The Scarlet Letter
Adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, the story follows a young Puritan woman, Hester Prynne, whose husband has been missing for three years. When discovered pregnant she is charged with adultery and cast out of society. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns to find her shamed, but conceals his identity and vows to discover and torment Hester’s lover. Hester refuses all entreaties to reveal the man and struggles to find peace and forgiveness in the midst of oppression and secrets.
Stephen and Elizabeth Berry recreate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous novel, The Scarlet Letter, with complex characters who challenge the Pharisaical Christianity dominating a 17th-century Puritan colony.
Hester Prynne comes to this village alone, a miserably married woman, but three years later, no one has seen or heard from her husband. Assuming he died, Hester has a secret, adulterous relationship with the colony’s minister, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. The couple debates revealing their sin, but when Hester discovers she is pregnant, the choice is made for them.
To uphold Rev. Dimmesdale’s sacred, beloved image, Hester vows to never say who the child’s father is. She is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her chest and is sent out of the colony, treated as an outcast.
Seven years later, their child, Pearl, has grown into a wary, observant child. The Puritan community continues to keep a distance from Hester and Pearl, but Hester has found forgiveness and peace with God for her transgression. However, Rev. Dimmesdale has not. Though he repeatedly begs God for forgiveness, keeping this secret has destroyed his physical body.
A mysterious doctor stumbles upon the colony and offers to be Rev. Dimmesdale’s caretaker. What Rev. Dimmesdale doesn’t know is that this doctor, the supposed Roger Chillingworth, is Hester’s husband. Roger keeps a distance from Hester in public, but he vows to find the man she was with. Despite the slight guilt that Roger forced Hester to marry him, Hester’s adultery creates a wild, deeply rooted bitterness in him that drives him to discover who Pearl’s father is.
Rev. Dimmesdale makes his peace and confesses his sin to the colony, but his peace drives Roger into even deeper bitterness and anger. Meanwhile, Hester feels that the burden is lifted now that both of them have confessed.
This remake of The Scarlet Letter is my favorite thus far. In comparison to other film versions of the novel, this film focuses on the strict, pious, Pharisee-like theology of the Puritan colony. They tend to follow an Old Testament law, threatening to stone Hester for her adultery. Such rules create pressure for Rev. Dimmesdale and force viewers to ask an important question, “If I’ve confessed my sin to God but not found forgiveness in the sight of others, where do I stand?”
Meanwhile, Hester’s view of God’s forgiveness and mercy softens the Old Testament laws that colony elders try to enforce. Rather than seeing God as all hellfire and brimstone, she reminds us that Jesus is closest to those who seek Him amidst their sin.
In his personal life, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrestled with the strict Puritan raising that he had, wondering where Jesus was in the middle of the judgment and punishment, which explains the theological tug-of-war in this film. Overall, The Scarlet Letter invites viewers to nail down their perspective of God and His relationship with human beings.
A few precautionary elements include Pearl’s character, who is initially portrayed as a “bad seed”; she can sense where the devil’s people are in the forest. In addition, there is an intense birth scene and the constant conversation of adultery. Outside of these elements, the theological discussions that this film creates awards The Scarlet Letter Dove-approval for Ages 12+.
The Dove Take:
This film adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter creates deep questions about the balance between God’s judgment and forgiveness, catalyzing healthy conversation for adults and older children.