By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 20, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

There is one lovemaking scene in Roland Joffe’s The Scarlet Letter (Hollywood, R) — that’s one more than in the book, but who’s counting? — and though the image of Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) and the Reverend Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) coupling out in the grain bin in rapturous slow motion is certainly worth cherishing, it’s not the image I’ll remember most. No, that would be Hester’s teenage mulatto slave, who’s hidden in the adjacent house, pleasuring herself in the tub as she enjoys a kinky communion with…a bird. A scarlet bird. You heard me. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester, a stalwart English lass, her hair hanging down in long, free-spirited ringlets, lands on the shores of colonial Massachusetts, the Puritan ”Jerusalem” of the New World. Her husband (Robert Duvall), an older man she has never loved, is set to arrive later. But after his ship is attacked by Indians, he is presumed dead, and Hester feels free to pursue her romance with Dimmesdale, the passionate young clergyman who has been quietly courting her.

As anyone with even a distant high-school memory of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel knows, their love is destined for disaster. After sleeping with Dimmesdale only once, Hester gets pregnant and is cast out of society. Sent to prison, she gives birth to her illegitimate spawn and, upon release, is forced to wear the scorn of her fellows by walking around with an embroidered scarlet A on her bosom.

To make sure that we grasp this elemental symbol of adulterous guilt, Joffa, in a remarkable gesture, provides a symbol of the symbol, a red bird that comes flying through the film at significant moments (e.g., the Reverend’s nude swimming scene). How did they get a bird this shade of magenta, anyway? It looks like a canary that fell into a cherry Slurpee. Somehow, though, it’s an appropriate mascot for this clunky, dawdlingly literal-minded Scarlet Letter, a movie that doesn’t so much adapt the book as give it an expensive makeover.

With its dewy-eyed love story, its Reverend Dimmesdale looking like a goateed college rock star, its fiery ”action” climax that pits settlers against noble Native Americans, the new Scarlet Letter, ”freely adapted” from Hawthorne, is a ponderously overstuffed Hollywood package that’s too busy canonizing its heroine to make much sense of her. Almost anyone would agree that Hester Prynne, the original feminist martyr of American literature, suffers to an outrageous degree for her adulterous ”crime.” Her punishment, extreme even by Puritan standards, can’t help but strike modern audiences as borderline medieval in its cruelty.

Yet this raises a question: Why adapt The Scarlet Letter in the first place? What lasting power could this grimly gothic nightmare possibly hold? The answer, I think, lies in the way that Hester, for all her sensuality and pride, remains spiritually bound to the society that shuns her. In the novel, she wears her disgrace on the outside but also, in a more ethereal way, on the inside (most dramatically, by giving birth to a mystic demon child). The book is a parable of how American societal repression can tear apart even the freest of souls.

The movie, by contrast, gives us Demi Moore as an impish coquette, smirking with superiority at her white-bearded jailers. Moore, in her scenes with Oldman, has a soft presence, and, as always, she cries beautifully. But she’s too mellow, too casually anachronistic, to have much connection to the harsh world of the Puritans. Ditto for Oldman, who plays Dimmesdale as a shell-shocked flower child. These two seem to have been plopped down into a science-fiction movie — Escape From the Planet of the Prudes — and so there’s no real tension to their quandary. Moore brandishes her scarlet A snootily, as if she’d been forced to wear something from last year’s fashion collections.

Eventually, Hester’s husband shows up. A former captive of the Indians, he has ”gone native” and become a cultivated psycho sadist obsessed with uncovering the identity of Hester’s partner in sin. In place of the fascinating relationship between the two men that Hawthorne devised, the movie has Duvall shaving his head, grinning his sick grin, and doing war whoops. (Certainly, he makes a good case for changing 17th-century divorce laws.) Yet even as the film threatens to turn into New England Taxi Driver, it’s only to set up the kind of easy-listening ending that leaves you wondering why Hester and Dimmesdale didn’t simply escape in the first place. (They were told they’d be tracked. By what — Dobermans and surveillance devices?) If there were any justice, Joffe would do his publicity interviews wearing a red S for shamelessness. C