The Scarlet Letter (1995 film)

The Scarlet Letter is a 1995 American romantic drama film. It is a film adaptation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name. It was directed by Roland Joffé and stars Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, and Robert Duvall. This version was "freely adapted" from Hawthorne[lower-alpha 1] and deviated from the original story. A critical and box office failure, it was nominated for seven Golden Raspberry Awards at the 1995 ceremony, winning "Worst Remake or Sequel."

The Scarlet Letter
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRoland Joffé
Produced byRoland Joffé
Andrew G. Vajna
Screenplay byDouglas Day Stewart
Based onThe Scarlet Letter by
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Music byJohn Barry
CinematographyAlex Thomson
Edited byThom Noble
Distributed byBuena Vista Pictures
Release date
  • October 13, 1995 (1995-10-13)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$46 million[1]
Box office$10,382,407[1]


It is 1667 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and an uneasy truce exists between local Puritans and their neighbors, the Algonquian. Chief Metacomet succeeds his father Massasoit as head of the latter just as a new colonist, Hester Prynne arrives overseas from England. As Hester waits for her husband—who is due to follow shortly after—she falls for a young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. When it emerges that Roger Prynne has likely been killed by Native Americans, they become inseparable lovers.

Finding herself pregnant with Dimmesdale's child, Hester is imprisoned for her indiscretion. The minister intends to declare his sin and face execution, but Hester convinces him otherwise. Sentenced to wear a scarlet "A" for adultery, Prynne is ostracized by the public, and a drummer boy is charged to follow her whenever she comes to town. Meanwhile, Hester's husband resurfaces, having spent his absence in captivity as a prisoner of war. Learning of the scandal, he adopts the fictitious guise of "Dr. Roger Chillingworth" and begins seeking out her paramour.

The physician eventually murders a male settler leaving Hester's home and scalps him in an effort to implicate Algonquian warriors. Infuriated by this atrocity, the colonists declare war on the Indians and Roger, distraught by the severe consequences of his action, promptly commits suicide. Hester is nearly hanged with other undesirables in the ensuing outrage, but Dimmesdale saves her neck by confessing that he is the father of her child. As he takes her place on the gallows, the Algonquian attack Massachusetts Bay; both sides sustain heavy casualties. The Puritans are more concerned with concealing the conflict from England than harassing Hester any further; she finally abandons her scarlet letter and departs with Dimmesdale for Carolina.



The film was shot in British Columbia on Vancouver Island, in and around Campbell River (Beaverlodge Lands—now Rockland Road and North Island College/Timberline Secondary, Lupin Falls and Myra Falls in Strathcona Provincial Park, Little Oyster River, and White River), and in the Nova Scotia towns of Yarmouth, Shelburne, and in the small village of Saint Alphonse in Clare in 1994. In Shelburne, the waterfront area was substantially altered to resemble a Puritan New England town in the mid-17th century. Some of the buildings on Dock Street retain the grey-tone paint finishes used for the film.


Three original scores were written for this film. The first score was composed by Ennio Morricone and was quickly rejected. A second score was composed by Elmer Bernstein, but his music was set aside in lieu of the final score, composed by John Barry. Reportedly, star Demi Moore wanted a score by Barry from the start, so Morricone's and Bernstein's music were not going to be accepted, regardless of quality.

Barry's score was released on CD by Sony Records upon the film's release in 1995. A CD of Bernstein's rejected score was released by Varèse Sarabande in 2008. No recordings of Morricone's score have been released to the public.


The Scarlet Letter was thoroughly panned by critics.[2][3] Based on 38 reviews collected by aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 13% approval rating, with an average score of 3/10. The critical consensus reads, "The Scarlet Letter strays far from its classic source material to tell a story that strains for steamy sensuality and leaves the audience red with unintentional laughter."[4] In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman referred to a "clunky, dawdlingly literal-minded Scarlet Letter, a movie that doesn't so much adapt the book as give it an expensive makeover."[5] Kevin Williamson of National Review, in a retrospective appraisal, declared it "the worst film ever made", adding: "With its combination of awfulness and inexplicability, it's the 'MacArthur Park' of cinema."[6] The film won Worst Remake or Sequel at the 1995 Golden Raspberry Awards, receiving further nominations for Worst Actress (Moore), Worst Supporting Actor (Duvall), Worst Screen Couple (Moore and either Duvall or Oldman), Worst Director, Worst Picture, and Worst Screenplay. It grossed $10.3 million against a production budget of $46 million.[7]

In response to the criticism, and to the new ending, Moore said that the story the filmmakers were trying to tell differed out of necessity with that of the book, which she said was "very dense and not cinematic". She noted the original story might be better suited to a miniseries on television, and that the story presented in this film needed a different ending, one that did not lose "the ultimate message of Hester Prynne" that its makers were trying to convey.[8] Asked by critic Peter Travers in 2011 to name the few films in his catalogue that he would take to a desert island, Oldman named The Scarlet Letter among his four choices. He conceded Travers's assertion that the film was "hammered" by reviewers, but argued, "There's some good work in there."[3]

See also


  1. According to the opening credits
  1. "The Scarlet Letter (1995)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  2. Purdy, Alicia (May 26, 2012). "20 best-selling books that weren't as acclaimed as film adaptations". Deseret News. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
  3. "Who Is the Real Gary Oldman?". Popcorn with Peter Travers. Season 5. Episode 15. December 9, 2011. ABC News. American Broadcasting Company. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
  4. "The Scarlet Letter". Rotten Tomatoes.
  5. Gleiberman, Owen (October 20, 1995). "The Scarlet Letter". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
  6. Williamson, Kevin (February 19, 2009). "I Hate to Disagree with My Betters..." National Review. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
  7. "The Scarlet Letter – Box Office Data, Movie News, Cast Information". The Numbers.
  8. Jeffreys, Daniel (October 7, 1995). "You don't get to be Hollywood's best-paid actress by acting coy. Just ask Demi Moore". The Independent. Retrieved February 2, 2015.
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