The Scarlet Letter (1995 film)

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The Scarlet Letter
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRoland Joffé
Screenplay byDouglas Day Stewart
Based onThe Scarlet Letter by
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Produced byRoland Joffé
Andrew G. Vajna
CinematographyAlex Thomson
Edited byThom Noble
Music byJohn Barry
Distributed byBuena Vista Pictures Distribution (North America/South America)
Cinergi Productions (International)
Release date
  • October 13, 1995 (1995-10-13)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$46 million[1]
Box office$35 million[2]

The Scarlet Letter is a 1995 American romantic drama western film directed by Roland Joffé. "Freely" adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel of the same name, it stars Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, and Robert Duvall.[3][4] The film met with overwhelmingly negative reviews. It was nominated for seven Golden Raspberry Awards, winning "Worst Remake or Sequel", and has garnered a legacy as one of the worst films ever made.


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.



Shelburne, Nova Scotia waterfront showing grey paint finishes applied for the 1995 film.

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.[5]


Two original scores were written for this film. Ennio Morricone provided some early demos based on his prior work with Joffé on The Mission, but nothing original was recorded with an orchestra. A rejected 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 (based on the composer's work on Indecent Proposal), so Bernstein's music was 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.[6] A CD of Bernstein's rejected score was released by Varèse Sarabande in 2008.[7]


The Scarlet Letter met with overwhelmingly negative reviews.[8][9] Washington Post writer Amy E. Schwartz observed the critical reaction to the "nutty" film: "Phrases like 'unintentionally funny' and 'unwittingly hilarious' have gotten a considerable workout, along with variations on the judgment pronounced by the woman who was two seats away... and who, when the lights went up, cried, 'That's got to be the worst movie I've ever seen'."[8] More forgiving was Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle, who found it to be a "well-acted, beautiful movie", despite the "syrupy orchestral score" and "big liberties taken with Hawthorne's story".[10]

Multiple critics named the film the worst of 1995;[11][12][13] Deseret News writer Chris Hicks argued that its deviation from the source material represents "Hollywood's arrogance in its purest form".[11] It 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. Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave The Scarlet Letter a grade of "B" on a scale of A+ to F,[14] but the film was not successful at the box office, grossing $35 million[2] against a production budget of $46 million.[1]

In a retrospective article, Kevin Williamson of National Review observed a "combination of awfulness and inexplicability", and claimed that "any objective and authoritative analysis will reveal that the worst film ever made is Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter".[15] Bustle's Sadie Trombetta wrote that the film "has earned an almost permanent spot on every 'Worst Movie of All Time' list",[16] while author Libby Fischer Hellmann noted that it is "widely cited as the worst film adaptation ever made".[17] Film4 offered scant praise, calling it "dodgy but oddly entertaining".[18] Based on 38 reviews collected by aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 13% approval rating, with an average score of 3.4/10. The site's 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."[19]

In response to the criticism, and to the modified narrative, Moore said that the story the filmmakers were trying to tell differed out of necessity since the book "is 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.[20] 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."[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Scarlet Letter (1995)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  2. ^ a b "Planet Hollywood". Screen International. August 30, 1996. pp. 14–15.
  3. ^ Boyar, Jay (October 13, 1995). "'Scarlet Letter' is Untrue to the Hawthorne Tale". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  4. ^ Q&A: Demi Moore - Rolling Stone
  5. ^ D23
  6. ^ Scarlet Letter - John Barry|AllMusic
  7. ^ 2008 IFMCA Awards|IFMCA: International Film Music Critics Association
  8. ^ a b Schwartz, Amy E (October 24, 1995). "Even Hawthorne Would Have Laughed". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  9. ^ Purdy, Alicia (May 26, 2012). "20 best-selling books that weren't as acclaimed as film adaptations". Deseret News. Archived from the original on December 13, 2013. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
  10. ^ Stack, Peter (October 13, 1995). "They're Still Taking Liberties With Hester". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  11. ^ a b Hicks, Chris (December 22, 1995). "Best & Worst Movies of 1995". Deseret News. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  12. ^ LaSalle, Mick (December 30, 1995). "So Bad You Can't Hate Them". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  13. ^ "Worst Film 1995". The Coast. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  14. ^ "Cinemascore". Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved July 21, 2020.
  15. ^ Williamson, Kevin (February 19, 2009). "I Hate to Disagree with My Betters..." National Review. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
  16. ^ Trombetta, Sadie (November 5, 2015). "9 Books That Should Never Have Been Movies". Bustle. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  17. ^ Hellmann, Libby Fischer (August 7, 2016). "5 Great Books That Were Movie Stinkers". Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  18. ^ "The Scarlet Letter". Film4. Archived from the original on July 14, 2003. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  19. ^ "The Scarlet Letter". Rotten Tomatoes.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ "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.[dead YouTube link]

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