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Monday, January 31, 2011
Scott Pilgrim meets his strongest foe: Scott Pilgrim
By John Pannozzi
In the past few decades, many live-action films based off animated cartoons, comic books and video games have been released, and despite the occasional knock-out like "The Dark Knight," many of these adaptations have received dismal responses from both critics and the box-office, with the likes of "Howard the Duck" and "Double Dragon" often considered to be some of the biggest failures in Hollywood history. This past summer saw the release of cult favorite director Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," based on the increasingly popular six-volume series of independent graphic novels from Canadian-born cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley. Though the film's box-office returns proved rather mediocre, it received mostly glowing reviews from critics and those who did see it mostly adored it regardless of whether or not they were familiar with the source material.
It's something of a rarity that such a wonderfully idiosyncratic and genre-defying comic book creation would receive a big-budget Hollywood film adaptation that not only preserves the delightfully weird tone of its source material, but also stands on its own as a wildly hilarious and a visually spectacular treat. Although there have been a good handful of well-received independent comic book-based films, including "Fritz the Cat", "Heavy Metal", the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie "The Crow," "Ghost World" and the "HellBoy" series. Scott Pilgrim's ambitious tone and fairly large budget more immediately calls to mind "Tank Girl", the cult-favorite underground British comic strip turned multimillion dollar box-office and critical dud. But history has shown that director Wright's works (which includes such fan favorites as "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" as well as the short-lived but well-loved TV series "Spaced"), have a special quality about them that may not result in immediate financial success, but often gain a dedicated and loyal fan base over time, as DVD sales have proven. While the visual spectacle and rapid-fire comic timing earn the Scott Pilgrim film an important place in film history, when seen as an adaptation of O'Malley's work, the film in some ways comes off as rather lackluster. This article will serve as an examination of some the ways in which the film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim diverges significantly from the graphic novels.
It is worth noting that the screenplay to the Scott Pilgrim film was developed during the same time as the later volumes in the graphic novels. Indeed, watching the finished film, it‘s hard to shake the fact that the last two-thirds or so are largely based on rough outlines and concepts O'Malley had in mind for the last few books. O'Malley has said that he created outlines primarily to aid the filmmakers in conceiving a conclusion for the film well before he finalized his plans for the finale of the books. One wonders then if the differences between the film's last act and the last three volumes of the book series showcase how the ideas that O'Malley that initially conceived the end of the series were not good enough for his own work, but good enough for a Hollywood film.
In this reviewer's opinion, perhaps the most infuriating way in which the Scott Pilgrim film differs from its source material is that many of the secondary characters lack the depth and character development given over course of the six graphic novels. Kim Pine, the freckled and redheaded drummer of Sex Bob-omb and Scott's former high school fling is a wonderfully complex and thoroughly appealing character in books, but in the film she never receives any depth beyond a snarky and cynical comic relief role that almost seems like a parody of the way she was initially depicted in the earlier volumes. While in the movie, Scott apologizes to Kim for how he mistreated her in the past, we don't see exactly what happened between in the past (the promotional short "Scott Pilgrim vs. The Animation" shown on Adult Swim sheds some light on Scott and Kim's high school days, but the sixth and final book adds even more depth to their history that is not captured at all on screen), nor do we see Kim gradually show a sweeter side as we do in the later books in the series, particularly volumes four through six.
The lead characters, Scott Pilgrim and his rather literal "dream girl" Ramona Flowers, also suffer from a lack of development. In the books, Scott eventually has to move out of his roommate Wallace's apartment and get a job, which results in him gaining the adult responsibility he sorely lacked at the start of the series, and thus "levels up" in a big way. Also, the fight scenes with the seven evil exes eventually overwhelm the film, while in the comics Scott only fights one ex per book (with the exception of volume five, in which he takes on both of the Katayanagi twins). As a result, we are given much less breathing room and less time for the characters and their relationships to develop, including Scott and Ramona's rocky romance.
In the movie, Ramona leaves Scott because she goes back to Gideon (the last and most insidious of the Seven Evil Exes), due to having a chip implanted in her head that makes her unable to resist Gideon. And when Scott faces off against Gideon in the film's final fight, Ramona does little more than sit by the sidelines, essentially played the damsel in distress role as seen in many older video games like Super Mario Bros. This ultimately makes Ramona seem like a much weaker and more submissive person than she is in the books. In volume five, she does leave Scott due to Gideon manipulating her feelings via "Emotional Warfare" (which is a bit too complicated to explain in full detail here). But in the sixth and final volume, it is revealed that she did not return to Gideon (resulting in a wonderful subversion of video game tropes when Scott and Gideon first face each other and are both shocked to find that Ramona isn't with either of them at the time), but rather left to do some soul-searching and eventually return to say goodbye to Scott and break up on more formal and amicable terms. Following this, Ramona does retreat into her deepest darkest corner of her own personal SubSpace, in which she is basically submissive to Gideon (which Gideon claims to be her innermost desire). But this only for a brief moment, as Scott quite literally head butts this so-called "all-powerful" version of Gideon, allowing Ramona the chance to officially drop Gideon like the bad habit he is. And in the end, Scott and Ramona simultaneously deal the final blow to Gideon, which shows that in quite a few ways, Scott's quest to defeat Ramona's Seven Evil Exes was as much Ramona's fight as it was his own.
Another thing from the last book that adds a very important dimension to Scott's struggle against Gideon but is missing from the film is the way in which the two are not so different. Scott and Gideon both have a tendency to block out memories of being inconsiderate towards past girlfriends, and as a result, overlook their own character flaws. Scott's past mistakes eventually manifest themselves in the form of the NegaScott (who appears in the film with almost no setup or context). Scott tries to defeat NegaScott, but Kim tells him that if he forgets his past sins, he will only make the same mistakes all over again in the future, and after she yells at him to just accept the past, he merges with NegaScott and regains all his memories. Gideon, by contrast, has seemingly repressed his past failings and as a result mistakenly believes himself to be perfect.
Gideon also shows a more hilariously pathetic side in the last book when it is revealed that he formed the League of Ramona's Evil Exes by posting a drunken rant on Facebook after being dumped by Ramona (who left Gideon because he showed no real interest in her whatsoever when they were dating). We also get a taste of the more cruel and twisted side of Gideon when he reveals that he has already cryogenically frozen six of his ex-girlfriends in order to later unfreeze them and date them at his own leisure, and he intends to make Ramona his Seventh Ex.
Finally, one other theme prevalent in the Scott Pilgrim books that I didn't feel was carried as strongly in the film is the idea of moving on from your past. In the books, we get the feeling that Scott is only dating Knives because he wants to make up for his unsatisfying relationships with Kim in high school and Natalie "Envy" Adams in college. He claims that dating a high school student like Knives is "simple", which shows how he tries to shield himself from the painful heartbreak caused by his decidedly less than simple previous attempts at romance. And when he tries to get back with Knives and later Kim in the final book, things don't work out. Scott and Knives are quickly grossed out after briefly attempting to make out with each other again. Kim meanwhile refuses to embrace Scott, as even though Scott notes that Kim has been the one constant in his life, Kim reminds him that her high school days were anything but the typical sappy Hollywood "romance" (this leads to Scott having to face the NegaScott, as described above). Scott ultimately realizes that he needs to move forward in life by being with Ramona, who is more his equal in terms of age, maturity and romantic history than someone like Knives is. Though Knives clearly cares about Scott (this is clear in her last scene in volume six), her attraction to Scott's band Sex Bob-omb turns out to be fleeting (again, reference the sixth book), and she ends being quite needy (as evidenced by how crazy with jealously she is when she believes Ramona stole Scott). The film, by contrast, seemed to be setting up Scott and Knives as a couple (especially when one considers that the original scripted and even filmed ending to the film had Scott choosing Knives instead of Ramona in the end), and as a result, the ending with Scott pursuing Ramona seems tacked on. In the last book, one gets the feeling that regardless of how successful Scott and Ramona's renewed relationship will be, it will prove that the time they spent together and will spend together in the future will shape them and allow them to grow and change for the better. In the movie, however, it's much vaguer as to where Scott and Ramona's path will lead. Whereas the Scott Pilgrim books tell a very satisfying and complete story of a young slacker "leveling up" to become a more mature individual, the movie by comparison, though fun and flashy, ultimately feels somewhat rushed and half-hearted when it comes to the themes and characterization that O'Malley handled so well, yet Wright could not give full justice to on the silver screen.