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CLASSICS ILLUSTRATION

The reading public--O, endangered species--grows understandably wary every time screenwriter, director and cast get their collective hooks into a bona fide literary classic. It doesn't happen every time, but some of the world's most dreadful movies have dropped stillborn from some of the greatest books. Who can imagine Tolstoy's reaction to the overcostumed blather of Hollywood's War and Peace? And if Fitzgerald had gotten one look at airhead Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby, would he not have vanished into a quart of Old Grand Dad years before he did?

This week, two famous literary heroines come to the screen in separate films, and never the twain shall meet. Roger Michell's Persuasion, from the Jane Austen novel of the same title, is almost everything devotees of that author (and of good moviemaking) could wish for--a faithful, fervent retelling enhanced by some daring cinematic inventions of its own. But Roland Joffe's The Scarlet Letter, after Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a twisted mutant of a thing.

First, the good news from Bath:
The trendsetter in high-toned, literary filmmaking continues to be the Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala combine, which has done honor to its pet authors, E.M. Forster and Henry James, and sundry others. I-M-J's influence has certainly reached director Michell, a South African trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company. But his witty, beautifully observed adaptation of Austen's quintessential English tale of fallen country snobs and early-nineteenth-century hypochondriacs, flighty husband-seekers and true romantic devotion doesn't mind getting the smudge of real life on it: Compared with Ivory-Merchant's rather anal-retentive style, it's gloriously liberated.

An extraordinary new actress, Amanda Root, stars here as Austen's late-blooming heroine, Anne Elliott. Big-eyed and thin-lipped, Root is the picture of stricken dismay when a family friend reveals to Anne that Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), the dashing naval officer with whom she was in love eight years earlier, has returned from sea, enriched by war. On the advice of a meddlesome, class-conscious family friend, Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood), Anne had broken her engagement because Wentworth was, as they say in our own century, undercapitalized.

But the old fires still smolder, and the film takes us down the difficult road leading to the reserved former lovers' rediscovery of each other. Austen, at once the most precise and generous of novelists, was at her sharpest in this last book (published posthumously), and screenwriter Nick Dear has an unerring instinct for both her satirical tone and the depth of her romantic imagination.

The obstacles in Anne and Frederick's path make up a vivid portrait gallery of English country life. A pair of wonderfully empty-headed sisters, Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove (Victoria Hamilton and Emma Roberts), throw their coquettish charms at Frederick, while Anne's younger sister, Mary (Sophie Thompson), keeps her saintly, wallflowerish sibling occupied with a plethora of imagined ailments and chronic complaints, all contrived to get the attention of her wayward fool of a husband. Meanwhile, a sly cousin (Samuel West) woos Anne with synthetic charm, and a gimpy, likable sea captain named Benwick (Richard McCabe) awakens her sleeping soul with poetry. Still, she keeps her secret.

Anne, a creation her maker once called "almost too good for me," is also saddled with a high-handed older sister and a society obsessed with appearances while undervaluing substance (not to speak of any meaningful utterance by a woman). Austen's novel and Michell's film aim their sharpest darts at Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliott, a ruined baronet whose boundless snobbery and blind folly give the film its strongest dose of humor. Corin Redgrave is spectacularly odious in the part, but no more so than Darlene Johnson's Lady Dalrymple, the imperious (yet penniless) aristocrat Sir Walter courts with a fervor bordering on psychopathy. Captured in candlelight by cinematographer John Daly, Lady Dalrymple looks like some wrinkled monster coughed up from hell: One look and you burst out laughing.

On the other hand, we are authentically uplifted by Anne and Frederick's reinvigorated romance. Over the course of the film, this heroine blooms before our very eyes--intellectually, spiritually and physically--and you may feel like cheering when she at last gets to her famous declaration, rooted in nineteenth-century values: "All the privilege I claim for my own sex is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone."

A little while later, Frederick and Anne exchange just one chaste kiss on a city street, but this has more redemptive power (and more real emotion) than the mechanical orgies in ten Sharon Stone movies. The kiss is not only the crux of courage and liberation for the lovers, it's the moment at which the audience, too, is set free. This time, the close-up of Amanda Root's face is full of radiance, and now, after all of Austen's satirical hooks have been set, all her fine comic ironies distributed, we get a little radiant ourselves in the face of love's triumph.

This is an elegant but spirited film, a world of quality apart from the boisterous 1940 version of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and a great improvement, I think, on the overly mannered work of Ivory-Merchant. A major Jane Austen revival seems to be under way these days, but it's difficult to imagine any greater honor to her spirit than this timely and inventive version of Persuasion.

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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