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From panels to the big screen: A journey through two ghost worlds

The film version of “Ghost World” premiered theatrically in the summer of 2001 but disappeared from theaters after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 of that year. The movie was based on an independent comic book created by Daniel Clowes.

Courtesy of United Artists

The film “Ghost World,” which was released theatrically in late summer of 2001 after premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival, was a critical darling that garnered limited financial success in theaters despite its warm reception. After the events of Sept. 11 of that year, the movie disappeared prematurely, like most other films exhibiting in the United States at that time. Even though the movie had such a short theatrical run, it’s somewhat iconic today as it’s often viewed as not just a successful adaptation of a comic book, but also as a defining coming-of-age film that towers above the majority of its peers that were released in the last 30 years.

Earning rave reviews from Robert Ebert and other acclaimed film critics, “Ghost World” is as significant and commendable as any John Hughes movie from the 1980s, including “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club.” What many didn’t realize upon the film’s release was that “Ghost World” was based on a small independent comic series. This was unusual, given this was a period when most comics that got adapted into movies were failures met with immediate criticism as the medium was looked down upon; even in Hollywood, the same institution that now seems to want to option almost anything that was ever first introduced in a comic panel.

From 1993 to 1997, creator Daniel Clowes released “Ghost World,” his serialized comic book series, through “Eightball,” a comic from indie publisher Fantagraphics Books. It took half a decade to produce, but once all 80 pages had been released the story became a cult classic that was eventually translated into the movie that premiered in Seattle. Clowes co-wrote the screenplay with Terry Zwigoff, who directed.

Though the “Ghost World” film only broke even financially at the box office, its merit didn’t go unnoticed with the Academy of Motion Pictures, as it was nominated for best adapted screenplay. Clowes, who did double duty writing and illustrating the comic, had a heavy hand in the page-to-screen conversion. He collaborated as part of a team to utilize the film medium to its fullest, expanding his comic from being a counterculture statement based in the early 1990s into a coming-of-age tale with universal themes that surpass a specific period of time despite the film’s small-town ’90s setting.

When done right, comics combine the best of what visual mediums can offer, with the opportunity to develop and render unique images and accompanying dialogue to convey story. In a sense, enjoying a comic is similar to reading a novel or short story, but with sequential images which enhance story, much like a film with an unlimited budget that lives in your head.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books

Meeting Enid and Rebecca on the page

The “Ghost World” comic opens with the words Ghost World spray-painted across a garage door. The comic then presents Enid and Rebecca, teenage best friends who are the story’s main characters, in Enid’s bedroom watching a stand-up comic on TV. The introduction suggests there may be something ghost-like — or perhaps even supernatural — that will unfold in the story, but the panel progression quickly implies the narrative will also be grounded and deal with practical issues while Enid and Rebecca look to do ordinary things — like sit around and give each other a hard time.

The girls, who are beginning to shed their adolescence as they encounter a mix of old high school friends and new strangers entering their lives, interact with a fascinating cast of characters which includes a Satanist couple in a diner. There’s also John Ellis, who’s into kinky underground things, and then there’s Josh, the straight guy who’s the story’s emotional baseline. We also meet Allen, a server from the diner who seems a bit off. Not only do these characters enhance the episodic structure of the comic, they help divide Enid and Rebecca’s journey into slice-of-life moments that can be taken as contained adventures or key moments that fit into the larger story like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Despite the ordinary nature of most of the Enid and Rebecca’s encounters, there’s a supernatural and iconoclastic vibe present that’s buried in subtext — like when the girls choose to eat at a diner called Angels. There are also several Ghost World messages seen that are spray-painted on objects and backgrounds throughout the series by a character or entity that’s never seen.

Courtesy of United Artists

Contrasting the mediums

Released by United Artists, the motion picture “Ghost World” stars Thora Birch as Enid, Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca, and Steve Buscemi as Seymour, a character who doesn’t exist in the comic. Like most film adaptations of comics, “Ghost World” expands on its premise to meet the needs of a larger and more diverse audience. Even though comics and film are both visual mediums, the rules are different. For example, comics have dialogue restrictions as creators don’t want to clutter panels with word balloons that cover up identifying artwork that’s better able to convey the story than a character speaking. Film, on the other hand, is able to incorporate the best of both worlds, allowing lengthier conversations featuring more characters that can fit within a camera shot, rather than an artist drawing as much as he or she can fit into a single panel. Stylistically, Clowes utilized both mediums to their maximum potential to ensure strong narrative threads were produced for both the comic and film versions of “Ghost World.”

While it’s important to identify what works for each medium, it’s also vital to release a movie that’s identifiable and honors its source material if it’s to be a successful adaptation. The film “Ghost World” has a controlled look that’s minimalistic and utilizes simple camera techniques that solidify the two-dimensional world that’s being adapted. It’s an approach that’s aesthetically pleasing and true to its source material that also addresses budget constraints, allowing the indie comic to be converted into a small-budget cinematic experience without techniques and distractions that might hinder the narrative. The simplistic look employed in the screen version of “Ghost World” also captures a stillness that’s subtle and particularly effective, given the scenes rendered are typical of ordinary moments that young adults experience; or can at least relate to, like graduating from high school, or getting bad grades and going to summer school.

Likely due to Clowes’ involvement in each version of “Ghost World,” the adaptation process in this case appears streamlined compared to other movies developed during the same time period. Not weighed down by being a writer who had to worry about authorial intent in the source material, Clowes had a distinct advantage in developing the film. His savvy helped make the adaptation process relatively seamless, allowing for more control of his intellectual property than what’s normal, which helped the movie break through at a time when there often wasn’t much harmony or control for creators in relation to their source material. Adaptations are tricky and hard to get right, particularly when the screenwriter is not the same person as the original author. However, if the two roles are filled by the same writer, the only individuals who can override the story on the page are the director or producer, and in some cases they may not be able to do so without breaching contract.

Breaking a friendship to grow

The “Ghost World” comic is framed around Enid and Rebecca, best friends and recent high school graduates who are trying to figure out their next steps in life. There’s initially a general lack of direction for the pair with their narrative built around achieving short-term goals, which makes sense as their stories are serialized into small chapters consisting of no more than 10 to 15 pages. With the comic having roughly seven to nine panels to a page, there's little room to meander or waste space when conveying story.

Most of the comic is structured around the girls taking a counterculture stance against their peers and early ’90s pop culture through individualized and contained moments. To highlight their counterculture stance in the film, the first line of dialogue is a cliché spoken at arguably the most important event in a person’s life outside of birth, getting married, or bringing a newborn child into the world: high school graduation. A student says while delivering her school’s commencement speech, “High school is like the training wheels for the bicycle of real life. It is a time when young people can explore different fields of interest and hopefully learn from their experience.” While the speech is being given, Enid and Rebecca glare and make funny faces, seemingly both amused and annoyed by the talk as they realize the cliché is being eaten up by their classmates and the audience.

From music to personal relationships to clothing, Enid and Rebecca are constantly working against the grain — pushing against anything that’s popular or status quo. They choose to challenge and question everything. Their humorous and sympathetic resistance to nearly all they encounter is framed perfectly in the graduation scene, not just because they resist the cliché but because they immediately show they’re outsiders who are brutally honest and can be trusted to be intriguing, fresh and avoid conforming.

After getting a taste of Enid and Rebecca’s friendship early on, obstacles are presented that begin to divide them on several issues. Enid is for the most part static throughout the comic and movie, staying true to her convictions and resisting efforts to conform, which begins to frustrate Rebecca when her best friend disrupts her plan to achieve independence and get an apartment. Much of the growing distance between the girls comes from external characters and environments, primarily through the new people Enid interacts with while Rebecca works as a barista trying to save money, expecting Enid to follow her example.

Someone Enid encounters who contributes to this division is her summer school art teacher, a woman who exists only in the film, played by Illeana Douglas. The art teacher is an extension of Enid’s future — should she follow the path Rebecca desires — and also a cautionary character Enid can choose to model or ignore when determining her future plans. Meanwhile, Rebecca continues to grow out of her schoolgirl attitude and grows increasingly frustrated when Enid strays from her example.

Courtesy of United Artists

The wisdom and chaos of Seymour and Norman

The introduction of Seymour adds what’s likely the biggest wrinkle in Enid and Rebecca’s deteriorating friendship. Seymour’s relationship to the girls starts with him being a project for Enid and Rebecca, like a social experiment they mean to tinker with. Rebecca, however, quickly grows bored and moves on, much like she tends to do with everything else. Enid, meanwhile, befriends Seymour because she can relate to him despite their age difference of a couple decades. They grow close, hanging out regularly — listening to Seymour’s record collection — and eventually even sleep together. Like many relationships born from awkward situations, Enid’s budding romance with Seymour ends awkwardly.

Unlike in the comic, where he doesn’t exist, Seymour is the primary catalyst that brings conflict to Enid and Rebecca’s friendship. His character also packs extra tension that’s not found in the comic, as he generates unpredictable cinematic and comedic turns that help buoy Enid’s character, which is essential for her arc as she pushes against the conventions of conforming in spite of receiving a great deal of pressure to do just that.

Another character who helps divide Enid and Rebecca is Norman. Somewhat old — at least to teenagers — sad, and a little pathetic, Norman’s portrayal is consistent in both the comic and film, as he’s frequently seen sitting at a transit stop waiting for a bus to arrive. Norman is broken and distraught, not seeming to understand the bus he waits for is no longer in service. Both Enid and Rebecca seem sad about Norman’s situation, and like how Enid inserts herself into Seymour’s life, she shows interest in Norman.

Enid visits with Norman in the film and says, “You’re like only person in this world that I can count on, because no matter what I know you’ll always be here.” But that notion is challenged when Norman leaves when an out-of-service bus eventually drives by and picks him up.

A unified ghost world

Motivated by Norman’s exit, and her failing social relationships, Enid tells Seymour, “I used to think about one day going off to some random place, and I’d just disappear and they’d never see me again.” Sure enough, Enid chooses to do just that in the film, getting on her own out-of-service bus to disappear into the night — with no context or explanation provided. Very ghost-like.

The comic ends similarly, but during the day and with one last instance of Ghost World spray-painted in a panel. Enid says, perhaps to no one in particular walking along the sidewalk, “You’ve grown into a very beautiful young woman” and soon gets aboard her bus.

Even with the tweak made from the comic to the film adaptation, the effect is chilling as it works the same in both mediums: a haunting ending that is open to a variety of different interpretations. In fact, there are many arguments made in movie and critical reviews stating that Enid choosing to ride off on an out-of-service bus suggests she commits suicide. Clowes has stayed away from discussing the topic, stating he intentionally left things ambiguous and open for interpretation.

It’s interesting to note that though he had 80 pages of comic to do whatever he desired, with minimal influence or editorial input, Clowes chose to expand his intellectual property for the film: adding more characters and bigger plot points. With the comic’s page count, Clowes could have penned a carbon copy of his series, making minimal tweaks to have a more straightforward narrative instead of serialized storytelling, and had a 100-page script to show for it a standard length. Instead, Clowes kept his principal characters, added Seymour, consolidating a few minor roles to incorporate aspects of them into Buscemi's character, and then co-created a post-high school hell scenario requiring Enid to go to summer school so that she could be influenced by a cliché-wielding art teacher. Those tweaks don’t just amplify that the movie is an intermediate interweaving adaptation, with intermediate suggesting different but familiar, it signifies to the original comic book audience that here are the same enjoyable characters from the comic now presented in an even more dynamic environment which allows them to delve into larger issues with elevated stakes and more universal themes.



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