This Comic Adaptation is the Truest Video Game Film
Movie studios just can’t seem to get film adaptations of video games right. The reasons why range into the dozens. Not understanding the source material. Lack of budget. Poor talent in front of or behind the camera. Bad scripting. Storytelling that lacks the excitement of playing the game. Some film adaptations of video games have one of these elements, which is enough to irreparably damage the movie. Quite a few have them all and more.
But while a truly great video game adaptation has continued to elude movie studios around the world, the truth is that the ultimate video game movie has already been made. It’s not an adaptation of a preexisting game. It’s not a film about video game fans. It’s a movie that takes the heart and soul of what makes video games beloved by billions and infuses it into the very core of the film itself.
It’s Edgar Wright’s 2010 action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs The World.
Adapted from creator Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume comic book series, Wright’s vibrant adaptation does more for the genre of “video game movie” than the combined “meh” of dozens of direct game adaptations that have been made since the early ‘90s. This isn’t a story meant to finally nail down the elusive video game genre of film, but rather is an artistically astounding and fully realized romantic action comedy that infuses video game elements into its story through the use of magical realism. While Scott Pilgrim may be a comic book adaptation, the film itself feels like a living and breathing video game world, which is something no direct video game adaptation has ever been able to do.
Wright’s adaptation tells the story of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a 22-year-old bass guitarist living in Toronto whose garage band dreams and love life are quickly complicated when he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona is the girl of Scott’s dreams (literally), but what he doesn’t realize is that her life is haunted by The League of Evil Exes – a conglomerate of Ramona’s former flames who quickly challenge Scott to life or death duels when the two become a couple. The unexpected and violent threat forces Scott to examine his own shallowness and history of romantic failings.
When the rights to O’Malley’s comic book series were optioned, the seven-part story was not even finished. But the comic had already gained a rabid following and rave reviews, which convinced Universal Studios that this would be a perfect property for film adaptation. The studio doubled down on Wright’s quirky vision when the writer/director came onboard, supplying the indie director with a $90 million budget that allowed him to bring his fantasy world to vivid life with no reservations. But what the studio thought would be a surefire hit based on the rabid reactions of a niche audience at San Diego Comic Con turned out to be a flop based on its $47.7 million box office return. But financial gain and quality of cinema are rarely mutually exclusive.
What everyone should have realized was that a tale of hipster love laden with retro video game iconography starring Michael Cera and crafted by an indie British director was never going to be a mainstream hit. Scott Pilgrim vs The World had cult classic written all over it from day one. Thankfully, that studio ignorance led to the film’s unbridled creativity. The only downside is that the failure meant studios would continue to avoid such fare in favor of no-brainer blockbusters. So let’s celebrate Wright’s film in the ways that it deserves.
It’s clear from the 16-bit Universal Studios logo which opens the film that Scott Pilgrim is a story that wears its video game influences on its sleeve. And in that way, any fan of the medium would be satisfied with the loads of references that are the result of an actual love of video games, and not a studio simply trying to make enough references to get a passing grade from fans. Snatches of classic videogame scores seep into the background, power ups and health bars make their appearances at opportune moments, and the fights that play a crucial role in the story are structured like boss battles. Wright has confessed to being a lifelong video game fan, with his passion for the medium fueling his meticulous structuring of every piece of the film.
But it’s not just the consistent inclusion of video game references that make Scott Pilgrim the greatest video game movie ever put on screen, it’s the way that video game storytelling, action, and visual language are deeply embedded into the narrative itself. That’s thanks to O’Malley’s comic books, which unabashedly integrated video game iconography throughout the story. But Wright pushed the idea to the next level, using live action and CGI to bring these ideas to a fully formed and kinetic life. Unlike many film adaptations that see writers and directors thinking that they are elevating the lowly medium of video games by making them into movies, Wright sees nothing inherently inferior about video games.
The language of video games most explosively presents itself in the battles that are scattered throughout Wright’s film. These matches with The League of Evil Exes are presented as escalating boss battles, each with their own fight styles, challenges, and rewards. When Scott enters into a battle, a Street Fighter-like versus screen pops up, the aspect ratio changes, and each attack is highlighted with streaming colors and onomatopoeia. In contrast to their heighten visual nature, these battles are presented in an almost nonchalant manner, which reflects a magical realism approach that is both comedic and authentic to video games. In most other romantic comedies, a physical altercation would be devastating due to its violence. Here, it’s an expression of extreme emotions that cannot be presented in any other way. Sure, the defeated enemy just explodes into thousands of coins, miraculous powers are expressed that never show up anywhere else, and the nature of reality takes on a far more heightened manner as building-rattled blows are exchanged, but it’s just another day in Toronto for those involved. Having these clashes exist at a more heightened level than the rest of the film means that someone small like Scott can battle dozens of people without the need for explanation, big muscles, or training montage.
Thankfully, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t lean solely on its fights to be compelling. The comedy, characters, and music add so much more to Wright’s film. These coalesce to create a world that buzzes with life in each scene.
Too often, video game adaptations choose to either spend far too long justifying the elements of the world seen on screen (see the Super Mario Bros. Movie and its messy alternate dimensions justification) or grounding the narrative to seem more “realistic” than the video game (see Street Fighter and its inability to actually be a Street Fighter movie). In the former instance, viewers are forced to slog through all manner of exposition and preamble before receiving what little bits of excitement remain. In the latter, the many unique elements of the source material are plucked away, leaving mere scraps to be enjoyed by fans. In either instance, filmmakers who choose these paths show a distinct lack of faith in what they are adapting to the screen.
That is far from the case in Scott Pilgrim. Wright trusts his audience to buy into the world from the get-go, with that initial pixelated Universal Studios logo being all that we need to buy into the world being shown. The absurd yet relatable world shown by Wright has no greater context than this simply being the way things are, resulting in clarity of vision and far more fun gained from his complete commitment.
That acceptance of the world affords the narrative greater freedom to explore what these fights mean emotionally for Scott, Ramona, and the people around them, rather than just physically. Because the fights are so absurd, with Scott and his opponents flying through the air and taking hits that would kill a normal person, the stakes of these battles are rarely physical. Ultimately, Scott’s success in the fights depends on his growth as a person, which is represented in the leveling up of his personal stats. So while the slam-bang spectacle of the battles thrills audiences visually, a greater meaning is layered into the set pieces while still making fun the first and foremost objective.
There are still countless video game properties teeming with potential that have yet to be adapted for film. Should they all be? Most certainly not, as the translation of these stories may irrevocably lose the essential magic of being an active participant in the video game’s world. But with studios going bigger than ever in their cinematic adaptations (see this year’s pricey Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed films), there are crucial lessons to be learned from Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Should they be ignored, the genre of video game adaptations will continue to be one of the most universally maligned in all of cinema.