Comparison of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" and Roland Joffé's filmic adaption

The conversion of the main characters into a sinful "family" using filmic devices

Seminar Paper, 2010

15 Pages, Grade: 2,5


Table of Contents


1. Roland Joffé and his work

2. The Structure of the story
2.1 Hawthorne’s setup
2.2 Joffé’s setup

3. Historical fiction versus romance

4. The three main characters
4.1 Pearl Prynne
4.2. Arthur Dimmesdale
4.3. Hester Prynne

5. The idea of a sinful but “happy family”

6. Conclusion

List of works cited


The book The Scarlet Letter is one of America’s most important pieces of literature, written by the author Nathaniel Hawthorne in the year 1850. The story about Puritan life and the subject of settling down in a “new world” has engaged the interest of numerous generations of readers up to now.

However, Hawthorne’s classical work has not only caught the attention of normal literature lovers but it has also inspired a lot of artists, like producers and directors to convert the historical content into motion-pictures. What comes out in the end is often very surprising, for some critics the result is more positive for others it is rather negative and unsatisfactory material. In this case, it always depends on what expectations you have of such a medial remake. Do you intend to get delivered a complete one-to-one transformation or are you open-minded enough to accept a creative and free modification of the original basic script? This could be sometimes a highly controversial question among reviewers.

In my case, I have chosen to examine one of the latest filmic adaptions of The Scarlet Letter, made by Roland Joffé and the main distinctions to Hawthorne’s version. If you delve deeper into the matter, you recognize that the Hollywood director has placed various personal focuses on different parts of the novel, especially on the most important protagonists. Furthermore, in large parts he totally rolled up the gist and used different perspectives on certain things. That is why it can be called an extremely free conversion of Hawthorne’s historical fiction into a love story with a dramatically romantic background. By using several filmic devices, he finally attempted to turn the three strong main characters into a sinful but “happy family” who are in search of a peaceful life.

1. Roland Joffé and his work

The British film-maker Roland Joffé was born in London in 1945 and has become one of the most successful Hollywood directors within the 80ies. As a postwar child, he later started with the notion of producing movies dealing with political and historical contents. This was to enlighten people and to make the descendants of society to get in touch with ancient themes.

His hitherto now most triumphant works have been The Mission, a missionary drama with several nominations for the Academy Award and The Killing Fields, a war drama which even managed to win three of those highly treasured movie awards. Everything that came after the year 1986 could not be equated with what he had done before because he never again produced something that could beat or tie up to his previous performances. Far from it, his subsequent projects had almost been financially ruining for him, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s remake of The Scarlet Letter in 1995 (no author – Yahoo! Movies Deutschland).

The dramatic love story, starring Gary Oldman as Arthur Dimmesdale, Demi Moore as Hester Prynne and her two daughters Scout LaRue and Tallulah Belle Willis who embody the sinful infant Pearl, firstly as a baby and then as a small child, is about adultery in Puritan society. It was once again another remake of nearly a dozen done before since the beginning of the 20th century and with it seemingly the worst. The Hollywood industry paid its own special tribute to it by awarding Joffé’s work the Razzie Award in the category of the “Worst Remake”. Besides, for the same prize it got nominations in five further categories. As a whole, it was considered to be a total catastrophy. Nevertheless, the movie was published in 15 countries and next to scores of miserable reviews, due to too much alienation from the original novel, some critics even favored it as a brilliant romantic piece of art (IMDb, Jasper).

2. The Structure of the story

There is absolutely no denial that the two versions of The Scarlet Letter differ from each other in extensively large parts. Only the title and the essential core, states Prigge, dealing with the entire subject of adultery, the red letter “A” and the mockery at the scaffold are quite similar in Hawthorne’s as well as in Joffé’s story. In each case, the beginning and the ending has its own progression and therefore this is an interesting part to examine in more detail, the structure of both stories.

2.1 Hawthorne’s setup

At first, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s setup, the author did not start right away with the central story around this mysterious letter “A”, but by arranging a short introductory narration about a nameless narrator in a custom house, he tried to lead the reader up to the main topic.

This is a pretty important point because this first-person narrator finds a fancy red “A”-shaped piece of cloth in The Custom House that feels like a hot iron when holding it close to his chest (Hawthorne 1369). In combination with that, there is a manuscript about personal experiences of a certain woman, called Hester Prynne, an angel-like, gracious person who did a lot of good deeds to others (Hawthorne 1370). As well as Hawthorne, who was a former custom surveyor, too, the raconteur has also always wished to be a writer (Hawthorne 1377). Hence, his perspective, was then used by Hawthorne as an initial point to continue and create a historical fiction, as I would call it.

In my opinion, the story of the written work just starts somewhere in the middle – near a bush of roses in front of the prison (Hawthorne 1378), a symbol indicating that there must be something prickly sweet and fragile behind: Hester and her baby Pearl (Hawthorne 1380). As soon as they are being led to the scaffold in order to get lampooned by the Salem (Hawthorne 1353) community, we are already in the middle of the central topic of adultery, but we do not know how this relationship between Hester Prynne and the priest Arthur Dimmesdale has began to develop and why she is there in town without her hustband Roger Prynne – all those facts will only open up later for the reader. From the very beginning on, she is wearing this beautifully embroidered glistining letter “A”, patched on the breast of her dress (Hawthorne 1380). A sign, representing the word “Adultery” that has to be visible for all people to treat her like an outcast or even like a criminal. However, in strict Puritan society such delicts were considered to be heavy crimes (Scholes 84).

After that official act of humiliation in public, where she refuses to tell the name of her child’s father, the whole plot goes on with the comeback of the allegedly declared dead Roger Prynne (Hawthorne 1358), his plans for revenge on Dimmesdale and Hester’s life in isolation (Hawthorne 1396). According to the reviewer Roger Ebert, Hawthorne’s novel is not very action-packed. To a certain extent, this is true because most of the story simply deals with the description of the protagonists’ mental condition (Ebert), the way they are feeling and how they manage to handle that enourmous external emotional pressure. In general, it expresses a tightrope walk between finding one’s own psychical limits and insanity. Again and again, both lovers try to find a way out of that misery. Only in the forest by night (Hawthorne 1451) they are able to spend some time and to make plans on how to escape from that sink of iniquity. There, they can hide their sins, they can do whatever they like, say whatever they think without the feeling of being observed. However, despite of all efforts, in the end after having confessed all his sins at the scaffold, Dimmesdale is supposed to be hanged (Hawthorne 1490). An extremely brutal and sad ending that is surely not to everyone’s taste.

2.2 Joffé’s setup

While Hawthorne’s classical Scarlet Letter has a more complex structure, the director Roland Joffé fully places his emphasis on producing a true Hollywood-compliant love story with a lot of dramatic art around.

The first striking thing, when watching the film, is that the movie’s storyline is told from Pearl’s perspective. She is now an adult (Fuchs) and with having gained a certain distance to all those incidents happened in her childhood she takes the viewer with her to look back to the year 1666 – the sunny summer day, her English mother arrives in Massachusetts to start a new life. There, she gets a warm welcome by the Puritan society, everyone is in a good mood and smiling, which is moreover supported by the wonderfully bright sparkling sea in the background.

In contrast to Hawthornes’s version, we are here able to accompany Hester Prynne from the very beginning, over the moment of the revelation of her sin at the scaffold up to the happy end when the little family leaves the community that had by that time long ago shown its true colors. Though, to express the dilemma in one sentence, the overall subsequent turmoil simply roots out of one key scene (Buck), the night Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are having sex in a barn next to her house, far off situated from society. She has deliberately chosen a huge remote place for her own near the sea to demonstrate her autonomy and freedom, as she lives there without her husband. Anyway, the reason for having developped such a close relation to each other was love at first sight.

One day after having newly moved in her house at the sea, Hester was led into the unacquainted misty forest nearby by a little red bird. Due to her curiosity and her exploratory spirit she follows the red “devil” which has lead her straight into seduction. Soon after cautiously but imprudently crossing a small creek, she symbolically arrives in the bad part of the forest – the area where she gets slowly more and more involved into passion and temptation. The bird is now gone but she is on her own and somehow lost when she discovers a clear shimmering cristal lake with a naked man swimming around in it, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. The beauty of his pure, strong body fascinates and enchants her. When she is some time afterwards on her way to the Sunday service, she has to traverse again the same forest. However, with her carriage she boggs down in the muddy ground but she cannot get out of it alone. Accidentally, like in each Hollywood movie, her destined Prince Charming, Dimmesdale, comes by and helps her to move on. From that moment on, they have laid eyes on each other and an everlasting sympathy emerged from that incident – the basis that leads into the direction for the following, above mentioned, passionate love scene. The result of it is obviously their sinful daughter Pearl.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Comparison of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" and Roland Joffé's filmic adaption
The conversion of the main characters into a sinful "family" using filmic devices
University of Regensburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
American Literature I: From the Beginnings Through the 19th Century
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, TSL, Amerikanistik, American Studies, Amerikanische Literatur, filmic adaption, movie, Film, Roland Joffe, American Literature, Uni Regensburg, historical fiction, romance
Quote paper
Julia Schart (Author), 2010, Comparison of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" and Roland Joffé's filmic adaption, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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