CINEMA: A SCARLET FOR THE UNLETTERED

WHO NEEDS HAWTHORNE? JUST MAKE HESTER P.C.--AND A BABE

AMONG THE TOP 20 PAPERBACKS on USA Today's best-seller list is The Scarlet Letter--the Cliffs Notes version. Bibliophiles who purchase that slim volume in lieu of dozing over the original will get a much clearer view of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 tale of heroism and hypocrisy than those visiting the new movie adaptation. It's a lugubrious, often ludicrous, wallow.

Even nonreaders know that Hester Prynne (Demi Moore in the movie) was the first woman in literature with her own rating: A, for adultery. She had an affair with the colony's preacher (Gary Oldman) and, while enduring her public shame, fought off the...

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