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Adaptation

In which we discuss the Scott Pilgrim movie, one case of a comic-to-film adaptation that keeps all the spirit of the comic it came from.


Back, back in the mists of time – well, in December 2007 – I posted a review of Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, the fourth, and at that point, the latest, book in the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Since then, of course, the world has moved on. In Spring 2009 the fifth book, Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe was published, with shiny metallic cover. We quickly bought it,* and I intended to write about it on here, but somehow other things kept coming along and SP5 never got its review.

Forward to this year, and publicity started to appear for Scott Pilgrim, the movie version. The sixth and final book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, was published this summer. “I really must write on the blog about this one,” thought I, “before the film comes out.” But it didn’t happen. So, last weekend, we went to see the film, not sure if we would love it or hate it.

Quick recap for people who have never heard of Scott Pilgrim, never seen it, never read the books: Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something slacker geek with no job, in a rather bad band, who starts dreaming about a mysterious girl. She turns out to be a real girl, a delivery courier called Ramona who knows the secret of using people’s dreams as shortcuts between places in the real world. Scott immediately falls in love, but quickly discovers that her emotional baggage is somewhat more real than most people’s, as she has a whole league of Evil Exes she’s dated in the past, who Scott must defeat in video-game-style fights before he can win her heart. Now, read on…

Adaptations often get a bad press. What works well in one medium, after all, doesn’t always translate; but if an adaptation’s not faithful, it can end up pleasing nobody. Scott Pilgrim vs The World, though, is one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen, despite the fact it has to cut six books’ worth of action down into one single film. From the moment it started, with the same fonts onscreen as in the book, it was, I think, as close to the comic as any live-action adaptation could get. Lots had to be cut out, of course – the books are set over the course of a year, the film over a few weeks at most – and due to release schedules the last act is radically different to the final book; but, overall, the spirit of the books is captured extremely well. Some subplots were pruned entirely; some of the backstory was moved to an animated short; and some of the characters’ emotional lives are simplified or made less explicit;** none of it feels missing from the film, though. Moreover, the film uses a lot of the books’ stylistic quirks. Just like in the books, each new character gets a little black caption explaining who they are and what they’re up to. Just like the books, the film is full of cunning references and semi-hidden jokes. The film does a very good job, like the books, of portraying a realistic world in which, nevertheless, video-game events can happen.

There are a couple of places where you could argue that the film’s better than the books: in plot terms, there are two places where the story is told in a slightly better way.*** In general, though, I still prefer the books: a much fuller story, because there’s more space to tell it in. At some point, I should write an essay about the ending of the series, and what I think it says about life; that’s not for today, but it says something that the books can inspire me to consider something like that.

Some reviews of Scott Pilgrim vs The World have said that it’s “too hyperactive”. It is, definitely, a fast-moving film: that’s what you get when you compress that much shelf-space into one movie. Philip French, in the Observer, complained that at 1 hour 52 it’s “overlong” – maybe that was the effect of the various fight scenes, which do come close together. Myself, I found it both witty and touching; but I did worry that a newcomer, someone who’s never read the books, would have no clue what was going on at all.

In general, for both me and K, it’s the case that we can’t watch films too often. Once we’ve seen something, even a film we both love, it has to sit on the shelf for a few months before we can happily watch it again. As we walked out of the cinema after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs The Word, almost the first thing we did was: work out when we have some time free to go back and watch it again. If that isn’t a recommendation, I’m not sure what is.

* Coincidentally, the day I bought it was also the day I auditioned to go on Mastermind – I stopped off at Forbidden Planet on the way home.

** A spoilertastic summary of some of the missing bits: Knives Chau’s character is much more developed in the books, and her father takes up a vendetta against Scott at one point, chasing after him with a samurai sword which can cut a tram in two. Scott does try to get a job in the books, if not a career, and there’s much more in the way of band politics too. Emotionally, the most important missing part is: Scott, when trying to escape from Knives’ father, accidentally goes inside Ramona’s head and discovers that in her mind at least, her relationship with Gideon, the ultimate Evil Ex, was a BDSM-style master-slave affair. This isn’t just the payoff to a pun set up right from the start, but is very important in the final end-of-series battle, where it’s also explained that it was Gideon who created the ability to enter someone else’s dreams. All this is only touched on very lightly in the film, hinted at by Ramona’s behaviour “below” Gideon in the Chaos Club scenes; her inability to resist his commands is nothing to do with her own desires, but the result of a microchip he implanted in her head. And that’s enough of the spoilers.

*** Spoilers again: the defeat of Todd, the third Evil Ex is directly caused by Scott in the film; in the book, it’s a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s set up earlier, so not a complete bolt from the blue, but Scott doesn’t really have much involvement with it. Secondly, the treatment of Scott’s extra life is handled better in the film, in that he has to “replay” the previous few scenes a second time, but knows how to handle them better; in the book he returns to consciousness straight after the dream/afterlife sequence with Ramona. You can, of course, find examples of video games that work in either way, but I preferred the film version.

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Eternal Youth

In which we go to the cinema


A trip to the cinema the other week, to see Let The Right One In,* the Swedish vampire movie which has been going down very well lately. As I haven’t seen any Swedish films since I was a student, as usual I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Raw meatballs? Home-assembly furniture dripping with blood? Bat-haunted forests with man-eating elk?

The film’s trailers implied action, as vampire films tend to do. Fast pace, fast cutting, sudden surprises and sharp shocks. Anyone who went along because of the trailer, though, would have been rather disappointed. There were long, slow scenes; quiet snowy landscapes, thoughtful looks, reflection.** The film was crisp as snow and sharp as a gooseberry. Most of the deaths were slow and brutal; young men being slaughtered like pork, for example. The cuts were offscreen, as were the vampire’s flights; but the trickling blood and fluttering wings were heard loud and clear.

The long shots of wintry landscapes and quiet thought slowly built up into a touching story, a touching story of childish love. Peter Pan seen from another angle, almost. The 12-year-old protagonist’s tender life was mapped out in front of us in a wide hidden circle; and as he disappeared out of sight at the end, over the horizon in a railway carriage, the storyling was tightly coiled to a perfect closure. Perfect for the audience, in any case.

The film had a delicate, scarcely-mentioned 1970s setting. None of the heavy-handed period truncheoning of, say, Life On Mars. No overt references at all, just a subtle landscape of brown furniture, smoking and leather jackets. It was carefully observed, and carefully understated.

These vampires weren’t fashionable vampires, as per Anne Rice or Being Human. They weren’t strong, or powerful, and they didn’t have enough self-control to contemplate any sort of world domination. The human characters, or some of them at least, were far more cruel, far more sadistic and destructive, whether by design or accident. The vampires were, on the other hand, realistic, or at least as realistic as a vampire might be. Realistic, inhuman animal creatures, undead but nevertheless made from flesh and blood. I’ve never seen vampires before that were quite so real and quite so believable. Let The Right One In is, you could say, vampire cinema verité, and it is a beautiful, cold and haunting film. There is, apparently, an American remake on the way. I live in fear, not from a vampire plunging in the night, but that the original Swedish version might end up forgotten.

* or Låt den rätte komma in if you speak Swedish.

** although not of the vampires, of course.

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Quis Custodiet

In which we are the people who will be watching the Watchmen


We’ve noticed that trailers for the forthcoming Watchmen movie have started appearing on the telly, which means it can’t be long before it pops in to the cinema.

We’ll have to go and see it. Not because it’s going to be a good film – I don’t really think it will be* – but because the book is so iconic, seeing exactly what’s been done to it is an irresistible temptation. No doubt we will come out of the cinema going: “bah, they shouldn’t have filmed it that way,” “they shouldn’t have cut that part out,” and so on. We know, for a start, that the ending has been changed; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the overall plot is hardly the most important aspect of the book. On that note, though: the overall design of the book is far more important, and what I’ve so far seen of the film design doesn’t look promising. It’s both too dark and too sharp, not dirty enough and not ambiguous enough.

Even though it will probably seem too slick, too polished, too computer-generated, we have to see it. Because if we don’t see it ourselves, we can hardly criticise it. When we have, though, we almost certainly will.

* As I haven’t seen 300,** my only experience of Zack Snyder’s previous work is his remake of Dawn Of The Dead; which was a good (and scary) film roughly up until the end of the opening credits, and undeadly dull thereafter.

** I do think a British version of 300 would potentially work rather well, though. Feel free to try and guess exactly which episode of British history it would be based on.

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Ovines

In which we become scared of fields


“That’s two hours of my life that I’ll never get back,” said one of the women in front of us, as we left the cinema.* I thought she was being slightly unfair. The film had only been 87 minutes long, after all.

Besides, I’d rather liked it. We’d been to see Black Sheep; it was, like me, rather silly; but played very straight all the way through, which is always the best sort of silliness. The implausible B-movie science was glossed over, and the actors put on their Most Serious Faces as they fought to defend themselves against mutant killer zombie sheep.** Some of the characters were caricatures, and some of the foreshadowing was very obvious indeed, but sometimes, in this film, that’s the sort of thing you want to happen.***

One thing did puzzle me: why, when all the sheep in all the fields started to become blood-crazed man-eating carnivores, did noone really seem very surprised? Now, for the hero, it’s explained: he suffers from a fear that one day sheep will do exactly that. But all the other characters also behave as if it’s a normal, everyday crisis, something they’ve been expecting all along. Maybe everyone in New Zealand is like that. Maybe everywhere though the islands, at the back of people’s minds, is the thought: one day, the sheep will start fighting back.

* “We” being, of course, me and Mystery Filmgoer as usual.

** These were Modern Biological Zombies – not dead, just rather ill; which does make them rather easier to despatch, with none of this “you must remove the head or destroy the brain” trickiness.

*** When you see a big, round, deep hole, with a sign next to it that says: “Warning: Offal Pit”, you know what’s going to happen later on.

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Harry Potter And The Are We Nearly There Yet?

In which the end of a series is within sight


No, not the book. As I reviewed film number four for this blog, back in 2005, I thought I may as well review the fifth one too. I still haven’t seen any of the earlier films.

It fits in well with something I said about J K Rowling’s books recently: I parenthetically accused them of being big, baggy and badly-paced.* The film of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix isn’t, though. It zips a lot. It’s as good a film treatment as anyone could have done: it cuts out an awful lot of unnecessary excess baggage without losing much at all of the main story. The book of the film of the book (should it exist) could well be a far better read than the original.

JK could learn from some parts herself. Without spoiling too much: the school is taken over, in a way, by direct “state” control. The Ministry’s representative issues constant diktats aimed at blocking resistance from the children and staff. In the book, it’s handled like this: the notice is pinned to the wall, and then the children discuss the awful effect it is going to have on the plot their lives, for a few pages. In the film: the notice is pinned to the wall, with children around looking gloomy. Close up on the notice, so we can read it. That’s it. We know the effect it is going to have; we don’t need to be told.

A lot is taken on assumption in the film, though. There is no world-building, at all. You have to know where you are, and what is going on, because nothing is explained. Why does the Ministry have a room full of dusty glass orbs? Where do they come from, and what are they for? You’re only going to find that out if you read the book. The Ministry itself was a far cry from the endless edifice of the book: it seemed to be limited to two or three sets.**

So: better than the last film, and surprisingly good. I’m still wondering how you order a phoenix, though, especially as there’s only one of it.*** If I ever get into any trouble like Harry, I’m going to rely on a little-known but powerful secret society of vigilante lexicographers: The Alphabetical Order. And one thing that had me puzzled for a while: the voice of the Ministry’s lift. I was sure I recognised it: probably from something on the radio, as it was a radio comedy kind of voice. It turned out to be someone called Daisy Haggard, who has been in an awful lot of good things I’ve seen on the telly over the past couple of years.

Right, now I’m off to print out sheets of sticky labels saying “Harry dies at the end!” to stick up around town in the morning. I’m not really bothered what happens at the end of the series myself, and I have no idea if he dies or not; but if I do that tomorrow morning, it’s bound to look plausible.****

* The Plain People Of The Internet, in chorus: Like this post, you mean?

** Although, to be honest, I can’t remember if as much of the book’s action takes place in the Ministry’s main foyer as the film’s seems to, and I’m not going to look it up. I did enjoy the foyer’s architecture, though, because it reminded me of original Underground Group architecture.

*** I can’t seem to find any reference to there only ever being one phoenix at a time – myself, I remember reading it in The Box Of Delights, which isn’t exactly authoritative.

**** I’m not really going to do it. But it’s a very tempting idea.

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Donkey

In which we go to the cinema


To the cinema, as usual with Mystery Filmgoer, to see Clerks II. We’d both been looking forward to it, but I was slightly apprehensive: would it be a horrid travesty of the original?

Well, no. It helps to have seen the original, especially to understand any of the ending montage, but the main body of the film stands up well on its own, as a parallel to the original. It’s slightly less surreal than the first, and slightly more warm-hearted, but has just as many sick jokes. And there’s definitely a happy ending.

The funniest line in the whole film, though, was partly funny because it is something I tend to say a lot myself:

“Ooh, cake!”

Out of context, it doesn’t look like much. Within context, both me and Mystery Filmgoer were doubled up. To explain the context here, though, would involve unravelling half the plot of the film.* All I can say, really, is that in context it’s very very funny, very very sick, and probably illegal in most countries of the world.

* Although there is a small clue elsewhere in the post – you’re not likely to get it though unless you’ve already seen the film.

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