Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter has apparently long stymied filmmakers, because there has yet to be a cinematic version that fully adapts the material without changing the tone or intent of the author’s original novel.
Not to be overly sarcastic about it or anything.
It’s a damn shame, too, because Letter is truly a masterwork of American literature. The story of Hester Prynne, whose clandestine affair with retiring and troubled minister Arthur Dimmesdale leads to her giving birth to a daughter, Pearl, out of wedlock (and thus being forced to bear the titular “A” on her chest as a symbol of her sin), has been studied, analyzing, critiqued, and otherwise extensively examined in the 160+ years since its initial publication. It’s a book that I first encountered in high school, one that I liked but never fully appreciated until graduate school (in fact–humblebrag alert!–my very first conference presentation was drawn from a paper I had written about Letter). Hawthorne’s novel is nothing less than a literary marvel–an intricate patchwork of transcendentalist-type musings on human nature, questions about the true nature of morality, and the psychological repercussions of religious persecution. This has (rather unfairly) gained the novel a reputation as being something of a dense and depressing wasteland of a book (when that description is really more appropriate for something like the GAWD-awful soul-sucking mess that is Robinson Crusoe).
Nonetheless, this is heady stuff, to be sure, and, admittedly, incredibly difficult to translate to the screen. Though the subject matter itself is enthralling–Sex! Adultery! False identities! Strange, bastard children!–it somehow remains tempting for filmmakers to alter the book’s storyline to suit their own desires. Changing important elements of the plot, however–whether to escape the wrath of censors or to give audiences a somewhat jarring “happy ending”–ultimately devalues the complexity of Hawthorne’s carefully-crafted narrative. The Scarlet Letter does not aim to titillate (despite what those behind the 1995 “let’s find an excuse to show Demi Moore’s tits” version might have thought), but rather to elucidate the dangers of blind adherence to the strictures of Puritan society (granted, this in itself is just the nutshell version of Hawthorne’s ultimate point, but I’ll spare you my full treatise on the novel).
In the early days of Hollywood, literary adaptations were something of a no-brainer: taking a popular piece of American culture and acting it out for the screen was an easy way to entice people into theaters, to give them something with which they were (at least somewhat) familiar. Within the nearly two-decade period between 1908 and 1926, seven silent screen versions of The Scarlet Letter were reportedly produced, many of which no longer seem to exist. But through the combined efforts of Swedish director Victor Seastrom and leading lady Lillian Gish, the final silent adaptation, released in theaters in 1926, comes closer than any existing version in capturing the spirit of Hawthorne’s novel.
In 1922, the Hollywood “powers that be” established the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America), a self-imposed watchdog group intended to alleviate concerns that the film industry was a disreputable hotbed of sin and immorality. The head of MPPDA, former United States Postmaster General Will Hays, would eventually give his name to the Production Code, the set of rules, regulations, and strictly-enforced moral guidelines that would dictate film content for more than three decades. In the years leading up to the Code’s formalization, Hays promoted an outline of what he called the “Don’ts” and the “Be Carefuls” for film content. This included a list of books that were deemed “inappropriate” for film adaptation–and The Scarlet Letter was near the top of that banned-book list. But Gish had her heart set on playing Hester, and eventually persuaded Hayes–and the religious organizations whose beck-and-call he was subject to–that the film would adhere to Hayes’ moral strictures.
The resulting movie is lyrical and resonant; though it is undeniably more the love story of Hester and Dimmesdale as opposed to a stinging critique of Puritan morality, it remains more faithful to Hawthorne’s intent than any other existing film version of the novel, at least in my estimation. Part of the reason for this may be due to the efforts of screenwriter Frances Marion, who neatly manages to avoid overt melodramatic flourishes in favor of genuine human emotion. But much of the credit belongs to Gish, for the movie truly belongs to her and her alone.
Not for nothing was Gish considered the “First Lady” of American film; the camera positively adores the woman, focusing on her almost lovingly in certain scenes, highlighting her gorgeous features and the emotional tide bubbling beneath her appropriately-puritanical facade. Gish makes for a luminous Hester–she’s perhaps a little too innocent and girlish at times for such a knowing character, but there is a beautiful and compelling forthrightness about her portrayal that is quite effective. To put it bluntly, Gish’s Hester is a take-no-bullshit type of woman–ferocious in defending her child, and more concerned with Dimmesdale’s fate than her own, for she instinctively knows that she has the stronger backbone of the two.
Playing opposite Gish is Lars Hanson, a Swedish actor perhaps best known as one of fellow Swede Greta Garbo’s paramours in the deliciously naughty 1927 silent film Flesh and the Devil. The wide-eyed Hanson is a good choice for weak-willed Dimmesdale; though there are moments in which he nearly delves into hand-wringing caricature, it’s still somehow strangely befitting. And when the character does have moments in which his concern for Hester (and his “devil child”) outweigh his infirmity, Hanson’s Dimmesdale is fully capable of growing a pair (so to speak), throwing one hell of a dirty look at some of his more judgmental peers. Interestingly, Hanson spoke no English (still, he could obviously take direction from countryman Seastrom well enough), and thus performed his scenes in Swedish while Gish responded in English, making for what was likely a very unusual shoot.
The Scarlet Letter was not wholly successful upon its initial release, though it is recognized now as a silent film classic, marked by one of the best performances of Gish’s career. It’s worth noting that The Scarlet Letter was one of the last films Gish made in the silent era, and one of the last she made as a full-fledged leading lady. After her final silent, 1928’s The Wind (also directed by Seastrom), failed critically and commercially at the box office, Gish took a break from movie-making. She made her “talkie” debut in 1930’s One Romantic Night, and starred opposite Roland Young in 1933’s His Double Life. Most of her performances in the 1930s were on the stage; Gish did not make another film for nearly a decade, only returning to the screen in the early 1940s. Her later career was marked by notable character roles in a number of films, among them Duel in the Sun (1946)–for which she received an Academy Award nomination–Portrait of Jennie (1948), and Night of the Hunter (1955). Though she never won a competitive Oscar, Gish received an honorary Academy Award in 1971. But Gish was not content to rest on her laurels–she continued acting well into her 90s, both on television and in film, and made her final onscreen appearance at the age of 93, in the 1987 film The Whales of August (opposite fellow Hollywood icon Bette Davis). By the time Gish passed away in 1993–eight months shy of her one hundredth birthday–her career had extended into its eighth remarkable decade, with nary a sign of any decline in the great actress’ talents.
Note: This post is an entry in the ongoing 2012 TCM SUTS blogathon hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. I was originally going to write about the 1919 film Broken Blossoms, which is airing on TCM at 6AM EST tomorrow morning and is, far and away, my favorite Gish film. However, the Mythical Monkey has posted an utterly phenomenal treatise on that film that blows away whatever I was planning to write (and you should all definitely go read his thoughts right now!).
The Scarlet Letter will air later in the day, at 12:15PM EST.