Bamboo Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim! Yes, I saw it. I’ve already engaged in some media about it, by being a guest on Overthinking It, where I contributed by being the person who’d had the opportunity to read all the way through book 6 of the series. But I thought I’d go ahead and post on it, because I want to expand on my sadly cliched opinion that the books were ultimately more satisfying. I really, really liked the movie. It was entertaining as fuck, and perfectly pitched to people like me. As we discuss on the podcast, the movie is supposed to take place in present times—the technology and a couple of cultural touchstones indicate that—but the fashion, attitudes, and majority of cultural references had a 90s era feel to them. Scott even wears a Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt. In this, they’re basically like the books, and that makes sense, because the writer Bryan Lee O’Malley is playing with the idea of past and memory, so it feels right to invoke the era when people our age (he’s two years younger than me) were actually the ages of the people in the book. Between that, the video game stuff, and the loving rendering of the indie rock scene, this movie was bound to be exactly as fun as it is for someone my age. I don’t know if it has much appeal beyond that, which is why I think the box office wasn’t as great as it should have been. Too bad, because it really is a funny movie.
But I really hope people read the books, because there’s a depth to them that simply wasn’t in the movie. I ran into Sarah Jaffe last night, and she put her finger on exactly why, noting that they basically had to save time in the movie by writing out Ramona’s character. I mean, she’s still there and she’s still cool, but the entire story line in the book where Ramona has to struggle with her past and get over it isn’t really in the movie. The many layers of Ramona are just lifted out of the story. Scott is also rewritten somewhat to fit a more standard Hollywood narrative where the meek guy gains courage. In the books, Scott is never what I’d call meek. His journey is more that of a self-centered guy who has to stop thinking of himself in black-and-white heroic terms, and choose instead to be a human being. The books are hilarious and clever, but ultimately they’re a meditation about the nature of love and the past and what it takes to go forward and take the leap of faith that is committing to love after you’ve had your fuck-ups. And for that, the more in-depth portrayal of female characters like Ramona and yes, Knives and Envy is a critical element.
Mike Barthel at Awl really dug into this issue, making similar observations about how the movie simply doesn’t have time to flesh out the female characters, much less pass the Bechdel test. Which isn’t to accuse the movie of sexism! Like Michelle notes, it’s actually a really refreshing film in that the female characters behave like actual human beings. They have actual personalities that are theirs and not some manifestation of some generic Hollywood assumptions about femaleness. Even as Ramona is holding down the spot of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she’s really not, since she doesn’t have MPDG mandatory traits like being all-forgiving and accepting of the hero or being unattached to reality. (She even has a job that she’s uniquely suited to perform!) It’s hard to blame the movie for not having the depth of soul of the books because it’s not a function of sexism or bad writing so much as just an issue of time. Once you work in the seven evil exes and the video games and the battle of the bands and the love triangle, there’s not a whole lot of room to explore the issues the book ends up being most interested in, namely what it means to choose to love someone and to fight for that.
So, see the movie but please also read the books. It’s very rare to see romantic love portrayed so honestly and yet without losing any ability to be touching. In fact, I’d argue that it’s more touching for all its realism. As one of the podcasters on OTI said, the movie falls into the trap of talking up destiny when it comes to love. The books are basically the opposite of that—they’re more interested in choice. The person who thinks love is about finding The One that you’re destined for and living happily ever after in harmony is a fool, but I do think it’s a widespread kind of foolishness. Moving forward and being able to choose to be happy is, in the books, a matter of dealing with the past not as something to ignore or as some kind of horrible baggage, but just being what it is. It shapes us but it isn’t us.
Plus, it tells this story with more than a little humor and cleverness.