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Not surprisingly, The Scarlet Letter has been a favorite subject for movie makers, television producers, and the growing market in audio and video recording. During the era of silent films, several versions of Hawthorne’s story were produced, the most distinguished being a 1926 blockbuster starring Lillian Gish as Hester, newcomer Lars Hanson as Dimmesdale, and Henry Walthall as Chillingworth. Produced by Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, this version was carefully crafted to downplay the sexual transgressions of the heroine so as to avoid censure by religious groups and preserve Gish’s screen reputation.

In 1934, Hollywood director Robert Vignola orchestrated an unusual version of the tale which introduced elements of comedy into Hawthorne’s bleak tale. Starring Colleen Moore, Hardie Albright, and (once again) Henry Walthall, the movie attracted mixed reviews. A German-language version, reasonably faithful to the original story, was released in 1973, featuring European film star Senta Berger. In 1979, and again in 1991, the novel was adapted for television in two multi-part series released by the public broadcasting and national humanities agencies; both were acclaimed for their faithful treatment of the author’s themes and for the quality of acting. The latter was accompanied by a documentary outlining the research involved in producing the film.

In 1995, The Scarlet Letter once again made headlines when Hollywood released a loose adaptation—complete with happy ending—starring one of the industry’s most seductive actresses, Demi Moore. Reviews were universally negative, however, panning the quality of acting and faulting scriptwriter, director, and producer for taking too many liberties with the original story.

The novel has also been dramatized in more than a dozen audio recordings specifically targeted to students and general audiences. Among the more notable versions in these formats are a 1986 dramatic reading by actress Michael Learned, a 1989 sound version by actress Jane Seymour, and a 1995 recording by actress Leslie Ann Warren.

Media Adaptations

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  • The Scarlet Letter has received several film adaptations, beginning with director Victor Seastrom’s 1926 silent version starring Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne. The first talkie version, directed by Robert Vignola in 1934 (produced by London Films) and starring Colleen Moore, is available from Nostalgia Family Video, though it is probably difficult to locate a rental copy.
  • Recent film productions include a 1973 international version directed by Wim Wenders that received good reviews (Ingram International Films; in German with English subtitles). PBS aired a four-hour version in 1979 that stars Meg Foster as Hester and John Heard as Dimmesdale. Rick Harser’s direction is faithful to the novel (PBS Home Video; four video cassettes). A similar educational version was produced in 1991 and is available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
  • One of the great flops of recent years is the 1995 Hollywood production directed by Roland Joffe and starring Demi Moore as Hester, Gary Oldman as Dimmesdale, and Robert Duvall as Chillingworth (available from Hollywood Pictures Home Video). Be careful not to embarrass yourself by relying on this film as a guide to the novel.
  • There are also a number of sound recordings...

(This entire section contains 295 words.)

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  • of the novel. Audio Partners Inc. (of Auburn, CA) published an abridged version in 1986 read by Michael Learned (the full title isMichael Learned reads The Scarlet Letter). The Brilliance Corporation produced an unabridged version read by Dick Hill in 1993 (8 hours). Books in Motion also published an unabridged version in 1982 read by Gene Engene (7.5 hours).
  • Finally, there are two audio study guides or discussions of The Scarlet Letter. Lecturer Robert H. Fossum discusses the book on one thirty-eight-minute cassette in the series “19th Century American Writers,” produced by Everett/Edwards (1976). Time Warner Audiobooks published a study guide narrated by Julie Amato in 1994 on one seventy-two-minute cassette.


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Sources for Further Study

Baym, Nina “The Scarlet Letter”: A Reading. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Full-length critical introduction that examines the setting, characters, and themes. One fascinating chapter treats the scarlet “A” as a character. Includes a chronology and extended bibliography.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Interpretations series. Offers seven fascinating, fairly sophisticated critical essays written after 1962. Contains several approaches to the work as not a novel but as a typical American romance.

Boudreau, Kristin. “Hawthorne’s Model of Christian Charity.” In Sympathy in American Literature: American Sentiments from Jefferson to the Jameses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. This chapter relates Hawthorne’s novel to the question of Christian charity in the writings of Puritan governor John Winthrop.

Colacurcio, Michael J. New Essays on “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Offers serious students a brief review of the different critical approaches brought to the novel from the time of its publication to the 1980’s.

Durst Johnson, Claudia. Understanding the Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. This volume is an excellent source book for historical and critical texts relating to Hawthorne’s novel.

Gerber, John C., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “The Scarlet Letter”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Twenty essays for the beginning student that explore background, form, techniques, and interpretations. Includes a useful chronology that pairs dates in Hawthorne’s life with historical events.

Gross, Seymour, ed. A “Scarlet Letter” Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960. A discussion of Hawthorne’s earlier fiction, followed by a collection of brief essays on themes, characters, symbolism, and structure. Includes topics for discussion and student papers and an annotated bibliography.

Thomas, Brook. “Love and Politics, Sympathy and Justice in The Scarlet Letter.” In The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Richard H. Millington. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. This essay examines the question of marriage as it relates to the Puritan tradition and to Hawthorne’s novel.

Turner, Arlin. The Merrill Studies in “The Scarlet Letter.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970. Essays for the general reader, including pieces on Hawthorne’s process of composition, reviews of the novel dating back to its publication in 1850, nineteenth century commentary, and a sampling of twentieth century approaches.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Baym, Nina. “Plot in Hawthorne’s Romances.” In Ruined Eden of the Present, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke. Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 49-70.

———. The Scarlet Letter: A Reading. Boston: Twayn, 1986.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Office of the Scarlet Letter. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Carpenter, Frederic I. “Scarlet A Minus.” In College English, Vol. 5, 1944, pp. 173-80.

Coxe, Arthur Cleveland. “The Writings of Hawthorne.” In Church Review, January, 1851, pp. 489-511.

Duyckinck, Evert A. Review in Literary World, March 30, 1850, pp. 323-25.

Gerber, John C. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Norwalk, Connecticut: Heritage Press, 1973.

James, Henry. Hawthorne. Macmillan & Co., London, 1879.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Oxford University Press, 1941.

The Scarlet Letter; an annotated text, backgrounds, and sources. New York: Norton, 1962.

Whipple, Edwin Percy. Review in Graham’s Magazine, May, 1850, pp. 345-46.

Further Reading

Berlant, Lauren Gail. The Anatomy of National Fantasy, Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. University of Chicago Press, 1991. A discussion of the connections between The Scarlet Letter and the politics and political character of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, including the concept of Utopia as it was applied to American democracy.

Brodhead, Richard H. The School of Hawthorne. Oxford University Press, 1986. Explores the critical reputation of Hawthorne and how the prevailing literary thought of the day helped create a “school” around his work that led to his inclusion in the literary canon. A good history of Hawthorne’s critical reputation.

Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ edited by David B. Kesterson. G. K. Hall, 1988. A collection of previously published criticism on Hawthorne’s novel.

Critical Response to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ edited by Gary Scharnhorst. Greenwood Press, 1992. Another collection of critical essays by several critics on the novel.

DeSalvo, Louise A. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Harvester Press, 1987. A feminist analysis of Hawthorne’s work which decries the misogyny in his texts.

Harris, Kenneth Marc. Hypocrisy and Self-deception in Hawthorne’s Fiction. University Press of Virginia, 1988. A study which focuses on Hawthorne’s preoccupation with hypocrisy, relating it to the author’s fascination with the Puritans.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. An edition of the novel that contains a helpful introduction by a noted literary critic.

New Essays on ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ edited by Michael J. Colacurcio. Cambridge University Press, 1985. A collection of original critical assessments of Hawthorne’s novel.

Person, Leland S. Aesthetic Headaches: Women and a Masculine Poetics in Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. University of Georgia Press, 1988. Person’s analysis of these authors’ difficulties in creating artistic depictions of female characters suggests the need for a “masculine poetics.” Devotes a whole chapter to The Scarlet Letter.

Reynolds, Larry J. “The Scarlet Letter and Revolutions Abroad.” In American Literature, Vol. 77, 1985, pp 44-67. Reynolds shows how Hawthorne viewed and was influenced by the European revolutions that began in 1848.

Rosa, Alfred F. Salem, Transcendentalism, and Hawthorne. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. A study of several of Hawthorne’s historical influences, including the witch trials in Massachusetts and the new Transcendentalist school of religious thought.

Ryskamp, Charles. “The New England Sources of The Scarlet Letter.” In American Literature XXXI, November 1959, pp. 257-272. A look at some of the historical events that may have inspired the plot and writing of Hawthorne’s novel.

Swann, Charles. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tradition and Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1991. A literary analysis of Hawthorne’s work that offers much historical background which can be applied to several readings of the author’s work.

Thickstun, Margaret Olofson. Fictions of the Feminine: Puritan Doctrine and the Representation of Women. Cornell University Press, 1988. An excellent summary of how Puritan views of women have influenced literary works such as The Scarlet Letter.

Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘The Scarlet Letter’: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John C. Gerber. Prentice-Hall, 1968. A collection of important and groundbreaking essays on Hawthorne’s novel which discuss the novel’s structure and themes and Hawthorne’s technique and sources. Includes bibliography.


Historical and Social Context