Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Shame of “The Scarlet Letter”

I’m not going to put up any pictures for this post. No pictures of the DVD cover, no promo pictures – nada - because I don’t want to encourage you to see this movie. If, after reading this review (such as it is), you still feel the need to inflict this piece of crap on yourself, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The opening credits of the film state that the script was “freely adapted” from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn. “Freely adapted?” Ha! The film was loosely based on the book. Very loosely, in that it contained most of the same characters as the book and some of the things that happened in the book also happened in the film – but not in the same vein, the same tone or with the same meaning.

So loosely was the adaptation that it seems hardly fair to even try to compare the two. As a matter of fact, there are many who feel that the film should be judged on its own merit without comparing it to the book, claiming that the cinematography was beautiful (it was) and the soundtrack was fantastic (it was not). Well, hey, cinematography aside, there’s plenty to criticize, even without comparisons. And yet, because this film claims to be based on Hawthorn’s novel, viewers who have actually read the book (and contrary to what Demi Moore thinks, there are many, many who have, indeed, read it) will expect to see the same story, the same characters, the same chain of events. They will, of course, be left wondering what the hell book the screen writer read. And because the film claims to be based on Nathanial Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter and not Joe Bob Smith’s “The Secret Lives of Mistress Prynne and The Slave Girl,” I do feel it is appropriate, even necessary, to draw comparisons.

I was actually disappointed when I originally heard that Gary Oldman had been cast as Arthur Dimmesdale. Prior to this he had been cast in the role of fairly strong characters. Ok, there are some notable exceptions; Sid Vicious and Jack Grimaldi come quickly to mind. Still, I was really not interested in seeing him portray a sniveling, shackled coward, which I had always considered Dimmesdale to be. And, thanks to this script, I didn’t have to.

In fact, we didn’t get to see Oldman portray much of anything. The Arthur Dimmesdale in this film is an ‘almost character’ – a shallow, shadow of a character that was barely even loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Arthur Dimmesdale. To make up for this – I guess – there are aspects of the movie Dimmesdale that, while enjoyable, even titillating to many of Oldman’s fans, were not evident in Hawthorn’s Dimmesdale. For example; the movie Dimmesdale’s apparent penchant for swimming in the nude. Whew! The chat rooms and forums are still buzzing over that. Apparently it was a very big deal for some of Mr. Oldman’s fans to get to see a shadowy underwater image of his package. Yeah…...more on that later.

We see hints of humor in this Dimmesdale that I don’t remember seeing in Hawthorn’s Dimmesdale. Considering how well Gary Oldman incorporates humor into his roles and considering that the novel needed a little leavening to make it palatable to the majority of movie-goers, that would not have been an unwelcome addition. But those hints of humor are never fully developed and pass by almost unnoticed. It’s almost as though they were scribbled in pencil in the margins as an afterthought. Or maybe that was just Gary Oldman’s inner hilarity peeking out at us as he laughed at himself for ever agreeing to do this rotten thing.

We do see evidence of the inner torment Hawthorn imbued in Dimmesdale over his “sin” with Hester in scenes where he speaks to Hester, both in private and in public; once begging her to reveal her lover before the town when she stands on the scaffold for public chastisement. But, again, these scenes are so underdeveloped that a lesser actor would never have been able to convey the Reverend’s inner torment with these woefully inadequate lines. Oldman does manage to convey Dimmesdale’s pain and guilt, but only to a certain extent. I was left with the feeling that Dimmesdale was giving lip-service to his guilt, more than anything, and that he was really more than happy to keep his part a secret from the community. This was about the only thing that rang true to the character of Hawthorn’s Dimmesdale but it did not gibe with the rest of what it seemed the movie was trying to depict. That is….I think…..well, it’s kind of hard to figure out what the movie was trying to depict.

We also see evidence of Dimmesdale’s inner torment in scenes where he stands on the scaffold in the town square at night, in the rain, scoring his palm on a nail sticking out of the gallows. Huh???? Give me a break. The scene would have been better if Dimmesdale had just been standing in the rain crying and beating his breast.

So what about the reason for Arthur Dimmesdale’s inner torment? Just what did he do that caused him to carry around so much guilt? He had a love affair with Hester Prynne that resulted in a pregnancy. And when it was discovered that Hester was pregnant she refused to reveal her lover’s identity and asked Arthur not to admit to the town that he was her lover; and Arthur agreed to keep silent. They had a couple of conversations about this – nothing really heated or passionate, just slightly intense conversations – and Arthur appeared to be trying to look unhappy about the agreement, saying something like “You’re strength strangles me.” I saw more obnoxious rebelliousness than strength in Moore’s portrayal of Hester and the implied helplessness in Arthur came out sappy and poorly romanticized.

The reason that Hester had to keep the name of her lover secret is muddled and never intelligently explained. According to the movie, the two faced hanging if they admitted their “sin” together. Arthur was especially at risk of being hung. But if Hester never named her lover she would not be hung because adultery was a crime but pregnancy was not, even after Hester admitted that she was carrying a bastard child; not to mention that her husband was presumed dead and had never even been in America before his presumed death. Huh???? I can’t really follow this reasoning and I won’t even try. That way lies idiocy. But ok, for the sake of the……..plot? Yeah, that’s it, the plot; we’ll say that this is true. If the two of them admit it together they’ll be hung but if Hester, alone, is caught in an out of wedlock pregnancy she won’t be hung.

Anyway, this is the reason for Dimmesdale’s inner torment. He feels guilty because Hester has to bear the solitary burden of punishment for their affair. Oh, did I forget to mention that Dimmesdale’s guilt and anguish are major elements of the book? Yeah, well, they are - major elements of the book. They are just thrown in to the movie - another after thought. “Oh yeah, Dimmesdale’s supposed to feel bad about Hester taking all the blame and stuff. Oops. Let’s have him stagger out into the rain some night and….ummmmm….. hmmmm….oh hell, he can gash his hand open on a nail or something.”

Of course, after all the scenes of Demi Moore naked, Gary Oldman naked, and Mituba, the slave girl, masturbating with a candle in the bathtub (WTF?), there wasn’t an awful lot of room left over for most elements of the book. My personal opinion is that this production was already in the works before anyone actually read the screenplay and then someone yelped, “Oh my god, have you read this? This’ll never sell. Quick add lots of skin and some sex! Give people a good enough look at Demi’s naked body and no one will ever notice how bad the script is.”

I don’t think the ploy worked. says the film cost $46 million to make and only grossed a little over $10 million in domestic ticket sales.

I thought that Gary Oldman did an adequate job in his role and that’s just not something I ever wanted to have to say about Mr. Oldman. But frankly, I didn’t see the possibility for anything other than adequacy in the role he was given to play. Even though I was not thrilled about the prospect of seeing Gary Oldman play Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Arthur Dimmesdale, I was even less thrilled to see him forced into this shadow of a character; this pathetic attempt to sell lots of tickets to ignorant movie-goers just for the sake of a couple of big box-office names. “Ooooo, it’s got Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. It’s gotta be good. Two tickets, please.” Yeah, well, I guess the American viewing public isn’t as stupid as Hollywood thinks it is. Or wasn’t. Methinks the times they are a-changin’.

And that’s why I decided to write about this movie, although, the Spirits know, I did not want to. I saw this thing way back in 1995 or 96, when it originally came out, hated it and did my best to never think of it again. But, foolishly, I watched it again last week on Flix. Don’t ask me why; I just don’t know. That perverse part of me that can’t look away from a train wreck changed the channel and there I sat, mortified for Gary Oldman all over again.

Well, there was one reason I watched; I wondered about the reason behind Flix’s programming. According to their promotions, they were running films starring various members of the Brat Pack – Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, etc. The two films they were promoting for that weekend were “From the Hip” with Judd Nelson, and “The Scarlet Letter” with Demi Moore. It had been a long time since I’d seen the movie and I really didn’t remember all that much about Demi Moore’s performance in the film. Since Flix was running this particular film for Demi Moore instead of something she was actually good in, I thought I might have been wrong about how bad she was in “The Scarlet Letter.”

I was not wrong. In fact, the casting of Demi Moore in the role of Hester Prynne scores right up there (or down there) with the writing on this film. There are actors, like Gary Oldman, who can play any part. They are virtual chameleons, changing their body language, their voices and their appearance to give astounding performances. But those actors are few and far between and Demi Moore is not one of them. Although I will say this for her, she does a damned good love scene. I found myself comparing my intimate-moments-self to her performance and coming up severely lacking. I could really hate that woman, ya’ know? Poor Mr. Oldman was just along as a prop in that scene.

Anyway, I was curious about the reactions of other people to this movie, since Flix chose it for their Brat Pack showcase, and I went to a couple of websites to see if there were any recent comments about it. There were. And that’s where I got really pissed.

Yes, there were plenty of bad reviews, plenty of people angry because of the rotten screenplay and because of the way it detoured around the book. But there were even more people who were gushing and cooing over seeing Gary Oldman naked. What???? These people profess to be fans of Gary Oldman and yet all they seemed to notice in this movie was his bare body. People! WTF?

This is why we get such crappy movies. This gushing and drooling over seeing an actor in the buff takes precedence over seeing an actor give a good performance with a well-written script. Instead of getting another “Immortal Beloved” or another “State of Grace” we got “The Scarlet Letter”. And instead of screaming that we’ve been cheated you people are delirious because you caught a glimpse of Gary Oldman’s penis!

And you wonder, in your forums and your chat rooms, why he hates publicity? You wonder why you don’t see him out and about more and you pine for just a glimpse of him. He doesn’t come out because he’s afraid you’ll grab his crotch and run, you idiots! If I were Gary Oldman I would never leave the house without a big, bushy wig and a fake nose.

Even when we get a performance that astounds, you talk about how beautiful he was, how sexy he was, and never mention his performance. Someone please tell me, how do you get “sexy” out of Shelly Runyon? And why aren’t you more impressed with Oldman’s flawless mastery of a Midwestern accent than with the color of his eyes? Why don’t you carry on about how he looked and walked and moved completely different as Shelly Runyon and then again as Buford Dill?

Professing to be a fan of someone while completely ignoring their actual accomplishments baffles me. If Gary Oldman was nothing but a pair of blue eyes on top of a sweet, sexy mouth with no appreciable talent, I could understand this. Hey, I didn’t watch “The Fast and The Furious” twice because I like fast cars. But when an actor consistently gives performances that amaze and astound, when he proves his skill and talent in role after role, how can his so-called fans continually ignore his incredible performances in favor of his appearance? And how can his fans fail to be upset when he is given absolute rubbish to play? How can you do it, folks?

I don’t blame Mr. Oldman for being tired of acting. I would imagine it’s very hard to maintain your enthusiasm for an occupation when the talent and skill and hard work that go into that occupation are constantly ignored and instead you are judged solely on your physical appearance.

And I can’t really blame Hollywood for churning out the crap they’ve been shoveling to us these past few years. Hell, why bother paying good money for a decent script and actors when all you have to do to keep the public happy is show some pretty bodies? Unfortunately, those of us who are not satisfied with crap are left wanting.