Looking for Alaska took 15 years to arrive to screen. All it took was rising in popularity, plateauing, and crashing in the depths of Tumblr.
Hollywood jumped on John Green’s 2005 debut novel. Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C., was the original screenwriter tapped when Paramount Pictures bought the rights back in 2005. The project was shelved, brought back after the success of the 2014 film adaptation of Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, shelved again. In the end, Paramount decided to give it a television treatment on Hulu.
The Looking for Alaska miniseries doesn’t exist in a vacuum; in fact, so many things about the show, from the overall aesthetic to certain dialogue and plot changes, from the adjusted point of view to the pacing of the story, feel like the showrunners adapted not only the book, but 14 years of reader reactions. This version of Looking for Alaska channels what people loved about the book, but also fixes the issues — some real, some imagined — that tore a fandom apart.
[Ed. note: This post contains heavy spoilers for Looking for Alaska, both the 2005 book and the 2019 miniseries.]
The halcyon days of John Green fans
Looking for Alaska tells the story of Miles Halter, aka Pudge, a rather quiet, nerdy boy who has an obsession with last words. Seeking more meaning in his life, Miles goes to boarding school in Alabama, where he falls into a friend group led by the impulsive and enigmatic Alaska Young. Chapters start with “X Days Before,” hinting at an unspecified event to come. Right around the middle of the book, Alaska dies in a car accident. The chapters pivot to “X Days After,” and the remaining pages explore grief in the aftermath of her death.
In the mid-2000s and early 2010s, John Green, his books, and his YouTube channel were beloved by the young adult audience. The fandom burned brightest on Tumblr. This was in the microblogging platform’s early days, back when finding pockets of communities that loved the same things that you did — no matter how scrappy and small — was Tumblr’s organic creed. Green himself had a Tumblr, and fans eagerly engaged with his posts.
Looking for Alaska inspired what one might expect: fan art of the characters, fan edits of a hypothetical movie, and moodboards (collages of images, usually faceless, designed to capture the essence of the prose). For Looking for Alaska, mood boards were made up of cigarettes betwixt pale fingers and copious amounts of alcohol; arrangements of daisies (sometimes within cigarette boxes); beautiful girls with long hair and partially obscured faces; hijacked screencaps of Kaya Scodelario’s character from Skins; stacks of books; the side of a road; and quotes — from the books or inspired by them — written across surfaces or just set against a white or black background.
Josh Schwartz’s adaptation of Looking for Alaska comes off like someone inputted a thousand Tumblr mood boards into a bot and posted the results on Hulu. Just dive into Looking Pinterest and Tumblr and see that soft, faded-out, slightly golden tinge of all the images. Throughout the show, the camera knows where to linger, as if predicting the shot’s place in a Tumblr aesthetic: on the cigarettes between Alaska’s fingers, the bottles of wine she carries like trophies, the smattered flowers on her dashboard. (They’re white tulips in the book, but the show makes them white daisies — which you will see most commonly across these fan-created aesthetics.)
The Tumblrness of the show emerges even in the mid-2000s set design. Alaska’s room, with its twinkling lights and scattered books, and the smoking hole under the bridge, where the students have carved and written quotes into the wood, evoke the rebloggable motifs that populated the site (and still do).
Even the show’s soundtrack goes beyond mere period-accurate curation. A cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” plays as Alaska and Miles kiss for the first time. It’s a song that was a staple of every indie Tumblr girl’s 2010 playlist, many of whom probably also built mood board shrines around quotes plucked from Green’s prose. “Y’all smoke to live. I smoke to die.” “If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was a hurricane.” “The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.”
The TV version of Looking for Alaska repurposes many of these bits of dialogue without context. But in 2019, those key lines exist as a point of contention for a fandom that’s long moved past Green and his book.
How it all fell apart
Sometime around Green’s peak popularity — right around when The Fault in Our Stars movie came out in 2014, and hype for the author went from indie to mainstream — the fandom swirling around his work began to turn. Objectively, the target demographic for Green’s novels in 2007 was growing up. There were arguments that maybe the books weren’t so good. As is often the case with the heat of popularity, cringe culture also marked the books as overrated. The confluence of reactions saw fans pivot away.
What started as a murky critique of the creative work turned into fan vitriol against Green himself. Falling down the “anti John Green” tag, one can find 4-year-old posts documenting out-of-context quotes from the author and anecdotes accusing him of various wrongs, ranging from being emotionally moved by his own novel to using slurs and being misogynistic and anti-Semitic.
This culminated in 2015, when a Tumblr user baselessly accused Green of using his platform to sexually abuse his young readers. Green responded, then left Tumblr. After he left, the feeding frenzy more or less died down, except for the occasional stray post that proliferates with the tag.
Looking for Alaska remains the most contentious of Green’s novels, the one that his fans passionately love and defend and the one that his critics cite as the quintessential problem with him. The book handles heavy themes, but not all of them with as much finesse as it could, and it’s bogged down by a limited first-person point of view. As a narrator, Miles conjures cartoonish views of the people around him, so much so that they never feel quite real.
Ironically, the biggest fault of Looking for Alaska is the very thing it seeks to dismantle: Alaska herself, or rather, how we view her.
Locked in Miles’ point of view, the book presents an idealized version of Alaska. To Miles, she is that tropey Manic Pixie Dream Girl that Green’s critics made her out to be. Looking for Alaska’s naysayers forget that through the entire book, we’re reminded that Alaska is not who Miles constructs her to be. Its second half deconstructs that imagined identity, and in the end, Miles realizes that his version of Alaska was hyper-idealized. She is not an edgy collection of Tumblr aesthetic pictures with stylized font; she is a messy, traumatized teenage girl with flaws and faults.
But to John Green’s critics, Alaska is a trope: problematic, not deconstructed. Bogged down in Miles’ point of view, extrapolated from nearly 15 years of out-of-context quotes and aesthetic interpretations, the popular view of Alaska — much like Miles’ — is warped. We forget Miles’ revelation at the end of the book when all we see are beautiful, sad girl mood boards built on a quote about drizzles and hurricanes.
Hulu’s Looking for Alaska series repairs some of the “pretentious” quotes by bringing the story into an omnipresent perspective. We are no longer locked in Miles’ head. We get scenes where Miles isn’t even around, and ones where his crush is clearly one-sided. In the show’s third episode, Alaska helps Miles dress for a date. As she gently unbuttons his shirt, she’s illuminated by a soft white light. The movements are in slow motion, lingering on Alaska. But it’s very evident that this is all in Miles’ head; the camera pulls away, and Alaska nonchalantly takes his shirt to iron it. A few moments later, her boyfriend walks in and she kisses him enthusiastically.
There are moments focused on Alaska without Miles present, defining her as a character of her own and not solely through Miles’ eyes. In fact, all the characters — not just the students who are Miles’ friends, but the teachers, too — are given more dimension, infused with more humanity than just being caricatures that Miles sees.
Alaska eventually does develop feelings for Miles, which Miles (after trying to get over her) reciprocates after he’s gotten rid of his romanticized view of her. In the book, he doesn’t shed the idealized version of Alaska until after her death.
Because the TV series humanizes Alaska early on — and because Miles sees this too — the fallout after her death doesn’t feel like Miles’ fixation on Alaska, but rather, all the characters coming to terms with their grief. Miles, the Colonel, and Takumi still embark on a mission to find out just what happened, but it feels less like an obsession and more like an actual exploration of grief. It’s messy and misguided, but they’re three kids who just lost someone important to them.
Then there are the quotes: once loved, but now the target of eye rolls and jokes. Reading the books as a young teenager, Green’s language sounded impossibly cool and beautiful; seeing the quotes as an adult, the lines are simply unrealistic. Of course: 17-year-olds are pretentious and think they’re impossibly cool. And admittedly, reading the book — which is narrated by a pretentious kid who may not think he’s cool but definitely thinks he’s better than others — one can forget that it’s a matter of voice.
The Hulu show establishes the pretension of its teens from the beginning. Alaska goes to buy liquor from a convenience store and spouts an overly loquacious musing about the passing of time, to which the clerk looks at her in confusion and says, “You don’t sound like you’re in high school.”
“That is exactly the point,” she replies.
She says, “I smoke to die,” and it feels awkward, as it should. Kristine Froseth is brilliant as Alaska, projecting the desperation to be older and taken seriously. All the actors bring that sense of inflated self-importance that smart teenagers have, along with the adolescent thought that everything in high school is literally the most important thing that’s ever happened to you. Juxtaposed smartly with the more level-headed approaches of the adults, who are more neutral and sympathetic than their exaggerated book versions, it all feels real.
In 2019, Hulu’s adaptation of the book somehow feels truer to the story Green set out to tell than the book itself. Perhaps it’s because of the decade and a half of tumultuous fandom that shaped it, but the miniseries irons out lines and moments to avoid years of extrapolation from an online fan base that may also be the target audience.
In the book, Miles and Alaska watch porn together, and she falls asleep. He wants so badly to hold her, but instead wallows in self-pity and walks home: “So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.” The TV series gives us the porn scene, but it’s not romanticized; instead, Alaska laughs at Miles’ uncomfortableness and gets up and leaves him to “take care of yourself.”
The “drizzle and hurricane” line is in the show, but it comes after Alaska’s death, when Miles is rationalizing what happened and how he’s supposed to feel about it. He says it while crying to his mother about how it’s so painful to remember Alaska, and yet he doesn’t want it to be any less painful because that means forgetting her. He stumbles over his words. He cries. His mother tells him that it is hard, but he will get through it. He counters that maybe he doesn’t want to.
It’s a messy, raw depiction of grief — ultimately, what the book was supposed to be about, and what the show captures better.