I review the adaptation of one of my favorite books, Looking For Alaska, which is now an eight episode Hulu series.
If you haven't read Looking For Alaska, I reviewed it a couple years ago on my book blog and talked about the book in-depth here: http://www.readingwritingandme.com/2017/07/reviews-and-recommendations-week-16.html
I also talked about how YA definitely has a battle between for teens vs. about teens which I get into more in this post: http://www.readingwritingandme.com/2019/03/is-ya-for-me.html
If you want to find me, reach out through Twitter @mslaurenbrice and by email email@example.com.
Music: Bright Ideas by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com
Intro: Welcome to the Empathy Factor. My name is Lauren, and today I’m going to be talking about Looking For Alaska the Hulu show based on John Green’s book of the same name. The book has been, for years, in my top 3 all time, un-rankable favorite books. I was terrified when I heard it was going to finally be adapted. I’ve never particularly loved a book adaptation. There have been some that are fine, inoffensive, or enjoyable enough, but I’ve never fallen completely in love with one. Green has had two previous books adapted both by Fox. Paper Towns was the most disastrous movie I’ve seen. Full stop. Not just adaptation. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. The Fault In Our Stars was a good movie. It actually made me cry. I didn’t think it was perfect. The book was still so much more, but I was happy with it. It did Green’s beautiful story justice. Looking For Alaska is in a league of its own. I went into this more skeptical than anyone, but I can say now that I am obsessed. Over the next few minutes, I will let you know exactly why. Please leave a rating and review on iTunes while you listen and don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t yet.
I don’t even know where to start with this. I have so much love for the show, it’s actors, and everyone who contributed on the crew to make this piece of art. So the Alaska adaption has about a decade long history behind it. It was John’s first book. It came out before YA was even seriously a thing. It got optioned by Paramount for a movie that was rumored to happen over and over again, but nothing ever came through, even after the major box off success of Fault In Our Stars. Everyone was sort of at Paramount’s mercy when it came to seeing it on screen since they kept renewing the deal. Another thing remained consistent too: Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage had been attached to and championing the project for years even when nothing was happening. They had dedication, and their true love for the project definitely shines through. Schwartz is the show runner while Stephanie along with John Green is an executive producer.
If you haven’t read the book, the story is basically about a boy who goes to boarding school looking to find something different. There, he meets the Colonel, Takumi, and Alaska who become his best friend. He falls for Alaska even though they just met each other and she has a boyfriend (but isn’t that how teenage love works?) And the book chronicles their first semester together at Culver Creek. And, spoiler alert but not really: Alaska dies. In an accident shrouded with mystery. In the end, in every possible way, the book asks each of us to examine the why. Why do we exist? How do we exist with uncertainty? What happens when we die? What does our legacy look like? How do we find happiness in a world full of awful things? They’re big questions. How do we escape the labyrinth of suffering? Is Alaska’s big question. Pudge is seeking the great perhaps. The book is brilliant and also short so you have no excuse to not read it. I have a full review from my book blog which I’ll link in the show notes if you’re curious.
Before I dive into the show itself, I do want to quickly run through some of the criticism the book has gotten in the last 14 or 15 years since it came out. Lots of people point to it as the prime example of the “Manic pixie dream girl” syndrome. Basically, the idea of that is that a girl in a story is unstable and larger than life and flames out just to push a male character’s story along. Yes, Alaska feels larger than life, yes she’s troubled, yes Pudge is infatuated, and yes, she completely alters Pudge’s story, but no, I don’t think Alaska only exists for Pudge’s story or pleasure or whatever. If that was true, tell me how so many girls have fallen in love with the book, in for Pudge but for Alaska. I see myself in Alaska. I’ve talked to so many people who do. Teens are erratic. We are moody sometimes. Alaska seemed to suffer from undiagnosed mental illness and had a very rough childhood, and how she deals with it is very much a product of her surroundings. Ya, she’s a warning, but she’s a very valid, fully realized person who was struggling. And no one was close enough to see it. They couldn’t tell. They thought she was fine, just being an Alaska, just being a moody teenager, but it was more. And I’m glad that Alaska’s story was told because maybe it’s made some people consider that their friends might be going through more than what’s apparent. That maybe it’s good to ask people if they’re okay.
Also, the book is told through Pudge’s prospective which does cast Alaska in a larger than life light. The boy was hopelessly in love with her. Haven’t you ever fallen for someone and not been able to see their dark spots, the places that they aren’t perfect? Isn’t that how a lot of teenagers fall in love?
Of course, everyone reads and interprets books differently, and as John says himself, books are for their readers and made to be interpreted at will, but I feel like that’s sort of unfair. They also have noted that none of the teens sound like teens which I’ve always objected to most. Teens aren’t stupid. We have vocabularies and can form complex sentences. The book was the first I’d read where I’d smiled at the pages and thought ‘They speak like I do’. So, sure, they might be extra thoughtful and philosophical and grand, but it felt much more like me than some characters I see who are like ‘TTYL lol, I luuuv u’. Every teen is their own person. They all speak differently. And teens aren’t usually the ones complaining.
Anyway, I say all that so that you have some background for some things I’m going to point out as we go. The first thing that struck me about the show was how incredible the set design is. It all looked so real and had the perfect vibes. The costumes too. And the opening scene got me hooked. Alaska, at Coosa Liquors, pulling out her huge vocabulary to convince the clerk that she was 28 and did not go to the high school as she shopped for wine coolers. Alaska’s calling card is her wit and way with words, and I was glad she wasn’t getting toned down for the show like so many on screen versions are.
This this also a good place to note that the show is rated MA, something that really took me by surprise. Most YA adaptions are PG-13. They have to be PG-13 because that’s the only way that the book’s target audience can show up for it at the theater. The problem is that the two uses of F and all the other rules that garner a PG-13 rating are not true for books. Books are lawless and can do and say whatever they want within reason and still fall in YA as long as there are teens at the center. This disconnect between the industries leave a lot of book adaptations in lurch, unable to keep the full depth and character of the book for time and ratings limits. Most YA is R rated if it were a movie, not for anything particularly scandalous, it’s just that the ratings are very strict. MA, though, felt like a bold choice.
But LFA does something I’ve seen a lot of teen shows (or shows about teens) do lately. It’s not a for teens thing. It’s a self respecting piece of art it seems from the creators point of view. It seems like they’re angling towards adults too, or even moreso. It finally feels like they decided to make the choices that would make the most quality series over worrying about parental gatekeepers who honestly ruin everything. Also, though, the more I think about it, the audience who originally fell for Looking For Alaska are well into adulthood and those who caught on in the Fault IN Our Stars frenzy are there or well on their way. It’s an odd nostalgia play that couldn’t feel more relevant. So that’s all to say that they bring you Looking For Alaska with all the swearing, smoking, drinking, and (not graphic at all) blow jobs of the original book you love. The world feels rich and alive and limitless. I never once felt like they were holding back, but I also never felt like they were trying to be edgy. They were just telling a story, which is a nice change from Euphoria, which I discussed a while back, who took their MA rating and made a play for a scandalous headline every week. In my opinion, they just took it too far, which feels even more highlighted after watching what Paramount did with Alaska.
While I won’t go too far into the plot to keep from giving things away, I love how they kept its integrity. While I read the book a few years ago now, every story beat that I could remember was present, in details, and accurate to the book. The Hulu series gave them space. Eight episodes, all running about fifty minutes doubled the amount of space in the actual book, so they did add scenes that weren’t in the original story. It only made it richer. They managed to so fully embody the voice, the vibes, and the characters, that the new pieces were seamless inclusions. Seeing some parts on screen made me realize that they were even better acted out, shown to their full outrageous potential. It’s amazing how well the story moved to the screen and managed to keep its complete poetic nature.
The characters all wound up being perfectly cast. While I was skeptical at first, by the end of the first episode, they all had me sold. Alaska, who I could have never imagined finding someone to embody is played with so much nuance by Kristine Froseth. Her performance, along with the third person shifting of the show seemed to answer all the Manic pixie dream girl critiques. She showed the genuine pain that Alaska was in and how she hid it. Also, though, she offered real glimpses into the darker, emotionally manipulative side of Alaska. At the end of the day, though, it was clear how layered of a person Alaska was and how she had that charismatic power over everyone. They managed to pull back her mask so beautifully.
Then there’s Pudge who’s played by Charlie Plummer. I have to admit. I didn’t buy it at first. I don’t think I’d ever envisioned Pudge much since I experienced the book through his eyes, but it just didn’t seem right. Until I saw him interact with the cast. He’s perfect. He made me really like Pudge, and from the few interviews and some of John’s vlogs, he seems genuinely sweet and kind. It comes through in his performance.
Then there’s Denny Love as the colonel and Jay Lee as Takumi. It’d been so long since I read the book that I didn’t really have much memory of those two, but Denny is so perfect in the role. Dry, humorous, but also full of heart and strength, and Takumi might be my new favorite character. He had me laughing nonstop and he’s a genius. I have to credit Denny and Jay with making me realize that. There’s so much to love about the whole cast and especially how well they work with one another as it’s a large ensemble. They all manage to stand out without ever seeming to outshine or work against one another.
My other surprises in the series came from characters that were given expanded roles in the book. The Eagle was taken from a strict military sergeant that was just an antagonist to a guy you just kinda had to love and feel bad for. You could see how much he loved the kids and how hard he was trying to do right by everyone, and his romance with the French teacher was probably the thing I shipped the hardest during this whole thing. They’re just so damn cute. Was not expecting that. But I have to applaud Timothy Simons for bringing a new face of the Eagle. In that same vein, Ron Cephas Jones as Dr. Hyde blew my mind. While Hyde was always important in the book, his expanded role brought so much depth to the story and I loved seeing the wonderful mentoring relationship he had with all the kids as he helped propel their exploration of the questions I listed at the start.
The other thing that struck me was keeping the book in 2005. I would have been 2 when these events took place which is so bazar. I still don’t get how everyone was calling that payphone and how people ever caught the calls that were for them, but it was super interesting to see the subtle ways that the timing impacted how certain events went down. It took place in a world that I have no understanding of yet is so familiar.
So, in short, I’m a huge fan of the show, and I will encourage everyone I see to watch it. It’s good in comparison too, in conjunction with, and aside from the book which is a pretty remarkable feat. Since it’s on Hulu, I’m not sure what awards it qualifies for, but it deserves to be award winning. The care that went into it from casting to scripting to set design to including a hotline number for those who struggle with smoking and drinking, is beyond evident in every sentence they echo. They managed to make every episode funny in some way without being irreverent to how serious the story becomes. It’s a masterpiece.
Closer: So go watch Looking For Alaska on Hulu and let me know what you think about it! I think the cast is adorable and I also recommend you watch some of their interviews and games they’ve played on You Tube. People are saying that Charlie looks like a young Chad Micheal Murry. Do you agree? Let me know on social or by emailing in @mslaurenbrice on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org to contact me. For more episode and full episode notes and transcripts visit www.empathyfactor.simplecast.come. Don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe as well as sharing this episode on social media!