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The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter
Actors: Josef Sommer, Meg Foster, Elisa Erali, John Heard, Ralph Drischell
Director: Rick Hauser
Genres: Drama, Television
UR     2003     4hr 0min

An epic version of Nathaniel Hawthorne?s enduring novel of Puritan America in search of its soul. Hester Prynne overcomes the stigma of adultery to emerge as the first great heroine in American literature. Hawthorne?s them...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Josef Sommer, Meg Foster, Elisa Erali, John Heard, Ralph Drischell
Director: Rick Hauser
Creators: Robert E. Collins, Rick Hauser, Janet McFadden, Herbert Hirschman, Allan Knee, Alvin Sapinsley, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genres: Drama, Television
Sub-Genres: Love & Romance, Television
Studio: Wgbh / Pbs
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 03/04/2003
Original Release Date: 04/02/1979
Theatrical Release Date: 04/02/1979
Release Year: 2003
Run Time: 4hr 0min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 2
SwapaDVD Credits: 2
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 7
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Brilliant, faithful adaptation of Hawthorne's novel
Niel Rishoi | Ann Arbor, MI USA | 03/28/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"For those (including me) still smarting over the insultingly demeaning, appalling Demi Moore film "retelling" of this American masterpiece, this PBS version more than makes up for the crime. It is not only faithful to Hawthorne's novel, but it does an astonishing job of being very nearly the "visual" version of the story; in other words, it serves almost as a companion piece to the book. It being filmed on video intensifies the bleak reality of the situation and time, almost giving it a "live" aspect that would have been lost on film. Meg Foster is everything Hester Prynne should be, strong, intelligent, dignified and proud, yet passionate, sensible and utterly independent. There could have been slightly more differentiation between Kevin Conway's early vs. later Chillingworth (I would have liked to see the character more "eaten up" by his own evil in the end scenes), but he plays the unsympathetic role with a good deal of insight and individual touches; his eyes are especially expressive of his true thoughts. The most difficult role of all is Arthur Dimmesdale, as he could easily come across as a whiny, petulant idiot, but John Heard conveys a tortured, inner intensity that makes the Reverend's dilemma's vastly believable. You REALLY believe he is tormented by his guilt-ridden agony, and his final breakdown on the scaffold is overwhelmingly powerful, and packs an emotional wallop. The three young actresses (including the baby!) who play Pearl are amazingly believable and the director, Rick Hauser, is to be commended for handling them so as to come across as truly into their characters and not as a series of bratty, precocious turns that often distinguish children's appearances in movies. All of the supporting players do their bit to serve the drama, especially the actors portraying the Bellingham, Mistress Hibbins and John Wilson. Costumes and sets are, to use the word again, believable and completely abet the action, locale and characters. The other aspect to this presentation, what was originally a four-part series, is how unhurriedly the story is laid out. Those used to long novels that are filmed and crammed into a 2 hour time slot may be conditioned into thinking that the pace is too slow, but to me, it is a relief for once to see something score its points by taking time to play out all the subtleties and nuances of the story, which, again, played a significant part in its unerring realism. Strongly, unhesitatingly recommended.
Essential for English Teachers
Jefferson T. Packer | Taos, NM | 02/24/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"As a movie buff, I give this DVD 1.5 stars. As an English teacher, I give it 5.


Ultra-low budget production
Costumes meant to be dramatic, are actually comic
Filmed on video - looks and sounds almost submerged
Campy music is source of uproarous class laughter
Special effects that aren't special at all (i.e. hilarious meteor)
It takes at least one hour to get used to Meg Foster's eyes
"Boston" has the feeling of "this is all we could afford"
Actress who plays Mistress Hibbens attempts to act "near the edge" and instead plunges over it


Extremely faithful to the book
Many critical scenes are reproduced word-for-word
High School appropriate, (unlike Demi Moore's version)
Would be rated "G" if it had a rating - no profanity or nudity
Quite compelling performances by Meg Foster and John Heard
Becomes strangely more and more believable as it progresses
Nice use of natural light and scenery
Convenient menus divided by titles of book chapters

Until someone decides to film this book properly, with a big budget, faithful script, THX sound and world-class actors, this 1979 PBS special on DVD is the only choice for English teachers.

There are, of course, two earlier versions. The first is a silent film that I have not seen. The second is from 1934 and I've seen enough of it to know that it is so hopelessly ancient, with choppy, jerky black and white cinematography and sound that seems to have come from an Alexander G. Bell wax cylinder, that high school students will likely be unable to connect with it.

The third version is this 1979 PBS miniseries on DVD. It is four hours long, and comes on two discs packed in one box. I have found that it lends itself quite well to being shown in conjunction with assigned chapters, and follows the book very faithfully.

All in all, I'm pleased with my investment, and while my students enjoyed laughing at some aspects of the film's (lack of) production quality, they certainly seem to have benefitted from it in terms of comprehension. I recommend it to my fellow English teachers without reservation, until something better comes along.

Final Note: My classes saw this DVD displayed on a big screen by a Hitachi CP-S318 digital projector feeding from a Panasonic DVD player. Crammed down to a 29 inch TV, I'm not sure if it would be visually tolerable. The big screen gives it, (and us,) room to breath."
Definitive film version of the first american classic novel.
Lucas_Mayo | Nashville TN | 11/29/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I am elated that this PBS production of the Scarlet Letter (1979) has received a DVD treatment. John Heard deals superbly with the dichotomies and private tortures of Dimmesdale. John Heard is not only physically gorgeous (helping us understand Hester's "fall"), but he seems more than able to effortlessly manipulate this classic and complex character. Meg Foster is the quintessential Hester Prynne. Equipt to portray the lead as both a feminist and a desperate mother to Pearl.The DVD also has behind the scenes footage. This is the most accurate deftly-acted version of the first american classic novel. I highly recommed purchasing this DVd you will not be let down. Instead you will be provoked to question spirituality, America's puritanical early history, etc.
Well worth the money and your time!!!!!!!!!!Please don't bother with the 1995 Demi Moore version. It got lost somewhere between One Life to Live and softcore Cinemax sexuality; it is dumb and a waste of your time."
Faithful to text, but nearly unbearable technical quality
Michael Barnes | Hudsonville, MI USA | 09/08/2000
(3 out of 5 stars)

"Since I have used this video in teaching the novel to 10th graders for the last 7 years, I have probably seen it 25 times. As other reviewers have stated, it is very faithful to the original, not just in the storyline, but in the overall mood of gloom that is created, and in the dialogue, which at times is verbatim. The scenes between Hester and Chillingworth in the prison, and between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are especially well done, as is the climactic ending (and sorry Disney fans, they DON'T live happily ever after). In some cases the film is too faithful. It is described how Pearl cries incessantly the entire time she is on the scaffold, and in the prison. It is one thing to be told this, quite another to have to hear it for 15 minutes, and the microphone seems placed directly next to the infant. The scene between Hester and Chillingworth on the shore is nearly inaudible due to the pounding surf. The special effects are as good as they could be for a low budget film made in 1979, but for modern students are laughable, especially the appearances of the supernatural "A's". I felt that Meg Foster's performance was forced, and the child actor playing Pearl was terrible, but was impressed by Heard and Conway. Additionally, the theme music never changes, and the narrator is a little TOO dreary. I long for a more quality version to be produced that can be used in the classroom, but until that day, this is the best available."