Bryan Lee O'Malley hopes you know Scott Pilgrim is a bad guy

CBC News speaks with Toronto writer Bryan Lee O'Malley about why he made Scott Pilgrim Takes Off — the Netflix adaptation of his legendary comic — so different.

Creator explains why he turned original story on its head for new adaptation

A cartoon of two people. The person on the left seems surprised, will the one on the right seems smug.
A still from Netflix's Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is shown. Nearly 20 years after the original book debuted, Toronto writer Bryan Lee O'Malley returned to the iconic character for the new series. (Netflix)

** Mild spoilers for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off **

The book spawned five sequels. The series launched a cult classic movie that, despite bombing at the box office, helped launch and cement the careers of everyone from Michael Cera and Chris Evans to Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson. And now, a video game, short film and pop culture obsession with girls "with hair like this" later, Scott Pilgrim is back.

This time, it's in a Netflix anime, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. But instead of adapting the well-worn story of a slacker/loser with near superhuman levels of charisma battling the "seven evil exes" of his new love, creator Bryan Lee O'Malley did something very different.

Without giving too much away, the meta-narrative of this semi-adaptation, semi-sequel has left some fans scratching their heads. CBC News talked to O'Malley about coming back to Scott Pilgrim almost 20 years after the original book first launched and how his own — and pop culture's — complicated opinion of Scott Pilgrim the guy influenced the changes in the series. 

WATCH | Bryan Lee O'Malley talks adapting Scott Pilgrim for 2023: 

Writer Bryan Lee O'Malley discusses adapting the classic Scott Pilgrim series for 2023

17 days ago
Duration 4:59
Featured VideoScott Pilgrim, the iconic comic turned cult-classic movie, has been adapted again. Its writer, Bryan Lee O'Malley, talks to CBC News about why he switched the story around for a new audience.

What about the story compelled you to go back to this world? What did you want to do differently — and were you worried how fans would react to you telling that story so differently?

I mean, the characters always compel me — getting to revisit those characters. And I do have an audience now. When I was doing the books, I had no idea if anyone would ever read them. And now I know Day 1, probably millions of people around the world are gonna watch this thing. 

But I think we ended up with a show that is silly but also powerful on some level. I think it's going to speak to the nostalgia that people have for it, but in a whole new way that they're not expecting.

Speaking of not expecting, we get a lot of that meta commentary here — a story about telling the Scott Pilgrim story. How much of this story is about you?

Like I said, I didn't have an audience when I was doing the comics. And then all of a sudden the movie happened. Around March of 2010, the trailer came out and my life just changed. Forever. My life became meta.

Because Scott Pilgrim exists in pop culture. I can't really look at pop culture the same way I did when I was younger. I'm just, I'm part of it. So I wanted to draw the audience into my world where Scott Pilgrim exists and messes with my life, you know, in a lot of weird ways.

Three people are seen playing in a band in a living room. The one at front holds an acoustic guitar and sings into a microphone. Behind him is a woman on drums and a man playing bass.
A scene from Edgar Wright's film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The 2010 movie failed at the box office but transformed into a cult classic. (Universal Canada)

And now we get a time-travelling Scott Pilgrim — we get older Scott Pilgrim talking to younger Scott Pilgrim. Is there an older Bryan talking to a younger Bryan?

We just had this silly idea to have some time travel and to have an older version of Scott and see what would happen with that. I hope I'm not the older Scott — I hope I'm not Scott Pilgrim at all [laughs]. But it's really fun to write the opposite of an aspirational character — like the character that you don't want to become. It's really fun to explore.

LISTEN | Scott Pilgrim is back as an anime: 
Featured VideoScott Pilgrim Takes Off is a new anime series that shares the same storyline as the 2010 cult-hit movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and features voicework by all of the actors in the original film. Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley and co-executive producer BenDavid Grabinski tell Brent Bambury about the new series, the enduring appeal of Scott Pilgrim and what it took to get the cast to buy in.

And were those thoughts in your head when you were approaching this character again? I mean, the book's iconic first line, "Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler," is now supplemented by villains commenting on how that's evil, and Scott apologizing for it at the end. Was that something that you were, like, "OK, I need to make this more clear for an audience"?

I felt like in this day and age, I had to provide clarity on that. Because when I wrote the first books, I took it for granted that people would understand that dating a high schooler was a bad thing. But on the internet, in this day and age, people are like, "He's dating a high schooler. That's terrible!" Like, that's pretty much what I say on page 1 of the book. But I try to spell it out a little bit more this time.

This is kind of a parody, a critique of a type of a guy who uses women to get over his own problems. Is that criticism something that you see understood by audiences? Because I think there's some discourse over Scott Pilgrim that has evolved over the years.

There's a bit of, like, young people see Scott Pilgrim a certain way, and, you know, there's a lot of, like, 18-19-year-old fans that are really judgmental of the character. They're like, "Oh, he's a bad person. I would never do that." But I always tell them, like, get back to me when you're 25 or 30, tell me how your 20s went. Were you a bad person? Everyone has to make choices and do things in life that maybe they're not going to be proud of later.

And talking again about evolution: Scott Pilgrim was originally a love story. This one as we see the future, we see a love story that's potentially failed, and we question: Is it worth pursuing? How much pain can one handle? Is that also related to your evolving relationship with love and life as a person?

Yeah, I mean, when I was writing Scott Pilgrim the first time, I just wanted to come up with a very simple story engine: fight, fight, fight, get to the end. That gave me something to hang all this other stuff on, all this slice of life hanging out in Toronto.

I'm older now, looking at a different scope of life. I always see it like: I started Scott Pilgrim out when I was, like, 24, 25, and I was finished when I was just over 31. I came back from my 30s and went back to my early 20s.

In Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, I'm coming from my 40s and going back to my fans who are in their early 20s or whatever, and just telling them: "Here's some stuff that you might find out later." So I don't know, it's kind of fun. I get to time travel, too, in a way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver