The Love Letter (1998 film)
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The Love Letter is a 1998 Hallmark Hall of Fame television film directed by Dan Curtis starring Campbell Scott and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It is based on Jack Finney's short story of the same name, which was first published in The Saturday Evening Post on August 1, 1959, and reprinted in the same magazine in January/February 1988 issue. The story has since appeared in several books.
Elizabeth is living near Boston in 1863 and writes a letter addressing it to "Dearest" (no specific addressee), expressing her desire and hope to someday find someone to love with her whole heart and mind; or as she puts it, "to feel a love that burns like fire in the moonlight." She places the letter in the secret compartment of her desk. In the year 1998, Scott Corrigan buys the desk at a second-hand furniture store. The store owner tells Scott that the desk had belonged to a Union General (whom we may assume is Caleb Denby). While re-conditioning it, he finds the secret compartment and Elizabeth's letter. He shows it to his mother but not to his fiancée. His mother has a feeling that Scott may actually be able to communicate with Elizabeth across time. She encourages him to reply to the letter and gives him a postage stamp from the period in which Elizabeth lived, and says he should mail it at the only post office now existing that was there in 1863. He does so, telling Elizabeth that she should be patient and that someday she will find her true love.
Back in 1863, the local letter carrier delivers Scott's letter to Elizabeth who is quite alarmed when she reads its contents. She immediately goes to her desk and is shocked to find her letter missing from its secret compartment. She then writes back to Scott demanding to know who he is and how he retrieved her letter from its hiding place. In 1998, Scott hears a noise from the desk sounding like a letter had suddenly been dropped into it. He goes to the secret compartment and is astonished when he finds Elizabeth's second letter. Scott replies to it and soon Scott and Elizabeth are communicating with each other across time. During this period, Scott goes to the home where Elizabeth lived 135 years ago, and finds that it is now owned by Clarisse, the granddaughter of Elizabeth's sister. He learns a bit more about Elizabeth from this visit and in fact, he and Elizabeth sense each other's presence in the home across time. Scott's and Elizabeth's letters gradually become more personal and affectionate and eventually loving as each begins to fall in love with the other. They realize however that their love is a hopeless one given that 135 years separate them.
Meanwhile, in Elizabeth's time, her father tries to push her into a marriage with a kind but boring upper-class man for whom Elizabeth has no feelings. Instead Elizabeth meets a Union Army Officer, Caleb Denby, and begins to fall in love with him, while not losing any of her feelings toward Scott. (We, the audience, see that Caleb is the spitting image of Scott, something that Elizabeth at that point does not know.) She writes to Scott of her new love, who in turn researches the Denby's name on the Internet, and finds that he was killed at the battle of Gettysburg. Scott frantically writes to Lizzy, as he has come to call her, and warns her to tell him that he should not go into that battle. Scottie (as she has come to call him) goes to mail his (as it turns out) last letter at the old post office only to find it on fire. He barely makes it into the P.O. and mails the letter before it burns down entirely. Elizabeth receives Scottie's last letter, and Scottie gets out safely from the burning Post Office. But with the destruction of the P.O., their ability to connect across time is irrevocably broken. Elizabeth rushes to Gettysburg but arrives too late. Caleb has been mortally wounded and he tells her he wants to marry her, but then dies in her arms. When she returns home in grief, she is handed an earlier letter from Scotty which had been misplaced and which she had never seen until now. In it is a color photo that Scottie sent to her of himself. She sees it and says, "of course" and realizes that Scotty and Caleb are one and the same person, knows that both are now gone to her, and says she'll never forget him.
Back in 1998, Scott confesses to his fiancée everything about Elizabeth and that he has fallen in love with her. She reads Elizabeth's letters to Scott and in one of them, not only finds a photo of Elizabeth but one also of Elizabeth and Caleb and immediately sees that Caleb is identical to Scott. Although, she thinks the whole thing is crazy, she tearfully breaks off her engagement to Scott and leaves. Scott then visits the old house one more time, to find that Clarisse has died, the house now left to Maggie, her caretaker and housekeeper. Maggie gives him an old wooden box, telling him that Clarisse wanted him to have it. Scott opens it to find Lizzys's poems (they were not in the box before Scotty wrote to her), his letters to her, and a worn but clear color picture of Scotty, shocking Maggie completely. The scene then turns to the church graveyard in the town where Elizabeth lived. Scott finds her grave and gravestone, at the bottom of which is carved, "I never forgot". The gravestone gives her birth date as 23.3.1834 and death as 7.8.1901 (aged 67). Elizabeth as it turns out never married. At this point, an enthusiastically friendly golden retriever comes over to Scott in the church graveyard, followed by its owner, a young woman named Beth who turns out to be the spitting image of Elizabeth. Scott then realizes the same thing that Elizabeth did in her time; that Scott is the reincarnation of Caleb, and Scott realizes that Beth in 1998 is the reincarnation of Elizabeth. Beth and Scott have a brief friendly conversation after which Beth offers to treat him to a cup of coffee, and they go off together to get to know one another. The end of the film shows the book of Lizzy's poems featured in a bookstore, having finally been published by Scotty.
The short story as originally written by Jack Finney
In 1959, Jake Belknap, a young, lonely, single man in Brooklyn, New York is looking for used furniture to furnish his recently acquired apartment. Walking in a section of the borough that contains very large, ancient, magnificent mansions about to be torn down, he finds a yard sale of antique furniture from a mansion about to be demolished, and is fascinated by an antique roll-top desk from the 1800s, which he purchases.
After getting the desk home, he opens a drawer and finds original stationery from the previous century, along with several old stamps from that period. He also finds a love letter from a woman named Helen Elizabeth Worley, who lived in the Brooklyn of the 1880s, to a man whom she dreams about, although she is about to be engaged to a man she doesn't love.
Enchanted with the letter, he feels compelled to answer Helen, by writing to her using the old stationery, pen and ink, and putting an 1869 stamp on the letter (from his collection) and mailing it at the old "Wister" post office, which has been around since the 19th century in Brooklyn, unchanged by time.
He returns home and opens the second drawer, to find to his shock, that Helen has received his letter, and she wishes to know who he is and why he has written to her. He writes her another letter, describing who he is, and the fact that he lived in the year 1959 and although they have fallen in love with each other, to meet is impossible because of the years between them. Expecting to receive a final, long love letter from her, he is surprised to find in the bottom drawer, only her picture and the inscription "I will never forget".
After doing research on her whereabouts, he finally finds her grave in a local cemetery, and on her tombstone is engraved, "I never forgot". Miss Worley had died in 1934.
The differences between the movie and the short story
The made-for-television movie is based on Finney's short story, but there are a number of differences:
- The movie takes place in 1998, whereas in the book, the "modern" year is 1959.
- The woman in the movie, Elizabeth Whitcomb, lives in the United States Civil War era, whereas Helen in the short story lives in the 1880s in Brooklyn, New York.