“The Scarlet Letter” was written by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne at the end of the nineteenth century. An enormously popular work of fiction, it has been reproduced numerous times as a movie, an opera, and other forms of entertainment. Probably the most famous screen adaptation is “The Scarlet Letter” by Douglas Day Stewart, which was aired in 1995, a hundred years after the novel. The differences in values and approaches to writing have underscored the distinctions between the original “The Scarlet Letter” and its 1995 media portrayal.
The first difference is the story, which unfolds uniquely in the book and the movie. The book follows a young woman Hester, who lives in Puritan Boston. She is considered guilty of committing the crime of adultery by giving birth to a daughter, Pearl, without a legal father. After the trial, she reunites with her husband, Chillingworth, who is furious and demands to know who the father is. Hester refuses to surrender the minister of the church, Dimmesdale, who is the real father. Dimmesdale feels guilt while Chillingworth wants revenge. Ultimately, both men come to terms with feelings by confessing and forgiving, which ends in death.
The movie version is drastically different in large part due to the modern bias. Firstly, the film makes a love story. Dimmesdale in the novel acts on his instantaneous desire: “this had been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose” (Li 88). In the film, he acts out of love and readily accepts the consequences. Similarly, Chillingworth is portrayed as a vile man out for revenge, while his book counterpart is a mistreated person who looks for justice (Zhang 223). Finally, the ending is changed from tragic, where both men die, to a happy one, where Hester happily lives with her daughter and Dimmesdale.
The differences in the storyline precipitated varying themes. Whereas the book explores the theme of social stigma and guilt, the movie is about liberating love. At no point does the movie Dimmesdale shows remorse or think he had sinned. At the same time, in the novel, he openly states: “The law we broke!—the sin here awfully revealed! –let these alone be in thy thought! I fear!” (Li 89). In the movie, he is driven by love: “I cannot leave here. I must stay here, and watch you and Pearl” (Li 89). The all-defeating love is a hallmark of Hollywood, which also changes the nature of “The Scarlet Letter”.
The film cannot help but use the modern views of norms and values in the critique of strict Puritan conventions. For instance, the illegal conception is judged as a crime in the novel, and the audience is supposed to perceive Hester and Dimmesdale as sinners. The movie reverses the entire paradigm by actively advancing the notion that religion should not stand in the way of true love (Bhatt 4). As a result, the audience sympathizes with the struggles of the lovers, but the initial value of moral restrictions is lost.
Altogether, “The Scarlet Letter” is an exemplary case of shifting values and mainstream beliefs. The novel was a tale of stigmatizing, humiliation, and shame. The movie transformed the story into a romantic quest for love against the constraining religion and ideals of Puritan society. Overall, even though the characters, the setting, and most of the main events are the same, in reality, both creations are different artistic expressions of their respective periods.
Bhatt, Smita B. “A Film Version of Nathaniel Hawthrone’s Novel The Scarlet Letter.” Englishes Today, vol. 2, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1-5.
Li, Ruiqing. “A Different The Scarlet Letter: Comparison between Novel and Film.” Social Science and Humanity, pp. 86-91.
Zhang, Xin-yu. “A Comparative Analysis of The Scarlet Letter from Fiction to Movie.” DEStech Transactions on Economics, Business and Management (ECED), 2017, pp. 222-224.