Welcome to Page to Picture, where we take a look at newly adapted movies and see how they stack up against their literary counterparts.
In this installment, we’re looking at John Green’s Paper Towns.
WARNING: There will be spoilers.
Let’s start with the book …
Paper Towns is John Green’s third novel, and my favorite of anything he’s written. Part of that is because it came out the year after I graduated from high school, so I ended up in the perfect target audience for a novel about breaking out of your shell, and learning to understand people up close.
The book follows Quentin ‘Q’ Jacobsen, an 18-year-old kid, content with his very normal, average life, about to graduate high school, and in love with the girl next door: Margo Roth Spiegelman. Margo is the town legend. She’s everything Q thinks he’s not: adventurous, outgoing, fearless, and beautiful. But as Margo says herself, “everything is uglier close up.”
After a night of surprising adventures with Margo, Q wakes up to find her gone. When she doesn’t return, Q and his friends Ben and Radar set out to find her, following clues she left behind on an occasionally frightening scavenger hunt, culminating in a cross-country road trip to a paper town with a paper girl.
There are a lot of things to love about the book, not the least of which is the story’s ultimate moral: that we need to stop putting people on a pedestal, and that we need to understand that people, even ones who seem like they have everything, could be hiding real pain or problems just beneath the surface.
Which brings us to the movie …
and a very, very weird situation. For the first time, this is a film that’s likely to be enjoyed more by the people who have read the book than those who haven’t.
The movie is extremely faithful to its source material (maybe too much), and what changes the writers did make really only served to enhance the story. Increasing the roles of the non-Margo female characters was a great choice, and adding Angela (Radar’s girlfriend) to the road trip was a stroke of brilliance. Perhaps my favorite change though was in altering the timeline of Ben and Lacey’s prom courtship, which in the book in lightning fast and very strange. The screenwriters, though, used it as a means of informing the film’s ultimate message. Just as Q fails to imaging Margo complexly, Ben also fails to imagine Lacey has any layers beyond the surface.
But there is one glaring problem with the film: it’s actually a little aimless. There’s a lot of milling about, really, and fretting over prom. Sure, the main artifice of the action is finding Margo, but the filmmakers had to force the action for a great deal of the story. This is largely because the book is extremely introspective. The bulk of the story is Q figuring things out, thinking, learning to understand Margo, etc., all of which is extremely hard to translate to screen in any sort of interesting way.
Ultimately, while the movie accomplishes the goals of the book, turning the “manic pixie dreamgirl” trope on its head, and giving us a damn fun road trip in the process, it’s difficult to appreciate the complexity of the underlying story without having first read the novel.