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The scarlet screen : a survey of the tradition of The Scarlet Letter in film and on television, 1926-1995 Solmes, Jennifer Anne

Abstract

Frequently called the first American classic, and the only American classic never to be out of print, The Scarlet Letter has been indelibly marked on the American consciousness since Nathaniel Hawthorne published it in 1850. Generations have grown up with its characters and their profound struggle against each other, their community, and themselves. Since the earliest days of film, The Scarlet Letter has been re-presented to each of those generations in a series of diverse cinematic adaptations, providing audiences with an opportunity to re-evaluate those characters, their struggle, and the lessons implicit in them. This dissertation surveys those films in order to produce a production history—one that extends beyond the production details and critical reception to consider how the lessons of The Scarlet Letter have been made to contribute to the cultural conversations of the American twentieth century. Following Chapter One's presentation of the method and intent of the study, in Chapter Two I consider the most enduring film in this novel's cinematic tradition, Victor Sjostrom's 1926 production starring Lillian Gish. In Chapter Three I examine Robert Vignola's 1934 ' B ' movie version in the context of Depression-era sexual politics. In Chapter Four, I unearth two live television plays that come to terms very differently with the Red Scare and the social retrenchment of Eisenhower's America. Chapter Five also presents a comparison of two very different but contemporaneous Scarlet Letters, one an eccentric feature from Wim Wenders (1972) , and the other a prestigious PBS miniseries (1979 ) . Finally, in Chapter Six I examine the 1995 Demi Moore vehicle in the context of the Family Values debates. By identifying the specific re-presentation strategies as rhetorically motivated, and linking them with the most salient social debates of their times, I argue for the ideological flexibility of the novel as a key to its endurance. I also demonstrate the effectiveness of film study, and specifically of a film adaptation production history focusing on one novel, as a tool for understanding emerging cultural attitudes and values.

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