Hollywood looks to classic books for material -- ''Little Women'' and ''The Scarlet Letter'' are two of the big screen adaptations

By Erica K. Cardozo
July 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

This fall, Demi Moore will shock us with what she is wearing: Puritan garb. And though by playing 17th-century adulteress Hester Prynne in the screen version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter the actress is advancing a trend, it’s not of the fashion variety. Despite the much ballyhooed ”dumbing down” of movies, many high-profile stars are hitting the books — appearing in films based on literary classics.

Why the big rush to the shelves? ”We’re always trying to find good stories, and if the story has survived 100 years, it’s probably pretty good,” explains Gareth Wigan, executive VP of production at Columbia Pictures, which, in the wake of its $50 million success with Little Women, is producing an estimated $15 million version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

It turns out literary pics make prudent risks as well. ”To make $100 million [on an action movie], you have to spend $60 million,” Wigan notes. ”But you can make a classic for $10 million, earn $30 million at the box office, and even if everything turns against you, you still won’t lose very much.”

For megastars, meanwhile, appearing in a beloved story can add new chapters to their careers. ”Demi is sort of like a modern-day Hester Prynne,” says Letter scripter Douglas Day Stewart, referring to Moore’s risque magazine covers. And protean thespian Gary Oldman, who plays Scarlet‘s lust-plagued Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, got to stretch. ”He plays this handsome leading-man type for a change,” Stewart observes. ”In fact, when he first walked onto the set he said something like, ‘Where’s Daniel Day-Lewis? Isn’t he supposed to do this movie?”’

What Hollywood does for — or, rather, to — these classics is another matter. Director Pen Densham (who produced Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) sounds proud to have given Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders a major makeover. ”I changed it radically,” he says. ”What I did was extract this character from a very rambling, 270-year-old novel.” And though it isn’t being advertised as a remake, the Alicia Silverstone vehicle, Clueless, seems to have been inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma — only now it’s more like Emma, 90210.

But perhaps the most touted — and closely guarded — twist occurs in Hollywood Pictures’ $40 million Letter. The original ending, in which Dimmesdale dies of guilt and Hester is left to waste away, has been altered. And the movie begins not when Hester receives her A but with her arrival in the New World, fleshing out an entire affair with the reverend, including a very unpuritanical romp in a barn. ”What was interesting for us wasn’t to do a straight reproduction,” says director Roland Joffe (City of Joy). ”This isn’t the book. People can just read it if that’s what they want.”

They may do that anyway. Pocket Books’ movie tie-in edition of Little Women has sold almost 400,000 copies. Even starless covers are drawing readers: ”We’re reaching people who wouldn’t normally buy these books,” says Penguin Classics associate publicity manager Ron Longe.