Two Epics of Epic Epicness

From book to movie, one child of the ’80s reviews the Scott Pilgrim Gen-Y franchise

Scott Pilgrim is the quintessential indie slacker: occasionally employed, bumming off others, obsessed with video games and comics, but basically a good guy. He’s living with his friend, not doing much with his life, when he meets the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers. She’s got dyed hair, aviator goggles and the ability to travel the subspace highways through Scott’s brain. But if Scott wants to date her, he must first defeat her Seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends. This battle for true love is complicated by Scott’s own exes, ambitious bandmates and Knives Chau, Scott’s clingy high school sorta-girlfriend—but mostly by Scott himself.

The Book

It’s been six years since we first let Scott Pilgrim (Oni Press) into our hearts. Like Scott himself, the sixth and final installment of this graphic novel series is energetic and lovable.

Without the fight-to-the-death twist, the series would be a standard (albeit sharply written) romantic comedy, a story of nice young Canadians struggling toward identity through dating and playing in bands with each other. But the addition of the “video game fiction” elements gives cartoonist/writer Bryan Lee O’Malley extra allegorical power: The battles with the Exes are fantastical spectacles, and the protagonists’ psychological struggles take place in their actual headspaces. This supra-real video gaminess not only makes for a constant nostalgia-fest for anyone born between 1980 and 1985, it also intensifies the characters’ emotional tribulations. It’s one thing for two girls to argue over Scott, quite another for them to fight with giant magical hammers.

In the beginning of Volume 6, Ramona has vanished in a flash of her own guilt, all Scott’s friends hate him, and Gideon Graves, the enigmatic final Evil Ex, is asking Scott when it “would be convenient for him to die.” Scott must overcome his PSP-fueled daze, defeat Gideon and win back his true love.

Readers of the previous volumes know what to expect: pop-cultural references, rapid-fire jokes and O’Malley’s hyperkinetic Amerimanga art style. The pleasant surprise is how much O’Malley’s skills have improved over the course of the series. The execution of the book seems effortless. The final confrontation, which takes almost half of the 250-page book, is flawlessly written and backed up with some of O’Malley’s best art yet. Compare the final pages of this volume with the first and it’s remarkable how far O’Malley has come. Remarkable, too, is the quality of his dialogue. O’Malley’s ear for dialogue perfectly captures the rhythms and slang of Generation Y. If you’ve followed the books, this volume delivers payoff after payoff. If you haven’t, you should start with Volume 1.

The Movie

If you were raised by your Nintendo, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a nostalgic bacchanal; for anyone else, it’s a very good action-comedy with a decent romance at the center.

Scott and his peers interpret their private emotional struggles through the metaphors of video games, comic books and rock ’n’ roll. And because it’s a movie, these metaphors become real. When Scott fights Ramona’s Evil Exes, they rocket through the air like Mortal Kombat characters, delivering brutal combo attacks straight out of Street Fighter and Killer Instinct. When he defeats one, they burst into coins, à la Final Fantasy and any number of other games.

This style is a new kind of expressionism—the characters’ emotions physically distorting the world around them. The technique works because of Edgar Wright’s supremely assured direction. Anyone who’s seen Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz knows that he delivers on action as well as comedy, and Pilgrim is a sublime blend of the two.

Wright retains a lot of visual elements from the comics: Sound effects and subtitles fly across the screen, and comic panels sometimes break up the action. With the frenetic pacing and the wild but appropriate use of CGI, the experience is dizzying and delightful.

An excellent soundtrack rounds it out. Beck wrote many of the original songs, returning to the fuzzed-out garage rock of his early days. Francis Black and Broken Social Scene contribute tracks as well.

The cast is a treat, too. Say what you will about his extended cinematic adolescence, Michael Cera captures Scott’s oversized emotions. Newcomer Ellen Wong is a joy as Knives Chau, flipping from hyperkinetic to despondent and back again. Alison Pill is perfect as Kim Pine, a prickly ex-girlfriend and drummer for Scott’s band, Sex Bob-omb. And Kieran Culkin steals scenes as Scott’s roommate. The only flat note is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona, who errs on the side of deadpan.

Scott Pilgrim is destined to become a cult favorite. It pops with sharp jokes and spectacle, and is just intelligent enough to stay interesting through repeat viewings.

Book or movie?

Plot: Cartoonist O’Malley hadn’t finished the final volumes before the movie wrapped; he sent director/co-screenwriter Wright his notes, but said that, ultimately, “their ending is their ending.” It shows; the ending of the books is psychologically complex and deeply satisfying, while the film boils down to a conventional—though well-executed—action-movie finale.
Edge: Book

Character: The books are renowned for their subtle character development. The film had to cram six novels—taking place over a year—into 112 minutes of screen time and one week of plot time. The central romance suffers, and peripheral characters are simplified or removed.
Edge: Book

Spectacle: O’Malley’s Amerimanga style develops over the course of the six years in which he wrote the series, graduating from juvenile to masterful. It’s always expressive, though, and his use of paneling and format is innovative. But Wright’s realization is much more than a simple adaptation. He adds a new layer of creativity to something that was already fresh and unique, and the result is one of the most visually interesting films of the year.
Edge: Film

Winner: The book! But, fortunately, you don’t have to choose. Like 2001, the movie is one of those adaptations that forges a new identity for itself, complementing rather than merely reproducing its source material. Consume them both!