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I first saw this wonderful production of one of my favorite books, when it
was initially shown on PBS in 1979, having been produced by WGBH Boston.
This version of the famous novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was accurately
portrayed, and true to my beloved book. Over the years, each time I
the book, I found new levels of meaning to Hawthorne's work. When I found
that this PBS version had finally been made available to view again, I was
anxious to see it. I was not disappointed. There was in recent years, a
movie made of this story, with some very good actors, and a very bad
I was saddened that in our modern times, and with the chance to utilize
talents of actors like Robert Duvall, the story was "Hollywoodized". In
trying to satisfy some idea of what the public might want (i.e. love
happy ending), the delicately written and deeply moving purpose of
Hawthorne's book was entirely lost. Not so, with the WGBH rendering.
An early New England of around 1649 is portrayed. The high standards and harsh penalties imposed by the Puritan's Protestant church, is what allows for the events to unfold. These were people not far removed from our pilgrim founders. The story begins with a young woman named Hester Prynne, standing upon a scaffold holding her illegitimate baby. She was a married woman, whose husband had been presumed lost at sea, and thereby was known to have committed adultery in the getting of the child. She is pressed to reveal the man with whom she consorted and sinned. She will not. She is resolute. Because of this, her punishment is to wear a "scarlet letter 'A'" upon her bosom. She is gifted with the art of needlework, and embroiders an entirely beautiful and large letter 'A' on a dark red cloth. She wears this day and night, as she strives to raise her little girl, Pearl, in loneliness and poverty, using her skill with sewing as a means of support for them both.
We are soon, slowly and purposely, allowed to know who is the father of Hester's child, and partner in her sin. He is the honorable, and beloved of the people, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. But while Hester wears her "scarlet letter" openly over her heart, dealing with others scorn and social banishment, the Reverend Dimmesdale hides his same sin inside his heart, and suffers with his own knowledge, all the while the people seem to love him the more for his seeming humility, and self-deprecation.
To add salt to the wound for Hester, her husband, who had been found by "savages" and learned much in the arts of herbal medicines, made his way to the young Massechussetts settlement in time to see his wife upon the scaffold. He changes his name, forcing a promised silence from his former wife on the matter, and sets about to find and destroy the man with whom she sinned. Thus begins the slow, well thought out, and well executed plan of Roger Chillingworth. In the semblance of kindness as a doctor, he works upon Reverend Dimmesdale's secret shame, and guilty heart. For Dimmesdale, the shame is not just the sin of adultery. It is the fear of reproach from the people that leads him to choose to keep his part secret. To allow Hester to stand alone on the scaffold. To allow her to bear the chastisement of the entire community by wearing her "scarlet letter". And by putting her in the position of finding her own means to support their child.
It is after seven years of his suffering, obvious ill health, and a habit of holding his hand over his heart that the Reverend Dimmesdale is sought out by Hester Prynne, to reveal to him the evil that has been wrought upon him by his supposed friend, Roger Chillingworth. She does this in an attempt to release him from her husbands devilish clutches. To help him to look at the good he has done the community and to cease his slow and determined path to the grave. But in this long desired reunion between the two, Dimmesdale says to Hester, "Had I not loved God, even had I been an atheist, I would long since have found peace. Nay, I never would have lost it." They renew words of love and devotion to each other and look to leave the settlement, in hopes of finding a new life to live and be productive in, and to be together.
Hawthorne does not give us our "Hollywood ending", however. He chooses to bid us learn the value of an open admission to decisions and difficulties in life. To understand that the secrets that we carry in our hearts will show upon our outward appearance, whether we want it or no. He allows for God's goodness and mercy to the penitant, even though it may not be in this life that one attains it.
This version was produced at a time when PBS was primarily importing the serializations of books from British television. Therefore, it was made in that same style of the 1970's UK productions. The feeling while watching this video, is that of less production, and more of "right behind the camera". In recent years we have all become accustomed to the "movie" feel of the TV movies, or serialized books. Such as those produced by A&E or PBS, often in conjunction with BBC or another UK company (i.e."Pride and Prejudice", "Horatio Hornblower", etc.). Therefore, one must be prepared and not distracted by this type of production. In a way, I find them, interestingly, more intimate. I would say that this production is well worth the length of time spent watching a serialization (4 hrs). It is a deeply moving story, done with accuracy and quality, and wonderful acting. This viewer highly recommends it.
Don't let Michael's comment deter you from watching this very faithful, well-acted AND produced version of the book. If actually reading the book itself isn't your cup of tea, you won't go wrong by viewing this 4-hour, videotaped production from PBS. Its leads are excellently and richly portrayed - it has a fine sense of time and place - and only the quite inept view of the Salem Custom House (special effects creation) stands as less than exemplary. The director clearly wanted a sense of the realism of the pounding sea in the scene with Hester & Roger, which heightens the emotional urgency, and the baby crying is annoying because a baby crying is often QUITE ANNOYING! If a dramatic presentation of the tale is your interest, you won't go wrong with this one.
I saw this series when it first premiered with much fanfare on PBS in the Boston area 20 years ago. I was in my early teens, but the story moved me and has endured as a favorite. I was delighted to see that this version had finally come to video a few years ago, and was as beautiful as I remembered. I get so much more out of the dialogue now, and although the effects are as cheesy as you might expect from a PBS miniseries from over 20 years ago, the music is still affecting, and the performances excellent. It's gorgeously filmed in and around New England, and the "making of" shorts included on the video are a nice touch. As I recall, the story is very close to the original -- a notable difference being the color of Hester Prynne's eyes, which were black in the story, but are light blue in this version. I mention this because Meg Foster's eyes stand out to give her an other-worldly look which is very effective. This miniseries is way up there on my must-see list!
This filmed version, of uneven production quality but sound performances, takes the slow and reflective course of Hawthorne's novel seriously and develops Hawthorne's themes with some maturity. Opinions may vary, but I found all the lead performances convincing -- a difficult job, given that they have somehow to encompass four different sets of sensibilities: those of the Puritan era in which the film is set, those of Hawthorne's 1850 Romanticism, the aesthetics of 1979 when the production was released, and those of the viewer in 2000. Parts of Meg Foster's performance are genuinely haunting. The piece is admittedly a bit dated, its filming techniques are a bit plodding, and its dialogue (inevitably) sounds a bit stilted. But it has the gumption to take on the dark and difficult issues the novel raises. For that it deserves a great deal of credit, and is worth viewing.
John Heard is one of those under-rated actors who deserves more acclaim ... His portrayal of anguished Reverend Arthur Dimsdale was heart-rending and truly unforgettable. Meg Foster and John Heard worked a chemistry the likes of which I have not seen equaled much of late in films. Arthur Dimsdale (so true to the Nathaniel Hawthawne's novel) rends his heart distressingly and is torn literally in two by his inability to act upon his indiscretions brought only partway to light. Meg Foster's Hester Prynne holds tight to a resounding strength, a strength of soul it seems. It is impossible to not feel the powerful emotions, and to hold on tightly to the hope that these two "soul-mates" will once again become one. Keep plenty of tissues handy, especially for Part 3's epiphany of the heart.
I found this to be a most compelling adaptation of Hawthorne's book,
with a literate script and good performances by the leads (Meg Foster,
Kevin Conway, and John Heard) and many of the supporting players
(Penelope Allen, Caroline Cava, and Josef Sommer). The primitive set
design and costuming was an attempt to recreate the Salem of the
period, and it appears fairly authentic, if my research of the period
is any measure of accuracy. The fine music score by John Morris ("Young
Frankenstein," "The Elephant Man") aids in creating the proper tragic,
somber atmosphere of this classic story.
On the negative side, the momentum sags in Part 3, the use of videotape over film (which the BBC did quite a lot of back then, too) fails to create the necessary atmosphere for a tale with underlying supernatural elements, and the child playing young Pearl is annoying--but so were most child performers of the period.
This are minor quibbles, however, and I still found the production thoroughly engrossing.
The story recounts the downfall of Hester Prynne...her sin of passion,
the tangible result of her sinning, her daughter Pearl, as well as the
misery and torment of the father of the child. Enter Roger
Chillingworth, a man determined to bring chaos to the lives of all. How
Hester overcomes obstacles is a tribute to a strong and courageous
I found it to be a compelling adaptation of the novel. The actors were well suited to their parts. The story line closely followed the book. I was given to understand that the minister is Puritan, as opposed to Catholic. Maybe some were misled because he was referred to as a "priest." The scenery was beautiful, the clothes and sets authentic. The music was haunting, and helped to set the tone. I thoroughly enjoyed the children who played Pearl at various ages, and found their acting quite good. In fact, the entire supporting cast did a good job.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I admire Hawthorne's book very much. It is not a 'novel' as we now
think of novels. Instead I've enjoyed it for decades as a book to be
considered in three or four page bursts around bedtime. I don't really
believe guilt is the foundation of society like Hawthorne did, but it's
still a fine meditation on guilt and hypocrisy. Hawthorne loves
language and introspection and is not overly concerned with plot
developments and pacing. It's the quality I like about the book.
This version of the novel then is absolutely true to the source, It has a slow, deliberate pace and is weighted with ponderous, heavy import. It marches inexorably to a guilt-fueled, hopeless, agonized conclusion. Every filmed narrative ever made is not about your entertainment. It's 4 hours long and that seems to be the perfect length to get Hawthorne's tone across. Meg Foster is spot-on as the iron-willed morally-superior scapegoat of a retched Puritan town. Arthur Dimmesdale remains one of the most irritating protagonists in all of literature. John Heard (he of no eyebrows) plays the unsympathetic religious hypocrite; His Dimmesdale is quite the self-pitying drama queen. I used to think Heard was way over the top; now I think he's only purple here and there. Kevin Conway also chews on the scenery. The lady portraying the governor's mother (and a witch) is perfectly cast; even her bodily movements are finely nuanced. The only elements that date this are the poor atmospheric effects, and the junky credits. The videography is crisp, except when slow-mo is attempted. The score is again right on the money; ominous and simple.
A note on the DVD: There is absolutely no reason after 30 years to preserve the preview & recap materials in the exact place they were first viewed when broadcast (in segments) on TV, once upon a time in 1979. They intrude at the start of each new hour of this production, and prevent more people from taking the movie for a spin. The DVD would easily fit onto one disc if they dumped all that stuff. It's just not relevant to the DVD format. And we now have a devoted place for behind the scenes featurettes. It's called the "Extra Materials" section. Hawthorne interrupts the narrative only once with his Custom House sketch. Here they do it 4 times (the start of each night's episode). That was not his intent.
Still, there is no finer film version of the book. And it could be argued that this is the cleanest book to film xfer ever.
John Heard is beautiful and brilliant as Arthur Dimsdale. I though so when I first saw this version of "The Scarlet Letter" when I was eight, and I still think so, having just seen it again. Not since this role has John Heard been in a film which so well showcased his romantic and engaging intensity. That's a shame.
O.K., I must disagree with the front page summary that this is about a
Catholic priest and a married woman. If you knew anything about Boston in
the 1640s, it was about PURITANS, who were not (a) Catholic or (b) even
Anglican/Episcopal, but otherwise were dissidents from the "established
church" of England. One reason they came to America was to be free NOT to
Catholic or Anglican.
Now back to the actual story. As others have noted, this production looks as if it were done using home video. The film quality is spotty and uneven. Sound is also unbalanced. Many times when Meg (Hester) is speaking or mumbling, her words are blurred or unidentifiable. Other times, the sound is loud and harsh. The crowd scenes look as if people wearing dress-up clothes are walking awkwardly through a stage set - there is no _feel_ that they are Puritans of the 1640s. I never believed they believed in themselves - they looked like extras. Everyone seems to be walking everywhere - does anyone _do_ anything besides walk around 1640s Boston?
Meg Foster plays Hester Prynn, a young married woman who has lost her husband, and who has subsequently borne a child from an adulterous affair. She is silent about the father, and Puritan Boston disparages and condemns her. She is forced to wear a large "A" on her clothes; she embroiders and enhances this letter, and continues to live in town for the next seven years along with her child, Pearl, played by Elisa Erali. She rears Pearl alone in an isolated hut, but begins to win the hard hearts of the townspeople by her unselfish acts. Meg Foster plays Hester as if every emotion is battened down. In most scenes, Meg is stonefaced, speaking every line in the same tone. After three hours of this, it gets a bit monotonous. She does have some tears in the final scene, however.
John Heard plays Arthur Dimmesdale, the errant pastor. He is beloved by his flock, but he carries a secret shame that grows daily over seven years, causing him sickness and debility. John Heard, thin in this film, does an adequate job playing a man playing a pastor. He thunders at some moments from the pulpits, and at other times spouts proverbial wisdom and admonishment. Like Meg Foster, John plays Arthur in a flat manner. Even his loud cries seem to come from an automaton. At the end of the movie, John/Arthur confesses his act, bringing Hester and Pearl to the very scaffold where Hester was first condemned, and then dies. Of course the crowd is shocked - _shocked!_ - by his confession. And they go about their business.
Kevin Conway plays Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband, who was rescued by Indians and taught the magic herbal lore of unspoiled savages. He comes to Boston to find his wife with a baby by an unnamed father, confronts Hester secretly, and somehow convinces her to keep quiet about his true identity. Kevin/Roger befriends John/Arthur, and in spite of his obvious wig and makeup convinces Arthur to let him treat Arthur's illness, which grows worse under his care. Arthur apparently thinks this is O.K., and he grows sicker and sicker. When Arthur finally dies, Roger disappears in the bulrushes, where we think he would have profitably and solitarily occupied himself much earlier in the film.
Much of the anguish of this story would have been moot had Hester (a) been a little less trusting of Arthur, (b) told Arthur that a _man_ would stand up for his woman, (c) told Roger to bugger off with his plans of secrecy, (d) moved away to another town or back to England, (e) expressed a bit more emotion. But the plot of this story required Hester to do stupid things throughout the movie/book.
Arthur, of course, is portrayed as the typical pious person who can't keep his zipper zipped, and yet needs to appear to be righteous. He is aggrieved by his actions in his adultery, but cannot confess his actions even as he berates others for their failings. Of course, no moral person has any ability to admit fault, so Arthur has to sicken and die, rather than come to a reasonable state of admitting his part in Hester's adultery. It takes two to tango, but Arthur never returns to the dancehall.
Roger's continual destructive actions against Arthur seem plain as day to the viewer/observer, but somehow every citizen of Boston is blind to his plans. These, of course, are people who've come to America to build a New World, who have a keen eye for reality, who have to eke out their living in a hostile, cold, and forbidding world - and yet they don't see the obvious evil nature of Roger. They are rubes taken in by a ruthless proto-Yankee.
The most disappointing thing about this story and production (and there are plenty of disappointments) is the general feeling of unreality in the acting, costumes, and sets. It looks like one big Hallowe'en party, with everyone very self-conscious about their costumes. Nothing looks like it's actually worn or used. While the production takes place in some genuine pioneer locations, it feels like a few carpenters got together to knock together some sets. Given that these Puritans came from England, and that they were skilled workers, it's hard to believe that the slipshod handiwork was real. Fences look "old-timey," as if Puritans couldn't really be bothered with getting railing upright, and yet their clothing is perfectly sewn as if by machine, and completely unwrinkled in all occasions, as if the Puritans also never really lived. It gives the feeling that the producers felt the Puritans were unreal or imaginary people who just walked through life. It does not give the feeling that these Puritans were hardworking and focused people who enjoyed their creation of and membership in a new society.
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