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CLASSICS ILLUSTRATION

The report from seventeenth-century New England is not as good.
In the name of relevance (we guess), screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart and director Roland Joffe (The Mission) have trashed The Scarlet Letter. This ludicrous take on the Hawthorne classic dispenses brand spanking new messages on ecology (the forest primeval is a good thing), on WASP rectitude (a bad thing) and the natural rhythm of American Indians up in Massachusetts (a transcendent thing).

It also manages to ignore Hawthorne's timeless parable about adultery, guilt, sin and redemption. For all the attention Stewart and Joffe have paid to an American literary masterpiece, that big red "A" sewn to Hester Prynne's bodice may as well mean she's the new shortstop for the California Angels.

Need to hear the gruesome details? Two words. Demi Moore. That's right. Jayne Mansfield is dead, and Melanie Griffith is currently starring in a kindergarten vegetable play, so these moviemakers stuffed Demi Moore into a whalebone corset and told her to go for it. Hey, she's already seduced a dead husband's ghost and Michael Douglas, so what harm can a little roll in the hay with a country preacher do?

For a Puritan just off the boat from England, this Hester is pretty handy with an eyebrow pencil and a stick of mascara. But she doesn't stop there, and neither does the movie. She applies her charms to the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) in the approximate manner of a streetwalker working Times Square, and when the nasty husband (Robert Duvall) shows up for a little vengeance, she lays some pretty heavy feminist rhetoric on him. When the church elders come around, she still refuses to snitch. But clearly, the seventeenth century isn't good enough for Joffe, and neither is Nathaniel Hawthorne: This Scarlet Letter sounds like the Oprah show.

It's hard to gauge what Oldman and Duvall, two pretty fair actors, thought of the ruinous proceedings on the set--or even the pilgrim hats they had to wear. But if you remember the look in cousin Wilfred's eye that time the IRS came after him, you get an idea of how they look for two hours.

Suffice it to say of Stewart's "rewrite"--a clear case of plot assassination--that Hester's illegitimate daughter, Pearl, is no longer a disturbing character in the Prynne family drama, that Dimmesdale neglects to die for love in the end, and that the movie has nothing whatever to do with the torments of the soul.

My favorite line in this all-time bomb is delivered by Dimmesdale, Hester's main squeeze and now a friend of the Indians: "I'd like you to meet my friend Running Moose," he says, as if they'd both just sidled up to a babe at the bar in Cheers.

And that, you can only surmise, is what these people mean when they say their film has been "freely adapted" from the original novel. Can't be long now before those "A Is for Adultery" T-shirts with Demi Moore's picture on 'em hit the shelves at Kmart.

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