It had stunning reviews, gob-smacking word of mouth, an ad campaign that was arguably more expensive than the film. So why, then, did Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World open low and drop further in it’s first two weekends at the box-office? Why did I, a long-time fan, walk out at the end of it feeling a little hollow, a little underwhelmed?
The answer lies in my immediate first response after seeing the movie. I wanted to go home and read the books again. I wanted to remind myself of the things that the film had chopped out, or compressed, or glossed over. Once again, I realised, Hollywood had done what it always does to comics. The adaptation process had pulled the spine out of the story.
Scott Pilgrim is a six-book series that tells the story of the lovelorn hipster of the title, and his struggles to win the girl who has been skating through his dreams. It’s a wry, funny and frantic tale that sucks in video game, manga and anime references and squelches them together in a lo-fi zine-centric aesthetic. It’s cartoony, it’s typesetting is (perhaps deliberately) wonky, it’s all black and white. The fact that it’s packaged in the small-footprint form of most of the manga we see in this country only helps to strengthen these references.
It doesn’t rush things, either. The books are by their very nature episodic, as comics should be, and time passes in a natural, relaxed way. The group that Scott is a part of hang out, go to gigs and parties, and fumble their way through life. Everyone makes mistakes. They fall in and out of relationships. A major character comes out. We’re privy to six months in the life of Scott, Wallace, Steven, Kim, Young Neil, Stacy and Julie, and you end up involved in all their troubles and joys.
All of this subtlety is lost in the film. It becomes a one-note Battle-Of-The-Bands with added Streetfighter gloss. The sense that we’re seeing things through Scott’s eyes and that he’s not the most reliable narrator is wiped away in favour of a clean clear line of character progression. He often has to be reminded about how horrible he has been to the women in his life, or about how events simply didn’t pan out in the way he remembers them. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t learn and grow in the course of the story. But there’s more to it than grabbing a power-up and suddenly not just Getting A Life. He gets hurt and has to grow up.
Then there are the fights. They’re the engine of the tale. They keep things moving. But in the film, they become kind of the whole point, and they take up more and more of the running time. This is never the case in the books. The fights are a necessary part of the story, but they never overwhelm the comedy, pathos and drama that goes on around them. Unfortunately the film structures the whole film around the fights, to the detriment of a lot of really cool character-based humour.
A note on the characters. Over on MovieBrit, WDW has described the women in the film as “angels or stalkers”, which I think is a little unfair. It negates Stacey’s role as advisor, Kim Pine’s place as the coolest kid in the room AND lynchpin of Sex Bob-omb, and Envy and Roxy, equally wounded by our hero and heroine. Again, there’s lots more going on around Scott and his precious little life than we’ve been permitted to see in the film.
I think I knew going into the film how I would feel afterwards. It’s a fun movie, with a lot to recommend, and I’d hate to think that I’m talking you out of going to see the film, Readership. Because you should. It works in it’s own right, and some of the visual invention that Edgar Wright layers onto the screen works really well. I’d love to see more panel and subtitle commentary appearing in films.
But to my mind Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a Cliff Notes version of a much richer and more complex story, and I hope that it’ll encourage the curious to pick up the books. You owe it to yourselves to get the full story.