Graphic Novel Review – Manga Classics: The Scarlet Letter
Back when I was a sixteen year-old kid in a public school English class, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was required reading. Being a full blown fan of Japanese animation and manga at the time, I imagined most of the setting with an anime-esque styling to it. Picture my surprise when, thirteen years later, I found myself looking at all of the figments of my young imagination splashed across an actual graphic novel’s pages. I was the only one to enjoy Hawthorne’s classic in my high school class, and had read it at least one other time in college for my own sake, so I was quick to pick up the Manga Classics version of the story once I saw it on my local library’s shelves. I was amused by the novelty at first, not only did the particular styling have a connection to how I first experienced the story, but I was curious about how a story that was so richly defined by it’s prose would be represented in a medium that uses mostly images and dialogue. My curiosity was rewarded, because I really liked this book, as it accomplished every ambition the adapters had and did justice to the descriptions written in the original masterpiece. The story was adapted by Crystal Silvermoon and drawn by SunNeko Lee.
This is most likely just a formality, because anyone who didn’t go to a private school has likely had to shove The Scarlet Letter in front of their eyeballs at some point, but the story is set in 1640’s Puritan Boston, Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, who has conceived a child whilst her husband is presumably lost at sea, is condemned for adultery, and a scarlet “A” is embroidered on her clothing to mark her sin to the rest of the populace. Standing before the town with her newborn in her hands, she views her husband, Roger Chillingworth (an alias) in the crowd. While she is in jail, Roger cures her child Pearl of physical aliments, and also makes Hester take an oath that she will not reveal their marriage to the townsfolk. Chillingworth sets out to find the man who had the affair with Hester, while Hester retires to the countryside to raise her baby after her release from jail. Pearl grows into a rambunctious, impish and blasphemous child. If not for the interference of the kindly minister Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl would have been taken from the Hester a long time ago, as the clergy imagine Hester to be too sinful to properly raise the child. Meanwhile, Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale to act as his physician, and to confirm a suspicion. Just in case there are those who don’t want the story spoiled (and so I don’t have to post the Cliff’s Notes), I’ll stop the plot summary here.
The visuals are honestly just out of this world once the story gets going. I found myself laughing at some of the manga visual conventions being incorporated into the classic story too early, such as a metaphysical snake being used to represent Chillingworth’s terrifying hold on people, but other conventions of manga worked very well, such as the chibi expressions of Pearl. Really, everything about Pearl is depicted perfectly, whether it be the other worldliness of her eyes, to the expressions she has that amplify her impish and sometimes disturbing nature. Hester’s scarlet “A” is the only thing in the book that is depicted in color, which does add to the unique qualities of this novel, even if it is on the nose. I was blown away by how accurately portrayed three environments were. These were, for those in the know, the scaffolding in the middle of the town (which is also eerily far from the other residences), the beach outside of town when Hester and Chillingworth confront each other for the last time, and the scene in the forest, my favorite from the book, which was so excellent with it’s dappled light and character expressions that it pumped up my rating for this book. The only complaints that I have are that the character designs for Dimmesdale and Chillingworth (Roger, in particular) didn’t mesh with what I was expecting and seemed out of place. Dimmesdale has a frail disposition from the outset, which seems to contrast with how he should be becoming more frail with time, and Chillingworth’s design motif is so hokey that I thought a more subtle approach would have been better.
Pearl. Hell yes.
Dimmesdale. Better than Gary Oldman, I guess.
Chillingworth. No. Stop.
The best thing about The Scarlet Letter for me is how it was a strong critique of religious practices and the treatment of women, without completely leaving the faith. While I am a strong atheist, I do appreciate how the characters deal with the hypocrisy and hardships that their religion brings down upon them without abandoning it, as it truly wouldn’t have been a realistic conclusion for them to make, given how immersed they were in it because of their Puritan culture. Hester’s dual role of Scarlet Woman and Saintly Ablewoman makes her a truly admirable character and one of my favorites in literary history. Her defiance in the face of what was unfair let her keep her dignity and change the people around her for the better. Dimmesdale’s journey of giving into temptation and struggling with the release of his desires was more interesting to read through this adaption. His facial expressions during his final segments of the book do a great job of signifying how hard of a time he is having living with two separate desires and goals. He can’t be the sort of dual character that Hester is, but finds absolution in release and confession. Pearl’s depiction as more of a symbol than a person is also displayed well in this adaption, perhaps more vividly than through prose on the page. The manga aspect of this adaption truly brought out the symbolism and allowed for the limited, but well defined cast of characters to be drawn and utilized in expressive ways.
I really feel like this novel ended up being more than the sum of its parts, and when I feel that way, I award the book a Top Tier rating. I wasn’t expecting a gimmicky idea like this would have such a great impact on me, but it was so good that I couldn’t resist writing a 1000 word review singing its praises. If you’re a fan of The Scarlet Letter, I think this adaption does it far more justice than any of the movie adaptions. It uses the great things about manga and the greatest things about comics to punch up a story that was so vividly described, even though not much happened in it. This novel also inspired me enough to start reviewing graphic novels again on the regular, so thanks for that.