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The Unsexiest Sexy Film of All Time

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The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin revisits Demi Moore's The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter

In 2007, with sincere intentions and a staggering tolerance for pain, The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin set out to revisit the biggest cinematic disasters of all time, hoping to discover some underappreciated gems. The resulting book, My Year of Flops, came out this month; here, we present an exclusive excerpt about one of the unsexiest sexy films of all time.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is one of those unimpeachable masterpieces that scare impressionable high school students off reading forever. It's the kind of symbolism-heavy, portentous tome that makes "reading for pleasure" seem like an oxymoron. After being forced to wade through Hawthorne's dense forest of prose and weighty ideas about sin and hypocrisy, is it any wonder that weak-minded young people retreat into the unchallenging arms of reality television and Us Weekly?

Like so many of the dour magnum opuses that fill high-school syllabi, The Scarlet Letter is a bummer. But what if it wasn't? What if Hollywood sank its fangs into this great literary killjoy and turned it into a bloody, sexy melodrama about true love conquering all—one that ended with plucky heroine Hester Prynne, dreamy man of God Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and their adorable tot riding off into the sunset after a narratively convenient Native American sneak attack killed off all those disapproving Puritan scolds? What if it became an anachronistically flower-powered celebration of pure-hearted lovers triumphing over societal repression?

That was the beautiful, idiotic dream of 1995's The Scarlet Letter, a film that sought to improve upon Hawthorne's book by including all the scalping, attempted rape, skinny-dipping, extensive female masturbation, and pervasive interracial homoeroticism missing from the original text. Demi Moore reasoned that it was kosher for the film to change the book so dramatically because so few people had read it. Hollywood transformed an austere narrative into a randy cinematic romance novel, a bosom-heaving tale of ribaldry.

The filmmakers suffered for their sins. The trenchcoat set took one look at the film's ominous title and experienced traumatic flashbacks of battling their way through one of the most demanding novels ever to trouble an American teen's television-warped mind. The smart set, meanwhile, recoiled at the idea of turning Hawthorne's classic tale of sin and shame into a sexed-up, dumbed-down vehicle for a superstar who seemed to view book reading as an endeavor as esoteric and unpopular as learning Esperanto. Critics predictably eviscerated The Scarlet Letter, and it grossed little more than a fifth of its hefty $50 million budget during its domestic theatrical release.

Roland Joffé's film broadcasts its lack of fidelity for its source material with an opening credit crowing that it's "freely adapted" from Hawthorne's novel. Joffé preemptively ducks the inevitable deluge of critical brickbats by advertising, if not flaunting, his faithlessness to Hawthorne. It seems apt that a novel about infidelity should inspire one of the least faithful literary adaptations in American film. This Scarlet Letter is many things. It's a shameless bodice ripper, a potboiler, softcore porn, and a sleazy wallow in sex and violence. It isn't, however, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. The "freely adapted" credit gives the film considerable wiggle room, but the filmmakers really should have been honest with audiences and given it a new title, like The Lusty Pilgrim, and a tagline like "The man with the clerical collar… has this wench all hot and bothered!" or "He was a man of the cloth; she wanted to rip his clothes off!" Joffé's heavybreathing, soft-headed erotic drama splits the difference between The Scarlet Letter and Red Shoe Diaries.

Scarlet Letter: Demi MooreDouglas Day Stewart's screenplay makes the mistake of imposing contemporary sensitivities on the literature of the past. He's written Hester Prynne as a sex-positive proto-feminist, a 1990s kind of gal stuck in the upside-down, backward world of the 1660s. He stops just short of including a prorecycling message in a film that neither needs nor can withstand a clumsy infusion of liberal sermonizing. In a performance that suggests the world's horniest Disney heroine, Moore lends her patented air of steely determination to the role of a plucky freethinker who arrives in tradition-bound Massachusetts Bay in 1667 with a mind rife with rebellion, a tongue full of sass, and loins aching for sexual liberation.

With her much-older husband Roger Chillingworth (Robert Duvall) ostensibly back in England, Hester purchases an easily aroused mute mulatto slave girl (Lisa Jolifee-Andoh) to leer lustily at her having sex and masturbating. (And, to a much lesser extent, so the slave girl can help Hester work the land and run errands.) Hester instantly runs afoul of the glowering, repressive town elders, who scold her with harsh directives like, "Madam, you would do well here to use less lace in your dressmaking." That, I believe, was the Puritan way of calling someone a ho.

Yes, the powers that be are keen to give Hester a forced sassectomy, even before she's tending her garden one day and follows a bird and then a deer into the forest, where she encounters the life-changing sight of hunky Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) disrobing for a skinny-dip. From the lusty gleam in Hester's eyes, it's evident that the Lord has endowed Dimmesdale with more than just a gift for oratory.

The Scarlet Letter juxtaposes the sensual, natural world of Native Americans and its star-crossed lovers with the painfully repressed realm of the Puritans. In the film's telling, even adorable woodland creatures want Hester and Dimmesdale to fuck, social protocol be damned. Tapping into his Sid Vicious magnetism, Oldham embodies the reverend as rock star, the preacher as pop icon. He pouts. He sulks. He inspires. He aims to stir the minds and consciences of his female parishioners but ends up affecting them profoundly farther down their anatomy. When Hester gushes while gazing adoringly at Dimmesdale ("It's rare for a man so young to speak with such force of passion"), she sounds more like a groupie prostrating herself before her favorite musician than a new parishioner extolling her spiritual leader's eloquence. The Scarlet Letter posits Dimmesdale as the original emo heartthrob. He struts, emotes, and broods during his sermon like a 17th century Ben Gibbard. Dimmesdale cuts himself repeatedly by rubbing his open palms against jagged tree bark in the pounding rain, because he feels everything so deeply. He digs books; when Moore's hormone-addled bibliophile lends him a bushel of books, he reads them all in a matter of days, many of them twice. He has enlightened attitudes toward liberated women and Native Americans. At home that night, Hester replays in her mind's cinema the image of Oldham's naked flesh gliding through the water. Meanwhile, her slave girl sidles saucily up to a peephole and gazes longingly as the naked, aroused Hester poses and pouts.

Scarlett Letter: Demi Moore and Gary Oldman KissThen one day, Hester receives wonderful news: Her husband is dead! She is now free to explore her burning hunger for the good reverend. They consummate their illicit passion while the slave girl once again affords herself a front-row seat and slips her fingers into her honeypot as she helps herself to a bath. I had no idea that slave/ owner relationships in 1660s New England were defined largely by frenzied masturbation. The Scarlet Letter is edifying and arousing, in an unedifying, non-arousing kind of way.

Dimmesdale and Hester pay for their stolen moments of pleasure with intense, almost unbearable pain. Hester is imprisoned when she becomes pregnant and won't disclose the name of the father. Upon her release, she is forced to wear a scarlet "A" for adultery. Equally ominously, Chillingworth isn't dead at all. Introduced spinning around madly while wearing the disembodied corpse of a deer as part of an Algonquian ceremony, he sneaks into town incognito and torments his wife while trying to discern the identity of her child's father. At this point, the film trades sex for ultraviolence. A villager tries to rape Hester. Chillingworth, dressed in Native American garb, mistakes the rapist for Dimmesdale and murders and scalps him while letting out a cartoonish war whoop. Chillingworth's attempt to blame the scalping on indigenous Americans backfires, conveniently enough, when Dimmesdale is about to be hanged publicly after confessing his indiscretion, and a Native American arrow lodges in the hangman's neck. In the chaos, Dimmesdale, Hester, and their love child escape, in the happy ending no sane person could have expected or wanted. Hester and Dimmesdale share a lusty open-mouthed kiss as their baby climactically throws the cursed scarlet letter on the ground. Joffé gives audiences a Hollywood ending at the expense of everything Hawthorne's novel represents.

Film adaptations of literary classics serve a sneaky dual purpose as cinematic cheat sheets for lazy teenagers. As a celluloid Cliffs Notes for backward students, The Scarlet Letter is hilariously misleading. In the years since Scarlet Letter slunk shamefully out of theaters and onto video and DVD, high-school teachers have undoubtedly been inundated with oblivious book reports on Hawthorne that look something like this. (Needless to say, if freshmen think the film will help them pass English, they're sorely mistaken.)

Webster's Dictionary defines "shame" as "the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another." Author-person Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is primarily a book about female masturbation and interracial homoeroticism but it's also about shame and how it's bad and stuff. It is about a sexy married woman named Hester Prynne who sees a hunky preacher skinny-dipping and masturbates thinking about him. While she is masturbating, her foxy slave looks at her through a peephole and begins touching herself even though that is an invasion of privacy and probably a violation of the Third or Fourth Amendment.

Hester Prynne and the preacher guy do it while the slave gets into a tub and masturbates and later frees a cardinal that symbolizes freedom or repression. The book takes place in the 1700s or 1800s because everyone looks weird and has a mustache even if they're not gay or a cop. I think it takes place in America but I'm not sure. The town fathers find out that Hester Prynne has been doing it because she's pregnant and make her wear a scarlet A for adultery.

My Year of Flops, Nathan RabinHester Prynne goes to jail because she won't snitch on the reverend guy. Later, Hester Prynne's husband, who everyone thinks is dead but isn't, spins around with a dead animal on his head and scalps this rapist guy while pretending to be an Indian. Also, there is a happy ending. In conclusion, The Scarlet Letter is a good book because it uses symbolism and has a lot of sex and a dude getting scalped.

Failure, Fiasco, Or Secret Success? Failure

Excerpted from My Year of Flops by Nathan Rabin. Copyright © 2010 by Onion, Inc.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.