It's a lonely life...that of the necromancer, er freelancer

A blog by a designer and illustrator, for designers and illustrators which may contain musings on art, movies and random weirdness.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Scarlet Letter

I originally posted this artwork on Facebook back on May 24th, but I wanted to expand on the entry a bit. 

I am a big Nathaniel Hawthorne fan. I am a fan for a lot of reasons; he was from Salem, where I currently live. There are reminders and echoes of him everywhere throughout the town. 

He was a keen observer of people and everyday life. If you ever get the chance you should read his "Passages from the American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne", in which he describes people, places, and events in and around Salem from 1835-1850 . The notebooks also include ideas for dozens of unwritten stories and themes that are incredibly tantalizing.  He was a bright, imaginative, and sensitive young man. He could also be moody and did not suffer fools gladly, irritating many a stuffed shirt in his day.
 He wrote stories about Puritan America that could almost be considered the spiritual forebear of the  morality plays that Rod Serling would dream up one hundred years later for the "Twilight Zone". 
Out of all this, my favorite Hawthorne book has always been "The Scarlet Letter". It touches me on a lot of different levels. I have an affinity for Salem history, especially that of the Puritans. 

This post is about the recreation of a poster that I originally designed for a production of the "Scarlet Letter" as a freelance project back in 1980.  The local production was performed at the Old Town Hall here in Salem. (It was not a great production). The original piece was most notable for having been done entirely in cut gray Pantone paper. (I must have been insane to try that) I believe I was paid a whopping $75. The printed version of the poster was sold in Salem shops for several years but the original was subsequently lost.  I always liked and  remembered the image.
I did the piece one year after my absolute favorite film adaptation of the book was produced by WGBH, and my design was heavily influenced by it .

You may vaguely remember this version. Shot in 1979, it starred Meg Foster as Hester Prynne and John Heard as Reverend Dimmesdale. Although the production values were television-level as opposed to movie-level (it was shot on video) the costumes, sets and acting were superb. It was shot locally, mostly on exterior sets built inside Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. It is still available on DVD. Even with TV production values, it is still a million times better than the execrable 1995 movie version with Demi Moore (ugh). The less said about that, the better.

The WGBH version made quite an impression on me as a 19-year-old college student. The thing I liked best about it, besides it's authentic feel and faithfullness to the original text, was the sublime casting of the two leads; John Heard as Rev. Dimmesdale and Meg Foster as Hester Prynne.

John Heard is a somewhat obscure actor who had a moment in the eighties, starring in such films as "Chilly Scenes of Winter", "Cat People" and "After Hours". You may remember him best as the dad int he "Home Alone" movies, or as Tom Hanks' yuppy rival in "Big", but has since faded into background character roles.

Meg Foster besides her spooky-intense light-green eyes, was probably best known for her television roles, although she also did her share of movies in the 80's such as "They Live", "The Emerald Forest" and "Masters of the Universe". 

The thing that I loved about them, besides their onscreen chemistry, was the way their intensity. There isn't a lot of outward action in the Scarlet Letter . Most of the drama centers around what is happening inside of these people. All their feelings are repressed, and therefore intensified. These two actors did a fantastic job of capturing the intense, repressed, sexual tension between the two of them. Their affair is the epitome of the "slow burn". All of this tension builds and builds, culminating in a scene where after living in the same community, but being kept apart for years, they happen to meet in the forest. All the sexual energy starts to bubble to the surface, but instead of the usual bodice-ripping cheap-out you would find in any grade "Z" gothic romance, (or in the Demi Moore version) Hester expresses her sensuality, by simply removing her coif and letting down her hair, which given the circumstances is incredibly erotic. Then, upping the ante even further, she slowly unbuttons the scarlet "A" fastened to her breast. I may be weird, but to me this was more intense than any other "sexy" scene I have seen in a film before or since. If you want to see this same sort of thing done incredibly badly, watch the Demi Moore version, which has as much subtlety as a ham thrown through a window.

It was this powerful scene that inspired the original poster.
Here is a screen-shot of the scene in the forest.
It's the two of them momentarily alone, finally away from the restrictions imposed on them by their community. Hester's daughter Pearl plays in the woods nearby.

Dimmesdale is completely worn down by his guilt. Hester is bruised, but still strong, and tries to rally him to action. It is amazing that she still has such intense feeling for him after all that she has been through.

In trying to recreate the original poster, I first did a small thumbnail sketch, trying to capture the feeling of that scene.

Next, collecting as much visual reference as I could from the WGBH production, I did this revised sketch.

I was trying to make them resemble John Heard and Meg Foster as much as possible.
I then added in shading using Photoshop, doing a kind of value study in preparation for executing a painting.

Finally I experimented with the addition of type. The original poster had a large red sun in the background, visible through the tree branches. I may still add that in to the final piece.
Here is the re-constituted poster with type.

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