Book to Film: Scott PilgrimPosted: July 14, 2011
The film Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) takes its inspiration from a six-book graphic novel by Brian Lee O’Malley. It has the ingredients for a cult hit: a slacker hero, snappy one-liners and a chaotic plot incorporating rock music, video games and a few ninjas.
Edgar Wright does a stellar job of bringing all this to film, and remains surprisingly faithful to the plot considering that the novel hadn’t been completed by the time the film entered production. However, it’s interesting to note where the film differs from its source and analyse why this might be.
O’Malley’s story stretches over several seasons, with Scott and Ramona’s relationship developing with all the caution you’d expect from a commitment-phobe and a woman with seven evil exes. Even the lives of minor characters go on in the background – Stephen Stills’ announcement at the end of the series is a noteworthy example, while Envy Adams dates two of the evil exes over the course of the story and Kim must work through her issues over her relationship with Scott. More obviously, Scott’s life falls apart late in the story, and the slowing of the pace really evokes the feeling of aimless drifting.
Aimless drifting is not something the film can be accused of, or even stopping for a breath. The whole story rushes by in a kaleidoscopic whirl of special effects and expositionary dialogue, and it feels like everything has happened in less than a week. As far as pacing goes, this works very well on film: two hours does not afford you the luxury of an epic timescale, or much in the way of character development. Once the plot gets under way, most of the dialogue is specifically designed to move the plot on, or more specifically to lead into the next fight. If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t; it means that even the quiet parts are interesting and relevant. Trying to fit all the rest of the emotional bits in would have put the film in danger of becoming a feature-length Dawson’s Creek with kung fu.
However, this does mean the characterisation suffers, and one of the biggest disappointments is the lack of decent roles for the female characters. O’Malley has given almost everyone their own plot, but the film dispenses with most of these to focus on Scott’s boy-meets-girl storyline. This means that Kim becomes a one-dimensional conduit for biting one-liners, Knives remains a bunny-boiler ex almost to the end, and, criminally, Ramona’s own development is sidelined. Rather than showing her making bad choices and coming to terms with them, the cheap plot device of a mind-control gadget is deployed, meaning that Ramona becomes a generic damsel in distress, to be saved from the evil clutches of the all-powerful Gideon. She is much more interesting as a flawed antihero in her own right than as a mysterious object to be attained.
The film’s contentious alternative (actually the original) ending, where Scott realises his true love is Knives and not Ramona, raises some questions. (It was scripted before the series had finished, but was rejected because of poor reception in test screenings and because the final book came out with Scott and Ramona ending up together.) For a start, if Scott ends up with Knives, what the hell was the whole thing for? He hasn’t grown and changed – he’s reverted back to his manchild existence where arcade dance machines serve as a replacement for deep conversation. Knives seems perfectly happy with the fact that Scott risked his life six times for another woman, the other woman. Meanwhile, Ramona disappears into subspace, presumably having completed her role as a MacGuffin. The actual ending makes much more sense in the context of the rest of the film, and keeps to the original idea of Ramona and Scott making a great leap into the unknown beyond rather than tying up all the loose ends into a happy ending package.
The casting, for the most part, is inspired. Mary Elizabeth Winstead manages to bring out Ramona’s inner sadness without it overwhelming the character, and Ellen Wong’s Knives perfectly walks the line between chirpy and sickly sweet. Even the exes are brilliantly cast, from Chris Evans’ meatheaded Lucas Lee to Jason Schwartzman’s sneery turn as Gideon. It’s just a shame that Michael Cera is so badly cast as Scott. It must have looked good on paper – Cera plays awkward teens, Scott is a grown-up awkward teen, therefore box office gold. However, Cera fails to capture Scott’s stubborn determination and dim-witted charm, instead playing him as a wimpy, passive character who lets all the fights and relationships happen to him, offering no resistance except a hangdog expression and a quiet whine. It would have been good to see Cera attempting to break out of typecasting; perhaps when he’s older he’ll develop more as an actor.
It’s a fair comment to say that Scott Pilgrim vs the World is as good an adaptation of the source material as anyone could reasonably expect. It has the basic plot elements as well as the hipster references and unique character that gave the tale its charm in the first place, and somehow fits the cool bits into two hours. I have to wonder how it would have fared as a six-part television series.