Ten years ago, Scott Pilgrim vs the World bombed at the box office. Director Edgar Wright had made a name for himself with his first two features: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, a pair of gag-heavy genre spoofs that were met with universal acclaim and financial success. Scott Pilgrim looked like something completely different. It was expensive and American (actually very Canadian), it didn’t have Simon Pegg or Nick Frost in it, and it was adapted from a series of weird little graphic novels that weren’t exactly a sensation outside of the comics scene. The trailers promised whimsy, romance, and many cutesy video game references. Suffice to say, this did not have the crossover appeal of Shaun or Fuzz. Box office failure was perhaps inevitable. It was, however, Wright’s ideal project.

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume Scott Pilgrim series is a romantic comedy about a cast of Linklaterish slacker types, which also borrows heavily from the conventions of shonen manga and the aesthetics of classic Nintendo games. It’s an archetypal noughties mélange of nerd shit, with roots in the nineties indie-rock scene of O’Malley’s teen years. Around the time that O’Malley was listening to Plumtree, Wright was collaborating with Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson on Channel 4’s Spaced – a surreal slacker comedy saturated with references to pop culture, video games, and comic books. Although Spaced’s graphic influences tended more towards 2000 AD than Ranma ½, the way Wright, Pegg and Stevenson externalised characters’ emotional conflicts into ridiculous, cartoonish battles was echoed by O’Malley’s first Scott Pilgrim book a few years later.


Courtesy of: Oni Press

Universal brought Scott Pilgrim to Wright’s attention shortly after the publication of Volume 1, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, and it’s this book that gets the most love from Wright and company. Almost the entire thing is up on screen, often matching panel-to-frame exactly. After seeing the film, it’s hard to read Volume 1 without hearing the actors’ voices and picturing Wright’s scene transitions, so precisely does he translate page to screen. The director’s love for the source material is obvious, from the comic-style sound-effect visualisations to the authentic Toronto locations.

The film gradually diverges from O’Malley’s books as it moves along, but this is where Wright proves himself an excellent cut-and-paste artist. Wherever a scene or subplot from the books doesn’t make it into the film, there is often still a choice line or character moment or action sequence that has been lifted from O’Malley’s page into an alternate scene in the movie. Since Wright’s trimmed-down plot by necessity focuses on the core romance, the film doesn’t spend much time on fan- (and author-) favourite Kim Pine (Alison Pill), but Wright and co-screenwriter Michael Bacall ensure her most withering remarks make the cut. Several of the later fight scenes are amalgamations – notably, the fight with Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman) borrows its Ramona-puppeteering-Scott bit from a Free Comic Book Day one-shot, suggesting that Wright (or someone on the crew) was a real Scott Pilgrim completist.


Courtesy of: Universal Pictures International

As philosophies of adaptation go, ‘slavish’ may be a less appropriate word than ‘indulgent’. Wright’s famously precise direction, usually used to pull off sight gags, is here used to pull off sight gags and to lavishly transpose O’Malley’s comic-book world to the screen. The cast, for the most part, are dead-on, not only nailing the characters’ personalities but also bearing a strange amount of physical resemblance, considering the originals are cutesy chibi-style cartoons. Among the before-they-got-huge names in the credits are Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, and Brie Larson. The movie is littered with minor and major touches that speak to Wright’s depth of affection for the source material: for example, the drummer in Envy Adams’ band plays a small role in Volume 3, and appears for a matter of seconds in the film, played by drummer Tennessee Thomas; nonetheless, her appearance is page-accurate, down to the anime-style reflective glasses that obscure her eyes. In the notes to the colour edition of Volume 3, O’Malley mentions that Envy’s own look was partly based on the frontwoman of Toronto rock band Metric. Naturally, Metric perform the music for Envy’s band in the film.

There’s no such thing as a perfect adaptation, and of course many good things didn’t make it from the books into Wright’s film. With the relaxed timeframe available over the course of six graphic novels, the social scene of Scott, his band and their peers acquires a pleasant hangout atmosphere that just can’t be recreated in two hours while fitting in six-plus fight scenes. Furthermore, with O’Malley frequently stepping away from Scott’s perspective in the books, much more depth is afforded to the women of the story – by Volume 6, readers have seen Ramona, Knives, Kim and Envy go through at least as much development as Scott. With the exception of Spaced (see Stevenson’s co-writing credit), Wright’s body of work tends to relegate female characters to joke-dispenser or plot-device status, and while the source material helps Scott Pilgrim fare better than his other features, it’s still jarring to see Knives’ arc whittled down to its bare minimum, and Kim enjoying about as much focus as Olivia Colman’s funny but one-note character in Hot Fuzz.


Courtesy of: Oni Press

Even acknowledging this, it’s hard to find malice in Wright’s choices in adapting Scott Pilgrim. The director, famously a fan of all things genre, pastiche and spectacle, delivers exactly what drew in many of O’Malley’s readers in the first place: the wacky fight scenes, comic-book stylisation, and weirdo video-game logic that governs Scott’s world, from Ramona’s mini-boss exes to the 1-up that finally lets him get a life. These touches are where the move from page to screen really polishes the material, as the addition of sound and motion bring Scott Pilgrim a few degrees closer to the media it references. The most obvious improvement of Wright’s adaptation cannot be overstated: audiences can actually hear the many bands that populate the story. Wright is always masterful when synchronising visual action to music (see: 90% of Baby Driver’s appeal), and the acts performing as the various bands are spot-on. In an all-time classic opening title sequence, Scott’s own band (in reality Beck) bash out a loud, messy, garage-y track over an explosion of scratchy, nineties-flavoured graphics, perfectly capturing the vibe of some guy’s band who kind of suck but also, crucially, kind of rock.

Looking at film adaptations on a scale from straightforward page-to-screen translations to more original cinematic works, Wright’s Scott Pilgrim is firmly in the translation camp. This can be an unrewarding approach for comic-book movies, with efforts such as Zack Snyder’s Watchmen managing to recreate scenes panel-by-panel while missing the underlying intent (although opinion varies). Yet Scott Pilgrim succeeds, largely through the uncanny alignment of Wright’s directorial sensibilities with O’Malley’s source material. The line between pastiche and adaptation is a thin one, and while Wright may have found more mainstream success with spoofs and genre riffs, it would be no bad thing if Scott Pilgrim’s vindication as a cult classic inspired the director to return to this collaborative approach in future.