Like most young-adult novel adaptations, The Sun is Also a Star has a heavy burden to bear. The 2016 Nicola Yoon book is a love story that juggles themes of immigration, culture, fate and destiny, telling the story of Korean-American Daniel, who’s interviewing for college despite wanting to be a poet, and Jamaican-born Natasha, whose family faces an impending deportation — all with a very striking storytelling style, a shift of perspectives that make it particularly distinct.
“One of the challenges of the adaptation was definitely how to capture the multiple perspectives that the book captured,” director Ry Russo-Young tells Polygon.
The novel not only alternates between its two lead protagonists, but it also has chapters dedicated to background characters, as well as chapters that offer deeper explorations of more abstract subjects touched upon in the first-person chapters, such as multiverse theory or the history of black hair care.
Daniel and Natasha spend a lot of the book going back and forth between their ideas of love and the universe. Natasha is a pragmatic scientist, and doesn’t believe in love and thinks that in the grand scheme of the universe, humans are insignificant. Daniel is a poet and romantic, who believes in fate, destiny, and love at first sight. Despite their different approaches, both are big picture people and the shifting perspectives of the book — the oscillation from the close first-person to the super distant omniscient and everywhere in between — help to illustrate their own macro viewpoints.
In the end, whether you’re more inclined to think like Natasha or Daniel, the takeaway remains the same: this love story is part of something bigger and greater, and the universe is full of many little puzzle pieces.
Movie adaptations can’t quite capture the same shifting perspectives as the books they are based on, but the film adaptation of The Sun is Also a Star manages to emulate the greater theme carried by the book’s shifting perspective.
Part of it comes from not trying to stick totally to the book. Russo-Young aimed to keep the tone, but instead of following the book’s cues strictly, she made use of photo montages to dive into more of the character-specific backstory or scientific tangent.
“We have Daniel’s perspective, Natasha’s perspective, but you also go into little wormholes throughout the film, right? Like there’s a whole chapter on multiverse for example,” explained Russo-Young. “I didn’t try to emulate the subjective perspectives of him - her - him - her being completely from their point of view. But using those photo montages, I tried to capture some of the kind of scope and cultural specificity that I felt like was so strong in the book.”
Daniel talks about his father coming to America over footage of home pictures and videos. Natasha talks about the multiverse theory and we’re shown different versions of the same scene. This bolsters the story. The characters’ present moments are fine on their own; Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton enjoy an easy chemistry, but the romance rushes, due in part to the narrow timeframe of the story. But rooting the characters in their cultural and familial backgrounds through these “little wormholes” helps to cement them for the viewer.
Showing these tangents is one thing, but capturing that same bigger picture perspective that the book does is a feat. The book dives into the heads of the side characters in order to illustrate the effects people have on each other; the movie can’t quite do that, but it pulls off the same interconnected message in a different way.
Instead of chapters delving into the stories of the side characters, the movie intersperses the story with shots of New York City, highlighting not just iconic landmarks like Grand Central Station, but also intimate snapshots of streets not so frequented by Instagrammers and more importantly, the people within the city: construction workers, residents of Koreatown, and everyday passerbyers on a busy Bronx street.
In the sequence where Natasha fills out a form at an immigration lawyer’s office — a scene that takes up two paragraphs in the book — each question is punctuated with one of Natasha’s memories of the city: a hot summer day when she dashed out of a bodega with ice pops, gathering with her friends after school, walking through the streets of New York City with her family. Natasha is tied to New York, as is Daniel, their love story interwoven with the greater landscape of the city — and that makes Natasha leaving it all the more heartbreaking.
The Sun is Also a Star comes out on May 17.