This movie was always going to be fodder for this site, it was just a matter of time. I actually saw this when it was in theaters, when it had caused a bit of a stir for mangling a literary classic, and found that it was just as bad as one expected, but went down smooth. This time it seemed like an over-the-top ludicrous camp classic, especially for those who find amusement in overwrought emoting and painfully earnest declamatory speeches. So let's get going!
This is directed by Roland Joffe, who brought us The Mission, and who brings his somber earnestness to everything here. The credits tell us that this is "freely adapted" from the Hawthorne novel. It's 1666 in the colonies, and Demi Moore as Hester Prynne arrives on shore, seeking "a township free from persecution." Well, she came to the wrong town. On hand are several native Americans and pilgrims straight out of a well-funded Thanksgiving pageant, lending to the "are they SERIOUS?" feeling that plagues the whole thing. This is not helped by Demi Moore trying a vaguely European accent, which jars every time she opens her mouth. I know, it would be worse if she had no accent, so what should they do? What they should do is not make the movie.
It's also interesting to know that this movie came as Moore had become the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, and suddenly people were tired of seeing her, and was one of her last movies before she vanished from the screen for a while. Anyway, she's barely on shore for a second before she is told to use less lace in her dressmaking, as it might cause quite improper boners among the local men, and soon after declares her intention to live alone, which is just so improper for a young lass. She goes into town to get servants, at a public auction, where someone asks her "Shouldn't your husband or father be bidding for you?" She buys a servant and is given a deaf mute black slave as a gift with purchase. As I suspect you're noticing, sister is doin' it for herself, and this is NOT well-received by the patriarchal town elders.
Also on hand is Gary Oldman as Arthur Dimmesdale, horny priest. He gets a gander at Hester's lacy garments and wants to complement them with a pearl necklace. One day Hester is just chillin' in the woods when she spies Arthur skinny-dipping, observed by a highly-symbolic stag. On the way back, her coach gets caught in the mud, and who should happen along to help but priest Arthur. Soon she's being moved by his long, passionate sermon at church, and they have discovered that they both love to read, treated as another slightly improper thing that Hester does, and Hester tells Arthur that she wants to know his pain. Soon they're professing their love for each other and discreetly making babies, which could result in them both being hung, because no one knows whether Hester's husband is still alive, and if he is, then she's an adulteress, which is frowned upon. To the point of hanging.
Things are going along when--oh no, Joan Plowright. For a while, in the 90s, Joan Plowright would show up in virtually every movie that required either a feisty clucking British grandmother or a nobly-suffering clucking British grandmother. She is Harriet Hibbins, and starts out feisty and clucking, supportive of Hester's forward ways, but will soon transform into nobly-suffering and clucking. Anyway, soon enough Hester is revealed as pregnant, causing a hubbub in town, who demand to know who the father is, so they can both be hung. But Hester refuses to give his name! Oh, scandal, scandal. To counteract the perception that Arthur popped Hester and then disavowed all responsibility, which would cause the audience not to like him and support their relationship, there are numerous scenes where we see that he is in moral agony for having to keep their secret, and begs her to reveal his name. Of course... he could reveal it himself? He's an adult, right? But, for some reason, he doesn't.
Soon enough, Hester gives birth to a daughter named Pearl, who narrates the movie in a massively annoying breathy, faux-naive voice. She takes the infant to be baptized, by Arthur, which for some reason they must do across highly-symbolic crossed swords. By law Hester should be hung, but Arthur cuts a deal with the policeman's benevolent association and they think of another punishment for her, and please be sure you're seated comfortably, because here's where the trite 90s pop-feminist messages will start hitting you like a ton of wet toilet paper. The dude in charge can't think of a punishment for her, but his WIFE does, which caused me to turn off the movie and write a dissertation on its statement about female-on-female oppression. The wife says "If we can't put her in prison, put the prison in her," and suggests the letter-based solution we know they will follow. So they take Hester to the town scaffold and announce the plan, causing Hester to declaim "It is not a badge of my shame, but your own!" Which causes them all to realize she's right, they're just being jerks, and they let her go, the end.
Now, as surely you'll recall, if Hester's husband shows up, it's gallows time for her, and I'll bet you'll never believe who just happens to show up RIGHT THEN. He is Roger Chillingworth, and he's here to give Hester a Chillingworth of trouble! He is played by Robert Duvall, who knows he can appear in shit like this (and the numerous other shit he appeared in through the 90s) and it won't touch his effortless coolness. He's been a captive of the Indians, which explains that haircut, and we're invited to believe that they have deranged his mind. I should also mention that tension with the local Native Americans is steadily rising, even though none of this was in the novel, because if the evil Puritans are pestering Hester, they must surely be pestering the Indians, right? Isn't that ALL that was happening back then? And just wait til we toss on some witch trials, just for kicks.
Anyway, Chillingworth doesn't reveal that he's Hester's husband to the town, but does to her, and wants to hunt down the father of her baby himself. Hester and Arthur are exchanging letters via her mute black servant, who is soon caught by Chillingworth and confesses, and is later found dead. This is turning into some kind of colonial Sleeping With the Enemy. All of a sudden Harriet Hibbens, that's our clucking Ms. Plowright, is showing up at Hesters to be hidden, because she has been denounced as a witch. If you're one of these modern kids of today who never had to read this novel in high school, I'll inform you that none of this appears in the novel. Chillingworth points to Pearl's birthmark and says it is "the witch's mark," and that Hester is a witch, in addition to everything else. She's a bad apple! Then the whole witch angle is summarily dropped.
Now if you know that if this is an expression of Huffington Post-level, you-go-girl feminism, you know that surely there will be an attempted rape, to ensure we know that men are in fact pigs. Sure enough, and Hester fends him off like a right-on sister, and soon that guy is found scalped, which we know was done by Chillingworth, who has taken to hanging to in the woods and howling. He is unfortunately not a werewolf, but at this point, who not throw that on, too? Anyway, this causes the town to blame the Indians, and start rounding them up. Hester is in prison and ready to be hung, where she leads prayer circles. I forget why she's going to be hung--maybe its the witch thing? But then why did they let her go free long enough to fend off an attempted rape? I don't know, and I really don't care, so no need to write me to explain. Thanks so much.
Anyway, Chillingworth, seeing the evil of his ways, hangs himself. Oh, woe. Hester is brought out to be hung, where she must wear an unfortunate gag, but then--Arthur gets up and announces that he's the babydaddy, and that he loves Hester, and I'm sure he makes some other damning speeches about how bad Puritanism is, and Hester is looking at him with tearful, loving eyes that say "Sure, you let me get persecuted and marked with shame and tormented for years and treated like a pariah, all to save your own hide, but I don't care... I LOVE YOU!" But then, wouldn't you know it... INDIAN SEIGE!!!
Yup, suddenly the Indians attack, and it's a melee, with Hester trying to find Pearl, who's in daycare, and survive the massacre long enough to be reunited with Arthur and find safety. After the bloodbath, which lays waste to the town, we see Hester kneeling by Chillingworth's grave and reflecting on life and stuff, when Arthur comes by to chat. Hester says she's leavin' that old burg, and ain't takin' Arthur with her, because a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, leaving him to hop on and tag along with her, toward a mutually-respectful relationship built on a platform of equality, where she's in charge.
So if you haven't read the novel, what happens is that (spoiler!) eventually Pearl grows into a little terror who doesn't recognize her mother without the scarlet letter on. Arthur finally publicly confesses his fatherhood and dies in Hester's arms on the scaffold. Hester and Pearl leave town, but Hester returns years later, still wearing the letter. She dies and is buried near Arthur, an A on their tombstones. Hmmm, not quite so uplifting, huh? Stuff like Pearl not recognizing her mother and other things, like a meteor in the sky forming a giant A, resulted in one of the more amusing quotes regarding the novel, from Henry James: "There is a great deal of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter," he says. "There is, I think, too much."
The question becomes... if this is going to be so different from the novel, why sell it as an adaptation of the novel at all? You could easily position it as a comment on the novel, or a new gloss on it, or a only vaguely related story. As it is, it goes down in history as the result of Hollywood filmmakers who don't trust their sources, or their audience, and think they know so much more than that dumbass Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's difficult to know what they were thinking--obviously this movie was only ever going to be regarded as little more than a joke. Why add that to your resume?
As for the film, it is a high-camp, overemoting-packed HOOT, with the added bonus of allowing one to feel vastly superior in a literary way [and without too much effort, or having to read any new books after graduating high school!]. You have Demi's sad, sad attempt at an accent, the numerous hammer-to-head socially progressive messages, the addition of witch trials and Indian attacks--have I mentioned the overemoting?--and the tacked-on happy ending. This is a good one for people who are normally too superior to watch bad movies to invite their old lit-major buddies over to have some sangria and brie and laugh at while enjoying the warm rosy glow only intellectual smugness can provide. And without having to read any seriously difficult literature! Maybe those people are who this film was aimed it in the first place? Otherwise, it's impossible to know what anyone involved could possibly have been thinking.
If you want to laugh at it and feel smug. There is no other reason to see it.