The Scarlet Letter (1995): The Historical Accuracy
The Scarlet Letter, a 1995 period melodrama, is one of the screen versions of the classic novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A story about a woman, who was condemned for committing adultery and having a baby from another man, tells about love and devotion. Moreover, it allows the spectators to see real people and events of that time. There were many arguments on this film, but the actors’ play, the plot or the correspondence between the film and the original work by Nathaniel Hawthorne will not be the focus. The purpose of this movie review is to determine the historical accuracy of an American film adaptation. In order to compare the precision of the Puritan people shown in the film with the real population of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, there is a need to scrutinize the way they lived, their religion, rules and customs. The paper compares the film characters with real people and examines how the movie reflects the general atmosphere of that epoch.
The events take place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1666. According to Moe (2003), Europeans, who came from England, signed an official Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1929 (p. 40). Consequently, the accuracy of the place and the year of the events in the film are in question. The people, who lived there, were the Puritans. The film depicts the life of the Puritans, as well. The Puritan town welcomes a new citizen Hester Prynne, the main female character. As soon as she arrives, she meets the governor Mr. Bellingham. In fact, he is a historical person, who held the post of a governor in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Massachusetts Laws, n.d.). In the movie, he shakes the hand of the newly arrived woman and remarks that everyone, a man or a woman, works hard in that town which is true. The Puritans were farmers, and they had a lot of everyday work to do. People most of the time worked with their hands. For example, they produced flax and wool on their farms, and every member of a family worked. This pertained to children as well (Dow, 2007).
Hester’s dress, with too much goffering, is another reason for making comments. The excess of decorations affirmed amorality and non-conformity to the standards of the Puritan society. Indeed, women at that time wore simple clothes. Moreover, Mays (2004) states that the authority of Massachusetts issued the law, which “prohibited the purchase or wearing of clothing embroidered with golden threads or embellished with laces” (p. 383). Simple dark dresses and caps were their main clothes. Thus, the women in the film look naturally; they are dressed according to the period they live in. The following correspondence with the reality of the 17th century in New England is the absence of “full body bathing” in colonists’ daily life. Therefore, Mituba, Hester’s servant, was so afraid of this ritual (Mays, 2004, p. 190). Another precise detail is the way women rode. While men rode the horses, women “rode behind on a pillion, which was a small cushion attached to the rear” (Dow, 2007, p. 97).
The Scarlet Letter movie review is impossible without enlightening the Puritan community. The film correctly depicts their life and views. One of Anne Hibbins’ remarks regarding celebrations clearly describes the attitude of the Puritans towards holidays. Dow (2007) points out that “all frivolous amusements were forbidden; a curfew was established; and all were constrained to save souls and to labor for material development” (p. 101). According to “The Puritan Tradition” (n.d.), hard work and self-sacrifice were the main Puritans’ principles. Church played a crucial role in their lives and had an immense impact on their minds. In fact, they were fanatic to some extent. Their convictions were so strong that they ignored people with some other opinions on religion. In addition, the Puritans from New England, the ones showed in the movie, were even stricter and more arrogant in their beliefs than those left in England. In order to understand the Puritan religion better and to compare it with the one depicted in the movie in question, there is a need to underline three major Puritan beliefs, which are as follows:
1. The human nature is evil, and people must strive throughout the life because this is the only way to defeat their nature. Because of this, people did not show emotions and inner feelings, and they were always reserved. This way the Puritans tried to expiate the original sin. For the most part, the movie shows this atmosphere truthfully.
2. Predestination was another strong belief. According to it, people could not change their destiny; they could not even try to do this. The movie expresses this idea, as well. The community could not permit Hester to fight for happiness. In their eyes, she was a sinner. She had to confess and obediently accept the punishment.
3. The Bible was the only source of truth. The Puritans used the Holy Book not only for the moral education, but also for the governing purposes. Owing this, their policy was very repressive, and this particularly influenced the attitude towards Indians, the Native Americans. From the very beginning of the picture, the audience understands that the relationship between the Indian people and the Pilgrims is tense. Occasionally, during the film, people worry about the probable conflict with the Indians. The end of the story depicts a severe battle that causes many deaths on both sides.
Anne Hibbins is another historical personage. The character differs from the real person, but the name and the key personal features are precise. According to “Section IV” (n.d.), the woman lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony since 1634. She had a very strict character, and she was never afraid of defending her point of view. Anne Hibbins was considered to be an outcast in the town after the church had excommunicated her due to some conflict. Later, the General Court found her guilty of being a witch and she was executed by hanging in 1656. However, the movie is more optimistic, and Ms. Hibbins does not die; she manages to escape when the Indians start attacking. Apropos, Anne Hibbins as a picture character liked to drink cider, which was the common drink at that time. Moreover, people, especially men, preferred cider to water. An average family usually had up to thirty barrels of that drink (Mays, 2004). This is another historical accuracy of the American film adaptation.
The execution of witches in Massachusetts is a historical fact, as well. However, in reality, witch hysteria started in 1691 (Mays, 2004, p. 343). The year differs from the one depicted in the film, but the movie shows the exact attitude of people towards the witches. An episode from the court, when Hester’s husband Roger examines little Pearl for the witches’ marks, is a good example. As soon as he says he found it, people in the hall become truly uncontrollable. Only the obsessive attitude towards witches can explain such a raging behavior. More to the point, the victims of the witch-hunts were women, who had a different opinion on religious beliefs and the way of life in the community. The main female character of the picture and her friend Anne Hibbins were accused of witchcraft for the same reason. Hester had her own viewpoint on the Bible and she was not afraid of sharing her thoughts regarding this.
The punishment the Puritans choose for Hester in the movie is not fictitious. Indeed, the colonists put on the scarlet letter on women, who committed adultery, in order to signify their crime and cover them with shame. In the 17th century, adultery was a crime, which destabilized the community, as a whole (Mays, 2004). In the society, where the life of community predominated over personal interests, this was a very serious lawbreaking. Therefore, the punishment was public and very degrading.
In general, The Scarlet Letter, a 1995 American film adaptation, is mostly precise. It depicts the Puritan society, their strong believes, severe policy, strict characters and public punishments. The picture does not show any exact historical event, yet it provides an opportunity to have a general look at the history of the first colonists and evaluate their manners and customs. It correctly illustrates the way the women were dressed at that time, how they rode, how they worked, and even mentions personal hygiene of that time. In addition, the film shows two real people, who lived in the 17th century in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, governor Bellingham and Anne Hibbins. Relationships with the Indian people, the witch-hunts, the executions of women and public punishments are also historical facts that the movie demonstrates with the utmost precision. Apparently, the film in question cannot be considered as purely historical. Nevertheless, a certain historical correspondence between the characters and events in the movie and the real life of early colonists in the 17th century might be useful for the Americans in the 21st century. Watching this movie can help them better understand how their ancestors built the country they live in, what price they paid and what mistakes they made.
Dow, G. F. (2002). Every day life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books.
Massachusetts laws of 1648. (n.d.) Volume 151. Retrieved from http://www.bellinghamma.org/pages/BellinghamMA_Historical/crimpville/151/151-2
Mays, D. A. (2004). Women in early America: Struggle, survival, and freedom in a New World. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Moe, B. A. (2003). The charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: A primary source investigation of the 1629 Charter. New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group.
Section IV – Ann Hibbins – Witch. (n.d.). Chapter 2 - Governor Richard Bellingham. Retrieved from http://www.bellinghamma.org/pages/bellinghamma_historical/bellhistory/ch2-4
The Puritan tradition. (n.d.). Between heaven and hell. Retrieved from http://www.myteacherpages.com/webpages/MHartmann/files/lit%20text%20pages%20134-136.pdf