Ghost World: Comparing the Graphic Novel and the Film Adaptation

Ghost World: Comparing the Graphic Novel and the Film Adaptation

Ghost World (2001) film adaptation is considered to be one of the best films based on graphic novels. Films like David Cronenberg’s History of Violence (2005), Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy (2003), and American Splendor (2003) by Robert Pulcini prove that film adaptations of comic books can become prominent works of cinematic art. Ghost World stands on the same line with the above-mentioned films. The film has high cinematic value and, just like the graphic novel, with the use of complex characters and smart dialogues, tackles serious issues of maturity and self-identification of teenagers. At the same time, the film differs from the novel tonally, visually, and from the narrative standing point. The essay highlights that the film is telling a somewhat different story which still contains the original’s message while approaching it from a different angle.

Ghost World (1993 – 1997), a graphic novel written by Daniel Cloves, seems like a strange choice for a feature film adaptation. Its fragmented episodic narrative is much more suitable for a TV show or cartoon series. The novel consists of short stories connected by the main characters and loose plot threads. The segments in the novel are dramatically finished episodes, each providing more insight into the world of the two main characters – the young girls Enid and Rebecca. Each story has either little or no influence on the main plot, which is only added in the final chapters. It is the conclusion of the novel, which is more representative of how the novel was translated to the big screen. Plot-vise, the film required a different approach. Although many independent and art-house films have loose central plotlines and fragmented narratives, the director Terry Zwigoff decided to create a more straightforward story. At the same time, the film retained other elements which made the novel so great: witty dialogue, atmosphere, character development and exploration of teenage minds. Like the final chapters of the novel, the film is more eventful and dramatic, where most of the novel shows everyday lives of two young girls, mostly driven by their verbal interactions with each other. The major plot changes made in the film is when the storyline becomes more straightforward, the major characters were added, and the overall tone of the story is much more lighthearted and comedic. The change in tone influenced the film’s look, as it is stridden even more from the initial source material. Visually, the graphic novel is more grounded in the reality. The set design in the film is stylistically timeless and colorful, which contrast with a minimalistic monochrome palate of the book.  

The first major addition is the character of Seymour (Steve Buscemi), and a romantic storyline between him and Enid (Thora Birch). This character is absent in the novel, and originated from a two-page subplot of girls prank on a lonely man. Seymour becomes the second important character in the film, making Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) less significant to the story. The romantic plotline has an impact on the whole film. For a significant time, it shifts the focus of the friendship of two maturing girls on Enid, trying to understand the relationships with men and man-child Seymour attempting to break out of a cozy world, he has created for himself. At the same time, the character of Seymour can be used as juxtaposition to Enid: as she chooses to leave her childhood behind, Buscemi’s character makes the opposite choice – to remain in his self-contained state of immaturity.

The summer art-school subplot suited the film’s comedic tone and was used to make Enid more related since in the novel she is often cold and her constant irony can be off-putting. Just like the romantic subplot, the creative side of her personality, which is not highlighted in the novel, is used to make Enid more sympathetic to the audience. At the same time, Enid’s coldness in the novel is compensated by her being more physically expressive and emotional, whereas the performance of Thora Birch remains restrained throughout the film. The weakness of this subplot is that it is more concerned with simplistic satire on the contemporary art scene and art-education, which does not completely resonate with the otherwise nuanced character study of the film and the novel. Interestingly, both the author of the novel and the film’s director continued to explore the theme art education in Art School Confidential (2006), which leads to the conclusion that the subject was close to both authors (Dobbs 2011).

The question of nuance should also be addressed. The scene with garage sale illustrates two different approaches between the novel and the film. In the movie the garage sale is another comedic episode, in which the ironic effect is achieved by Enid refusing to sell anything which is dear to her. In the novel, this subplot ends on a more somber note: as Enid leaves all the things she was trying to sale and returning for her favorite toy, she finds the toy alone in the middle of the night. The final image of thee chapter shows Enid hugging a toy and saying “Thank God” in the dramatic moonlight (Clowes 20). This image shows how she struggles to part with simple things which remind her of her childhood. The casting choice made by the director must also be praised. The casting of the two young leads, which were almost the same age as the novel’s heroines, as well as their physical resemblance to the characters Cloves created, added credibility to the film. The famous weirdness of the novel’s minor characters is also presented in the casting choices, especially  the choice to cast Steve Buscemi, who is known not only for his acting abilities, but also for unusual appearance.

With all the changes in a plot and tone it is important to understand how the novel’s themes made the transition to the screen. The theme of girl’s sexuality is presented in a more explicit and provocative manner in the novel. Such content could be hard to adapt in a subtle way, without causing a controversy or breaking the direction the filmmakers chose for the story. Thus, this important motif was reduced to a series of awkward jokes and Enid’s frustration with her romance with Seymour. Other motifs of the book did not suffer as much from the transition. The fear of growing up, and struggle of self-identification of people who find themselves different from others, loneliness and uncertainty in the future – all of these themes are still heavily present in the film, despite its more lighthearted mood.

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In conclusion, the novel did not require a complex storyline and multiple sub-plots and characters; it used only the conversations between Enid and Rebecca with rare inclusions of flashbacks and dream sequences. On the other hand, the film aimed not only to transfer the strong elements of the novel to the screen but also to add other layers and address it to the target audience. Thus, all of the aforementioned changes resulted in a more “cinematic” and accessible experience. While the graphic novel is still more realistic, provocative, and nuanced, the film succeeded in presenting it to more people to the other kind of comic book, which is an achievement in itself.

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