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Can He Write, or What?

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First Hugh Grant gets arrested on L.A. ‘s Hawthorne Avenue. Then the latest screen version of The Scarlet Letter makes a controversial, R-rated splash at the nation’s multiplexes. Yes, author Nathaniel Hawthorne is certainly Hollywood’s Flavor of the Month. It’s kind of like the old days, when he and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were A-listers.

What a rags-to-riches story. Before The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850, Hawthorne was eking out a living as a customs inspector in Salem, Mass. Then suddenly—kablooie—he’s major. In 1853 the President, Franklin Pierce, who happened to be an old Bowdoin College pal, appointed him to a cushy post in the foreign service. Eventually, Hawthorne settled in Concord, Mass., with his wife, Sophia, and their three children. But he never went Hollywood.

Until now. Associate editor J.D. Reed recently caught up with the busy scribe over a latte in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Hawthorne, clad in a black Armani waistcoat, looked remarkably youthful for someone born in 1804. A little too youthful, if you get our drift.

How are you feeling these days?

My publicist said you wouldn’t ask personal questions.

Then let’s talk about Letter. Critics have panned this attempt to translate the novel to the screen, calling it “clunky, stupefyingly wrongheaded, a camp marvel.”

Critics, shmiticks. This is an audience picture, not a reviewer’s vehicle. You should see the letters I get from people who say, “Nat, this movie is speaking to me, the Adulterer-in-the-Street.”

Are you disturbed by the reviews?

I’m used to them. When the novel came out, you can’t imagine the uproar. A book about adultery! Still, my friends stood by me, Herman Melville especially. It got to the point where I’ had to say, “Herm, don’t stand by me.” He had this horrible fishy smell.

Literary scholars have seen Hester Prynne as a symbol of sin or Christian love or redemption. Demi Moore plays her as a coquettish, 17th-century feminist with great hair.

First, you wouldn’t believe the list of actresses who begged for this role: Julia, Madonna, Goldie, Winona. I was on the set. Demi would finish a scene, and the crew would just be silent and shaking—especially the ones who had been out late with Bruce Willis the night before. It was wild.

Some elements in the movie aren’t in the book. At the end of the picture, the lovers ride off to South Carolina. In your novel, Arthur Dimmesdale dies in Hester’s arms.

We shot the downbeat ending, but it didn’t fly at test screenings. The response cards were very negative. Look, there was the baseball strike, the O.J. verdict, Liz Taylor’s third hip operation. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: People want to come out of the theater feeling good.

One new “character” is a bright red bird that flits through various scenes. Is this for symbolic effect?

Let’s just say the bird is a close friend of the producer’s veterinarian.

In your novel there were no sex scenes, but in the film the Dimmes-dale-Prynne tryst is graphically rendered.

In 1850 nobody had sex! You put it in a book, people wouldn’t know what you were talking about. But moviegoers today demand graphic lovemaking—tastefully done, of course. Then, to make it a good Saturday-night-date movie, it needed a higher testosterone factor. So we had the Indians attack the settlement. Am I upset? Remember what I wrote in The Marble Faun in 1860: “Nobody has any conscience about adding to the improbabilities of a marvelous tale.” They love that in the story meetings.

What’s next on your calendar? A new version of your The House of the Seven Gables?

No, we’ll do that on HBO with Martha Stewart. For now, we’re sticking with The Scarlet Letter synergy. I’m doing the CD-ROM game Save Hester and talking to Mattel about a Bad-Rep Barbie.

Hey, your 15 minutes are up. But don’t feel bad. I’m having my 15 minutes all over again—145 years later.