‘Scott Pilgrim’ and What Movies Mean to Comics


By conventional American film industry standards, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a failure. Not only did it open with a mere $10.6 million at the box office, essentially six times less than its $60 million budget, it finished fifth, well behind its immediate competition, The Expendables and Eat Pray Love and two movies, The Other Guys and Inception, released earlier in the summer. Subsequent weeks suggest that most people who wanted to see the film did so on opening night.

For fans of the film, the poor box office turn-out sparked a round of dissections (for example, Josh Tyler, “Box Office Bob-omb: 5 Reasons Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World failed to find an audience”, Cinema Blend, 15 August 2010), second guessing (for example, Gregory Ellwood, “What went wrong with ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ and why it should scare movie fans” HitFix.com, 15 August 2010), and even a minor ‘save Scott Pilgrim‘ movement in an attempt to boost the audience, or at least give a push to the idea that the movie will thrive as a cult hit (for example, Kristi Turnquist, “‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’: Bomb or cult hit in the making?”, OregonLive.com, 16 August 2010).

A primary reason why those who made the effort to see the movie feel invested in its popular and financial success is a fear that Scott Pilgrim‘s failure to perform well will be the death knell for films made from smaller and independent comics titles. Indeed, as articulated on PopMatters‘ Short Ends and Leader blog, the movie can be seen not just as an isolated case, but as the latest in a series of perceived box office failures derived from niche or cult-y comic books (“Game(r) over”, 16 August 2010).

For movie producers and studio executives, comic books are sources of eminently exploitable material. Like movies, they are a visual medium. Comic books are also commonly used to tell the kinds of genre stories that make for popular films, but unlike works originally written for the screen, they come with pre-existing fan bases on which to build an audience. While individual producers may gravitate towards particular titles for reasons related to content or aesthetics, the potential audience and related financial calculations are why the adaptations actually get made.

If the movie-side of the comics-film relationship is easy to understand, the comics side is more difficult. Why do readers get excited when a movie gets made from a favorite title? Why do they care if the movie is ‘good’ or if it succeeds at the box office?

One answer is that a movie adaptation helps sell books. The mere existence of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World appears to have catapulted all six of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics into the top spots on The New York Times paperback bestsellers list and, as of 19 August, a week after the film’s box office ‘failure’, that’s where they remained.

The value of increased sales is clear for publishers and creators, and obviously parallels the interest that Hollywood has in comics, but readers also have a stake in this effect.

I don’t know any regular or serious reader of comics who doesn’t have an evangelical impulse for the medium, and for the particular titles that they love. A movie release is an opportunity to talk comics with non-readers, and to cultivate whatever interest in a book is sown by the film. Similarly, a movie offers fans of a particular book a kind of collective experience that is difficult to replicate, even through group reading.

While it seems unlikely that there is no relationship between the size of the moviegoing audience and the number of new buyers and readers of a book, for most creators and publishers capturing a fraction of even a small film audience counts as success. From that perspective, and certainly from the position of an individual trying to get friends and family to pick up a comic, box office is probably less important than the quality of an adaptation. Convincing someone to read the book when the movie is boring or bad is likely to be difficult.

Of course, if the worry that poor box office performance will lead risk-averse producers and executives to avoid titles like Scott Pilgrim has merit, then the varied opportunities for sharing will never happen.

From another perspective, though, comics readers, and fans of particular books, have nothing invested in the success of a film adaptation. However ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘successful’ or ‘failed’, an adaptation is, the comic remains the comic. It is still the first love, and nothing will change that. A bad or unsuccessful movie does not, retroactively, render the original text as bad or unsuccessful.

Yet, particularly given the intensity of people’s attachments to their favorite comics, it’s hard not to take the artistic or financial failure of a movie adaptation personally, and as a reflection of the flaws in one’s own tastes. In film criticism, words like ‘cartoony’ and ‘comic book’ are not simply neutral descriptors, but are often implied value judgments, pointing to something shallow or crude.

On NPR’s Monkey See blog, Linda Holmes takes a critical look at the number of reviews, particularly in established media outlets, that assess the assumed audience for Scott Pilgrim as much as the film itself. In such reviews, the core audience for the film, variously understood to be fans of the comics, gamers, geeks, and hipsters writ large, is represented as lacking in depth or culture. No surprise, then, that the film itself is equally lacking (“‘Scott Pilgrim’ versus the unfortunate tendency to review the audience”, 12 August 2010).

Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post, characterizes the movie as “a grind, as monotonous and enervating as one long, sneering in-joke”. She dismisses the characters as negligible, and the assumed audience for not caring. Most notably, she makes assertions about what readers of the book want from the film without the benefit of having read the books herself. Indeed, she clearly thinks it unreasonable that director and co-writer Edgar Wright took his job of adapting the comics seriously enough to actually reference the books in ways that might be enhanced by having read Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series (“Only fans will care who wins”, 13 August 2010).

While Eat Pray Love is one of the movies that bested Scott Pilgrim at the theater, it did far less well with critics. Yet there is no noticeable consensus that the film’s failings are due to inherent problems with the personal memoir or travelogue as literary forms, or in the people who read them. If anything, the book on which the movie is based is frequently held to be if not ‘better’, then at least more interesting than the adaptation.

The point isn’t that reviewers like Hornaday would love Scott Pilgrim vs. The World if they would only read the books. The point is that far too many film critics are prepared to assume that what they don’t like about films based on comics is due to source material, or to people who read comics infecting the cinema with their shallowness through that material. Maybe a ‘good’ film adaptation is one that stands entirely on its own merits as a film, but from a critical perspective, it hardly seems unreasonable to think that some of the questions you might have about a movie based on a book could be answered by picking up the book. Somehow, though, this notion seems ridiculous, or insulting, or maddening, when it comes to comics.

I am writing this column two days before this year’s “Read Comics in Public Day”, which is 28 August. This is a fun idea, and another way for comics readers to share their passion, but it’s also difficult to imagine someone organizing a comparable day for very many other types of texts or forms of literature (maybe porn, but that comparison is telling in itself). Read Comics in Public Day is a defensive celebration, something made clear enough by the website’s “About” page.

This same defensiveness is what leads comics readers and fans to become invested in the success of films based on their beloved books. How such films are received seems, inevitably, to be about the position of comics, and those who make and read them, within the larger culture, as much as it is about the individual titles.

It’s difficult to know what lessons Hollywood executives and producers will take from Scott Pilgrim‘s ‘failures’. Maybe it will be seen as the Waterloo for adaptations from out-of-the-mainstream comics, or of North American geek culture’s influence on the film industry. Or maybe it’s Michael Cera’s fault. Or that gamers don’t go to the movies.

Maybe Scott Pilgrim will succeed on ‘the long tail’ and all will be forgiven in the end. In an effort to promote and defend the medium, it can be hard to forget that these questions have little to nothing to do with comics as comics. Even if Edgar Wright’s film hadn’t been made with affection and respect for the comics on which it is based, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s books would still be brilliant fun.

Books don’t need to be made into movies, and when they are, they don’t make themselves. However well- or ill-recieved, or how many people do or do not go see it, the adaptation of a comic into a film is not a self-evident process, but the result of choices made by filmmakers in relation to the original text. A film’s weaknesses, or strengths, appeal or lack thereof, cannot simply be explained away by reference to its comic book foundations. Most importantly, for readers, movies don’t unmake books.