Book vs. Film: Ghost World

Note: Today is my birthday! I considered giving myself an “off day” from blogging in honor of the occasion, but since I’ll be going camping and taking a few days away next month, I’ve decided instead to cover one of my favorite modern movies, Ghost World.

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Enid and Rebecca are graduating from high school and attempting to plan their futures. Rebecca is eager to get a job and an apartment. She and Enid have always planned on becoming roommates after graduation, heading straight into the workforce rather than leaving for college. But Enid faces an existential crisis as she spends her summer considering art school, hanging out with an eccentric music buff named Seymour, and taking an art class that she needs to earn her diploma.

That’s the basic premise of the film version of Ghost World, based on the comic book of the same name by Daniel Clowes.

I received this film as a gift from my mom many years ago. She found an ex-rental copy in a Blockbuster sale bin and picked it up because she thought it looked like something I would like. Enid, on the cover, has blue hair; I happened to be in my adolescent “alternative” phase, so a film with a bright-haired main character was an obvious choice for me.

I immediately fell in love with the film, from the first watch. My sister and I added it to our rotation of films that deserve frequent re-watching, and it has remained in that rotation since. I’ve been wanting to read the source material for several years since I love the adaptation so much, and have had it sitting on my Amazon wishlist for at least three, so I have no excuse for waiting until 2015 to finally read it.

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I was surprised to find just how different the book and film are from each other, considering the fact that Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff share screenwriting credit on the film. This is one of those cases where most of the central characters are the same and a few of the same events occur, but a few great liberties have been taken from page to screen.

Clowes’ comic is much more cynical and crude than the film, for one. Where the film is packed with quirky characters, the comic includes a few truly disgusting personalities (I’m looking at you, comic-version John Ellis). The film takes a more light-hearted approach, focusing on the those oddballs who are still good people, at heart — an obsessive collector of old records (Seymour), an artistic and angsty young girl (Enid), an old man who spends every day sitting at a decommissioned bus stop (Norman). The film treats them with what could almost be described as a sense of admiration.

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The relationship between Enid and Rebecca is slightly different in the book than in the film as well. Film-Rebecca is eager for change, ready to make a “normal” life for herself after high school, finding a job and an apartment. Film-Enid is less sure of her direction, but hesitant to follow in Rebecca’s footsteps. Book-Enid is still somewhat lost, considering college but not sure exactly what to do; Rebecca, on the other hand, is completely afraid of change. She wishes things could remain exactly as they were in high school. She’s not as driven or sure of herself as Film-Rebecca, which totally changes the dynamic between the characters.

The biggest change from page to screen is the creation of a new character: Seymour, portrayed by Steve Buscemi. Elements of Seymour can be found in the comic, but as a singular character he doesn’t exist. The decision to add him was a very good one; Buscemi’s performance greatly adds to the film, and the character of Seymour drives much of the plot. In addition to his own storyline, he adds pressure to the cracks in Enid and Rebecca’s friendship and is influential in Enid’s individual character arc.

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Ghost World will always hold a high spot on my list of favorite films. While I didn’t enjoy the comic quite as much as its adaptation, I do appreciate it. It was a fun experience for me to finally read the comic and see the seeds that were planted for some of my favorite parts of the film (like Enid’s obsession with Don Knotts), despite how different it is in tone and plot from the film.

6 thoughts on “Book vs. Film: Ghost World

  1. Excellent piece as well as reminder to myself to finally get a few people to see this AND that I need to read the graphic novel as well. I skimmed through it many years back, but I’ll get to it soon.

    For me, Clowes’ writing tends to be a bit gloomy yet amusing, so after seeing this the first time I expected the book to be a lot different in some areas. Still, I wonder if the studio asked for those changes to keep the film lighter than the book? I guess that’s what research is for, right? Add that to my list of to-do stuff…


    1. Interesting thought! I think that, at least in part, it may have been a result of the fact that a more cohesive story is told in the film than in the graphic novel. Some of the darker aspects of the novel are set aside in favor of a focus on Enid’s journey. Since I mentioned him in my post, take John Ellis as an example — in the film, he’s just the snarky/rude guy who rents videos to Enid, because to include his morbid obsessions from the novel would distract the viewer from the story that the film is trying to tell. But, I could be totally off base with that and I definitely have more research to do regarding this film!


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