You probably haven’t read The Scarlet Letter since you were in high school. That’s understandable. Most people recall The Scarlet Letter as an arduous reading experience. This is because The Scarlet Letter is not a book that should be given to teenagers. Its themes — of responsibility to the community, of the simultaneous importance and uselessness of personal reputation, of id and ego — are way too sincere and nuanced for any hormone-addled teenager to understand. This is a book for adults.
I re-read The Scarlet Letter every few years, and I get more from it every time. I encourage you to give it a try as an adult; sure, the language is hokey and the symbolism is painfully obvious to modern readers, but any American adult who does not recognize themselves in The Scarlet Letter is a human who has not lived.
Since you haven’t read The Scarlet Letter in years, and since you didn’t immediately click away from this page at the very first mention of The Scarlet Letter, let me give you a little rundown of the plot and characters. The book centers, of course, on Hester Prynne, a married woman sent along by her husband to colonial New England who bears a child to another man. She refuses to name the man who engaged in adultery with her, so she’s forced to wear the letter A on her chest for the rest of her natural life. Soon enough, Hester’s husband arrives in the colony, but for reasons that would only make sense in the writers rooms of telenovelas, he decides to adopt a fake name, the oh-so-subtle Roger Chillingsworth, and root out the identity of the man who slept with his wife.
The secret identity of Hester’s lover, of course, is Arthur Dimmesdale, the beloved local pastor. Arthur, as Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays him, is a bit of a mall goth, an ostentatiously tormented perpetual teenager howling in agony over his self-created conflict. Get a load of this passage, when Arthur mansplains to Hester the reason why he’s the one who really has it tough, so far as this scarlet-letter-wearing stuff is concerned.:
Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! Had I one friend — or were it my worst enemy! — to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me! But, now, it is all falsehood! — all emptiness! — all death!
Wow, okay. Calm down, fella. Keep it up like that and your eyeliner might start to run.
It’s important to note that Hester is a kickass female lead, a powerful woman who absorbs all the derision and gossip the community has to offer with grace and good patience. Arthur, meanwhile, writhes in luxurious agony even as Chillingsworth slowly closes in on his deepest, darkest secret.
You could make a case that The Scarlet Letter is the very first great American novel. It’s certainly the first novel to capture a significant truth about the American character — our propensity to sneer at and revile those we consider worse people than us, even as we place them on a pedestal in our town square. We hate and fear anyone we suspect is having more fun than us, but we also cannot stop thinking about how much fun they’re having. We just can’t leave it alone. Hester quickly becomes a pillar of the community, an embroiderer to the stars, even as her scarlet letter A ensures that anywhere she goes in public, she is guaranteed to have a “magic circle” around her because everyone keeps her at a distance. We are repulsed by celebrity precisely because we idolize it. Or we idolize celebrity precisely because we are repulsed by it. Or both.
I haven’t even yet mentioned the fact that The Scarlet Letter (barely) contains one of the best, most fascinating characters in all of American literature: Hester and Arthur’s daughter, Pearl. Not yet 10 years old, Pearl is the most confident and emotionally intelligent character in the novel. She’s mischievous — people call her a “wild child,” and compare her to sprites and elves — and a bit of a bomb-thrower. Pearl almost blows her father’s secret on multiple occasions, just because she thinks it’s stupid to keep secrets. She is absolutely right. Here’s a passage where Pearl takes on a crowd of Puritan bullies:
“Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!”
But Pearl, who was a dauntless child, after frowning, stamping her foot, and shaking her little hand with a variety of threatening gestures, suddenly made a rush at the knot of her enemies, and put them all to flight. She resembled, in her fierce pursuit of them, an infant pestilence — the scarlet fever, or some such half-fledged angel of judgment — whose mission was to punish the sins of the rising generation. She screamed and shouted, too, with a terrific volume of sound, which doubtless caused the hearts of the fugitives to quake within them. The victory accomplished, Pearl returned quietly to her mother, and looked up smiling into her face.
The book does not end well for the men. Arthur loudly and exhaustingly reveals his secret in as dramatic a fashion as possible: he hollers the particulars of his adultery to everyone in town, and then he gives up and drops dead. Chillingsworth, who was probably abusing his role as town physician to poison Arthur to death, likewise fades away and dies within a year of Arthur’s ignoble end. Hester goes on to live a long life as a trusted member of the community and Pearl grows up to travel the world, no doubt having adventures with pirates and sleeping with whoever she damn well pleases.
Every time I read the book, it becomes more florid, more cartoonish, and more true. I learn a little bit more about humanity every time I read it, and I understand my country a little bit more. This most recent reading, I mentally cast Donald Trump as the hunchbacked Chillingsworth. The world suddenly made a little more sense.
The Scarlet Letter has been adapted to film very frequently. Scarlet Letter films have been released in 1908, 1911, 1913, two different adaptations in 1917, 1922, 1926, 1934, a Wim Wenders-directed version in 1973, 1995, 2010, and a Christian film adaptation in 2015, as well as a 1979 PBS miniseries. Part of the reason The Scarlet Letter has seen so many adaptations is because it lives out in the public domain, where cheap studio heads prefer to graze for affordable movie ideas. But it also has that heady blend of sex and shame and scandal and celebrity that turns heads. Every Scarlet Letter adaptation brings with it the promise of at least one hot-and-heavy makeout session deep in New England wilderness, a chance for viewers to cluck their tongue and shift in their seats a little bit.
Too bad, then, that every adaptation of The Scarlet Letter that I’ve seen, save one, is roundly terrible. Consider the 1934 version — the very first version recorded in sound — directed by Robert G. Vignola. It opens with a bit of comic relief: a foolish man in the stocks in town square, a giant sign over his head saying he was there “For laughing on ye Sabbath.” Early in the movie we see some Native American caricatures, dressed like they’re stopping in from the cowboy picture shot on the next studio lot over. Henry B. Wathall plays Chillingsworth, a role he also played in the 1926 Scarlet Letter adaptation, as a precursor to Vincent Price, a sloppily malevolent old man in a Davy Crockett-style cap that resembles a giant, kinky afro. When Hester walks infant Pearl to the town square in the opening of the film, the baby doll’s stiff arm sways limply in front of her.
It’s a cheap movie, shot on the fly, with very little to recommend it, perhaps exemplified best by the adaptation of the above scene where Pearl is confronted by literal mudslingers. In the book, Pearl responds by fighting, and with vulgar gestures. In the film, she falls over and starts bawling. This is a movie that wants to punish Hester, which is exactly the wrong impulse. It’s a story told by a member of the howling mob. Stories told from that perspective never last; popular opinion and conventional wisdom never age well. Imagine what reading modern Reddit threads will seem like a hundred years from now; that’s what this movie is like today.
Undoubtedly, though, the worst Scarlet Letter adaptation is the 1995 version, which the opening credits warn is “freely adapted" from the book. A recent viewing of the film, directed by Roland Joffé, proved it to be even worse than I remembered. It is, in fact, laughably bad, a movie that would most likely have swept the Razzie Awards, had it not been released in the same year as another film about a gutsy American woman who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants, regardless of societal taboos. You may have heard of it. It’s called Showgirls.
This Scarlet Letter, at a punishing two hours and fifteen minutes long, is absolute proof of John Waters’s famous declaration that there is no reason for a movie to run longer than 90 minutes. Embarrassingly, an hour and 16 minutes pass before the first scene in the book occurs; everything before it is basically a prequel. We watch Demi Moore as Hester fall in love with Arthur, who is played with a soft-focus ingenue allure by Gary Oldman. Hester catches Arthur skinny-dipping, and they spend a few scenes swapping smoldering looks.
But the moral ambiguity of Hawthorne’s novel is nowhere to be found. Arthur and Hester don’t get together until everyone including the viewer is absolutely assured that Hester’s husband is missing and presumed dead. Hester buys an indentured servant early in the film with the intent of freeing her. There's even a scene where she slaps a leering would-be suitor across the face, as if to prove she’s not that kind of girl. It’s all so cringingly, ostentatiously moral.
But at least there are terrible love scenes. Hester pleasures herself by fantasizing about a nude Gary Oldman cavorting in the water like a playful dolphin as her servant peeps through a hole in the wall. When Arthur and Hester finally get together, their awkward lovemaking scene is intercut with scenes of her servant stripping naked and taking a luxurious bath, giving the impression that some sort of a psychic threesome is taking place. A cardinal that flies around throughout the film makes a prominent appearance during this last sex scene, presumably standing in for all sorts of symbols: hedonism, justice, innocence, boredom.
And the end of the movie is abominable. Hester and Arthur are about to be hanged together, but they are saved at the last minute by warring Native Americans, because they’re the only white people who treated them right. The couple rides off into the sunset together, Hester discarding her scarlet letter in the road as they head to the Carolinas for their happy ending.
The film stands at 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is somehow not the single worst adaptation on Joffé’s resume; he’s also the director of the Super Mario Brothers film, which starred Dennis Hopper as the evil King Koopa. Demi Moore later tried to defend her adaptation by calling the novel “very dense and not cinematic.” Blaming Nathaniel Hawthorne, who died three decades before film was invented, for not writing his book to read more like a movie feels like an especially cheap shot.
It is not Hawthorne’s fault that The Scarlet Letter traditionally hasn’t been adapted well to film. Hell, in another place and with another script and director, Demi Moore might have made for a marvelous Hester Prynne; she carries with her an aura of defiance that would have worked perfectly in the role. But the problem is that almost every adaptation of The Scarlet Letter has failed because the adapters didn’t understand the book’s moral friction, that push and pull between sex and duty and expectation and notoriety. And I can prove that to you, because one film got The Scarlet Letter exactly right.
The movie I’m talking about is a contemporary teen sex comedy called Easy A. It was released in 2010, it stars Emma Stone it’s directed by Will Gluck, and it’s written by a playwright named Bert V. Royal. Easy A is not a direct adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. It’s not even freely adapted from the book. It’s about an innocent teenager who takes on the role of the class slut. There is no Pearl character, no besieged priest or grotesque aggrieved husband.
But what Easy A gets exactly right is the moral core of The Scarlet Letter. Royal understands the book is about a woman who knows that her reputation is not her self, but that she can draw strength from her own notoriety. It is a successful heart transplant of an adaptation, taking the element that makes The Scarlet Letter run and installing it in a completely different body. It works as a spiritual successor. It works as an extended piece of literary criticism. It’s an homage and a celebration and an echo. And it works terrifically on its own. It is, by virtually every way I can measure, a perfect film adaptation.
You have no doubt heard that scientists recently proved Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves to be correct. My crude interpretation of this new understanding of gravity, which I gathered from an online cartoon explainer, is that the universe is a vast rubber sheet, and that objects of great mass, like suns and planets, are like heavy spheres dropped on top. They sink down into the sheet, distorting the space around them and creating deep wells in the fabric of spacetime, which we recognize as gravity.
Because this new theory of gravity is so ubiquitous right now, it can’t help but influence my understanding of book-to-film adaptations. I think of the source material as an object of great mass, like the sun. It’s impossible to replicate the mass of the source material, but if your adaptation is too flimsy, if it’s poorly written or directed by a buffoon, it will simply disappear into the gravitational pull of the original. It will be eaten, consumed, cannibalized. This is what we mean when we say that the book is better than the movie.
No, your best hope is to create something substantial enough that it can create its own gravitational pull, that it can bring its own voice to the cultural conversation. You want to create something that can orbit the original and not become subsumed by it.
One of my least favorite adaptations is the Zach Snyder version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. At the time, critics praised the film for being, in many ways, a shot-for-shot remake of the comic book. This was precisely the thing that made Watchmen feel like torture for me: a comic page has its own rhythms, and Snyder’s fastidious replication of those rhythms felt stunted and wrong on the screen. It didn’t feel like a movie, it felt like awkward cosplay karaoke. It felt small, like a child trying to speak in an adult’s deep voice.
David Fincher has directed some of the best book-to-film adaptations of the last quarter century: Fight Club, which is even better than the book, Gone Girl, which is just as good as the pulpy thriller on which it’s based, and The Social Network, which is a vast improvement on Ben Mezrich’s bland book of reportage, The Accidental Millionaires. Why do these movies work? Perhaps because Fincher is one of the most confident living American directors, which means he’s willing to diverge from the source material and sacrifice the author’s voice when it’s necessary to serve the necessities of film. (Fight Club, for example, expands to mock Hollywood conventions, because an unselfconscious adaptation of the book would be as square as a chaperone at a Mormon middle school dance.) And he’s also one of the most relentlessly cerebral directors of mainstream Hollywood, which means he understands what makes the books work, and he transplants those central messages to the film. (Gone Girl is about the decaying American middle class, which is why Fincher put so much attention on a seemingly unnecessary scene in the film where an entire underground society of homeless people has taken up residence in an abandoned shopping mall. That scene did not help advance the plot, but it supported the thematic integrity of both the book and the film.)
But even Fincher occasionally botches the process; his adaptation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is too stylish, too close to the book, too aware of its own franchise opportunities. The adaptation of the same book, by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, isn’t as slick or as tense as Fincher’s version, but it nails the preachy stodginess of Stieg Larsson’s novel. It’s not as good a movie, but it's a much better adaptation.
We have slaughtered too many metaphors here today. I’ve compared adaptation to organ transplants and my own uninformed interpretation of modern astrophysics, and obviously neither image is sturdy enough to survive more than a moment’s inspection. This is especially true because both surgery and physics are sciences, which means they are exact and specific and they follow certain indelible, incontrovertible laws. Adaptation never does. There is no perfect formula for adaptation.
Both Stanley Kubrick’s and Adrian Lyne’s adaptations of Lolita are failures, but they are each failures for completely different reasons. One is not serious enough, the other is too serious. Why is this? Who knows? There could be fifty adaptations of that book and all fifty Lolitas might be a different failure: a bad film and a good adaptation, say, or a bad adaptation and a good film. It’s not brain surgery, it’s alchemy.
Here on the Seattle Review of Books, we talk often about the importance of book criticism. Book reviews matter not because they tell you which books to buy, or which books to avoid, but because they engage the books in a conversation. That is as good a definition as I can muster for a strong adaptation, too. Like any good conversation, a meaningful film adaptation must be different enough from the book that it can bring new perspectives to the discussion, but it must be able to share a common language.
One of my favorite adaptations is the film Adaptation, which was written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. It’s a movie about the difficulty Kaufman faced in adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book-length piece of journalism, The Orchid Thief. It’s partly an adaptation and partly memoir and partly fiction — the film focuses heavily on Kaufman’s twin brother, who does not, strictly speaking, exist.
Sometimes, when I think about hanging up the book criticism apron for good, I fantasize about writing a novelization of Adaptation. It would, of course, be a book about the difficulty of writing a novelization of a film that is loosely based on a book. And then hopefully someone would make a film adaptation of my book, which someone would then adapt into a book, which someone else would adapt into a film and so on, until eventually some kid with Final Cut Pro X splices all those Adaptation adaptations together into one single supercut. I want to see that movie. I bet it would be something totally new.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant