Paper Towns is John Green’s best-selling young adult novel that was turned into a movie this summer (the DVD was released this fall). The cinematic adaptation of any beloved book begs the questions: is it worth seeing and will loyalists be satisfied?
The answer: While I enjoyed the movie, I felt it mutilated the thesis of the book.
Paper Towns is the story of Quentin, an easy-going boy-next-door type on the fringes of the social scene at his high school in Orlando, Florida. For Quentin, or Q as he’s known, everything in his world is “okay.” He’s smart but spends his school day watching the clock. He likes his friends but they get on his nerves too. He enjoys video games, but he’s not very good at them. In general, he’s a cautious but sweet kid.
The only truly exciting thing in his life is his next door neighbor, a beautiful, wild girl named Margo. They were playmates as children and even discovered a suicide victim at a local park together. The experience connected them, but that was back in elementary school. Since reaching high school, Margo’s beauty, confidence, and recklessness have elevated her status, while Q remained on the sidelines. This hasn’t stopped him from loving and admiring her, albeit from a safe distance.
One night Margo breaks into Q’s bedroom and convinces him to be her getaway driver while she goes on a revenge spree against her cheating ex-boyfriend and the friends who helped betray her. Her reprisals are methodical and thorough. The night spent committing misdemeanors is the most exciting of Q’s life. He can’t wait for a surely thrilling new life to begin at school the next day now that his friendship with Margo has been rekindled. However, she doesn’t show.
In fact, she goes missing for days, then weeks. A detective investigates, but since she’s 18 and technically a legal adult, there’s nothing anybody can do. Margo has run away on more than one occasion, and her fed-up family doesn’t want to pursue her disappearance. However, Q can’t let it go. He can’t forget about her response to the dead man they discovered as children or her comments the night of their escapades about “paper towns.” She makes it clear that she finds high school, the people in it, and Orlando in general fake and flimsy.
In the book, Q worries she’s in real trouble. He fears she might even do something crazy, like hurt herself, and he’s the only one who cares enough to look for her. Margo has dropped clues as to her whereabouts in the past, and this time the clues are for Q. He uses hints from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself,” to find an address that she left for him. It’s to an abandoned souvenir shop where she used to take refuge. Q’s convinced he’s meant to save her. Maybe he’ll even do it in time for prom.
As Quentin digs ever deeper for more hints to Margo’s whereabouts, he realizes he needs to do more than just idolize her, he needs to understand her. He continually goes back to the abandoned building and to Whitman’s poem, getting deeper into her thought process. He does this at the expense of enjoying the pomp and circumstance of the end of high school, but it’s clear in the novel that he’s growing as a person. He’s looking outside himself and his small circle and considering his place (and Margo’s) in the world.
Ultimately his efforts pay off. He indeed finds her in New York State, shacked up in an abandoned building in an actual “paper town,” which is a spot on the map created by cartographers as a way to combat copyright infringement. Margo’s persona has been a figment of Q’s imagination, and now he finds the real girl living in a pretend place. This is where we reach the biggest theme in the book: reconciling the myth of a person, especially one loved from a distance, with flesh and blood.
The fact is, Q doesn’t know Margo. He’s observed that she’s gorgeous, popular, and way more exciting than he is. But that’s all. Even his efforts to find her weren’t so much about her as they were about him reconciling the end of high school, drifting from his friends, and trying to attain something that had always alluded him: this thrilling girl next door. In the book, Q attempts to look through a window into her mind instead of seeing her as a mirror reflecting his desires.
John Green himself (on his website) says that he wanted to complicate the way females are drawn in popular fiction. He wanted to show that they’re more than a nymph that delights, or teaches, or captivates a boy. So often characters (and actual people too) fall in love with the idea of someone rather than with the actual someone. No one is satisfied by the embrace of a paper doll. The Q of the book tries his best to take that lesson to heart.
This is where the movie diverges in the most important way from the book. By the end of the film, Margo is no more than a sage hottie who shows Q how to let his hair down and live a little. He goes on an epic road trip with his (highly immature) friends and ends up rocking prom. Margo’s purpose in the movie was to show Q a good time and to help him feel satisfied with his middling high school experience. Sigh.
The bottom line is that the movie is much more “bro”-ish than the novel, and it lacks the book’s depth. It’s the meditation on identity issues that makes the story for me. Are we all connected like blades of grass as Walt Whitman thinks? Or are we tethered like balloons, ready for our strings to snap as Margo believes? The philosophizing in the book works because the implicit threat of suicide pervades the book and thus raises the stakes.
The movie is basically two road trip scenes sandwiching a skip-school day and an epic drinking party. Margo feels like a game, but it’s one I want more of since the scenes with her sparkle. (I actually liked her a little better in the movie than I did in the book.) I enjoyed the dynamics of the friends, and the fun of the end of high school, but the overall experience wasn’t as satisfying as the novel. Nothing is all that important and no one but Margo strives to be anything other than average. This being said, production quality was top notch and the actors do a fine job. The movie is a worthy way to spend an hour and forty minutes, but it’s light fare, no more substantial than paper.