Demi Moore as a Puritan? Stop that snickering. The actress who twice took it all off for the cover of Vanity Fair is about to sign on to play the role of Hester Prynne, the much put-upon heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Sources say Moore will star in a Cinergi Productions version of the 1850 classic, which goes into production on June 6, just five months after she's scheduled to give birth to her third child. Moore, who'll earn an estimated $5 million to $6 million for the movie, was the first choice of director Roland Joffe (City of Joy), although Meg Ryan reportedly lobbied hard for the part.
Hawthorne's novel has always been a favorite among actresses, beginning with Lillian Gish, who starred in the 1926 version. Why? For those who skipped high school, Hester is the spirited young misfit who, believing her husband is dead, bears the illegitimate child of a local minister. Because of her unwitting adultery and refusal to name names, she is forced to wear a big red A on her bosom -- thereby suffering the label of adulteress. ''Her beauty shone out,'' Hawthorne wrote ''...there was something exquisitely painful in it.'' In other words: Emotes plenty, looks great, practically written with Oscar in mind.
Scarlet's male lead roles -- the randy Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, consumed by guilt, and Roger Chillingworth, Hester's vengeful husband -- are almost as meaty as Hester. ''Everybody's been reading for them,'' says producer Dodi Fayed (Hook) -- though everybody does not include, as rumored, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins. Another rumored leading man was Harrison Ford, who, according to Fayed, has not been ruled out as a possibility.
Sources on the $40 million production say the film will be as faithful to Hawthorne as Hester was to Chillingworth. According to a source, director Joffe has instructed screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart (An Officer and a Gentleman) to punch up the Native American roles, make references to witch trials (which didn't actually take place until decades after the novel's 1650 setting), and give the story a different ending (Hawthorne killed off Dimmesdale and Chillingworth and sentenced Hester to a lonely old age). ''Isn't that interesting!'' Fayed says sarcastically when asked about the rumors. He denies that Joffe has ordered up any witch trials, but says, ''We do have two endings. We haven't decided which one to use yet.'' While Joffe was traveling in Malaysia and couldn't be reached for comment, a source believes that the movie will be a radical reworking of the novel.
''We have to change the story to put it into a more modern light,'' admits a production exec at Cinergi, which is working with a historical consultant on how to remake a classic in the '90s.
Meanwhile, devotees of American literature may want to hold out for yet another planned movie version of the novel, this one from Paramount. But they may be waiting for some time: The second Scarlet could be delayed because of a legal battle between its producer, David Kirkpatrick, and the studio over his 1993 dismissal. If they can come to terms, Meg Ryan may get another chance at earning her Letter.