Just before I went to see this film, my editor (who had already seen it) remarked that he was somewhat surprised that anyone who hasn't read the comics has made any sense of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. For the first fifteen minutes I couldn't see how someone who had read the comics could enjoy the film. After that I found myself smiling and then laughing and enjoying the film on its own terms. But then, for the final fifteen minutes, I once again found the schism between the film and the comics too hard to overcome.
Scott Pilgrim, the eponymous hero of Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-book comic series (2004—10), is initially a hard character to love. In fact, he is a bit of a dick. A twenty-three-year-old Toronto slacker, he is immature, unaware, insensitive, and selfish. The very first words of dialogue are "Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler" and he is—using a seventeen-year-old to recover from a failed relationship with no concern for her own emotional needs. However, despite all these less than admirable character traits, he is also charming and charismatic, he has a circle of friends who will call him on his shit and, slowly, over the course of the next five books, he learns to grow up.
Edgar Wright's film adaptation (which he co-wrote with Michael Bacall) doesn't have the same luxury of time and space. The result is that to begin with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World seems incredibly crass in comparison. Despite starting off as pretty much a frame-for-frame, word-for-word re-creation of the comic, the pace and tone of the film are so abrupt that it is like watching another story entirely. It is much more like a sitcom (something the film acknowledges later on with a horrible riff on Seinfeld). As a reader of the comics this left me disorientated, and it was a while before I realised Wright had made the correct decision. For example, it is notable that it is not until the end of the first volume, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, that Lee O'Malley inserts any allusions to what is one of the central aspects of his story: it is real life imagined as if it was a computer game. Wright, on the other hand, makes this the defining visual identity of his film, even giving the Universal logo and jingle a 16-bit overhaul. He has corralled a rather rambling story into a more streamlined shape and he's done so with a sympathetic eye for the source material (although it fails him at crucial moments).
So, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) has a dream in which sees a mysterious skating woman. One day he is out with his high school girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), when he sees her for real. He becomes obsessed, discovers her name is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), tracks her down and asks her out. (See, I told you he was kind of a dick.) They start to date but Scott soon finds himself (literally) under attack from one of her ex-boyfriends. Scott defeats him in battle only to discover he must vanquish Ramona's other six evil exes in order to win the right to date her.
There are a couple of problems here. The first is the total lack of chemistry between Cera and Winstead. This void is particularly important given the way they meet: Scott stalks her (both film and comic use that word) and demands that she goes out with him. On the page, this is just about plausible because Scott is a cute ditz ("I like you because you are pleasant and simple-minded", Ramona tells him). Personified by Cera, he is just a dim bulb (and a slightly creepy one at that). A lot rests on Cera's shoulders but most of the time he is just playing the same gormless character he always plays. Without any spark between the two actors it is hard not to think that Ramona would have just told him to fuck off.
More fundamentally, seven set piece battles is far too many for a film. Spread out over six books it is fine but, compressed into a single film, they are repetitive, slightly tedious and crowd out everything else. This is particularly unfortunate given that the battles are the least interesting part of the comics; they may provide the structure but you read Scott Pilgrim for the more low key interactions between Scott's circle of friends, not the pyrotechnics. Wright has prioritised the action-comedy elements (as in his own Hot Fuzz ) but Scott Pilgrim functions best as a soap opera.
It is impossible to avoid the fact that what is most crowded out of Scott Pilgrim vs The World is the women. Scott plays bass (obviously) in a rubbish garage band called Sex Bob-Omb with Stephen (Mark Webber) and Kim (Alison Pill). Stephen's role is maximised and Kim's is minimised. Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), a very minor character in the books, is elevated to de facto fourth member of the group, further shifting the balance. A similar assertion of masculine primacy affects The Clash At The Demonhead, another band. In the books, Todd (Brandon Routh) is comic relief cannon fodder as one of Ramona's exes (he also plays bass, obviously). It is Envy (Brie Larson), the lead singer, who is the main character. Again, the film prioritises the male band member at the expense of the female member (a third, female member is excised almost entirely). This is depressingly familiar but what makes it stranger is that both Kim and Envy are Scott's exes and lot of what didn't make it is the material that makes us engage with Scott as a sympathetic human being, including the heartbreaking flashbacks to their past relationships which are some of Lee O'Malley's best work.
Obviously, this is an adaptation and an adaptation can never be a transliteration. It is uncomfortably clear, however, that the traffic is all in one direction. To take another example, Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), the second ex, has his part expanded while Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), the only female ex, has her part shrunk. Most troubling of all is the sublimation of Ramona herself. That the actors themselves are unable to breathe any life into either the characters or the relationship doesn't help but how to explain the fact Ramona's role is so under-written? What is her motivation? She is reduced from partner to object of desire. As the poster condenses the plot: "Get the hot girl."
Watching the film without any background context you might well take this as par for the course. It is, after all, an issue which goes much wider than just Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. We might, for example, speculate about what sort of paycheque Routh and Evans picked up compared to their female colleagues; the gender balance of the roles does reflects the power balance of the industry. We are conditioned to ignore this sort of thing and, if I'm honest, it didn't impede my viewing pleasure at the time because, for all its faults, the film is impressively slick and genuinely funny. Still, the problem is glaringly obvious with even the slightest reflection and is deeply disappointing given the fact that one of the things which makes Lee O'Malley's series so refreshing is the number and range of female characters and the depth with which they are portrayed.
A charitable fan of the comics could overlook these problems but some changes are simply impossible to swallow. The final volume of the comic, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, wasn't published until 20 July 2010, only barely preceding the film, which was released on 13 August. Although there was clearly a level of collaboration between Lee O'Malley and Wright, the result is two radically different conclusions to the story. In the film, Scott faces the seventh ex, dies, is re-born courtesy of a 1-Up picked up earlier, gains the Power of Self-Respect, defeats the big boss, and wins the game. The question is, why the hell does Scott Pilgrim need the Power of Self-Respect? He doesn't need (or deserve) self-respect but rather self-awareness; he needs to be hit in the head with a clue-stick or possibly even a clue-by-four. Which is pretty much what happens in the book.
In Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, before the showdown and under Kim's instructions, he first comes to terms with the Nega-Scott, the embodiment of all his mistakes. Usually Scott would just kick his ass but, as Kim says:
If you keep forgetting your mistakes you'll just keep making them again! Everything you've done wrong is just gonna keep following you around Scott.
This radically revises the text for the reader; Scott's forgetfulness, which had just seemed to be one of his loveably dopey character traits, is revealed to be something much more meaningful. It also leads to an epiphany in which he remembers everything he has suppressed. This is what prepares him for the fight, and in the final battle it is the Power of Understanding which he gains and which allows him and Ramona together to triumph. By contrast, in the film the Nega-Scott is a throwaway joke and Scott doesn't really learn anything. He starts the film a dick, ends the film a dick, and rides off into the sunset with the hot girl.
After so much criticism, it will perhaps sound patronising to say that Edgar Wright has probably made the best film he could. I don't mean to be, because he was faced with a hard, perhaps impossible, task. Bryan Lee O'Malley's series tells a long and complicated story with lots of characters and many digressions; in less skilled hands it could easily have been a godawful mess. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World might undermine the message of its source text but it does convert it into a pretty successful film. If you didn't know the comics, you would probably come out of the cinema having seen an excitingly original piece of film-making (although you might be a bit surprised Scott didn't end up with Knives at the end). Fundamental problems notwithstanding, Wright's compression is sensitive and canny and sometimes even improves on the original by imposing a bit more structure. For example, he creates from whole cloth an early scene in which Scott and Knives play a sort of beat ‘em up version of Dance Dance Revolution. It captures their characters and their relationship perfectly whilst at the same time foreshadowing the fights that are to follow.
The additional dialogue invented for Lucas Lee is also fun, and Evans clearly relishes it. Unfortunately Wright doesn't get much out of his other actors, the only exceptions being Wong and Kieran Calkin as Wallace, Scott's gay roommate. Even the usually reliable Jason Schwartzman is lukewarm as Gideon, the final ex. As I've said, Cera isn't much cop either but it doesn't usually matter because the material is so good. The real problem is that his character simply isn't Scott Pilgrim.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.
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