So the summer film season has kicked off and first out of the gate is Thor. A huge budget comic book adaptation of one of Marvel’s strongest licenses. Every summer since the release of the first Spider-man film in 2002 has pretty much been about big budget comic book adaptations. You’d almost think if you were a casual viewer that all comic books are about superheroes saving the world for supervillains in brightly coloured outfits. These films make mega bucks at the box office and the big studios love them. Which is exactly why we get multiple comic book superhero films every year. Trouble is, a large amount of comic books aren’t about superheroes or even good vs evil. A lot of them are just about people going through a portion of their lives. Which brings me to Ghost World…
Ghost World is based on the comic (No I won’t say graphic novel) of the same name by Author and artist Daniel Clowes. Possibly one of the greatest writers of modern times and yet the majority of people have never heard of him. He’s not the most prolific of writers but his comics are nearly always critically praised by all. In a rare turn of events he was actually allowed to write the screenplay for this adaptation of his most well known comic. That is very rare in the film industry. Usually studios like to purchase a license and start seeing what they can change to get maximum profitability. Sometimes changes work (the ending of Watchmen) and sometimes they ruin the entire concept (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen springs to mind). So what did Daniel Clowes do when he got the chance to adapt his most beloved work? He changed the entire thing. Like, everything from 15 minutes in barring the odd line of dialogue. Yet somehow it still reaches the same point and more importantly it still works very well.
Clowes was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars for this film in 2002. I don’t think anyone’s been nominated for the same award for any adaptation of Alan Moore’s work. You’d think studios would let the original writers at least take a stab at adapting their own works. But there’s a reason they don’t. Because despite the awards Clowes was nominated for Ghost World made no real money. In fact it grossed barely more than it’s meager, for a US production, budget. And you wonder why we see the same old shtick on our cinema screens every year.
Anyway, on with the plot. The film, like the book, tells the story of Enid and Becky. Two high school friends who have just graduated and are attempting to find their way into adulthood. They hate everything and decide between the pair of them what is cool and what is not. The film is more about a time in their lives than a character getting from point A to point B. Where the film differs from the comic kicks in at the end of act 1. Enid and Becky (played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) prank call a man named Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi) who had left a lonely hearts ad in the newspaper. They get him to turn up at a ropey faux 50s diner where they sit and casually mock him from a distance. Enid feels a little sorry for him and in the comic they go about their lives and their coming of age story. this is the moment the film really swerves away from the source material. Enid and Becky find where Seymour lives and Enid strikes up a friendship with him.
Gradually as the comic progresses the girls fall out as they mature in different directions. The same happens in the film but it is presented with a different story. Sort of a “What If?” scenario. Seymour is a reclusive obsessive collector of old vinyl records and odd memorabilia which and is such an oddball that Enid decides he’s quite a cool guy. She starts to hang out with him a lot more in an attempt to help Seymour find himself a girlfriend. Becky takes a backseat at times compared to her plot threads from the comic. We see her getting a job, something Enid can’t quite get the hang of, and we see her attempting to grow up and become an adult. Enid on the other hand takes centre stage and spends the film attempting to find out what kind of world she fits in with.
Enid is a self destructive character who can’t accept when she has something good coming her way and will usually sabotage her potential happiness by purposely being bad at her job or pushing her friend Becky away with her indifference. Enid does attempt to be accepted in areas of her life such as her art but ultimately these fall apart too. There’s a lot of depth and subtleties to her characters development. At one point she dyes her hair and goes for an “original 70s punk rock look” but after being mocked she changes back. This shows that despite her harsh outlook on the world she just wants to find where she fits in. When she doesn’t she regresses back a step.
As the film progresses Beck and Enid agree less and less about what is and isn’t cool. Enid’s attitude starts to grate on Becky as she attempts to be a more responsible person while in her eyes her friend is staying still. This is near exactly the character arc of the book. it’s quite impressive how a story told so differently can still hit the same beats and not feel a though it’s a different beast.
Performances in this film are consistently good, full of nuance and at no point coming out of the natural tone it has barring the few weird inhabitants of Enid and Becky’s Ghost World town. Dave Sheridan’s shirtless convenience store customer Doug being a particular oddball highlight. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson both give career making performances, shame only the latter has capitalised on it. Worth noting this isn’t that long after Johansson was getting bit parts in Home Alone 3 and Thora Birch was getting noticed for her work in American Beauty. Odd how careers can work out. Steve Buscemi is pretty much his usual excellent self. He really has the market cornered on shut in weirdos. Watch out for a small appearance from David Cross of Arrested Development fame playing a sleazy record collector. He somehow got a main credit for the 45 seconds he’s in the film. There’s honestly not an actor who fails to hit home their role in this film.
The cinematography is simple but not in the bad way that Saw 7 is simple. this is just a well framed and shot film that doesn’t need novelty lighting and colour saturation to make you feel what it wants you to feel. Everything about this film is either subtle, quirky or laced with razor sharp venomous wit. If there’s any gripes to be had it’s that it is not the adaptation of Ghost World fans would have expected. Becky doesn’t get her fair share of screen time, which I believe was likely due to script edits. I get the feeling the studios wanted a more focused story and at some point they decided more time needed to be spent with Enid than Becky. Not uncommon and fairly understandable. Between Enid relationships with Seymour, Her father, his girlfriend, Josh at the store and her art class there was already a lot of plot threads to follow. Maybe my issue is that there’s not enough Scarlett Johansson.
Overall Ghost World is a great indie film which has been pushed to the side over the years. it has a more World cinema approach to it’s storytelling than most US productions preferring to move along at it’s own pace and not be about a goal characters have in mind. By the end lessons have been learned and everyone has moved to a new chapter in their lives. It leaves you satisfied but wondering what will become of Enid and Becky’s lives from this moment on. If you were to look at the marketing for this film there was a large attempt by the studios to market this as a high school comedy, it even says as much on the back of the box. It is not at all. It is a coming of age drama with light comic relief scattered throughout. These days that’s all hollywood seem interested in from their smaller films. Dramedys they’ve been called. Maybe if Ghost World had been made recently it would have gotten the push it deserves and would have hit it’s intended audience.