and characters. The film and novel have their similarities and differences, but both effectively communicate their meaning to the public.

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