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Lost in Adaptation: Ghost World by Matthew Guerruckey

The cover of Eightball #11, the first appearance of the “Ghost World” comic. (Image © Daniel Clowes)

The cover of Eightball #11, the first appearance of the “Ghost World” comic. (Image © Daniel Clowes)

"The TV was on, and he knew I was on the pill…I never said anything like, you know, ‘DO ME!’ or anything. He got totally serious like he was trying really hard to please me and I just wanted it to be over. It didn’t really hurt and I didn’t really bleed or anything…I remember The Jeffersons was on during the whole thing and I almost cracked up a few times…I was totally aware of every little thing in the room like that, which seemed weird…After it was over we watched Star Trek IV on cable without saying a word. After that I left…I said I was going to call him when I got home but obviously I never did…Once I got outside I started to feel really weird…Everybody was checking me out…I kept imagining Becky’s reaction to everything. Especially The Jeffersons.”
-from Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes is far from a household name, but in the world of alternative comics he’s a legend. Once you become familiar with Clowes’s distinctive artistic style it becomes easy to recognize everywhere—from covers of The New Yorker to the logo for Hollywood’s Meltdown Comics. For much of his career Clowes’s work appeared in Eightball, an independent comic written and drawn by Clowes himself, released by the Fantagraphics label.Eightball was an eclectic collection of gag comics, social parody, and longer stories broken up into chapters, all infused with Clowes’s deadpan wit and love of the graphic design of the 1960’s.

In issue #11 of Eightball Clowes published the first installment of a story called “Ghost World”, which centered on two teenage girls (Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer), their friendship, and their eventual parting. The story was a departure for Clowes, presenting a coming-of-age tale from a feminine perspective with wicked sarcasm as well as great emotional depth. Clowes has stated that he chose two teenage girls as his leads so that he could use them to express his cynicism without readers becoming distracted by an obvious author surrogate (though it’s worth mentioning that “Enid Coleslaw” is an anagram for Daniel Clowes).

“Ghost World” was collected into a graphic novel, and earned high praise from critics and expanded Clowes’s following. Director Terry Zwigoff, who had previously made the critically acclaimed documentary Crumb, which centered on the bizarre life and fetishes of underground comic legend Robert Crumb, approached Clowes about adapting the comic for the screen. Clowes would be deeply involved with the production, receiving co-writing credit on the script (and an eventual Oscar nomination).

Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch as Becky and Enid in Ghost World (Image © United Artists)

Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch as Becky and Enid in Ghost World (Image © United Artists)

Thora Birch was cast as Enid, fresh from her turn in the Best Picture winning film American Beauty. Birch was a big get at the time: she seemed destined for stardom, and was a perfect visual fit for Enid, but she would never again win the lead role in a film. The career of her co-star, Scarlett Johansson (only 15 at the time) would take a dramatically different turn. Scarlett would go on to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but nothing about her performance in Ghost World stands out. In fact, both Birch and Johansson give performances that careen from charismatic to flat, undercutting the snappy dialog. The girls capture the look of Enid and Rebecca perfectly, but don’t capture their wit.

The film’s greatest departure from the comic comes in the character of Seymour, played with graceful weariness by Steve Buscemi, in one of his first romantic leading roles. In the comic, the girls find a pathetic-sounding “missed encounters” personal ad seeking the identity of a “stunning blonde”. They leave a message for the man telling him to meet at a specific time and place-a throwback 50’s diner that has become their new hangout—and watch him as he waits for a woman who’s never going to show. As he leaves he whispers something to them that is either “very funny” or “fuck you”. The girls don’t show any remorse for the incident, and the man is never mentioned again. It’s a shitty thing to do, but Clowes doesn’t judge the girls for it.

Steve Buscemi as Seymour in Ghost World (Image © United Artists)

Steve Buscemi as Seymour in Ghost World (Image © United Artists)

But in the film Enid becomes obsessed with Seymour and tracks him to his apartment complex, where he’s selling old records at a yard sale. She buys an old jazz album and becomes entranced by one of the tracks, the Skip James blues classic “Devil Got My Woman”. The song leads her back to the sale again, and into Seymour’s world. As it happens, his sad, nostalgic environment is more of a natural match for her than Rebecca’s positive, upwardly mobile path. The two form a bond, and eventually even sleep together. The addition of Seymour brings a wounded soulfulness to the film, and Buscemi is marvelous, but the focus on Seymour does take away from the story of the girls and their friendship.

The film retains Enid at its center, but large portions of it go by without Rebecca. This does give a visual sense of the widening gap between the two, but it also deprives the film of their hyper-literate banter (something that Birch and Johansson may have been ill-equipped for anyway).

In the comic, the girls drift apart not only because of their changing plans for the future (Rebecca wants to stick around town, while Enid makes secret plans to leave for college). In the film, the central conflict between the girls is Enid’s reluctance to find a job and apartment for them to share—their dream since they were little. The growing distance between the two is shown in subtle ways throughout the movie, but most distinctly in Rebecca’s rejection of Seymour.
In the film, Rebecca (a much more caustic character than in the comic) tells Seymour that the girls were the ones who left the prank message for him. This sends Seymour into a rage, and he charges out to threaten Josh, the boy that Enid has confessed to having a crush on.

Music is of central importance to the film—which it wasn’t in the comics, due to the obvious constraints of the format (although Clowes does include the lyrics to a Ramones song and a reference to the song “Smile and a Ribbon” by Patience and Prudence that is used in the film. The movie begins with a brilliant musical sequence, scored to (and inter-cut with scenes from) the song “Jaan Pehechan Ho” from the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam.

The sequence traces the lines of a cable wire through the houses of dead-eyed city dwellers (who look like people drawn straight from the pages of Eightball) staring into nothingness and ignoring their children before finding Enid, dressed in her graduation cap and gown, gleefully dancing to the obscure musical number. In an instant, we are shown just how different this girl is from the world around her—it’s a smart and effective opener. The sequence is immediately followed by Enid and Rebecca at their graduation ceremony, the captive audience for a legitimately horrible rap performance by a trio of “street” girls who provide cliche, obvious rhymes like “we stayed for the duration/achieved matriculation/now we’re newest members of the general population”.

Enid’s disgust with the rap, or with the blonde stoner boy who asks if anyone’s “up for some reggae” (a line directly from the comic), connects her with Seymour, who bristles at the aggressiveness of modern rock DJs and is forced out of a blues bar by the execrable blues rock band Blueshammer, a group of fratty-looking white dudes who sing lines like “I been plowin’ behind the mule, son, pickin’ cotton all day long”.

Though much of the film is changed with the addition of Seymour he, and the way he reflects Enid’s alienation from the modern world, help underline the themes of the comic. In the comic, but not in the film, the title “Ghost World” is made concrete, through recurring graffiti. Toward the end of the comic Enid sees the mystery artist freshly applying the phrase to a wall, but he runs away before she can learn his identity. The phrase was taken from graffiti that Clowes actually saw painted on a garage in a ratty Chicago neighborhood. “I had no idea if it was taken from a song or if it was something that was made up,” he explained, “but it struck me as having a really evocative, poetic quality…the America we live in is disappearing, bulldozed under our feet and constantly rehabbed and remodeled.”

Though never stated explicitly, the phrase is a reflection of the ephemeral nature of the girls’ pop-culture fascinations, and the haunting loneliness of perpetual nostalgia. Beyond that, the phrase echoes the emptiness of the platitudes of a character like Melorra, a former classmate of the girls taking acting lessons, and the political ads and film trailers parodied in both the comic and the film.

In the comic, the sense that Enid’s world is slipping away from her is more defined. Enid’s love of nostalgia, then, becomes symbolic of her wish to hold onto the young girl she is and deny the woman she is meant to be. At the end, after she visits Rebecca at the coffee shop she works at (the last time the two friends speak), she meets with amateur psychic Bob Skeetes—described by Enid as Don Knotts with a homeless tan. Skeetes holds her hand and describes a vision of her future self:

“I get the sense that she’s an artist of some kind, or a scholar…a woman of intellect and leisure…a sexual libertine…she has a haunted quality, as though she wants to tell you something…I see a road ahead with many forks, all of which lead, it seems, to gloom and darkness…she hesitates…”

There is no room for Rebecca in this new world, and Enid knows it. She decides to live out her childhood dream, expressed earlier in the book, of disappearing to reinvent herself. The film ends with Enid taking the same bus out of town that she does in the comic, but the action is more cathartic than bittersweet.

Enid leaves town at the end of “Ghost World”. (Image © Daniel Clowes)

Enid leaves town at the end of “Ghost World”. (Image © Daniel Clowes)

Both the comic and the film capture the overwhelming choices of adolescence, but the film’s emphasis on Seymour detracts from the comic’s intelligent portrayal of a teenage friendship. In that way, both are very different pieces of art. Zwigoff was a rookie director and his inexperience shows, both in the deliberate pacing and inconsistent performances. The comic, on the other hand, is the work of a master craftsman during his most inventive period. Clowes’s mastery of pacing and dialog blows Zwigoff away. Luckily, much of his worldview remains in place in the adaptation, ensuring that it is faithful to his vision, if not his story.