Today, Hartford Books Examiner offers a book-to-film analysis of John Green’s Paper Towns (SPEAK), published in 2008 and currently playing on a big screen near you.
There is a common belief among readers that film adaptations seldom live up to their source material, let alone rise above it. (Think Beautiful Creatures, One For the Money, Vampire Academy, etc.). Given the popularity of Green’s The Fault in Our Stars at the box office just last year, you can understand the skepticism with which another retelling might be viewed. After all, the concept of the “cash grab” is pretty much synonymous with modern day entertainment. And while Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter have proved worthy at the box office, plenty of other likable protagonists have jumped off of the page and into the abyss.
It’s a notable accomplishment, then, that Paper Towns the movie achieves a vibrancy that transcends Paper Towns the book. That’s not to say that Green’s novel is lacking; after all, it did win the Edgar Award in addition to becoming a New York Times bestseller. Rather, the story—a coming-of-age tale that finds socially awkward Quentin (“Q”) on the trail of his enigmatic neighbor (and longtime crush) Margo Roth Spiegelman following her intentional disappearance and a seeming trail of clues she left behind—benefits from a stellar young cast that breathes life into their suitably angsty celluloid counterparts. Perhaps the greatest strength of the author’s work is that he never sacrifices realism for romanticism, resulting in characters that are both complex and believably flawed. But those shortcomings, while reflective of the human condition, can be harder to forgive when the audience is left to create his or her own vison of a character as opposed to being provided an (understandably contrived) image.
Director Jake Schreier (Robot and Frank) has two great assets in his leads, and the qualities they embody—the innate likability of Nat Wolff (as Quentin) and the inviting allure of model Cara Delevingne (as Margo). While their shared onscreen time is limited, the effortless chemistry that develops during a night of mischief in which Margo enlists Q’s help in righting a few wrongs (a slightly lesser list than in the book) against traitorous members of her popular clique is enough to sustain the viewer’s emotional investment. Further, co-stars Austin Abrams (wannabe Casanova Ben) and Justice Smith (brainiac Marcus, aka “Radar”) charm as Quentin’s best friends who, despite customary adolescent quibbles, form a brotherhood that withstands the impulsivity of youth. And while it would be fair to argue that the characters have been made slightly more appealing for the sake of a viewing audience, it would also be fair to argue that this gambit largely pays off.
Screenwriters Michael H. Webber and Scott Neustadter take some liberties with Green’s story, though none that dilute its overall impact; in fact, their focus is a bit sharper than the narrative from which it was devised. Most notably, Quentin and company—including Marcus’ girlfriend, Angela (played by Jaz Sinclair, in a role that’s been largely expanded) and Ben’s own crush, Lacey (Halston Sage)—stipulate that their road trip in search of Margo must conclude by prom night, as both Ben and Marcus have unique and compelling motivations to attend despite Q’s ambivalence. While this rite of passage also factors into Green’s telling, he uses graduation (and all it symbolizes) as the primary driving force—which, though perhaps more dramatic, also requires a greater suspension of disbelief. The filmmakers carry a similar theme throughout the film, albeit more subtly.
What both the book and film manage to convey in equal proportion is the idea that it’s not so much the destination that’s important as it is the journey along the way. And while that may not be the most original of ideas, clichés have become such for good reason: because they’re true. Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say that the resolution comes across as … real. That’s fitting of Margo, given her world-weary outlook on life—but it’s also fitting of Quentin, who has finally found the fortitude to forge his own path …