19 August 2010

The Scott Pilgrim Movie Spoiled

The movie adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics novel offers a curious lesson. Some scenes are recreated almost exactly, particularly from the first four volumes. But toward the end the movie departs so much from the original that I found it undercut the very themes it was trying to get across. (And speaking of “the end,” be assured that this posting contains SPOILERS.)

Writer-director Edgar Wright made the movie even as O’Malley completed his graphic saga, and the plots diverge more and more as the stories unfold. It’s possible that the screenplay reflects what O’Malley was planning in the middle of his project. Or it might reflect the different sensibility of Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall. A big factor, I’m sure, were the requirements of movie storytelling.

The books take place over many months; the movie compresses the same core story into about a single week. We thus lose the cycle of seasons, the Canadian wilderness retreats, the band’s prolonged attempt to record an album. There’s too little time for Scott Pilgrim’s Big Steps—getting a job, moving into an apartment of his own (albeit paid for by his parents). While that compressed timeframe changes the tenor of the story, however, it doesn’t change its essence.

In one respect, I thought the movie made more of a narrative element than the books. The extra life Scott wins in volume 3 becomes not just a way to survive Gideon’s attack in volume 6, but also a chance for Scott to make things right to his friends, à la Groundhog Day. He gets to play level 7 all over again.

Other changes had diminishing returns. A lot of the secondary characters’ stories had to be sliced away. We don’t see, for example, Stephen Stills at work in the kitchen, recording with Joseph, breaking up with Julie, and so on. [Hey, I’m not spoiling everything.] Such compression is common in adapting novels for the big screen. Alas, the effect of this cutting means fewer reminders that a lot of life goes on around Scott while he doesn’t notice.

The screenplay’s second significant narrative change is to make Scott’s decisions more crucial to how scenes are resolved. In volume 3, Todd loses his vegan powers because he’s an arrogant rock star who never gave up gelato. It’s just a happy coincidence that the vegan police arrive when Todd’s about to finish Scott off. That may seem like a narrative defect, but Scott’s precious little life is founded on happy coincidences that he thinks he deserves.

In contrast, the movie Todd’s powers are taken away after the movie Scott tricks him into drinking coffee with half and half. The book Scott would need a lot longer than a week to come up with such a cunning plan, and would never be able to control his thoughts so effectively.

As another example, Young Neil’s big moment arrives not because Scott blithely drops the “Young” from his name, but because he takes over the bass guitar—he becomes a new Scott Pilgrim. Then Scott overtly declares that from now on the lad will be known as “Neil.”

Only in the movie does main villain Gideon offer the band Sex Bob-Omb a recording contract. That’s an obvious ploy to control them, and Scott alone refuses to sign. The other band members get shrunk into foils for the hero, whereas in the books they’re usually more grounded than he is.

The major characters who suffer most from the changes are Scott’s old girlfriends. Kim Pine loses her best moments in volumes 5 and 6. Knives Chau shows up to help Scott in his final fight (turning a couple’s moment into a threesome), and then dutifully sends him off after his new girlfriend. Envy Adams never makes her curtain call at the Chaos Theatre.

In other words, the movie has become All About Scott. Yet its stated theme, as in the books, is that Scott has to recognize that the world isn’t All About Scott. During the climactic fight in the volume 6, Scott gains the Power of Understanding. At the equivalent moment in the movie, he gains the Power of Self-Respect. But Scott Pilgrim already had more Self-Respect than he deserved.

Toward the end of both books and movie, Nega-Scott shows up—the embodiment of all the evil Scott has unthinkingly done. In the books, Scott must absorb Nega-Scott, accepting the reality of his past behavior. In the movie, Nega-Scott turns out to be “a nice guy.” That’s just wrong.

All told, the changes to Scott Pilgrim combine to produce a smaller, more focused story, appropriate to a two-hour commercial movie—yet a story that ends up working against itself.

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