Hulu’s adaptation of the John Green novel explores the messy, furtive road of teenage love, warts and all.
To be young is to feel every emotion in extremis. As such, things that would seem trivial to an adult is of vital importance to an adolescent. Writer and YouTube celebrity John Green understands this, and his insight into the teenage mindset helps give his young protagonists realistic motivations. Hulu’s adaptation of Green’s debut novel, Looking for Alaska, puts the viewer into the mind of a teen, for better or for worse.
The limited series opens with a character getting into a car accident. The following episodes show the build-up before the accident, which occurs when Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer, Gully), transfers to Culver Creek Preparatory High School for his junior year. He quickly befriends his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love, Lucifer), who introduces him to Takumi (Jay Lee, American Vandal), and Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth, The Society). Miles finds himself infatuated with Alaska, but since she has a boyfriend, he agrees to her helping him get a girlfriend.
The group of friends finds themselves at odds with the “Weekday Warriors”, a group of rich legacy students who think that The Colonel ratted out their friends to the school Dean (Timothy Simons, Veep), leading to their expulsion. The Colonel denies being a rat, and the two groups wage war against each other in a series of escalating pranks. This prank war will eventually lead to the death featured in the opening scene.
Unless the source material is historical fiction, adaptations will generally move the time period to modern times. Fortunately, Looking for Alaska takes place during the year of the novel’s release, 2005. While the series doesn’t dwell too much on nostalgia (although my millennial heart leapt at a road trip montage that included both MapQuest and “The Davinci Code” on CD), the decision to keep the series in the mid-aughts is a smart one. It’s hard to keep prank wars secret if everyone has recording devices on their person at all times, and some plot points are advanced by the fact that the only connection the students have to the outside world is a single public phone.
While keeping the series in the 2000s is a smart idea, some of the story elements and characterization feel a little too retro for their own good. Specifically in the characterization of Alaska, who skirts dangerously close to that omnipresent mid-2000s cliche: the manic pixie dream girl. Granted, she lacks the whimsy that characterizes the trope, but she still feels like the fantasy for a certain type of guy. Alaska is intellectual and literate, but she has a mysterious and tragic path that makes her someone to “save”, and her penchant for booze and troublemaking is primed to push the mild-mannered Miles out of his comfort zone.
This isn’t to say that Alaska is a one-note character, and Miles’s realization that he has been idealizing her is part of his growth. As the series progresses, Alaska is shown to be more nuanced than Miles takes her for, and this is helped by Froseth’s performance. Froseth does an expert job giving Alaska a tenderness that keeps her likable, even as she can be fickle or mean.
Looking for Alaska just doesn’t seem to have enough plot for almost eight hours of television.
Like Alaska, the other characters can verge on the cliche. Miles is nerdy and quirkily obsessed with the last words of famous people. The Colonel is a poor kid with a chip on his shoulder towards the rich kids, and his mom is a motherly and religious black woman. The Dean is a killjoy reminiscent of Vernon Wormer, and the rivalry between the protagonists and The Weekday Warriors feels like just any rivalry between cliques that you’d see in any other teen movie. All of the actors are great, but they’re playing characters we’ve seen before.
Before Hulu picked it up as a limited series, Looking For Alaska was originally optioned as a feature film. While a limited series can often be a good option for an adaptation of a book since it will allow the retention of book elements that would have to be cut for a movie, Looking for Alaska just doesn’t seem to have enough plot for almost eight hours of television. The book is a coming of age story that mostly hinges on emotional growth and its plot doesn’t really progress much until the accident. This works well for a book, and it can often work for a movie, but a TV show needs to have a compelling plot that will keep you tuning in to the next episode. A film adaptation would have been more streamlined and would have had an easier time keeping audience interest.
While the characters aren’t original, and the plot is a bit thin, what the series gets right is the emotions of the story. In so much media, intelligent teens act tend to act like adults, but here the characters have emotional intelligence normal for their age. Despite their intellect, the teens let their feelings dictate their actions: Miles’ infatuation with Alaska causes him to ditch his parents to hang out with her on Thanksgiving break; The Colonel’s loyalty to his friends causes him to risk expulsion when he seeks revenge against Alaska’s tormentors; Alaska’s inability to let go of her past causes her to make multiple poor decisions throughout the show. While adult viewers might roll their eyes at the impulsiveness of the characters, the depth of their emotions makes them realistic, even if on paper they should feel cliche.
There will certainly be many teenagers and those who were once teenagers who will feel a connection to the series and its cast. As for me, I think of watching Looking For Alaska like going to high school: there were definitely some good moments, but for the most part, I just wanted it to be over.
Looking for Alaska comes to Hulu October 18.