One of my favourite movies is Scott Pilgrim vs the World. I’m pretty sure both the movie and the comic book it was based off was written specifically for me because every line and every image appeals to the awesome centre of my brain until it overloads and I will quite happily watch a movie I’ve seen dozens of times on repeat.
I love this movie so much that I even managed to talk my way into doing one of my assignments on it. This was mainly so I could watch the movie again in the name of ‘research’ but there was also serious (cough), almost seemingly (cough) academic stuff going on there (splutter sputter lies cough).
An unreliable narrator is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when your story is narrated by someone who’s, frankly, unreliable so it means that the story you’re being presented with may or may not be the true story. This may be because the narrator simply doesn’t understand what’s going on (this is common when you’ve got a child narrator) or it might be because your narrator is flat-out lying in order to get their point of view or opinions across.
It’s an interesting way to tell a story because it reflects real life in that we often don’t get the true account of things from people. Often they’ll leave out details or their memory will fail them or something will happen and either unintentionally or otherwise, the story will change. Hell, we ourselves are sometimes unreliable narrators because we tend to only take notice of things that we think matters and sometimes get blindsided when that ‘unimportant’ thing comes back to bite us squarely in the behind.
So how is Scott Pilgrim an unreliable narrator?
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a quick rundown. Scott is in his early twenties, unemployed and raised on a diet of comics, cartoons and video games. One day he meets Ramona Flowers, a girl who is literally from his dreams. He wants to go out with her but finds out that if they’re going to date he has to defeat her seven evil exes in combat. Then this happens.
It’s okay. Take a minute to blink the sheer awesome out of your eyes. It’s hard when you’re exposed to such a concentrated dose of it. What you just witnessed was pure video game madness, complete with ‘POW’s and ‘WHAMS’ and 8-bit amazingness. Scott is essentially a video game hero who must defeat the seven bosses in order to save the princess. And one of the best parts of it is that it’s played straight. The only time the characters question what’s happening is when the first evil ex breaks into a Bollywood dance number (Which… fair call). The rest of the time it’s just accepted that this is a world where sound effects noises are a thing, bad guys burst into coins when they’re defeated and people gain superpowers if they go vegan.
And that’s okay. The first (embarrassing) number of times I watched this I just accepted it as being part of the movie’s particular brand of logic. I was happy to go along with it as just being one of those bizarre things that don’t make sense but you’re okay with that.
And then my research turned up that the creator of the masterpieces that are the Scott Pilgrim comics, Bryan Lee O’Malley, actually believes that the events of Scott Pilgrim happen primarily in Scott’s head. Scott has cast himself as the main character in the game that is his life and everything that happens is just an extension of that fantasy.
This means that Scott Pilgrim is actually a movie that’s about some guy who wants to go out with a girl but first has to deal with her baggage and also stop being such a selfish prick.
Needless to say, that’s a movie that I would stay the hell away from. It wouldn’t even rate on my list of worst movies simply because it’s such a bland, overdone concept. But adding in the unreliable narrator who turns his ordinary problems into the levels of a video game? Sheer genius at its finest. It’s taking the mundane moments I chatted about last week and making them awesome through a simple change in perspective. Making the bed is boring but if you have to do so IN ORDER TO SAVE THE WORLD???
Using unreliable narrators can be brilliant. One of the examples I gave up there is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. It’s told from the point of view of a little boy, Bruno, whose family has to move for his father’s work. What’s his father’s work, you say? He’s one of the head honchos over at a little place called Auschwitz. You might have heard of it.
Bruno hasn’t. But he’s smart. He listens to people and tries to understand what’s going on but he’s missing something and he just isn’t sure what. Also, there’s a really cool kid on the other side of this big wire fence who he makes friends with but doesn’t understand why he can’t just pop out from behind the fence and play with him.
This unreliable narrator works so well because it plays with the audience’s knowledge of what’s going on. We know what’s happening here. But Bruno? He’s way too young to even begin to understand and he acts and narrates his story accordingly. And that’s great.
The unreliable narrator can also be great when your story is about someone who is morally questionable because nobody is a bad guy in their own head. A story that deals with the difference between what’s happening in a villain’s head and what’s actually happening in the story would be fascinating.
Unreliable narration is a great technique that deals with your story as a story and allows it to mess with ‘reality’ while allowing you give your protagonist more character. Scott Pilgrim is so obsessed with video games and comics that he turned his life into one. Who goes and makes their life into a video game where you have to defeat all of your girlfriend’s exes rather than having to deal with them like an adult? Scott Pilgrim, that’s who. And it’s awesome.