Friday, March 18, 2011

The Comic vs. The Movie

I seem to write about movies here much, much less frequently than I do books, and I'm not entirely sure why. Part of it might be a lack of confidence; while I'm definitely not a literary expert, I'm far, far less well-versed in film, both modern and historic, and I usually don't feel like I have a whole lot interesting to say. Another part might be simply time investment. If I've already spent, say, five hours reading a book, or twenty hours watching a TV series, then another thirty minutes to write up a quickie post doesn't seem like too much; but the same amount of effort after watching a two-hour movie might seem like overkill.

In this case, though, since I already gave my reactions to the Scott Pilgrim comics, it seems fitting to address the movie, at least in passing. As usual, this is way too late to actually do anyone any good.


On the whole, I was extremely impressed with the movie; I was pretty astonished at how much content from the book they were able to retain on the screen. The books are pretty big: sure, they're comics, but you've got six volumes, seven evil exes, a large cast of characters, and several requisite plot points. They could easily have split the movie into multiple parts and it wouldn't have felt padded at all. Instead, they turned out what I think might be the most aggressively edited movie I've ever seen. Virtually every second of what's on-screen is crucial; there's virtually no wasted time at all. If two characters need to have a conversation, and they need to establish several scenes, then they'll split a ten-second conversation across three different scenes. The cutting is fast but never jarring, because the narrative is never, ever interrupted.

Again, I was impressed at how much they retained. Virtually every character from the comics remained; the only one I can think of off-hand who didn't make it was Jacob; Scott's family also didn't appear, but that's more for a related reason that I'll get into below. The movie did retain even extremely minor characters like Comeau who could easily have been removed or folded into other characters. Some were extremely scaled back, such as The Clash at Demonhead's drummer, but remained recognizable enough to still count. The overall arc remains virtually intact as well, aside from some minor fiddling. Even the jokes and the stupid stuff, which were my favorite parts, weren't sacrificed at the altar of narrative necessity.

In some cases, the movie ADDED more. The biggest thing I noticed were the video game references. Now, these were definitely an important part of the comics, but there they were a kind of accent note, brought in from time to time but not really dominant. Scott Pilgrim the comic was about a bunch of folks and sometimes referenced video games. Scott Pilgrim is a video game movie: the references there are constant, and the whole movie is informed by a video game structure. In the comic, only some of the bad guys drop coins; here, they all do. I don't think one approach is better than the other, but it is interesting.

The casting for the movie felt spot-on. Most of the actors totally nail their characters, even though they have much less space in which to fill them out. For example, the movie totally gets rid of the flashbacks, which make up a good chunk of the comic pages; that means we don't get to see Scott's family, nor his college years with Envy, nor his high school years with Kim. Ah, Kim... she may have been my favorite character in the comic, and she's great in the movie. She only gets a few scenes, but the actress has her down perfectly: her wry sarcasm, her total familiarity with Scott's precious little life, the kernel of tenderness that she keeps incredibly well-hidden.

Scott himself probably changes the most. I do really enjoy Michael Cera and the character he's created, but personality-wise they're rather different. I think I can best sum it up by saying that Cera's Scott is less dumb and less confident than the comic's Scott. The comic-book Scott is just hilariously stupid; he doesn't seem to get ANYTHING, is constantly surprised at what occurs, and forgets stuff that just happened. The movie gets rid of most of that, with a few much-loved exceptions (including one of my favorites: "Bread makes you fat?!?"). The movie's Scott is much more self-aware, which means in part that he recognizes when situations are crazy, recognizes when he's being a jerk, recognizes when he's being lame. Once again: I'm not saying that one approach is better or worse than the other, just that they're different.

What else... stuff is way more compressed in the movie. Even though they hit all major interactions, the nature of those interactions frequently changes and simplifies. The episode where I felt this the most was the fight against Todd. In the books, this stretches out way more, across a week or so, with multiple confrontations, flashbacks, discoveries, and so on. In the movie it's mostly all in one contiguous segment, from The Clash at Demonhead's live show through the meeting backstage through a two-part fight with Todd. That means that we lost a lot of awesome stuff, like that amazing trial through the shopping mall and, more importantly, the REAL split between Todd and Envy, which I thought provided way more catharsis in the book. I was happy to see that the movie retained the Vegan Police, which is probably the single best part of the Todd episode, even if they have to simplify down the reason why Todd loses his powers.

I don't think they had a lot of choice, though. There was just no way that they could have fully plumbed out the Todd and Envy episode without making the movie unbearably long. Again, I'm amazed that they fit as much stuff as they did in under two hours.

Sex Bob-omb was a bit different. I think that in the comics they were a little more supportive of Scott; particularly in his first fight against Matthew, Sex Bob-omb did a lot to help him win that battle. In the movie, they provide great personality but are pretty useless otherwise. And, to be fair, that's the role that they play for much of the books - I love it when they cut out at a fight and say, "We'll meet you at the pizza place later."


From looking at the copyright books on my comics, I think that the movie came out after the sixth and final book, but it must have started shooting well before it. Therefore, I'm giving the movie a total pass for anything it does in the final quarter.

For the most part, the stuff they change works. Some of it is just re-arranging, most notably Nega-Scott. (Nega-Scott is a perfect example of something that they could have completely cut from the movie without any narrative impact, and yet they somehow managed to keep in there and make people happy.) I was going to be supremely disappointed that they cut the Ramova/Knives fight from the movie, then was delighted when they weaved it into the climax. That was one of my favorite scenes from the book, and it elevated the ending.

Gideon seemed like the biggest change with the ending; he was just kind of a jerk in the movie, and seemed way more sinister in the books.

I'd be very interested to hear how people who haven't read the comics react to the movie, especially that last fight. In particular, I wonder if it makes any sense at all if you haven't read the comics. The movie very briefly alludes to subspace, but does virtually nothing with it - I think it sets up the meeting with Ramona, ends their first date, and provides the sledgehammer during a battle (although you won't know that's subspace unless you've read the book), and.... is that it? Since they don't do much with subspace, even less about the Ramona/Gideon link makes sense. They do show the chip and say "Gideon has a way of getting inside my head," which, if you've read Book Six, explains everything, but I just don't think there are enough hooks within the movie itself to understand what the heck is going on.

And, on a related note, I was SLIGHTLY disappointed that they gave Scott the extra life for defeating the twins; I think that in the book it's from, um, either Todd or the girl. It's way less surprising for Scott to use it here, since he just got it a few minutes earlier.

And, incidentally, I thought the way they used the extra life was interesting. In the book, it's a Contra-style extra life: when Scott dies, he picks up from where he left off. In the movie, it's a Mario-style extra life: when he dies, he has to re-start the level. And I love the way they run with that in the movie: as with any video game, after you've played through a level once, it's way faster and easier the second time around.


On the whole, I was quite happy with the adaptation. Of course they made changes, of course they cut things, but I think they kept the core of what made Scott Pilgrim such an awesome comic, and they also retained a shockingly large amount of the various random dumb things that made it so goofy and fun. I think they managed to pull this off largely because the Scott Pilgrim style and subject matter lends itself so well to kinetic cutting, which the filmmakers took full advantage of. The movie and comics are two different beasts, but they bear a striking similarity, and I love them all the more for it.

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