Lately, Hollywood's tendency to cannibalize itself has been impossible to avoid: In one recent issue of the Mercury, our film section was entirely devoted to remakes. Most of these sequels and remakes are widely acknowledged as derivative cash grabs—if, okay, occasionally kind of fun. When literary fiction starts eating itself, though, marketing teams and critics trot out phrases like "powerful reimagining" and "inspired retelling." And so it is that we are treated to Hillary Jordan's When She Woke, a book that aspires to be a powerful reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, but is closer to the cultural equivalent of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.
In Jordan's near-future dystopia, Los Angeles has been blown off the map, forever crushing the moviegoing public's hopes for Dirty Dancing 3: The Last Limbo. A plague called the superclap has knocked out fertility rates, prompting a nationwide ban on abortion, while overcrowded prisons caused the government to institute a policy called "chroming," wherein the skin color of convicted prisoners is altered before they're released back into the general population. Different colors match different crimes, but for Jordan's purposes the operative color is red: That's the color Hannah Payne (sigh) wakes up to find herself after being convicted of a having an abortion.
Extremely religious and now marked with a visible reminder of her sin, Hannah's newfound outcast status and her unwillingness to name the identity of the man who impregnated her—a prominent reverend, natch—bring her into direct conflict with many of her most deeply held beliefs. Religion, politics, sexuality—it's all thrown into tumult as Hannah falls in with a pro-abortion resistance movement that promises to shepherd her to pink-skinned freedom in Canada.
The problem, though, is that Jordan's repressive dystopia seems purely contrived to prime a woman for a good old-fashioned sexual/emotional awakening. What felt revolutionary when Kate Chopin wrote about it 100 years ago feels rote now; Hannah's journey toward enlightenment is dated and schematic, a reaction against a world that never really convinces as an extension of the one we live in. When She Woke is a mash note to Margaret Atwood's religious paranoia and Nathanial Hawthorne's slut-shaming romanticism, but there's little contemporary relevance to be found in this remake.