The Squandered Potential of Edgar Wright’s ‘Scott Pilgrim vs the World’ Adaptation

This article contains SPOILERS for Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) and the comic series it is based on.

In spite of a disappointing box office return during its initial theatrical release, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) is now one of the director’s most recognizable films and has gained a significant cult following in the ten years since its debut. The film tells the story of a twenty-two year old bassist and slacker, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), who falls in love with a rollerblading manic pixie dream girl who can literally skate through his dreams. Unfortunately, he finds that a relationship with the girl, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), won’t come easy, as he’ll need to defeat her seven evil exes in order to stay with her.

The film’s continued success is due, in part, to its now all-star cast, with many of its actors (such as Chris Evans, Brie Larson, and Anna Kendrick) having gone on to become household names. It is also a very visually distinct film, with snappy editing and video game-inspired visuals that continue to be just as entertaining and aesthetically pleasing today as they were in 2010. However, while the film’s cast and visuals hold up spectacularly, it’s hard not to find the film lacking in the story department, particularly when it’s compared to the series of comics that serve as its source material.

Literary adaptations have long gotten a bad rap for leaving things out when translating an original text to the big screen. It’s a limitation of the medium – not everything that works on the page will work quite as well on film. Few films take as much liberty in condensing a source material as Scott Pilgrim vs the World, however, which shortens a story told in six sizable graphic novel installments down to a movie with a runtime of just under two hours. The downtime between each of Scott’s fights with Ramona’s exes that provided breathing room in the graphic novel are significantly reduced in the adaptation, completely removing entire characters and situations as well as the character development of much of the story’s supporting cast. Characters like Kim Pine (Alison Pill), Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), and even Envy Adams (Brie Larson) are often pushed to the side in Scott Pilgrim vs the World favor of moving the main storyline along at a breakneck pace. 

A drawn image of a three person rock band playing music with lightening-like energy coming from their instruments. On the left hand side one of the band's members holds up her drumsticks and is shown to be yelling "We are Sex Bob-Omb! One Two Three Four!!"
Image Courtesy of Comic Pow! and OniPress

A few side plots explored in depth in the graphic novel are alluded to in the film’s script, but are glossed over quickly enough that those unaware may not catch them or may not consider them for longer than the one line gag they’ve been relegated to. One of the most significant of these moments is the allusion to the fact that Kim once dated Scott, brought up by Julie Powers (Aubrey Plaza) during an early scene in the film only to be shrugged off by Scott as “[he] and Kim are all good now.” This kind of dismissal is also used to shrug off any explanation of Subspace, a theoretical reality with its own set of rules that is used in the graphic novel as a means of transportation, storage, and entering someone’s mind/dreams, but is only mentioned in passing in the film as a means for which Ramona delivers packages and transports she and Scott to her house at the end of their first date.

Although many of the film’s disregarded plot points come from the aforementioned shortening of the original story, many of its differences come from another, more baffling, creative decision. The script for Scott Pilgrim vs the World was written prior to the comic series it was based on being finished. This jumping of the gun in terms of adapting the source resulted in the film using O’Malley’s notes for the ending in lieu of the more concrete story and dialogue guidelines that were available for the first half of the film. This led to a distasteful ex fight and an ending that loses a lot of the emotional impact achieved in the graphic novel’s version of events, among other, considerably smaller, changes.

A point of contention for some fans, whether they have read the Scott Pilgrim comics or not, is the difference between the fights with Ramona’s male exes when compared to that of her female ex, Roxie Richter (Mae Whitman). While Scott defeats many of Ramona’s exes with his musical talent or quick-thinking in hand to hand combat, Roxie is defeated by a “trick” Ramona claims to have used when she and Roxie were making out – a touch to the back of the knee. When compared to the other fights, this decision comes across as both shockingly misogynistic and as an oversexualized view of a bisexual woman – and, as those familiar with the source material know, it didn’t have to be this way. In the comic, Roxie is one of the more likable exes, even positively reconnecting with Ramona before facing off with Scott. The face off, as this version sees it, is a drawn-out sword fight ending with Roxie being cut in half – a far cry from the implied death by orgasm seen in the film.

A woman looks past the camera, holding an elongated chain belt as a weapon. She is wearing a cut up hoodie and collar, and has straight black marks under her eyes.
Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In a 2012 Tumblr Q&A, Bryan Lee O’Malley wrote that “there was […] the looming shadow of the movie [on his comics]. I had seen parts of it, I knew how BIG the finale was, and I wanted to try and compete with it a little.” With static images and no color, the final book of the Scott Pilgrim series, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, is nowhere near as flashy as the film’s big finale, but it makes up for that visual disadvantage with some stellar writing and significant character development for the series’ lead. One of the biggest aspects of said development is an eighth foe faced by Scott – NegaScott. Although relegated to a quick gag at the end of the film, this alternate version of the protagonist plays a slightly bigger role in the comic, attacking Scott and forcing him to face his own demons. NegaScott is explicitly stated to be a physical manifestation of the worst aspects of Scott by Kim, who tells her friend and bandmate that “if you keep forgetting your mistakes, you’ll just keep making them again!” and “everything you’ve done wrong is just gonna keep following you around, Scott!” Defeating him makes him realize how much he’s wronged Ramona, and forces him to face the fact that he may not deserve her before he decides to finally confront Gideon, her final ex, and literally fight to win her love.

The ending fight in the comics also lacks any complications with Knives Chau, a seventeen year old Scott dates at the same time as Ramona, as, unlike in the film, that situation has already been acknowledged and settled by the story’s conclusion. This makes it so that the final showdown is more so about Scott confronting his own issues, and his complex relationship with Ramona, rather than a reveal of a love triangle.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World is understandably loved by many for its unique flair and strong cast of characters, but a series of decisions behind the scenes resulted in it being a rather mediocre adaptation of an even more unique series of comics. While there’s no way of going back in time to change the course of production on that film however, there has been some recent buzz surrounding the possibility of an animated series focusing on the same characters. Supported both by a comment by Wright and an Instagram story shared by O’Malley, the duo is clearly considering the possibility of working together to bring these characters back to life on-screen – hopefully this time with a little more freedom to explore the moments outside of Scott’s series of battles.

Header image courtesy of Collider.