The Scarlet Letter Jacket
Having just covered on retelling of a literary classic, with Amy Heckerling's Clueless taking direct inspiration from Jane Austen's Emma, it seemed right to take a look at another literary conversion for the modern screen. This time we go from The Scarlet Letter into a much looser reworking with Easy A, the 2010 high school comedy staring Emma Stone.
When we call this a loose adaptation, we do mean that; where Clueless took the story and structure of Emma and reworked it into a modern comedy, Easy A really only looks at the intent of the original The Scarlet Letter without really taking any of the story beats of substantive plot for its reworked script. Essentially, if you know that a big red A marks its wearer as a "harlot", then that's as much of The Scarlet Letter as you need to know. Really, that's all the film cares about whatsoever.
In the film we're introduced to Olive (Stone), a wallflower who's never really been noticed around school. That changes after she gets caught up in a lie to her best friend, Rhi (Aly Michalka), about a boyfriend Olive is supposedly dating (no boyfriend exists). After Rhi suspects Olive had sex (which, of course, she didn't as there was no boy), Olive just gives in and says "yes, I did." Suddenly the rumor of her no longer being a virgin spreads all around school, and people start treating her differently (and not in a good way). Everyone suddenly starts treating her like a tramp, even though she only had been with one guy (and even then, not really).
When her gay friend, Brandon (Dan Byrd), asks for her help, she agrees. He needs people to leave him along and stop beating him up for being gay, so the two head to a big party and pretend to have sex in one of the bedrooms (with most of the school listening in). This does the trick for Brandon, with everyone suddenly thinking he's straight. But for Olive, it only makes matters worse. Now everyone thinks she's a whore, so she owns it. Having just read The Scarlet Letter in school, she buys a bunch of sexier clothing and sews big red As onto all of them. Then she starts helping other guys in school, letting them pretend to have had their world rocked by her for cash. If everyone thinks you're a whore, why not embrace it? But Olive soon learns that her reputation can get worse and worse until it's almost too much to bear.
For anyone looking for a high school adaptation of The Scarlet Letter it's important to note that this film isn't really that but, by the same measure, it's about as close as a film really could be. The Scarlet Letter, which is about Hester Prynne getting pregnant out of wedlock and being "branded" with a big red A that she has to wear everywhere, raising her kid, and dealing with her husband coming back and blackmailing her, doesn't exactly lend itself well to a high school story. With that said, a girl being thought of as a floozy and getting shunned by many around her does translate across time periods and social settings. A loose interpretation, in this form, is probably about right.
Probably more disconcerting for fans of the original story is the fact that Easy A is a comedy. It does have its dramatic moments, sure, but it's meant to be a bubbly and light high school comedy; a coming of age for the lead character, Olive, as she figures out who she wants to be and how much (or how little) she cares about the people around her. The "Easy A" that she puts on her chest is meant as an act of defiance, taking the slander that people are throwing at her and throwing it back in their face. She wears it with pride, and the sarcastically comments on everyone around her, keeping the spirit of the film light.
Much of this is thanks to the performance of Emma Stone. The actress had already been featured in a number of films in supporting roles (Superbad, The Rocker, Zombieland), but Easy A was her first true lead role and she handles it with aplomb. She has the right amount of sarcastic delivery mixed with earnest emotions to sell as aspects of Olive. She's a character that could be too twee, too over the top, but Stone's delivery grounds her just right, making her into a complete person.
And the film is legitimately funny through most of its run. Despite it's story, with a girl navigating her ruined reputation, it manages to find the humor and keep things light. It helps that Stone is surrounded by a cast of great comedic actors -- Thomas Haden Church as Olive's teacher, Lisa Kudrow as her guidance counselor, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her parents -- that even only okay material is delivered solidly. The reason the film works as well as it does is because of the actors selling all their parts so well.
You can actually see how, with the wrong cast member, a part does work, and for that we need look no further than Amanda Bynes. Playing Marianne Bryant, a religiously motivated student at the high school, Bynes can never find the right tone for her character. She's too much, too big, too grating with her holier than thou attitude. I have no doubt that's how the character was written on the page, but there's a way to find humanity in a role like this and Bynes never does. Compare her performance to a similar character, Hilary Faye Stockard as played by Mandy Moore in Saved!, and you'll easily see how someone like this should be portrayed. Moore finds the person within the character and Bynes never does.
And that does speak to the weakness of the script. The film works so well because most of the actors do what they can with what they're given, but there are times where even the actors can't save it. I like Tucci and Clarkson as Olive's parents, but some of their lines are too broad, too twee. It's like the film is trying far too hard to sell us on them being the "cool parents" that they become glaringly fictional. Without Tucci and Clarkson in the roles I'm sure the characters would have been absolutely unbearable. As they are, I like them but would have liked a rewrite for them.
Honestly, the film is probably a rewrite away from being a real teenage comedy masterpiece. It's a fantastic watch every once in a great while, mostly to see the comedic stylings of Emma Stone. But it doesn't have the same relevance, nor did it manage the same cultural impact other high school comedic adaptation contemporaries (Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You). I like the movie and would probably watch it again down the road. But one of the best teen comedies around? Eh... there are better ones that don't have to try quite so hard.