If you’re a fan of John Green’s Paper Towns, you’re probably keenly awaiting the release of the movie version which has either just come out or is just about to. I went to a special preview screening earlier this week, so I’ve got for you a review. NOTE: this review will contain spoilers. That includes book spoilers, movie spoilers, and book-movie difference spoilers, (if there is such a thing).
Paper Towns was the first John Green book I ever read, and I actually came across it because I won a copy. I have vivid memories of reading it on a school bus trip, stuck in traffic. I hung on every word, and loved the way it was packed with so much meaning and philosophy. It’s messages really resonated with me at that point in my life; as a Yr 10 student, looking forwards into the future and the great big world. Although I didn’t like the ending much, it was one of my favourite books. I recently reread it in the lead up to the movie release, and it somehow seemed totally different. In fact, it seemed even better. All the themes had more poignancy and I just understood it better, although I’m sure there’s still stuff I’m missing. With that in mind, my biggest fear walking into the film was it would destroyed the imagery and memories I had built up in my mind while reading the book. After the TFIOS film, I somehow trusted it’d be accurate to its source. (Although, on review of that review, I’ve no idea why. The writing really was on the wall…)
However, it seems my trust was misplaced (or maybe just rose-tinted). In ten words or less:
The book was better. It had more complexity and character. Sure, there are a bunch of great moments in this film, some of which actually existed in the book! But for the most part, this film just uses the book as signposts on its wholly independent road trip. The parts that have been taken from the book have been, for the most part, done really well. The casting, bar one, is fantastically fitting and the setting feels well-realised throughout. Chuck Parson is the only person I feel has been cast wrong in this movie. He’s too much of a light-weight: not very muscular and a bit short. The good parts of this movie are beautifully well-executed. However, large chunks have also been changed, to mixed effect. Some changes are so great, as John Green himself admits, they’ve sort of spoilt the book for me now, while others make me crave its rich depths. But worst of all, tonnes of stuff is totally missing. And that’s what wrecks this movie for me most of all. I’d be willing to forgive a plot hole or two, or a skipped line of dialogue if the film still captured the same ideas and concepts as the book, but it just doesn’t come near.
This review used to be monstrously long. To read a more in-depth comparison of the movie to the book, have a look at my other review post.
There’s lots of humour and funny moments in the book that I really wished had made it into the movie, and so I appreciated the ones that did appear, such as the ridiculous trumping word games Q and his friends play. Other parts were given a bit too much screen time, like there was maybe a whole scene that unnecessarily emphasised Ben’s imaginary girlfriends. I was sitting there wishing I could trade this scene in for one that actually mattered, or was interesting. I could see they were trying to build Ben’s character, but it just wasn’t needed and laboured the point. It would’ve been better talking about his hand-me-down car. In fact, I would have rather see Angela or Lacey built out more instead. Many of the characters are lacking the subtleties of their textual counterparts. Like, weren’t Q’s parents psychologists? Or am I mixing him up with Brian from My So Called Life? Also, Ruthie seems much meaner than in the book.
With the passage of time that has passed between the publication of the book and the making of this movie, lots of things have changed in regards to technology. Both are set in their own present day, so the movie has had to update or do away with various things to reflect current tech. Mostly these are good things that speed up the story. There’s no IM chat logs, which were a prominent source of dialogue in the book. There’s now no need to go home for torches when they find the abandoned strip mall because they just use their smart phones. However, it’s had a particularly detrimental effect on Radar, who was a nerdy computer-geek who liked editing Omnictionary. Now he doesn’t even have a penchant for reading Omnictionary; he’s just the guy who’s always on his phone and is always the first to Google things. Also, he’s super-square now. He didn’t even have one beer at the party; in the book he was drunk!
Because I enjoyed Paper Towns as a book more than TFIOS as a book, I naturally enjoyed this movie more. But at the same time, because I liked that book more, this movie left me more disappointed than TFIOS’s movie. All of the general criticism that I had about the TFIOS movie rings true for this film too. Just like in that movie, this one lacks all of the philosophy of its source material. They both use choice quotes out of context or in a simplified form, so that they lose their original intent. Like Hazel, Q has had a sass reduction from the book. Margo seems to have stolen it all, however even her sass levels are dangerously low. And again, they’ve homed in on the perceived love story, which in this case really doesn’t exist. Also like my TFIOS review, I found myself at various stages while writing, lost in rereading the book, rather than completing this, because it’s just so good.
Another thing the Paper Towns movie has in common with the TFIOS film is the presence of Ansel Elgort, although in this it’s only a cameo. I don’t want to totally spoil it for you, but I just want to say I actually really liked it. It makes me want to imagine some sort of overarching narrative that ties all of John Green’s books/movies together like the Pixar theory or the Whedonverse theory. Maybe this could be where Isaac and Augustus meet or something…I don’t know, but I wish there was one.
Probably one of the biggest reasons I’m disappointed with this film, apart from how it totally missed the point of its source material, is that I’m worried how it reflects on its fans and Nerdfighteria. When someone that hasn’t read the book sees this movie, they’re going to get nothing but a silly coming-of-age end-of-high-school road trip story. And they’ll think that’s all there is and ever was to it. But it’s not true. Not at all. This was a story about coming to an important realisation about one’s outlook on the world and how we project what we think we know on to other people as facts, and that does both them and us a disservice. Instead the moral ends up being something along the lines of a million other movies: “Live in the now, enjoy this moment, and love your friends. This is the time of your life.”
I wish that instead of a movie, this had been a miniseries. Even just a three-part 1.5hr episode miniseries would have been better, because it would have meant much more time to explore all of the themes and humour of the book. So many aspects of this movie were so good, it seems like such a waste to have underutilised them by making this disappointing movie that missed out on so much, for the sake of brevity. It could have had better developed characters, more side plots, and more realistic logic. It would have allowed for more mystery and intrigue while Margo was missing and a chance to explore some of the more hard-hitting and sensitive subjects of the book.
This film called Paper Towns is to this book called Paper Towns what the Assassin’s Creed games on Nintendo DS are to the Assassin’s Creed games on PC and consoles. They share the same name, some of the same structure and setting, but really they’re wildly different entities. That’s not to say that you couldn’t have any fun with the lesser of the two (I know I had a fantastic time one weekend blasting through Assassin’s Creed: Altaïr’s Chronicles on my DS Lite), however if you expect to get the full, rich, meaningful story and experience from both, you are sadly mistaken.
Have you seen Paper Towns? Have you read the book? What did you think of each? Did the film live up to your expectations? Has it changed your view of the world? Have I said anything you disagree with? Tell me & everyone else who passes through here what you think in the comment below.