Attempting to justify this film's gross departure from the novel, Demi Moore once said, "Hardly anyone's read the book." Never mind that this isn't true -- what kind of reason is that?
It would have been ok had the movie's new material been as interesting and compelling as what was cut out. But sheesh -- this isn't a movie, it's a soapbox. As I said in my At-A-Glance Film Reviews review, "The original novel was a biting statement about Puritanical society and the devastating effects of its unforgiving nature. This film, on the other hand, is a rallying cry for 1990s morals, feminism, and melodramatic acting. It's as eloquent and sophisticated as a rallying cry, too."
Let me expound upon myself for a moment. Would you believe that in the end of the movie, when Reverend Dimmesdale has been publically revealed as the father of Hester Prynne's illegitimate child, Prynne (Moore) and Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) actually deliver, from the scaffold where one or both of them may be hanged, a liberating, supposedly moving 1990s speech about tolerance and feminism? All I can say is, they're about two hundred years ahead of their time, and how on earth did they come to adopt those ideas when clearly no one else around them had? And furthermore, whom do they expect to convince? You can't undo generations of cultural and religious teachings by saying "we should be allowed to do what we want" and expecting everyone to nod and slap their foreheads and wonder why they didn't think of it before.
The book is a compelling exploration of hypocrisy, that is, if one can wade through Hawthorne's flowery writing style. In the movie, layers of complexity are pealed off by removing Dimmesdale's hypocrisy. He doesn't believe he sinned, doesn't preach against it, and therefore becomes the two dimensional character of a free love champion.
Robert Duvall plays nasty old Roger Prynne, Hester's lost and estranged husband who returns and acts all mean. As Roger Ebert said in his review, "The movie's morality boils down to: why should this sourpuss stand between these two nice young people?"
With that pathetically silly moral question looming in the background, the filmmakers fill the foreground with action scenes and shameless sensuality. The act of adultery, which takes place before the book begins, is moved to the middle of the movie, and the end is clogged up with new elements such as witch hunts and indian fights. And what self-respecting adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter" would be without the obligatory happy ending, where Reverend Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne ride off into the sunset to forge a life of their own?
Here's my theory. The screenwriters were all sitting around a table on day one, sipping coffee and brainstorming for ideas. Nobody really likes any of the ideas that get thrown out, and it's beginning to look like they've got a long haul ahead of them. Then one pipes up, "You know, Hawthorne would have been a lot better if his books read like Harlequin romances."
And the rest is history.