Volume 2: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
By Bryan Lee O’Malley
Did you know they made a film of Scott Pilgrim? So let’s talk about adaptations: is it cool to treat comics as storyboards? What would the ideal version of the Scott Pilgrim movie be? And is it true that things get better the less faithful you are? Plus: the wrongness of Michael Cera’s voice and the best description of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s artwork you’ve ever heard. Sweet!
Evil ex number 2 is Lucas Lee. So let’s go high concept and talk about The Scott Pilgrim movie. (I mean – we may as well get it out of the way…).
How easy is it to adapt comics? Too easy, in a way. Just look at your cinema listings for the next decade. The received wisdom is that adaptation back and forth across forms is at best fruitful and at worst inevitable. I think we need a bit more resistance to it.
I’m also going to focus on comic to film adaptations because that’s not only what I’m more familiar with but its the biggest route at the moment. And so we should differentiate between ‘comic book movies’ and adaptations of specific comics. For example, Superhero stories have been through so many iterations that it’s unfair or incorrect to even call them ‘comic book films’. An obvious point, but that’s because only those adaptations that are based vaguely on a comic book property, rather than a direct adaptation of a classic comic book, have much hope of being any good. Which they’re still not.
Why? Let me put it like this: All screenwriters and directors should have a slogan pinned on their wall saying ‘Comics are not storyboards.’
Because I can think of almost no reason for adaptation other than money. No artistic reason anyway. If you read a great comic and your main thought is ‘this would make an amazing film’ then chances are you’ve not read a great comic. Even when the filmmakers in question have all the goodwill, talent and artistic vision, say Edgar Wright with Scott Pilgrim: they fail: because the best form of Scott Pilgrim was a comic. Not a Michael Cera movie.
Again if you read a comic and think this would make a good film, what does that mean other than you believe, subconsciously at least, that this isn’t yet the best medium for this story? That the original creator would have done better to make it as a film, had they had the opportunity, so let’s just hope the film industry affords them one.
The better method of adaptation is where a filmmaker sees the original text as just a source, something that can be strip-mined – or as just an inspiration for their own vision. Hence there’s those films where you wouldn’t have guessed that they were adapted because they feel like films in their own right: say, Naussica, Valley of the Wind. History of Violence
But that still leaves us with problem where half the comics industry is now in symbiotic service to the film-industry. Ironically, the dilemma is that either we want serviceable comics which are nonetheless substandard enough as comics that they could easily and efficiently get adapted into good films – and there’s plenty good results of such a process that we wouldn’t want to lose.
Or we want a culture where all good comics and all good films are good as comics and as films, and you would never even think there’d be any point in adapting one into the other.
So what will we choose?
Think of Jaws, a great film adapted from a decidedly ok book. (Though arguably, with books having a more distant relation to films than comics, the adaptation process with them is, counterintuitively, less complicated).
And what do we have? A world of condensed Usagi Yojimbo plays for children, and the graphic-novelisations of blockbuster films based on 100 year old comic properties.
i’d like to read you a depressing poem; it’s called Your Boring Ass Future
Your Boring Ass Future
By Mazin Saleem
The Peanuts Movie
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Captain America: Civil War
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The Fantastic Four 2
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
The Justice League Part One
Avengers: Infinity War Part I
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Avengers: Infinity War Part II
Justice League Part Two
Untitled Marvel Movie (May 2020)
Green Lantern Corps
Untitled Marvel Movie (July 2020)
Untitled Marvel Movie (November 2020)
So. The relevant line there is “because the best form of Scott Pilgrim was a comic. Not a Michael Cera movie.” And oh man I’m not going to get started yet on how badly Michael Cera was miscast but maybe we’ll get to it in a bit. But yeah actually on the day thanks to a comment from Mike Medaglia we all kinda got stuck into the idea about whether a piece of art of whatever has an “essence” and whether adaptation was about transferring that essence between forms (so that The Hobbit film has the same essence as the Hobbit book which should have the same essence as the Hobbit theme park ride which should have the same essence as the Hobbit computer game which should have the essence as the Hobbit Lego Movie etc and etc) and yeah – I mean – it’s interesting because (for me at least) I think it all rests upon a basic misunderstanding of how things work. Namely – the essence of something doesn’t really exist. I think it was Ben Aaronovitch who was the one who said that all Doctor Who has the essence of Doctor Who in it. But then well – the essence of Doctor Who is found in all the Doctor Who things: the theme song, the TARDIS, the companion, the sonic screwdriver, the adventures in Time and Space and if you take those things away then – well – it’s not really Doctor Who anymore is it? But then – it’s quite depressing to be like: oh yeah well the essence of the stuff you love is actually reducible to things you know?
Sorry for my source material ignorance. I will endeavour to catch up in this lifetime and then live in despair of the majority of Hollywood film output for the next 20 years or so until they’ve moved onto a new rich and bloody vein.
With the exception of the odd best seller like Gone Girl or Harry Potter, film adaptations are generally aimed at a far wider audience than the people familiar with the original source material. I reckon an artistically successful adaptation is one that makes people with the source material want to check it out whilst omitting enough interesting stuff to reward the potential reader if they try to check out the original material.
So my favourite adaptations ever are probably Contact and LA Confidential which are both interesting films that omit some of the most interesting aspects of the even better books they’re based on. For the same reason, controversially, I think Watchmen and V for Vendetta are both pretty good adaptations and Sin City is arguably the worst adaptation ever, for making the comics completely redundant (though it does admittedly look amazing)
As for Scott Pilgrim, I watched half the film, realised it was very good but not aimed at me at all and it’s completely killed any desire to read the books at all. Sorry Joel!
I think I come from the opposite direction (but maybe end up in the same spot?).
Basically my theory of what makes a good film adaptation (or an adaptation of anything really) is: just say balls to faithfulness. Like – Loz I think I get what you mean by your talk of an older ur-LotR but man: my approach is just – look at the thing x in front of me and then go “is this a good thing x”? Like: I never read LotR (yeah yeah I know bad me): so it of course made it way easier for me to watch the LotR films and just go “well hey – are these good films?” (answer = well no – not really: but that’s an conversation for another day…). But yeah – I think I can make it make more sense with Scott Pilgrim.
Now Scott Pilgrim: The Movie is only like – what? – 113 minutes? (Yeah I googled it). Divided by seven that’s like 16 minutes each for each ex (or ok – divided by six – it’s like 19 minutes). But yeah whatever whatever. I mean: the thing I kinda wished they had done (Edgar you listening?) would be just to drop an ex or two (or three). You know? That way you could have done a little bit more scene-setting and breath taking and whatever. You know: and slowly made it’s way to the good parts (I mean: my ideal Scott Pilgrim: The Movie would be like 30 minutes of normalcy and then – BAM! – Matthew Patel crashing through the ceiling: but then – maybe that’s just another thing about how it would have been better as a TV show?).
For me, the problem I have with the comics is with the motion, more so in the first couple of books with ropey art. But I think the difference between O’Malley and Wright is that when O’Malley has ‘Sex Bob-omb’ or ‘The Clash at Demonhead’ it’s a reference, when Wright does it, it’s a quote. And the reason they have everything in one film is obvious, they didn’t think they’d get a sequel. Even Wingnut originally thought they were being over ambitious trying to pitch a two film version of Lord of the Rings and were amazed when New Line said ‘It’ll have to be three’. Which is more or less what happened with The Hobbit, but anyway…
Barbican Comic Forum
As an adaptation, Scott Pilgrim is in a pretty interesting spot. Adaptations tend to be successive/derivative works, often received entirely in terms of “faithfulness”, be that the spirit of the original or just a fetish for exacting colour palletes.
Here though, both film and book, were finished quite close to each other (and released within weeks of each other) – to the point that the movie had to build an ending before O Malley had completely settled on one for the books. So while the likes of Watchmen and Lord of The Rings had iron clad, finished works (to say nothing of the associated fan cabals), SP didn’t have a wholly finished authors word to adapt from. It’s pretty noticeable how note exact the film duplicates the 1st book but riffs out an entirely new third act (though tonally, they’re on the same chapter, if not page). The author may be dead here, but that’s kiiiinda because the author was never really alive in the first place.
Basically, I’m inviting myself to Bryan Lee O Malleys funeral. It won’t be awkward, not if i’m drunk.
In terms of motion, Malley gets a lot better as time goes on. Not only is the art less “ropey” (to borrow a somewhat appropriate term), but Malley is way less dependant on selling motion and speed through the intensity of his lines. The skate yo’self to death sequence is good in relation to the rest of the story but out on its own, kinda made it wither for me. Later on I find he’s much better at using lines, spatial relationships and not having to sell me motion through literal exposition (though he does compensate by being stupidly funny).
As to the actual book? Still kicks 12 kinds of ass. When you centre around a hero that is a twat, it’s essential that you do it with someone who can nail comic book funny like Malley. They say comedy is timing and Malley has a supreme sense of it, those silent panels between a punchline are perfect, it’s the main reason you can invest in the quest of someone like this. He’s an idiot but the book knows it, so the funny (Stephen Stills is possibly the greatest character ever) makes you like him enough to hope he gets himelf together. The art is good, but does still feel like anime maths jotter doodling to some extent, especially when you weigh it against how his work evolves (book 3 I think is the dividing line for this).
Also on the superhero cinema glut, I love it. 6 – 8 movies a year full of soaring music, cool visuals, beloved characters and opera battles. Great fun and it doesn’t mean I can’t catch oddities at the Curzon.
Coupla quick observations –
- The flashbacks are waaaay more interesting on revisits.
- The Envy build up is superb.
- SP 2 does feel like an authors identity in motion, which is one of the fun things about the series, SP6 and SP1 feel like they were written by two faiirly distinct people, which leans in well with the whole “belated coming of age” core of the series.
I read Vol 2 earlier this week in the hope that there could be some things that I could write on this but instead I just like whoa wow this is fucking amazing. I mean – there’s been this whole reoccuring thing at the Barbican Comic Forum when Scott Pilgrim gets mentioned (who is it that keeps bringing it up?? *looks around at everyone that’s not me*) about how yeah Scott Pilgrim (the character) is a bit of a jerk and it’s not until – erm – Book 4 (?) (I think that’s Ilia’s take) that Scott Pilgrim (the book) starts to distance itself from Scott Pilgrim (the character) but yeah man – I mean: it’s already doing that stuff in Book 2: like he’s pretty clear that Scott is an idiot and that you’re supposed to be laughing at him (in fact – I mean it’s there in Book 1: that whole Trainspotting bit isn’t exactly crowning him in glory you know? In fact – damn: even the very first line of the whole thing “Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!” – I mean: unless you’ve very messed up – that is not a cool thing for a 23 year old to be doing you know?)
In the spirit of my man Dan’s (excellent) contribution to that S.M.A.S.H. event, here are nine statements on movie adaptations:
1. The only good adaptations are the ones that take maximum liberty with the details of their source material. Think of the way Blade Runner strips Philip K. Dick’s novel down to its bare bones then builds a damp, wheezing engine on top.2. Adaptations that are painstakingly faithful to the surface details of their sources provide a unique opportunity to see the original clearly. Dave Gibbons’ contributions to Watchmen have never been more obvious than they were in the light of that movie, which mimicked the composition of so many of his panels while conveying the weight of none of them.3. The only good adaptations are the ones that overlap with their source text in a way that creates a separate, overlapping narrative – see, for example, the mix of hyper-fidelity and brutal compression inScott Pilgrim vs. the World.4. Different mediums have different strengths and affordances so it makes sense to identify the things that, say, a book does that a movie can’t before trying to turn one into the other. The delicate waltz between Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean in Adaptation is proof that this approach can pay off.5. Becoming overly fixated on the process of adaptation can easily become an excuse not to solve the underlying problems, hence why the “delicate waltz” of Adaptation ends with one dance partner farting a hole clean through his trousers.6. A memorable performance in an adaptation of a favorite work is a gift to the source material. The wobbly PG camera work might neuter The Hunger Games movies as movies, but Jennifer Lawrence’s performance brings something extra to the Katniss of the books.7. A memorable performance in an adaptation of a favourite work is a curse to the source material. There are lines in the Scott Pilgrim comics that I cannot read without hearing Michael Cera’s voice now, and this is not always appropriate for the rhythms of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work.8. The best thing an adaptation can do is to provide financial security to a working artist. Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore both live in the house that Jack built now, and this alone is enough to justify the Hughes brothers version of From Hell.9. All adaptations are equally useless.