Lessons in Adaptation, Scott Pilgrim

Lessons in Adaptation: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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A few years back, I was in an introductory filmmaking program. This was not crucial to my degree (which is in rocks), but it was fun, and if we finished up with our projects for the day with time to spare, the instructors would show us films they thought demonstrated parts of the craft uncommonly well. Most of these were classics I had seen before — Psycho, Citizen Kane, Bonnie & Clyde. And then there was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a manic action drama directed and co-written by Edgar Wright about a shy Canadian boy who falls for a skater girl and learns that in order to date her, he must battle her seven evil exes to the death via the power of music, video games, and often straight-up magic.

It is confusing when you first encounter it, not in the least because it takes about fifteen minutes before anything explicitly magical happens. The aesthetic opts for a comic interface with plentiful captions and visual sound effects, as well as extremely tight editing that shifts the shots around like panels of a comic book.

Even if you know that the film is based on a graphic novel series, the lengths it goes to emulate the attributes of the medium is striking. As I had utterly no context, I was thrown right into the deep end with this film.

Despite my initial confusion, I was engaged with it. I don’t think I was nearly as delighted by it as my peers, as the plot falters a bit in its latter half and the entirety of it is a lot to take in. But it’s an enjoyable experience, and as with many Edgar Wright projects, brimming with detail.

And now that I’ve read the books that go along with it…

 

Lesson #6: Step Gently

 

Wallace: Best Boi

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My first time watching, these were my takeaways:

  1. The characters are magnetic. Even years after watching the film, the designs of many of them stuck in my head. I couldn’t remember any of their names, but most of the major ones became enough of their own archetypes that I could recognize them immediately when I finally got around to the books.
  2. The same does not hold true for the evil exes. When I read the books, I knew that one of them was a girl because it was a twist in the film, and I remembered the first had dramatic eyeliner and was rather confusing. The rest sort of blended together, which is unfortunate because much of the film uses the exes to manage its pacing.
  3. The comic elements are a bit jarring at first, but they add of the film’s charm. The style is niche, but in a way that primes it to be an instant cult classic. That’s actually what I thought it was initially, a cult classic from the early 2000s, even though I watched it maybe a year after it came out.
  4. The ending fumbles a bit, drawing upon too many exes and concluding somewhat abruptly. The pacing of the latter half doesn’t hold up to the introduction, and I paid it little attention the first time through.
  5. There’s a lot more singing than I would have liked.
  6. Wallace is Best Boi. I wasn’t even the only one to note this, as almost as soon as he was introduced while we were watching it in class, someone in the room shouted, “I love Wallace!”

Some things never change.

Having read the books, I have a newfound appreciation for both iterations of the story. The film makes a lot of cheeky nods to its source material and brings the characters to life, while the books offer considerably greater depth to some of the ideas briefly addressed in the film. I stand by most of my initial impression, but I’ve come to appreciate the film more over time, especially now that I know more about where it came from.

As with most films, its policy is to trim the original to better fit its two-hour time limit, which is an especially tricky task because it’s trying to adapt all six graphic novels into one piece. Even though graphic novels tend to have fewer pages per story beat than traditional novels, this isn’t necessarily because less happens in them. Visuals work on a different level than language, so pictures can often incorporate more information than words, even if they’re more ambiguous in their meaning. Graphic novels are more likely to get adapted into television shows these days than films, especially if they make up a multi-volume series. Films will usually grab from the best or most famous encounters in a superhero’s history, creating fairly unique stories which bank on the familiarity of the main character more than the faithfulness of the adaptation to the source material.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the only single comic book movie I’ve come across so far that tries to condense an entire series into one film. I’m sure there are others out there, but it’s an uncommon strategy. Sad to say, but as much as the film makes the most of this choice, I suspect on some level it might be partly responsible for the financial underperformance of the film. While the comics were beloved at the time of the film’s release, Scott Pilgrim was not enough of a household name at the time for the film to intrigue a new audience. Likewise, with the story ended, there wasn’t time for a dedicated fanbase to develop the way it does for a multi-series or -season narrative.

Then again, how many YA series have their first book adapted only for a promised sequel to never see the light of day? At least with this route, the audience is satiated. Perhaps it’s secretly a genius approach. Most people have at least heard of it by now, haven’t they?

 

Canada is Basically Toon Town

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Reading the books, I regularly drew from my memories of the film. Watching the film ahead of time actually made the first book a bit frustrating, because it seemed to be a direct adaptation where the original would provide little additional content.

This is only true for the first book, though, and subtle differences in delivery imbue otherwise identical scenes between the iterations with their own context. This builds up to surprisingly divergent character and thematic conclusions between the book and the film.

Take for instance the casting. Michael Cera is about as perfect a person to play Scott Pilgrim as anyone who has ever existed, and the supporting cast likewise slots into the roles as though they were born for them. Casting for any major franchise adaptation is always a matter of finding actors who can satisfy existing audience expectations while drawing in a new crowd. Often, this assumes that the character will be translated as directly as possible, physique and all, which is why divergences from typecasting for big projects tend to attract a lot of press. The actors of Scott Pilgrim Versus the World are not exactly playing against type (except for perhaps Chris Evans, who looks like he’s having the time of his life as Lucas Lee), but their types are noticeably just a bit off from those presented by the characters in the novels. As far as I’m concerned, this is excellent.

The Scott Pilgrim from the film is not an asshole. Well, he might be, based on allusions to his past in the dialogue, but we certainly don’t see it over the course of the story. Michael Cera plays to the character’s vulnerable side, but rather than being childish and petty, the film character comes across as indecisive. He has no self-confidence, charisma, or skills to speak of, outside of the fight sequences, which in the film have an elevated surreality that makes them almost like video game fights. Outside of these fights, Scott is just a very soft boy. The film views him as more of a lovable protagonist where the books are more critical of him.

Because of the film’s short length of time, the side characters don’t really get what one would call an arc, per say. The film takes the book characters and distills them down into their core traits, then builds off of these to create figures who are recognizable, but better suited as supporting characters in a smaller story. Wallace is far less frenetic, instead always in need of a coffee as the level-headed sidekick to Scott’s antics. The comparison to the book character is visible, but you would never mistake the delivery of one for the other.

Kim plays a far smaller role in the film, presented as a no-nonsense drummer with a wild face and eyes that never blink. The film inflates Steven Stills’ stage fright to delightful effect, though it forgoes his delightful expressions (a pity, but they were always meant for a cartoon character anyway). Young Neil is curiously little changed, though I imagine that’s probably because he has almost no role in the books. He’s a bit nicer I suppose, but that’s honestly true of most of the characters in the film.

The film opts to present Ramona and Knives close to their book counterparts, though I’m unsure if this is a great choice. They are given enough over the course of the film that you can see greater complexity than their surface characteristics, but because the film has to cut a lot of the simple character interactions that occupy a lot of their development in the books, it’s easy to pass them both off as traditional love interests who lack much agency, especially compared to Scott. The film doesn’t give them a lot else to build upon, which consequently distills the ultimate goal of the film a physical fight over a girl who appears to have no say in who she goes home with. For Ramona in particular, the metaphorical significance of the battles does a lot of heavy lifting to elevate the story beyond the standard cliche, but I worry it might not always be evident to the audience.

 

Damn, That Editing Tho

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One of the most immediately noticeable things about this film is its aesthetic. As always, Edgar Wright’s focus on editing is top notch and the pacing is consequently smooth as butter. Many of the jokes are based not only in the dialogue and visuals, but also in transitions between shots. The blocking is carefully laid out so that the entire shot has a surreal perfection to it, allowing for ample visual gags and positional details that make the film endlessly rewatchable. I could gush about the amount of detail in the sound design alone for ages (one of my favorite puns in the film is a shot of Wallace asleep with a cash register noise played over it to indicate that he’s checked out), and that’s without even mentioning the costumes.

However, we’re here to discuss the film as an adaptation, and that’s where Edgar Wright’s usual tics as a director really flex their muscles, because his skills compliment the story and style of the graphic novels beautifully. Wright is known for his original works, notably the utterly wonderful Cornetto Trilogy, which draw upon the styling of different genres but are very much based in their own unique stories. Scott Pilgrim is an oddball released between Hot Fuzz and World’s End, not part of the Cornetto Trilogy itself but cut from the same cloth. Wright has worked on other adaptations like Tintin and Ant-Man, but Scott Pilgrim remains his only big adaptation. I could guess why.

The books are almost custom made to be adapted in the style of Edgar Wright. They’re fast-paced, witty, and alternate between frenetic action and genuine drama constantly. The small scale of the story and characters enhances the fantasy of the fights to a surreal level, which when paired with Scott’s everyday friends looking on in forced amazement, sipping their coffee, creates delightful situational humor. The tone and style of the series are well-suited to Edgar Wright more than almost any other big director I’m aware of.

Wright could have breezed through this adaptation easily because the groundwork is already there, but true to form, he puts considerable effort into elevating the story even further. If anything, the film seems to view its source material as a good-natured challenge, seeking to match it in its own way while putting to film elements that seem otherwise impossible.

The choice to make the series both a close adaptation and live action is a bold one, but it pans out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story that brings animation to life through a completely different medium; there are shots in this film that look impossible. The one where Lucas Lee throws Scott into a tower is one of the most impressive blends of film and computer effects I’ve ever seen.

The film leans into the comic book aesthetic in more than just the action; action lines, altered backgrounds, onomatopoeia, and multiple panels in the same shot (an artistic choice I love more each time I see it) are prevalent. The film sets text boxes within designated planes of the world, which is a nice way to incorporate them into a mobile scene. You can see this clearly with Scott’s introduction, which has him walk in front of his own name tag. Those are the sorts of details that I live for in films.

That’s not to say that it’s flawless, though. Especially toward the end of the film, the effects start to get emphasis over story while simultaneously straining under the pressure of the production. Matthew Patel’s little demon ladies don’t do much for me, nor does Roxy’s whip-sword, but the Katayanagi twin fight is probably the weakest point in the film. However excellent the effects are elsewhere, I think animating two magical dragons and a yeti was too big of an ask. If nothing else, this scene is a warning against hubris, though it hardly diminishes the brilliance of the rest of the film’s look all on its own.

 

And the Moral of the Story Is…

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Much as I enjoy the film, it’s still imperfect. I’ve mentioned a few times that the halfway point reveals a shift in the story. While I recognized back when I first watched it that I didn’t care for the latter portion of the film, it wasn’t until I read the books that I understood why.

The film was finished before the book series. As far as I can glean, Book Five was partly complete by the time the script for the film was being written, but neither it nor the final book were finished before filming began. A project that is shot for the edit depends on a finalized script being perfected early in the production schedule, well before shooting begins in earnest, so based on the film’s attempts to be faithful to the early books, I would estimate that starting from the fifth book onward, the film was only using loose notes from the graphic novels as inspiration for its own story.

The graphic novels put a lot into the last three books, so the film probably couldn’t copy them beat-for-beat even if it had wanted to. As much as I would have liked for more of the fourth book to make it into the film, adapting it directly as with the first book would not have been a wise move. The fourth book depends on plotlines tied to details within the book series, like the amount of time between the third book and it. The fourth book also sets up new subplots and builds upon themes that continue into the next two, meaning literal adaptation of the fourth book likely wouldn’t have been especially appealing with the film’s version of the last two battles.

This is the difficulty of adapting a series, especially one like the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. Six books is too long to make a close film adaptation that clocks in at a reasonable length, but too short to omit much material without feeling its absence. Transitioning from the early books to the later ones was always going to be one of the film’s trickier tasks, and while it makes some effective changes to the story to compensate, this is also where most of the problems unique to the film originate.

The pervasive feeling throughout the film is of a simple story elevated by the quality of its actors, editor, and special effects. While undeniably a fruitful project in terms of the joy it produces for fans and newcomers alike, there’s something off-kilter about the note the story ends on. I believe there was originally a different ending where Scott returns to Knives, which adds a yikes factor all its own, but sticking with the DVD release where Scott and Ramona pass through the door into the unknown, I’m not entirely sure I’m on board with where Scott ends the story emotionally.

What does Scott learn over the course of the story? The film builds to a climax where he confronts Gideon and makes up with his friends, Knives, and Ramona, but what’s changed? What’s changed between now and the fight with the twins? He dies and comes back to life, but why?

It would seem to me that the story is pushing Scott to be more proactive and take charge of his life, but I’m not sure that’s either what he needs or wants.

 

Sad Boy

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As introduced in the film, Scott’s problem partly seems to be awkwardness and a lack of confidence, which would presumably need to be resolved by the end of the story in order to complete his character arc. However, as the narrative progresses, it becomes apparent that Scott has plenty of confidence when in battle. Perhaps too much. His friends are shocked when he confronts Matthew Patel, but Scott has no problem with hand-to-hand combat. If anything, other characters underestimating him seems almost intentional. He handily defeats the evil exes each time they come up, failing only once he gets to Gideon.

Perhaps the film means to imply that Scott compartmentalizes his competence, becoming a suave action hero only in combat, as in video games, but unable to translate these skills to his casual interactions with his friends and romantic partners. Except, that’s not his problem either. He definitely has one, because the story implies that it’s building to a character change and he becomes isolated from his friends and Ramona during the climax, so this isn’t the case of Scott being a perfectly fine character who doesn’t need to change. He’s whiny, absent-minded, obsessive, and easily distracted. He also doesn’t actually seem to lack conviction when it comes to pursuing or breaking up with his girlfriends, at least when he finds something he wants. He dumps Knives on the street once Wallace impresses upon him that he can’t have two girlfriends. He stalks Ramona and tricks her into a date. When Gideon “kidnaps” Ramona, Scott heads over to him immediately. Steven Stills’ girlfriend, Julie, hints that Scott has gone through a slew of girlfriends that he’s mistreated in the past, and Scott’s apology to Kim at the end implies that there’s at least some truth to Julie’s accusations. Scott’s baggage is that he’s unwilling to learn from his past mistakes and think through the problem at hand. He’s noncommittal when he needs to be decisive, and vindictive when he needs to be understanding. He’s more than willing to punch a problem when it comes his way, but he’s clueless when there’s nothing to punch.

The confrontation with the Katayanagi twins toward the end of the film feels like a good encapsulation of where Scott does not need to go. In it, he becomes more assertive, slapping sense into Steven Stills and leading the band to create a massive ape sort of creature to combat the twins’ dragons. Scott and his band pull through with determination and perseverance, defeating the twins and nearly destroying the building in the process. After this apparent victory, though, Ramona leaves with Gideon and Scott’s bandmates abandon him. It isn’t enough. Whatever he was doing in that scene — simply standing up to the twins, or giving in to an instinct for wanton destruction — wasn’t sufficient to save the day, implying that he needs a new approach or some sort of cataclysm to incite change.

And that never really comes. You could argue that Scott reaching his lowest point is the narrative beat where he learns that crucial lesson, but if so, I’m really not sure what Scott learns. I think him dying is supposed to be the real moment of change, but that doesn’t work to resolve his character plot either. In both versions, he blasts through Gideon’s henchmen to get at the boss, faster and more violent in the second approach, but to seemingly little end. Indeed, Scott’s first attempt to defeat Gideon would appear to be too soft, resulting in Scott’s death, and prompting a retry in which Scott is faster, stronger, more violent, and more capable. It’s a splashy finale, but in the same way as a speedrun of a video game is flashy. It has little to do with character, because Scott’s approach never changes, and his failing in the previous fight goes unaddressed. Why did Scott fail after the Battle of the Bands finale? Why did Scott die at the hands of Gideon the first time around?

The final confrontation is not actually with Gideon, but with the Negascott, which I believe is meant to be a cute homage to the books more than a meaningful encounter, but it’s also a bit of a microthesis of the entire film. The Negascott appears out of nowhere, with almost no buildup, as an evil grayscale version of Scott. They face off with dramatic music, then the film smash-cuts to Scott and the Negascott walking through the door of Gideon’s place all buddy-buddy, no fight needed. It’s a bit odd.

In video games, and in the Scott Pilgrim books, a Nega version of something is like an evil twin, a paradoxical copy that is the same but opposite. Obviously the film and the books wouldn’t have used the Negascott in the same way since he primarily comes into play in the sixth book, but the buildup would have been established in the series during the making of the film. The encounter with the Negascott in the books is an important moment because it forces Scott to face and accept his flaws. The film’s version of this figure is a literal joke, and not a particularly good one. The film didn’t need to include the Negascott, but the fact that it did and went this direction is telling, I think. It sees its story as lighthearted, as a tale where Scott doesn’t really need to face his personal demons, because in this version, he doesn’t really have any.

There’s a way to write his character so that’s true, and you could tell a fine story even without an angsty flawed Scott. The film, however, leans a bit too far into making a faithful adaptation for its version of Scott to be without fault. You can’t take bits and pieces from the source material before you have a clear, consistent idea of where you want to go with them. And unfortunately, I feel like that’s something this film doesn’t quite do.

It’s a fun film and well worth it to look at if you’re interested in learning about the medium of film. I’m not sure it’s the pinnacle of visual storytelling as much as it is a passion project made by a person fond of the source material, but it’s a good time even with its faults. Honestly, I would easily put the first twenty minutes of this film up there as some of the most impressive cinema of the past decade.

However, I don’t think I can quite get over that ending. It’s cute, sure, and the action’s excellent, but given the setup, I don’t feel like it’s enough. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s less interested in exploring Scott as a nuanced character than it is singing his praises as the best video gamer who ever gamed. His negative actions are never challenged, his victories credited to him even though he does little actual work in earning them. He gets his choice of girl at the end, because the hero always gets the girl. I’m just not sure that’s the kind of message I’m up for these days. The film can do better. Better exists within it. And as much as I enjoy watching the film, I don’t think I would recommend it without the books if you want more than an aesthetic experience.

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