Near the top of the list of film adaptations that drive literature professors to angry distraction is surely Roland Joffe’s The Scarlet Letter from 1995, a big budget Hollywood version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel. Beautifully shot and interestingly performed by a diverse range of actors—as Hester Prynne, Demi Moore, a young movie starlet; as Arthur Dimmesdale, Gary Oldman, a British character actor of tremendous range; and as Roger Chillingworth, Robert Duvall, one of the most important American actors of the early New Hollywood generation—the film is nonetheless an assault on Hawthorne’s project. While feminism and Native American liberation were certainly not foremost in Hawthorne’s mind as he wrote the novel in the 19th century, Joffé’s film constructs Hester as a 1990s gender warrior and the reverend as a liberal committed to the just treatment of his Indian brethren, a Dances With Wolves of the Puritan set. A summary of the critical vitriol will suffice: “an insult to literature of the highest order],” “the ‘A’ stands for appalling,” “worse than you think,” and “life is not long enough to watch Demi Moore playing Hester Prynne.” As one academic observes: “reviewers hated The Scarlet Letter with a vehemence usually reserved for child molesters.”
Will Gluck’s Easy A from 2010 resolves this conflict between literature professors and Hollywood filmmakers in an elegantly original way. A bright young woman, Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone), is overheard by a Christian gossip while pretending to her friend to have had sex to enhance her reputation. In response to the firestorm of controversy this lie creates among her peers, Olive embroiders a scarlet “A” on her clothing, inspired by her reading of The Scarlet Letter in her English class.
Offering a branch of peace to professors from within her film, this Olive explicitly instructs viewers to not watch the Demi Moore vehicle. Instead, Easy A itself offers a great compromise, a smart film which theorizes how to read The Scarlet Letter while at the same time being a wonderfully entertaining, popular film about being a high school student in the early years of the 21st century, an experience it would behoove more English professors to consider.
The film examines the consequences of Olive’s lie about having had sex, resulting not only in the classroom scene about The Scarlet Letter, but another featuring Olive’s tender reflections upon the teen-pics of the 1980s. Significantly, like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, these films were also authored before Olive was born. As frightening as it is to yours truly, a middle-aged fan of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which I saw while a high school student, these films are ancient history to kids of Olive’s generation, born after John Hughes made his seminal 1980s teen-angst classics. As a result, Easy A can treat The Scarlet Letter and teen-pics like Can’t Buy Me Love on equal footing.
Reflecting upon how low she has sunk, now accepting coupons as payment for lying about having sex to enhance boys’ reputations, Olive tells a story of receiving movie passes only good at the art house movie theatre. We see her stand at the marquee, mangling the pronunciation of Der Scharlachrote Buchstabe, the only film for which her pass is redeemable. The film never tells us what Olive thought about seeing Wim Wenders’ updating of The Scarlet Letter, but it is a crucial moment in Easy A, abandoning Hawthorne for film intertexts. Does Olive notice that, while her film gives the power of the voice-over to its Hester (Olive herself), Wim Wenders does not, allowing Chillingworth to have that authority?
Immediately after seeing Wenders’ film, Olive tells the story of the boy who gives her coupons as payment instead of cash. In her bedroom, in close-up into the camera, Olive video blogs her reflections on the state of culture in 2010:
Whatever happened to chivalry? Does it only exist in eighties movies? I want to ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. Just once, I want my life to be like an eighties movie, preferably one with a really awesome music number for no apparent reason. But no, John Hughes did not direct my life, so instead of all that, I get to save fifteen cents on a bottle of antibacterial gel.
As Olive delivers this manifesto, Easy A includes a set of clips from these films. Thus, Easy A proposes mid-stream that Sixteen Candles is as important an intertext for understanding Olive as Hawthorne’s novel was in the film’s first act. These film clips are privileged as adaptational source material, thus colliding high canonical culture with John Hughes movies. And indeed, it turns out that The Scarlet Letter is not the most compelling plot spine for understanding Easy A; instead Can’t Buy Me Love deserves that honor.
Easy A thus teaches us the critical power of taking popular culture seriously, arguing that an otherwise disposable and nearly forgotten 1980s teen-pic is far more interesting in its engagement with The Scarlet Letter than is any prior film adaptation that announces itself as such, especially ones featuring Demi Moore in bathtubs. Olive’s mastery of social media in Easy A triumphs, proposing with great sophistication that literary texts have great power to influence students’ lives, but in forms foreign to both Hawthorne and his professorial admirers.
In the film’s final scene, Olive hugs and kisses her unrequited lover, Todd (Penn Badgley) for the first time. He arrives on a lawnmower, to drive her away to freedom, enacting Olive’s now public desire to live a life directly inspired by 1980s teen-pics. As Todd does his Patrick Dempsey impersonation from Can’t Buy Me Love, driving Olive away on the tractor, the film ends with a freeze-frame as the lovers raise their arms together in unison, reproducing the ending of The Breakfast Club. The film thus resolves its plot with the notion that the movies can chart the way to happiness, if we just know how to read them.
Olive’s argument that Can’t Buy Me Love circulates the social energy of The Scarlet Letter indicates that the value of Easy A does not lie so much in its status as a clever reworking of Hawthorne, which is how it was marketed, but instead in a much more radical project, the highlighting that 1980s teen-pics, a disposable form of American popular culture, are themselves as worthy of our attention as the great masterpieces of classic American literature. In Olive’s language of Facebook culture, to reject Demi Moore’s Hester Prynne does not require that we “unfriend” either John Hughes nor Nathaniel Hawthorne before him.
– Walter Metz