‘Looking for Alaska’ Preview: Who is the Adaptation for in 2019?

Over the weekend, we received our first real glimpse of Hulu’s upcoming limited series based on John Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska. In the heavily color graded, minute long teaser trailer, the main characters are introduced at a glance, with voice-over dialogue of some of their popular quotes from the book. It’s appropriate that the teaser feels like (a more professional take on) one of the many fan-made trailers for the book posted in the early days of Youtube, when John Green’s books were beginning to become more popular thanks to his own videos he made on the channel vlogbrothers with his brother, Hank. 

For those of us who are long-time fans of John Green’s work, the brief footage of Alaska (Kristine Froseth) and Miles (Charlie Plummer) at Culver Creek transports us directly back to the days when you couldn’t log into Tumblr without seeing the quote, “…if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.” Looking for Alaska was peak, melodramatic, early 2000s Young Adult literature – and I say that entirely with love. It gained a dedicated following of mostly teenage fans around the same time as Twilight, but had less luck when it came to reaching that level of widespread phenomenon. It didn’t help that many libraries and schools ended up banning the book due to its explicit language, sexual content, and discussions of suicide. 

The story follows Miles “Pudge” Halter as he transfers to Culver Creek Preparatory High School for his junior year. He’s obsessed with last words, especially famous ones, and cites François Rabelais’ as the reason for this new start -“I go to seek a great perhaps,” a quote that the teaser trailer emphasizes. Pudge is immediately drawn to a girl named Alaska Young, who’s beautiful, intelligent, and painfully aware of mortality and what it means to be alive. They bond over shared points of view that not many other teenagers have, and form an emotional connection fairly early on, even if Alaska is more guarded with her feelings. 

It will be interesting to see how the Hulu series adapts some of the more controversial or dark elements of the book, especially if they choose to include scenes that would rightfully be seen as problematic today. I was thirteen when I first read Looking for Alaska – blissfully unaware that the story was told through “the Male Gaze” and didn’t explore the character of Alaska with proper depth. I thought she was undeniably cool, and I empathized with the trauma and grief she carried with her, but I didn’t put a lot of thought into how her story would be different if the narrative were more balanced. 

I ended up having the same experience with Paper Towns, another John Green novel that was adapted into a film in 2015. Although all of the characters in it had their own, individual “John Green quirks”, the film itself didn’t stand out from the other YA adaptations of the time. Margo, the female lead of Paper Towns, felt like another mystical, out-of-reach female character through the eyes of the male protagonist, Q, rather than someone tangible and properly explored. Although it’s made clear that the problem lies with Q obsessing over this version of Margo he idealized in his mind, that message gets lost in the attempt to make an entertaining teen movie that could still be widely marketed in the mainstream. Looking for Alaska has a similar message when it comes to how Pudge views Alaska, so I’ll be interested to see if the show addresses how destructive it can be to view someone with an idealistic lens, especially a teenage girl who is already held to impossible standards. 

Addressing even just one of the problematic aspects of the book leads me to an important question: who is this adaptation of Looking for Alaska for? The people who loved it when it was first published are now adults, but even the ones who still love YA like I do won’t enjoy it entirely if it doesn’t take a different approach to how it handles sensitive subjects (and female characters). I worry that current teenagers would think it’s too much like content they’ve already seen, or find it too dated. That being said, the loneliness of growing up and trying to find your place is an experience that’s useful to see portrayed on screen whether you’re going through it currently or are still learning from that time.

It’s difficult to predict how people are going to receive Looking for Alaska, myself included. But I’m genuinely eager to return to Culver Creek after so many years, and find comfort in seeing pieces of myself in Pudge and Alaska, no matter how messy or complicated.

Looking for Alaska is available to stream on Hulu starting October 18.

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