The Movie Adaptation “The Scarlet Letter”

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There have been many on-screen movie adaptations that are based on novels from the past. A great example of this would be The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The novel was written in 1850 and progressed the career of Nathaniel Hawthorne who lived in Salem, Massachusetts at the time. The movie adaptation was released in 1995 and stars Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, alongside some other award-winning actors, such as Gary Oldman and Robert Duvall. There were alterations made to the onscreen version that changed how the book and movie was portrayed, including: the time frame in which both begin are completely different starting points, the person narrating the tales are different, and the ending in the movie is dramatically different than the novels ending. Movies makers tend to emphasize or change parts of a novel to make it more exciting and relatable to the viewers, which is exactly what was done to this great American classic.

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One of the main examples of change is noticed in the very beginning. The setting of the book begins at the prison doors where the town folk are awaiting the door to open, so Hester Prynne can make her way to the scaffold with her small infant child named Pearl that was a product of an affair she had with an unknown man. In the movie, it shows Hester’s arrival in town while she is in the process of setting up the house while she awaits her husband to join her. It shows everything that happened leading up to the love affair between Hester and Reverend Dimmsdale such as their meeting for the first time, falling in love, and the act of the affair itself. While reading the book you do not get the backstories for the main two characters. All the reader knows is Hester is in prison with a child that was born because of an adulterous act, hence where the Scarlet Letter stitched to her bodice came from. In the movie it adds depth and more pieces to the story and helps with character understanding. Another way the movie adaptation changed things to the story was to change the narrator.

The book presents an unknown narrator. It could be a member of the clergy. It could be a random town person. The book never reveals by whom the narration derives from. The movie adaptation has Pearl doing the narration from her point of view. She tells the story through her eyes and her knowledge comes from stories her mother (Hester Prynne) told her. It gives a deeper insight of how hard this little girl’s life was with a mother who was permanently on display for giving into ten and love. The movie is better for it and gives the viewer a better relatability to Pearl. It makes the narrator an actual known person, so the narration is a bigger part of the story. The viewer has a better connection with Pearl because of this change. Although some changes are subtle and help with the understanding of a book or movie, the ending to the book and movie are completely different and go on a new path entirely.

The changes to the end of the book are not needed but does add a bit of dramatical flare to the movie. Moviegoers like to have a happier ending if the story is one of darkness, sin, and guilt. This movie takes care of that for most. In the book the story ends with Hester trying to get away from Chillingsworth on a ship departing for England, but she is kept from doing so because he catches her. She stays in town and the Reverend gives his Election day sermon. After he does this he makes his way to the scaffold to proclaim the truth, with Hester, Pearl, and Chillingsworth. Right after he does this he passes away. In the movie, however, the ending is quite different because it has action and a happy ending for Hester and Dimmsdale, along with their child Pearl. In the end Chillsworth has killed a character named Brewster, after mistaking him for the reverend. When he finds out he hangs himself in his room. As Hester is about to be hung because of acts of heresy, the reverend interrupts her hanging proclaiming his love for her. The town thinks that the Indians killed Brewster because of the way he was killed and locks up all the Indians in the village. A massive battle comes from the Indians that have come to free their brothers. During the fight Hester, Dimmsdale and Pearl flee from the battle, while later leaving the town in hopes of a new life. Pearl says that her father passed before she reached her teens, which is completely different than the book. In the book there was no quarrel with the Indians, or any reason for them to attack the town. With all the differences in the ending, between the book and movie adaptation, you can understand why the movie was considered a “”free adaptation”” based on the characters of the book.

With the book being such an American classic from one of the greatest authors of our time, and with the movie being so freely adapted to the novel, there were many changes that viewers noticed. But these three stood out the most for viewers that had read the book. Some changes were great and added character backstories and gave us another reason to become connected with Pearl, but some changes were bad. The ending changed when it did not need to be changed, but it does not take away from the story. It just gives it a happy ending, whereas the book gives us a depressing ending to Dimmsdale. Over all, both versions of the story are entertaining, understandable and relatable to most.

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The Movie Adaptation "The Scarlet Letter". (2019, May 18). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from

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