The film adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series, entitled Scott Pilgrim vs. the World1 seems destined for cult status, one of those cool little movies that fares far better in the home market that it in the theatres. The original series also took some time to gain respect, but this Canadian indie offering, at turns insightful and silly, garnered O'Malley a sizable audience. O’Malley took six manga-sized volumes to tell Scott’s pilgrimage from slacker to hero. This review handles the first three:
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life (2004)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2005)
Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness (2006)
Scott, age 23, plays in a mediocre band, mooches off his room-mate, lacks clear direction in life, and has been dating a 17-year-old schoolgirl. His life changes for the stranger when he meets Ramona Flowers, an American-born courier with a mysterious past. We all carry the baggage of past relationships. Scott's exes don't ever quite leave his life; Ramona's have banded together to kill Scott.2
I really enjoyed Precious Little Life, and understand why it led to a successful series. Some may find its key shift in tone off-putting, however. The initial events have a comparatively realistic quality, as though we might be reading a slice-of-life, filtered through the conventions of comics, but also of the media that have saturated the lives of O'Malley's characters. Most notably, we're seeing the world in terms of videogames. Humorous labels with names, status lines, and fun facts appear beside characters. Scott's younger sister gets rated "T for Teen." This referencing of the world through game and media clichés is real life. At a high school football game awhile ago, I overheard a teenage girl suggest at halftime that she and her friend go to the food stand "while the game’s on pause." More recently, an acquaintance in the military had a younger person refer to his possible promotion as "leveling up." Only in the final portion of the first book do we really understand that we’re in some bizarre world where videogame conventions and actions intrude into real life. Comics are the perfect medium for O’Malley‘s approach; we’re used to the graphic world blending everyday concerns with fantastic heroics. And while I found the results entertaining, I cannot shake the feeling that O'Malley initially had conceived a very different story.
So perfectly does Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life tell its tale that the first act of the film adapts it almost panel for panel, line for line, changing mainly the overall tone. The film deviates further from subsequent volumes.
The second two volumes focus on Scott's second and third fights with Ramona's "evil exes" while developing the histories of the established characters. Most of these personal excursions work well. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World features a very amusing look at the teenage Scott and Kim (Scott's high school girlfriend, and the current drummer of his band), with the videogame insanity breaking into their high school lives. Scott confronts a student from a rival school (who have kidnapped Kim) by announcing that he's "defeated" all the school's "evil bosses" in battle. A chained Kim whines, "Scott! This sucks!" as though this sort of minor annoyance is par for the course with inter-school rivalries. We also, increasingly, see points, Mad Fighting Skillz, and magic videogame items as the story progresses.
In addition, the second and third volumes grow increasingly metafictional and self-referential. At one point, Scott suggests to Ramona something will be cleared up in a future volume.
O'Malley excels in realistically witty slacker dialogue. He captures the essence of the aimless young adult/arrested youth, and weds it to a gaming-influenced comic-book world. Scott, for example, yells a series of increasingly less impressive insults (beginning with "You suck! Surprising no one!" and so the bar hasn't been set high) at his roommate as the bus he is on pulls away. Scenes like this work far better than one might expect.
The manga-inspired drawing works, but the characters have not been physically differentiated to the degree that they should, and at times I had to stop and think about who anyone was. Scott and Ramona resemble each other uncannily and, even if this is purposeful, it's confusing. The minor characters often lack the clear distinguishing characteristics typical of comic-book characters. This can be a particular problem given the sheer number of people who populate the story.
As I've already noted, the second and third volumes flash around in time and space in order to flesh out the characters' personal histories. The individual backstories and events hold up, but O'Malley's art here lacks the power of, say, Terry Moore to handle the multiple timelines and locales. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World manages, but he overreaches himself in Infinite Sadness, and some readers will find themselves needlessly confused.
This is not to say that his art holds no power. Indeed, many individual panels capture beautifully and affectively the feelings of the characters, most notably the heartbroken Knives Chau, a far more developed and realized character in the novels than in the film.
O'Malley also sets Scott in an accurately-rendered Toronto, and those familiar with the city will appreciate the numerous real-life locations. The characters visit the Metro Toronto Reference Library— but also the regular library's Wychwood Branch. They read NOW and play Lee's Palace; they stumble through familiar streets and parks and into the Dufferin Mall. A film shoot takes place at Casa Loma. Those who don't know the city can still appreciate the weight of the setting, the fact of a developed world.
O'Malley's influences are many, but Scott Pilgrim still seems fresh, and I recommend it to those who want an accessible, but clearly Canadian, twenty-first century-twentysomething blend of the everyday mundane and the media-bred bizarre.
Three volumes remain. Scott Pilgrim's challenges have just begun.
Scott Pilgrim, Volumes 4-6
1. The film's title comes from the second volume, but it loosely adapts the entire series. It deviates most from the final issue, which had not been completed when the film hit theatres.
2. FUN FACT: Only with the third novel do Ramona and the series' own promotional material (the cover blurbs, for example) stop referring to her "seven evil ex-boyfriends" and shift to "seven evil exes." It seems possible one forthcoming plot twist had not been imagined yet.