I confess to having little appreciation for the classics of literature. I often find the stories to be long-winded, moralistic and rather dreary. However, thanks to my high school English class (I won’t mention how many years ago) I was exposed to some of these revered tomes.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous tale of adultery, The Scarlet Letter is one I had a very strong reaction to. To this day, I clearly remember how angry I felt reading about Hester Prynne and the price she pays for having a daughter out of wedlock. I couldn’t understand why she would spare the father of her child by keeping silent. Nor could I forgive the minister for allowing her to bear the shame and scorn of their Puritanical community alone. It gave me a great disgust of human nature and the level of hypocrisy it can sink to.
Needless to say, it’s not a story I have desired to revisit. However, as so often happens with me, a case of serendipity had me willing to watch what is considered the best of the film adaptations of Hawthorne’s novel. I’ve been intentionally delving more into the world of silent film. Recently I’ve read a handful of biographies of silent film stars which keep referring to Lillian Gish as one of the great actresses of that era. As it so happens, I also just recently watched Captain Salvation which starred Lars Hanson. When TCM decided to air The Scarlet Letter, which co-stars both Gish and Hanson in their first film together, well…I took it as a sign.
By 1926, the year this film was made, Gish was a veteran of films, with a character so unassailable and a cache so powerful, that MGM had recently lured her away from her longtime collaborator DW Griffith, with the promise of almost unlimited creative control. She used it to talk Louis B. Mayer into making The Scarlet Letter. Undeterred by the moral problems of the story, she also managed to convince concerned citizen groups and Will Hayes, head of censorship in Hollywood, that her version of the story would not offend their fine sensibilities. Gish’s clout also extended far enough for her to choose her director and co-star, both Swedes. She believed that director Victor Sjöström would be better able to understand the Puritans than an American director. As for co-star Lars Hanson, this was his first American film and he would later reunite with both Gish and Sjöström a couple of years later for the acclaimed silent film The Wind.
Gish of course plays the emotionally strong, but scorned Hester Prynne, whose secret affair with Hanson’s Reverend Dimmesdale results in a daughter. Their community embraces Dimmesdale and rejects Hester and her daughter Pearl, not realizing their beloved Reverend has fathered an illegitimate child.
Gish had chosen this part as she was wanting to distance herself from her roles as innocent but put upon young women. Her Hester is by no means innocent morally, but still comes across spiritually innocent despite the physical walking manifestation of her sin in the form of her daughter and the letter A she wears as a reminder. And she is still just as tragic a character as Gish had played in previous films like Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. This is oddly reinforced by the fact that she is the only one in the community to wear white and even delicate lace, while all the other women are dressed in the nun-like Puritan uniform of black with white aprons and hoods.
Of course, Gish gives a wonderful performance and is the backbone of the film. There is no arguing that. Perhaps, it is her likeability and the explanation of why she holds her silence that made me enjoy this telling of Hawthorne’s story better than his novel. I also respect the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale more for Hanson’s portrayal of a man truly in love, who has no idea that his love is married and who then begs to be allowed to suffer condemnation with Hester only to be refused. His descent into physical illness due to his guilt and shame is truly horrifying and moving.
There are of course, some differences between the film and the novel, mostly in the timeline of the presentation. I appreciate that we get to see the development of Hester and Dimmesdale’s love from the beginning, as it makes their sacrifice seem all the more beautiful and tragic. I also really love the addition of some humor as added by the feud between the merciful Master Giles and the judgmental, gossipy Mistress Hibbins who eventually gets her comeuppance.
It is films like Gish’s The Scarlet Letter, that have helped me learn an appreciation for lit classics. Film adaptations have a way of cutting through all the details and wordy passages of the book, to get to the heart of the story. Are certain characters and minor lessons occasionally lost in translation? Without a doubt. But in the greatest of the adaptations, like The Scarlet Letter, the best parts remain and are showcased in a much more palatable form. Since I have begun watching film adaptations of literature, I have found myself more likely to read the book. I have even found myself wanting to re-visit Hawthorne’s tale again. Maybe, I’ll like it better this time around with Gish’s adaptation firmly in mind.
This post was written in honor of Silent Movie Day and the Silent Movie Day Blogathon hosted by Silentology and In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Check out both of their sites to read more entries celebrating the lost art which is silent film.
Also, if you are interested I shared my silent film experiences as well as a few of My Silent Film Favorites earlier this year.