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The Scarlet Letter
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this historical melodrama has bloody violence -- throat slashings, scalpings, shootings -- plus attempted rape. Brief male and female nudity are shown in a non-sexual context and several sex scenes are non-explicit. Students who watch this movie as a shortcut for reading the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel should wear the scarlet "S" (for slacker), and know that it deviates from the the book a lot.
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What's the story?
Demi Moore was at the height of her movie queendom when she starred in this ill-fated historical drama "freely inspired" by the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel about sin and hypocrisy in early New England. In a Puritan colony in Massachusetts of 1666, Hester Prynne (Moore) arrives in advance of her much older husband Roger (Robert Duvall). Beautiful, free-thinking Hester raises eyebrows amidst the strict, conservative-Christian townsfolk by securing a house by herself and proving well read and opinionated. She attracts the young, popular pastor of the town, Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) and vice-versa. When news arrives that Roger Prynne was slain in an Indian attack, Hester -- who doesn't grieve at all -- consummates her affair with Dimmesdale and is soon pregnant. Refusing to name her secret lover, Hester is publicly condemned, imprisoned until she gives birth, and forced to wear an "A" for "adulterer." Worse, Roger turns out to be alive, returning to town under an assumed name and psychotic. He stirs up a phony witchcraft scare and a murder plot as part of his revenge.
Is it any good?
Frankly, dears, it's hard to give a damn about this Scarlet. Maybe time and critics would have been a little kinder to THE SCARLET LETTER if only Tinseltown had changed the title and character names and distanced it from the stern English-class-assignment novel by moralistic author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Rewriting the source material with a proverbial post-1960s Hollywood spin, this goes off-topic into Indian-settler problems, witchcraft hysteria, slavery, and the general idea of colonials acting destructive. The tragic affair between Hester and Dimmesdale mutates into an upbeat, defiant, and happy love match, more like a kitschy romance paperback. Much as Moore's monotonously noble performance in the lead role was widely panned, the script doesn't do many favors either to actors such as Gary Oldman and Robert Duvall (though they do get to yell a lot).
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Hester Prynne's choices. Are she and Dimmesdale truly "sinners"? How do the movie characters compare to those in the Hawthorne book?
What do you know about the actual Puritans of New England, their relations with Indians, and their opinions on women, love, and marriage? How does this movie portray history -- accurately or innaccurately? Do you think the media has a responsibility to portray history a certain way?
Talk about the violence in the movie. How did you react to it? Did it matter who was perpetrating it?
For kids who love history
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.