Imagine how Hester Prynne, protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, would have fared in a contemporary high school — a world of Facebook and YouTube; a world where gossip is digitized and privacy extends only as far as your online safety settings.
The film Easy A tackles this very question. Directed and produced by Cornell alum Will Gluck ’93, Easy A is a comedy loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter. The film stars Emma Stone (Superbad, Zombieland), Amanda Bynes and Stanley Tucci and is set to be released on Sept. 13 but will be previewing at Cornell Cinema on May 8.
As described by Gluck, Easy A is a film that follows the life of high school student Olive Penderghast (Stone), who begins to see parallels between her own life and that of The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne. After she tells a white lie about sleeping with a gay friend, Olive becomes the target of viscous gossip. Following the lie, she is branded, quite literally, as a “slut” and watches as her high school English curriculum becomes dizzyingly real.
Unlike her kindred literary heroine, however, Olive refuses to play the victim. Seeing the power of her newfound notoriety, she takes matters into her own hands and pushes the rumors further. Using cattiness as capital, she feeds the gossip to build herself up into a formidable (pseudo-fornicating) high schooler.
As it turns out, however, gossip has a life of its own, and maintaining control of the rumor mill proves to be difficult. Ultimately, the movie is “about what happens when rumors get the best of you,” Mr. Gluck explained. It is also about the great effect that literature can have on us all — especially the young and perhaps impressionable. The movie shows “how books that people read in high school and college affect [our lives],” Gluck said. In the film, Olive’s exposure to and reception of literature leaves her somewhat “misguided,” he added.
In this sense, despite its arguably highbrow literary inspiration, Easy A is relatable and touches upon themes we experience in everyday life — namely gossip and our susceptibility to it. Indeed, for the young starlets of the film like Stone and Bynes, constantly under scrutiny in Hollywood, Gluck imagines that the experience described in Easy A, and even in The Scarlet Letter, must be particularly relatable. Speaking further of the relevance that The Scarlet Letter has today, Gluck offered, laughing, “people sucked three-hundred years ago … and they [still] suck today.”
All joking aside, Gluck noted that the film’s source of inspiration also relates to contemporary life in that we are still living in a society with some “puritanical” influences. In Easy A, Olive is persecuted because she supposedly slept with a classmate, which suggests that today’s society resembles Hester Prynne’s more than we might care to admit.
However, these similarities between contemporary American life and the America of centuries past is not meant as in-your-face social commentary. (It seems like Easy A will be more Mean Girls than Michael Moore.) Instead, the common experience between the characters in the film and the characters in The Scarlet Letter should point to the hilarity, and at times absurdity, of high school and its perpetuation and re-imagination of the old-fashioned rite of “public shaming.”
Though Gluck assures that the gossipy environment depicted in the film was in no way inspired by his time at Cornell, he did gain some experience as an undergrad that prepared him for the world of filmmaking in other ways, he said. Gluck remembered taking “tons of creative writing and English” while at Cornell, and in his spare time he was involved in unofficial student theater groups with friends. He also looked to the work of Cornell professors, like Professor Emeritus Dan McCall of the English department.
Though Gluck seems to have enjoyed his time at Cornell, his return to Ithaca on May 8 will be his first since graduating in 1993. The opportunity to see his film so far in advance of its general release date means that Gluck’s screening will likely give him a warm welcome back to Cornell, even despite post-Slope Day exhaustion.
Original Author: Hannah Stamler