More than a decade after “Looking for Alaska” was published, it finally hit the screen, as a limited television series on Hulu. Did it live up to the novel?
When Hulu announced that it would create a television series based on John Green’s novel Looking For Alaska, I had a lot of feelings.
I’ve followed Looking For Alaska’s journey from print to screen for years. Josh Schwarz, creator of the O.C., signed on to produce a film all the way back in 2005, the same year the book was published. Though a movie script was produced, it went through many years of delays.
Green’s later novels, The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns both became films before the Looking For Alaska script ever saw the light of day. Those films, however, both felt flat and empty to me, with part of the problem being poor casting choices (minus Nat Wolff and Justice Smith, who are perfect), and the other part being that the strength of John Green’s novels just don’t translate well to film. Still, I hoped that Looking For Alaska would benefit from the TV-series format, the years of story development and the opportunity to learn from what didn’t work in the other films.
With all this in mind, as a longtime John Green fan, I knew I had to approach his newest on-screen offering with cautious optimism. The story, like many of his other books, is a high school coming-of-age novel centered around teens who are seemingly wise beyond their years — or at least, eloquent and full of existential dread beyond their years. However, that doesn’t stop them from getting into prank wars and various shenanigans.
Looking For Alaska follows a teenage Miles Halter as he moves to a boarding school in Birmingham, Ala. to “seek a great perhaps,” as he puts it. Once there, he befriends fellow students Takumi, Chip “The Colonel” Martin, and Alaska Young — with whom he promptly develops a fascination bordering on obsession. Alaska is beautiful, exciting, unpredictable and ultimately self-destructive, prone to mood swings and random bursts of energy nearing manic episodes. Through Miles’ unreliable eyes, however, this makes her all the more mysterious. When Alaska dies in a car crash, Miles nearly goes crazy trying to figure out the meaning behind her death.
While the novel was initially well received, it has since gained criticism for promoting the “manic pixie dream girl” archetype that influenced a generation of adolescents. The term was coined to describe quirky, free-spirited female characters who exist in stories only to further the character development of the male character.
An L.A. Book review explains the problem with this portrayal in Looking For Alaska.
“The book is really about Miles’s growth and his experience loving and losing Alaska, not about Alaska’s choices and her journey…By the end of the book he realizes how his conception of Alaska was flawed and narrow. He understands that Alaska’s fragility and volatility, the very things that made her so attractive, were her downfall, and he accepts that he can never fully know what motivated her; thus Green’s deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl occurred side by side with her creation.”
Green addresses these mistakes in his 2009 novel, Paper Towns, by setting up a similar story, but ultimately giving the heroine her own voice and agency, upsetting the male narrator’s own perception of who she is.
Fast forward to Oct. 18, 2019, and Looking For Alaska’s movie script evolved into an eight-episode television series with a scope broad enough to flesh out the story. With several key changes to the script, Schwarz takes the good parts of Looking For Alaska and builds onto it.
While Miles narrates the opening scenes of a few episodes for contextual storytelling purposes, he is no longer the main lens through which the audience experiences the story. Where in the novel, we only saw the events that Miles was present for, the television series follows the Colonel, Takumi and Alaska along their own storylines. This serves to flesh out the characters as well as the full story, and fosters a stronger connection between the audience and the other characters.
And it’s a good thing, too. Charlie Plummer plays Miles well as the introspective, slightly neurotic and awkward teen that he is, but doesn’t do anything in particular to endear the character to the audience. The show is primarily carried by Denny Love, who plays the Colonel, and Kristen Froseth’s Alaska.
Love is the breakout star of Looking For Alaska. His nuanced portrayal of the Colonel is at once charismatic and vulnerable, calculating and devastating. Froseth brings a captivating fragility to the effervescent Alaska that makes her more engaging than she ever was in the book.
Looking For Alaska is about a journey. In the novel, the journey is Miles’ alone as he goes to seek his “great perhaps.” But, as the television series points out, none of us are truly alone, and stories don’t happen in a vacuum. By placing Miles’ story in conversation with the Colonel’s and Alaska’s, the story finally finds the connection it was searching for.