Watch First, Read Second by Tina Ziobro
*WARNING: Spoilers. If you have read the book, you will not be surprised*
Teen lives are encapsulated by television, social media and videogames, but every once in a while we actually take the time to sit down and read a book. Today, media has such a large presence in our lives that somehow all popular books end up on the big screen at some point. With this comes an expectation for the filmmakers to create a movie that encapsulates the beloved book almost perfectly. Many of these adaptations have missing pieces, but still please the opinions of people who read the books. There are times when the movie falls very short of expectation, and in that case, the movie becomes extremely disappointing.
A newer director, Jake Scheier, and the combination of John Green, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the same writing team for The Fault in Our Stars) worked together to create the movie adaptation of John Green’s novel Paper Towns. With a creative team such as this one and actors such as Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne, I had trust that they would make a movie worthy of the book (even though it wasn’t my favorite). I ended up feeling let down after I saw the movie.
If you take the basic ideas, themes, and plot points from the novel and compare them to the same elements of the movie, you will not see many differences. Boy is in love with girl. He puts her on a pedestal. Girl disappears. Boy searches for girl. Boy finds girl. Boy realizes girl is nothing more than ordinary. Sure, when it’s put that way you would think the movie is spot on. Yes, the character’s personalities are beautifully captured by the well selected cast. The mood of the film feels much like the book’s. The overall message is conveyed. But when it comes down to it, the adaptation of this book into film was unsatisfactory and strays very far from many major points of the novel.
1) Time: The book is set over a relatively long period of time. It takes Quentin Jacobson (Wolff), Q, about a month to put together all of the clues Margo Roth Spiegelman (Delevingne) left behind. Somewhere in the adaptation process this time got chopped up and mushed together into about a week. Many people may wonder why I find this to be such a big deal. If you read the book, so much happens in the longer amount of time. The shortening of the time period throws the whole timing of the film off. After about the first fifteen minutes, nothing happens in the movie at the time it happens in the book. The film felt rushed, as if the filmmakers wanted to just sprint through the events. Time is such a huge part of Q’s struggles throughout the film that it takes away a lot of his character’s conflict. Many reviewers felt the characters and plot were bland. In my opinion, the reason for this is rooted by the sense of time being skewed.
2) Paper Towns: The title of the story. The root of all conflict. The idea that is brought up over and over in the book, is in a way pushed aside in the film. In the novel, Green brings up multiple definitions of paper towns. This sends Quentin in many different directions on his hunt for Margo. I understand that they had to eliminate some of the aspects of his journey to find her, so the movie wasn’t four hours long, but I felt betrayed when in the first half of the movie they gave away the true meaning of Paper Towns. In the book, you do not find out until the end. The multiple meanings meant something to me as a reader, gave me insight into both Margo and Quentin’s characters. It foreshadowed Margo’s change of personality and Quentin’s slow recognition of her as just a person. Then, when the true definition is revealed, there is this big epiphany for Q. The change for the movie made the climax anticlimactic.
3) Unexplained: As I watched this film I found multiple things went unexplained. As I walked out of the theater, I asked my friend who had never read the book if it all made sense. She said it did, but then I explained the deeper meaning behind such things, and she realized that not everything was revealed. She still held high praise towards this film, but I felt that the story was not fully done justice.
There is Radar’s affiliation with Omnictionary (their version of Wikipedia), Margo’s dream book, and Quentin’s fear of Margo committing suicide. Radar is the techy person in this film, the one who does all the programing and computer stuff as his friends go on their journey. This is a pretty cliché character for a movie, so it was easy for audience members to understand this. In the book, he has a whole backstory about how he is a fact checker on Omnictionary and because of this, he has access to the whole website. Radar is a major component in Quentin finding Margo because he figures out most of the clue’s meanings.
Margo’s dream book is a minor thing in the whole of the story, but when Q finds her it is a major explanation tool in the book. It is a notebook with stories she wrote and ends up sharing with Q to explain who she is and her outlooks on life. The dream book is not even brought up until the very end of the movie, and it’s not explained very well. In the book, it humanized Margo. The result of almost eliminating it made me not like the movie version of her very much.
For most of the book, Quentin believes Margo has committed suicide, and he is going to find her dead in a ditch somewhere. This is another major conflict for him as he goes on his journey. It is completely left out, which adds to the dullness of the plot and character.
4) 100% Different: The most frustrating things for me, were the things that were completely different. Many of these changes felt unnecessary. The whole final road trip in general is very different. The group (Quentin, Ben, Radar, Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and Lacey (Halston Sage)) go two days before prom (and end up going to prom after the trip), when they actually skip graduation in the book. The act of missing their high school graduation, for a friend they didn’t even know if they were going to find, is such a sacrifice. It shows so much about the group and creates a bigger disappointment when Margo doesn’t end up coming home with them. This is not conveyed in the film.
Radar’s girlfriend, Angela, comes on the road trip in the movie. In the book she is a very minor character. I felt like the filmmakers thought because they cut out most scenes she is in in the book, they needed to put her in other scenes (maybe to have a stronger female presence). The book was told with the point of view of view of a male for a reason, and the movie contradicted this in a way. It gave the whole road trip a completely different mood, giving the majority of the story a completely different mood.
Once in Agloe, New York, the group searches the barn Margo is found in in the book, and they don’t find her. Then, everyone goes home to go to prom and leaves Quentin behind. The abandonment seemed so out of character, and it made all of them seem like overall different characters. This could have been to surprise the readers of the book, but in the end, it made it seem like a different story.
Lacey does not confront Margo when they get to Agloe. I felt like Lacey and Margo’s argument in the book is even more important than Quentin’s because of their history and how much more Lacey knows about Margo; clearly the filmmakers thought differently. A lot is revealed in this moment of the book, but missed in the movie.
The Bottom Line: I could fit about a dozen more things into these categories. I could pick apart every little scene and find even more elements that the movie did not have. By now, I have made my point. This film strayed very far from the original book, making me, the reader, very upset. I have to say that I believe if I hadn’t read the book first, I would have enjoyed the movie. The acting was well done, a story was clearly told, and a message was conveyed. Seeing all of these changes has made me appreciate the original story more. I feel obligated to defend the novel, even though I felt pretty neutral about it when I read it.
Right now, I recommend readers to do something we are told not to do. Watch the movie before reading the book. You get a lot of general information in the movie, and then get the nitty-gritty in the novel. If you see the movie first, you will be able to appreciate the film first, then dive even deeper into the story when reading. So take my advice, defy what we are told, and watch before you read.