Article in the March 15, 2000 Salem Evening News

An ‘A’ for Effort

Despite several attempts, stage
and screen adaptations of
Hawthorne’s classic have failed

by Jim McAllister, Salem Historian

Salem—This month, as Salem celebrates the 150th anniversary of the publication of "The Scarlet Letter," it seems to be an appropriate time to look at how Hawthorne's romance has been interpreted on stage and screen.

The book, written in the months following Hawthorne’s humiliating firing from his job at the Salem Custom House, deals with the impact of sin, in this case an act of adultery, on the guilty parties—the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne—and Hester’s vengeful husband, Roger. It is widely considered to be one of America’s greatest literary classics.

"The Scarlet Letter" has never been out of print since its publication in 1850, and many attempts have been made to adapt the story for the stage and screen. References to at least 10 movie versions of the book and five plays can be found either in "Halliwell’s Film Guide" or in the directory of the New York Times theatre reviews.

It is clear based on existing reviews that Hawthorne’s classic romance does not lend itself easily to dramatization. The writer of an 1888 English production of the [sic] "The Scarlet Letter," Stephen Coleridge, felt he had to change Hawthorne’s original plot to made the play interesting to theater audiences. In Coleridge’s version, Roger Chillingsworth—who has slowly and secretly been torturing Hester’s lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, to death—is accused of being the father of the illegitimate child, Pearl. He is killed by a mob of townspeople who are unaware that he is actually Hester’s husband.

The child’s real father, Rev. Dimmesdale, escapes discovery and punishment in Coleridge’s stage version.

‘A wasted performance’

A second English theatrical production of the story had a run at Daly’s Theatre in New York City in 1892. It was actually a revival of a play that Joseph Hatton had written and produced in 1876.

The play starred the noted actor Richard Mansfield as Arthur Dimmesdale and initially attracted large and enthusiastic audiences. But the New York Times critic noted that Mansfield’s "distinguished and forcible" performance was wasted.

"The piece holds him back. It is not dramatic," said the critic, who realized that Hawthorne’s story is a psychological study, not a romance. The reviewer also wrote that the play’s appeal for modern audiences was limited because, "Puritan life is not a thing to be yearned for. It was desperately gloomy and monotonous."

But "The Scarlet Letter" was back in New York in 1906 for another run, with Mansfield once again portraying Dimmesdale. The New York Times review of that production ran under sub-headings that called it a "crudely made play" and declared, "The Best of Hawthorne’s Psychologic Tales is Too Elusive for Translation to the Stage."

Silent movie

In 1926 Hawthorne’s classic was offered to the public as a silent movie starring the legendary Lillian Gish as Hester. The screenplay for the 90-minute, black-and-white film was written by Frances Marion, who stuck almost word for word to Hawthorne’s script. Lars Hanson played Roger Chillingsworth, and Henry Whitehall portrayed Arthur Dimmesdale. The movie got a thumbs-up review from the New York Times critic.

A "talkie" version of the story was released in 1934 with Colleen Moore, Alan Hale and Henry Whitehall in the leading roles. The writers attempted to lighten the story by adding comic relief, but succeeded only in ruining it. "Halliwell’s Film Guide" (1995) called it, "not in any way remarkable."

Halliwell’s also made an interesting observation when discussing the 1926 movie starring Lillian Gish. While acknowledging that the film was "powerfully made in the best silent tradition," Halliwell’s said the 17th century story is "of little intrinsic interest for modern audiences."

A similar theme was sounded by John J. O’Connor in the April 1, 1979, New York Times in an editorial piece about the newest, made-for-TV version of "The Scarlet Letter." How relevant can a story about adultery and guilt be, O’Connor wondered, in our permissive society, where one would be considered "prissy" just to suggest that adultery is problematic?

O’Connor, after viewing the first of four installments of the WGBH production, called it "turgid and pretentious" and "a disaster." One of his many criticisms was the now familiar refrain that, "the novel does not lend itself to dramatization." Demi Moore as Hester

Douglas Day Stewart, who wrote the screenplay for the 1995 version of "The Scarlet Letter," learned from the failures of others. Stewart produced a highly erotic movie that was "freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne," meaning he abandoned the author’s dialogue, plot and historical context. At the end of the movie, for example, Dimmesdale (Robert Duvall), instead of dying on the scaffold, rides off into the sunset with Hester (Demi Moore) and Pearl.

The film took a beating from the critics. Scott’s Review called it "a piece of Hollywood junk" and claimed that Stewart and director Roland Joffe "aren’t even pretending to tell the story of the novel." A review in Time magazine decried Stewart’s attempt to make Hester into "America’s prototypical feminist" and called the movie "a lugubrious, often ludicrous, wallow" and a "revisionist slog."

The Time magazine reviewer concluded by saying, "If this Scarlet got a letter, it would be F."