Hall of Fame Speech #30: The Scarlet Letter

Brief note before we start: This year we got together our sixth (!) class to be inducted into the Smaddies Baddies BMT Hall of Fame. As is typical there will be films we watched five years ago which maybe deserve to be considered the merde de la merde of BMT delight. The previews and speeches will be released leading up to the ninth (eleventh?) Smaddies Baddies for the five films ultimately chosen. Some might say the purpose of watching all genres and sizes of movie is to find another Here On Earth, the perfect BMT film. This film is kind of like Here on Earth, but instead of a young Klein, we have an Oldman. Enjoy!

Hall of Fame Induction Speech for The Scarlet Letter

We don’t typically subscribe to the Scarlet Letter school of bad movies. What I mean is that there is a meta quality to this particular film that carried over from its initial release. Sure it was a very odd adaptation and we got a taste of Gary Oldman’s hot bod, but really it was what happened off screen that stole the show. Demi Moore getting final say on composer, a complete failure at the box office, and an arrogance about the liberal changes made to the classic source material that could have been interpreted as satire of Hollywood itself. That’s what people mostly remembered: Moore saying that no one read the book anyway, so who cared. What they really should have remembered was about five minutes in the middle of the film that will be burned into my memory forever. That’s really why it’s BMT HoF.

So what did I remember from the first time I saw this:

  • I read the book and not to sound like a dumbo high school student but it was lame. Much like Moby Dick, I am aware that it is a classic, but once through was enough for me.
  • A little call back to Color of Night as yes, you definitely get a glimpse of Gary Oldman’s dick. And no that’s not the scene that is burned into my memory forever.
  • Duval was nuts.
  • I remember actually liking Demi Moore… but then again, I’m a Moore apologist.

Because I read the book in prep for watching the film, that certainly stands out in my memory and would probably be what I (and many others) would think is what makes it BMT. I didn’t like the book much and more or less agree with Moore that it’s not particularly cinematic. It feels like a short story stretched four times too long and so not much happens. Necessarily, changes would have to be made not just to make it coherent as a movie, but also for that boffo box office. That’s all fine… but you also don’t have to go out of your way to say that no one reads the book and no one cares about it. It is an American classic. They really teed that one up. Even so, no one would have taken much notice if they didn’t make a series of incredibly strange choices. So really “bad adaptation” is probably second on the list of important BMT aspects of the film. And spoiler alert, Demi Moore isn’t even on the list.   

So how did the rewatch go? There are three specific things I need to talk about in regards to this film, so pretty good sign. I’ll start off with the obvious one: Gary Oldman’s dick. It is certainly there, but really the whole scene of Oldman frolicing in the forest spring is just an amuse-bouche to the more elaborate sex scene that comes a bit later. It definitely had an outsized place in my mind given that it really is just a glimpse and otherwise unnotable. It does  introduce us to one of the first strange and off putting choices they make in the film. There is this little red bird that flits about whenever Demi Moore is getting herself into some steamy trouble and I really can’t say what it’s symbolic of. Are birds some symbol for forbidden lust? Does the bird represent the wild, untamed spirit of Moore that can’t be contained by Puritan Massachusetts? I can’t say. It feels more like the bird is a symbol for symbols that appear in films. 

The more notable strange and off putting choice is the decision to change the film into some kind of romance-action film involving the war with the Native Americans. Metacomet is a character in this film and it’s all wrapped up in King Phillip’s War. Duval shows up as Roger Prynne, who is captured by the Native Americans but is so savage (read: totally nutso) that they are like “no thank you” and send him right back to the English settlement. This all probably would have been forgiven as just some interesting footnote to the film given that it gives some context and structure to a hard to adapt book… oh, except that they also changed the ending where Dimmesdale dies having been eaten away by shame. Instead Hester and Dimmesdale survive the attack and leave the colony to raise their child together and be in love forever and smooch each other for hours. Even if you didn’t read the novel you get the sense that it can’t possibly be accurate. Doesn’t make much sense as a morality tale about shame if they live happily ever after. It is crazy.   

Nothing can be crazier than changing the ending to an American Classic that subverts the original intentions of the novel, right? Wrong. If you’ve never watched the sex scene from The Scarlet Letter run (don’t walk) to the nearest local cinema and demand they show it to you. I know that’s not how it works, but it should. Here is a simple list of the aspects of this scene: 1. Hester is told that her husband has probably died. 2. Hester and Dimmesdale immediately go out to the barn for some canoodling. 3. Hester’s servant girl, Mituba, intrigued by the barn sexy time, opens the door to the house and the red bird of lust flies in. 4. The bird flies near a candle and basically is like “yo, you know what to do.” 5. Normal Hester/Dimmesdale sex scene intermixed with Mituba preparing for a bath while staring at the bird. 6. Hester and Dimmesdale literally have sex in a pile of grain. 7. Mituba used the candle in the bath (if you know what I mean) and looks at the bird, waggles her eyebrows, and is basically like “get a load of this.” 8. Grain intermixed with climax. 9. Mituba releases the bird out the window after giving it a kiss. I just listed nine things that last five minutes and maybe twenty seconds of it isn’t weird. Everything else is so weird that you wonder if you are peering into the director’s own fantasies. It is nothing less than uncomfortable. The fact that they allegedly thought they were making a sexy sex scene and produced that is scary. True satire. Welcome to the Hall of Fame, The Scarlet Letter.

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