Book Club / Motion through Literal Exposition

Scott Pilgrim
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…).

 I feel like me and Edgar Wright go way back. That at some point he must have bumped into me and stolen a piece of my mind: because mostly that’s pretty much the only way I can understand the way I feel when I see the stuff he makes. That – somehow – he has painted the screen with the inside of my brain. And (mostly) I just sit there – pointing straight ahead going “Yeah! That’s how it is man!”
 
Spaced. I like it. I think it’s good. 
 
Shaun of the Dead. Pretty much a perfect film. 
 
Hot Fuzz. I probably love even more than Shaun of the Dead. For my tastes at least: probably one of the best structured films I’ve ever seen… and something that gets nowhere near as much love as I think it should have (oh well – what the hell – I guess that leaves more of the movie for me…). 
 
The World’s End. Well – I’m kinda building up to knocking down Scott Pilgrim and the effect is lost a little if I take a few kicks at The World’s End beforehand so let’s just say that I kinda disagree with pretty much all the stuff that A D Jameson said (“The World’s End is a very different movie than Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead.” – well yeah: because Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are like really really good innit?). But maybe that’s something we should talk about another day: because yeah:
 
Because yeah then well: then there’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. 
 
 
Bear with me. We’re just going to go on a brief little tangent before we get there.  
 
So as I know has already been mentioned – there was this event we did in the Barbican Library last weekend called S.M.A.S.H. . Where yeah: we got a whole bunch of names in (Ben Aaronovitch, Steven Appleby, Gareth Brookes, Karrie Fransman, Paul Gravett, David Hine, Frazer Irving, Mike Medaglia, Fumio Obata, Andy Oliver, Mazin Saleem and Dan White) and got them to talk about comics in a kinda semi-Philosophical way or whatever (you know: the same way we do at the Barbican Comic Forum and on here: it’s basically my whole gimmick).
 
Before the event started I asked them to write a few notes on what they were going to say because you know – it hopefully means that stuff is kinda focused from the get-go and things start off on a cool foot which gives you lots of good things to build on and talk about. 
 
Dan (who spoke on the panel about Criticism) wrote this really cool 21 Statements on Comics Criticism thing that was so good that Broken Frontier nicked it and posted it up on their website
 
 
But – well yeah – seeing how S.M.A.S.H. is supposed to be the London Graphic Novel Network’s (and seeing how it ties in so nicely with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – which I swear is just a happy accident and not some kinda master grand plan on my part – I mean come on: I’m not Alan Moore). 
 
So yeah: this is Mazin’s opening remarks for the panel on Adaptation (most of which he didn’t get to say seeing how people only get two minutes to speak – erm maybe next time you should time yourself a little beforehand Mazin?) but yeah I think it’s kinda cool (and thanks to Mazin for letting me share it with you guys): 
 


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
Fox
11/6/15

Deadpool
Fox
2/12/16


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
WB
3/25/16


Captain America: Civil War
BV
5/6/16


X-Men: Apocalypse
Fox
5/27/16


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2
Par.
6/3/16


Suicide Squad
WB
8/5/16


Gambit
Fox
10/7/16


Doctor Strange
BV
11/4/16


Untitled Wolverine
Fox
3/3/17


Ghost in the Shell (2017)
BV
3/31/17


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
BV
5/5/17


The Fantastic Four 2
Fox
6/9/17


Wonder Woman
WB
6/23/17


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
EC
7/21/17


Untitled Spider-Man
Sony
7/28/17


Thor: Ragnarok
BV
11/3/17


The Justice League Part One
WB
11/17/17


Black Panther
BV
2/16/18


The Flash
WB
3/23/18


Avengers: Infinity War Part I
BV
5/4/18


Ant-Man and the Wasp
BV
7/6/18


Animated Spider-Man
Sony
7/20/18


Aquaman
WB
7/27/18


Captain Marvel
BV
3/8/19


Shazam!
WB
4/5/19


Avengers: Infinity War Part II
BV
5/3/19


Justice League Part Two
WB
6/14/19


Inhumans
BV
7/12/19


Untitled Marvel Movie (May 2020)
BV
5/1/20


Green Lantern Corps
WB
6/19/20


Untitled Marvel Movie (July 2020)
BV
7/10/20


Untitled Marvel Movie (November 2020)
BV
11/6/20

 
 
 
———————-
  
 

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? 

 
(And hmmm – actually thinking it over maybe it’s not quite right? Because maybe you could say that even without those things the essence of Doctor Who lies also in it’s sense of humour? And it’s sense of possibilities? And it’s liberal politics? And the sense of alchemy? And it’s open mindedness? And all the rest? I dunno). 
 
But yeah – with the Scott Pilgrim movie: I mean – I think the thing that went wrong is actually what Mazin said. That the best version of it is it’s comic form. An evil ex for pretty much every book. The chance to sprawl. The ability to take in the sights and getting to know the characters and having each of them crawl under your skin and into your heart. And well – a lot of that takes time. And films have an unfortunate need to always be getting to the point (although mostly that’s why I really love films). 
 
Still: I guess that’s the start of an attempt of an explanation as to why it feels like almost a Scott Pilgrim film was doomed even before it started. 
 
A TV show tho? Well yeah shit: that could have worked. 


 
 
LAURA
 
 
 
 
 
 Hi
 
Without any particular reference to Scott Pilgrim, the Movie Business will make a film from the ingredients on the side of a cereal box if they think there’s a built in audience to offset the millions they’re going to spend making the thing so suggesting they don’t make adaptations of comics is, I would respectfully say, just pissing in the wind.
Adaptations are only a problem if you happen to know the source material and prefer it. Making one film out of dense, sprawling, character driven epics always seems a bit crazy to me but that may be why they made 82 films out of the Tolkien books.

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!

 

 

 The ‘Loz Pycock Theory of What Makes Good Film Adaptation’ states that a good adaptation should be faithful to the source material, however, a really good adaptation should make it appear as though the source material is also a derivation from an older work.

 

I developed this idea while watching the first lot of ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. I would be annoyed watching the film in the cinema and seeing the changes made to the storyline for the purposes of DRAMA! However, when I watched it with the directors commentary (because I’m one of those kind of nerds) and they would present their arguments for why they changed I was always won over. So much so that now I like both them and the book equally, by considering them both adaptations of an older ur-LotR.
Which is the same reason I like the Scott Pilgrim  film, Michael Cera might not be the right actor to play the Scott Pilgrim of the comics, but he is perfectly decent to play *A* Scott Pilgrim. And now, this song is for the guy who keeps yelling from the balcony.

 

 

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. 

 
Like: I mean – yeah. Ok. Scott Pilgrim: the Comics are very cool. For lots of reasons (some of which I still don’t think we’ve got to): but one of the main ones is that (for this reader at least): they are very much comics. That is to say: a lot of the pleasures and the way that the information is dished out and presented is done so in such a way that makes the most of the language of comics. (erm Joel maybe an example would be helpful at this point?). 
 
Well ok – I haven’t actually got round to reading Vol 2 yet (the colour version is out on loan so am waiting for it to come back…). But if I do a google for “Scott Pilgrim” “Lucas Lee” then this is one of the first things that pops out: 

 

I mean: it’s not the greatest example: but it does kinda show what I’m trying to say. Namely: it’s showing movement and speed – but it’s doing so in a very interesting way: namely those little black boxes of speed “34 kph.” “41 kph” “56 kph”
 
Like this is cool for a few reasons. One – I don’t think this something that I’ve seen a comic do before. So you know: it’s cool and novel. Plus: it’s using the words and images to show that Lucas is getting faster the further he goes (the numbers are going up innit?). I mean: obviously you could do this in a film but the effect would be different because you’d already be able to get a sense of how fast he’s going by – well – just by seeing it (although it would be cool to have the speedometer on screen – erm: actually yeah wait – how did the Scott Pilgrim: The Movie do this bit? It’s been a while since I’ve seen it and I don’t wanna be saying stuff and then it turns out I’m an idiot afterwards LOL). 
 
And then it all builds up to: 

 

 
And the thing that’s cool about that is how the black boxes have slipped from the dry and formal “34 kph” to the much more cool sounding: “CUMULATIVE SPEED: TOO FAST TO LIVE” which I mean: yeah – is it’s own kind of coolness. Like if I robot suddenly gained consciousness and the first thing it said was “Awesome!”
 
But to go back to Scott Pilgrim: The Movie. I mean: if only Edgar had rung me up beforehand and spoken to me then I could have told him: like man – don’t worry so much about trying to make everything fit from the comic – namely (and I think this is the big part of why Scott Pilgrim: The Movie falls down (the other part being Michael Cera’s total miscastness) at least for me): why on earth did you fit all seven exs into the movie? 
 
Because yeah: I mean – think about it. With the books each ex (pretty much – twins etc) has their own book. Which means that everyone gets a lot of space to flesh themselves out and around that – the world gets a chance to breath. 
 

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…



 

Last minute rant? Ma time to shine.
 

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?)

Also: oh my god – the Envy phonecall. That is like very cool comics. Doing cool comic stuff (those evenly divided up panels all looking in different directions). 
 
Plus: yeah – my memory of Book 2 was that it was the same as Book 1 where it’s all build up to the big ex fight. But instead – it’s going off in all these different directions. That big flashback at the start. The Knives and Ramona stuff. The superb Envy build up. I mean – already in the book Scott and Lucas Lee are already treating the fight as an afterthought. Neither of them are really all that into it. It’s like the book is already bored of it’s conceit (fight the seven evil exs!) and it’s only on the second ex. And erm yeah – I mean: I just think that’s really kinda cool. There’s this big epic myth thing – but the people involved are more fixated on other stuff. It’s like seeing Zeus on the toilet. 

 

 

 

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.
 
***
I reread Scott Pilgrim in its entirety after failing to contribute to the LGNN discussion of Precious Little Life, and while my overall impression of the series was confirmed it was funny to realise that some of the details of my recollection were off.  The movie had subtly garbled my idea of who said what when, and like Joel, my impression was that it took longer for the book to break away from the rhythms set by the first volume.
This time round I was struck by how the book set up scenes that I associated more with the third and fourth volumes: the Envy Adams stuff everyone’s already talked about, but also the Lisa Miller plot that pays off inGets It Together.   
 
Vs. the World catches Bryan Lee O’Malley in a flush of excitement, so while it’s not like he doesn’t include plenty of criticism of his protagonist in the book – I find myself agreeing with Joel (urgh, again!) that it’s there from the first line – there’s a different energy at this stage of the book, a sense that the possibilities of the story outweigh the responsibilities, and that the author is buzzing on this. 
It’s strange, because while the later volumes are closer to my usual taste in their very deliberate interrogation of the mess O’Malley and his characters have made, and O’Malley’s sense of page/character design becomes bolder and more controlled throughout, nothing can quite touch the thrill of those first few episodes for me. 
 
What Amir quite accurately calls “anime maths jotter doodling” is a big part of the appeal, alongside the inevitable drift of my interests as a consumer (lol).  What O’Malley’s art here lacks in precision it makes up for in carefree energy, which… I’ve always liked Dennis Potter’s suggestion that we should look back at our past selves with “tender contempt”.  The Scott Pilgrim books provide a similarly balanced view of their protagonist, but I think that the earlier books feel more in tune with the oblivious enthusiasm of their subject, vs. the world.   
 
***
 
Anyway, my favourite sequence in this book is just a silly formal joke where Scott keeps on shouting at Wallace from the window of a bus and the panels shrink and shrink and shrink as he gets further away:
 
 
 
It’s a clever storytelling tick deployed in the service of a rambling “Yer maw” joke. Can’t help but feel that Scott Pilgrim himself would approve. 
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