Monday, June 21, 2021

REVIEW: Manga Classics: The Scarlet Letter (manga) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, story adapted by Crystal S. Chan, art by SunNeko Lee

This is a manga adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I'm pretty sure I bought my copy used.


I'll start this by saying that I've never read the original and have no plans to change that.

This is framed as a story discovered by Nathaniel Hawthorne when he worked as a custom officer. Hester Prynne has been jailed by her Puritan community for the crime of adultery. She was married at a young age to an elderly scholar who sent her to Boston two years ago, alone, and there's no denying that her infant daughter, Pearl, has to be some other man's child. However, she refuses to name him, so she stands alone with her mark of shame, a scarlet letter A on her chest.

As she looks upon the crowd, she's shocked to see her husband. After assuming a new name, Roger Chillingworth, he begins his plan to find and torment the father of Hester's child. Meanwhile, Hester spends the next few years raising Pearl and being so unrelentingly helpful, pure, and good that the townspeople gradually begin to see her with new eyes, even as Hester worries that her sin has somehow affected her daughter.

This is the second Manga Classics volume I've read. The first was Jane Eyre, which I've actually read before, so I could write about not only the content, but also the way Chan approached adapting the original story to the manga format. Overall, I really liked it even though I had issues with the original story and some of those issues carried over to the adaptation.

However, like I said, I haven't read The Scarlet Letter. I can't really comment on Chan's adaptation decisions, beyond what she wrote in her notes at the end of the volume. From the sounds of things, many of the things I disliked about this manga, like the odd and unnatural dialogue, were features of the original story - not much Chan could do about that and still stick to the original as faithfully as possible.

Pearl was a very creepy child, to the point where I found myself worrying about what might happen to Hester and others if they stayed around her. While Hester had concerns about what Pearl's origins might have done to her, she didn't seem at all worried about living what seemed to me to be an often inhuman creature. Seriously, Pearl got down on all fours and practically snarled at one point.

Overall, I really liked the artwork. It was attractive, clear, and easy to follow, and I thought the decision to print the scarlet A in red was good. The one thing that annoyed me, which turned out to be part of Chan's adaptation choices, was the way the mystery of whatever was on Hester's lover's chest was handled. The first time a character witnessed it, it was clear from their reaction that it was terrible, but readers didn't actually get to see anything. Considering that the volume wasn't shy about revealing that Hester's lover was a secret flagellant, I figured he had probably harmed himself, likely marking an A right into the flesh of his chest. 

It would have made for a horrifying final visual, especially if it had been printed in red the same as Hester's A, but when the time came and the entire town witnessed it, the artwork was once again arranged so that readers saw nothing. It was frustrating and felt oddly like the artist was working around censorship rules. In the adaptation notes at the end, Chan explained that in the original novel, the nature and existence of that character's scarlet letter was left up to the reader, so she and the artist tried to do something similar by never actually showing the character's chest. However, it was so clear from other characters' reactions that something was there that, in the end, I just found it frustrating.

The story wasn't really to my taste, and I have no intention of reading the original. Still, I really like what I've read of the Manga Classics series so far, and I plan to read more of them. I love that they include detailed notes about adaptation choices at the end, and it seems like a great deal of effort is made to stick to the spirit and intentions of the original works while taking advantage of some of the options that a more visual format provides. I think comparing the original to the adaptation choices made for the manga could lead to fun group discussions (by which I mean "don't be afraid if students want to read these, it could make for excellent teaching opportunities").


A couple full-color pages, three pages of adaptation notes (metaphors, background characters, the tapestry of King David, the "Man in Black," and the dialogue), a comic-style afterword by SunNeko Lee, and a couple pages of character design sketches.

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