I can’t remember the last time I read Paper Towns. I discovered the vlogbrothers in July 2007, and voraciously read John Green’s first two novels in a post-Deathly Hallows world. I got my school library to order them in for me. Paper Towns was one of my most highly anticipated novels of 2008, and it has a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s because I finished high school that year, and when my copy of Paper Towns arrived from Amazon, I made my mum hold onto it until I finished my exams (it’s also possible that it didn’t arrive until then, I only ever pay for standard shipping). I don’t know, all I know is that that book was special to me for a reason I can’t remember, and was the most suited to a film adaptation out of all of John Green’s novels. I’d never heard about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or read such criticisms of Looking For Alaska. I was eighteen. I didn’t like the film adaptation of Paper Towns, but it’s been so long since I’ve read the novel that it has nothing to do with how much I loved the book, it just wasn’t a very good movie.
I was lucky to have been warned that Paper Towns was not very good by people in my craft group, and I’m glad I was prepared. It wasn’t terrible, it was just there. Margo Roth Spiegelman didn’t translate well to screen and Q was pretty awful. Adaptations flatten when they go to the screen, and I think this was a problem. Paper Towns is a novel about how you’re never able to imagine other people as complexly as yourself, and some of that was there, but it had nothing to do with Margo. Instead on the road trip, I was much more invested in everyone except Quentin. Radar and Angela were better characters in the book. When the supporting characters have no room to breathe and they’re still more interesting than the main character, then there’s a problem with the film. I was eighteen when I first read Paper Towns, so Ben wasn’t a character I liked much, and just agreed with Q that he was kind of a dick. Now that I’m older, I just know he’s that kid who masks his insecurity with so much swagger that people can see through him. He’s Victor from Wet Hot American Summer. Meanwhile Lacey was fascinating. She wants to be more than just the hot girl, but that’s all anyone sees her as. But she wants to find her best friend as much as Quentin does, and that’s how Ben sees her as more than what he thought she was before then. She’s pretty, but she also dropped everything to go and find her best friend.
Of the things that changed in the novel that upset me most, it was the bit where they searched for Margo around the barn. They might have waited for her a little bit in the book, I can’t remember. Lacey asks Q if Margo would have bothered to find them, and they leave. In the book, Lacey and Margo have an important conversation, and maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but I feel like that female friendship was cheapened. The boys however, get to have a moment talking about how much they’re going to miss each other, which comes to the crux of my problem with Paper Towns and coming of age films in general: they’re nearly always about men.
I haven’t seen the Venn diagram of coming of age films and manic pixie dream girls, but I imagine there would be a significant overlap. The female character exists solely for the development of the male protagonist. I explained the MPDG archetype to my brother recently, and he said “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that kind of writing.” He probably identifies with the shy nerdy guys in those films, so who am I to say that that’s wrong, but I just told him that those kind of girls don’t exist. Amy Pond isn’t real. Women are so often relegated to wives, mothers and sex objects in films, or they’re mysteries, if Steven Moffat is writing them. This conversation took place over a ten minute car trip, so we didn’t really discuss it in depth. Margo’s a fairly flat character on screen, and I don’t think Cara Delevigne was that great an actor, either.
Todd VanDerWerff tweeted this three weeks ago, and there’s an interesting conversation there with Myles McNutt which you should check out if you have the time.
Paper Towns: Also starring Cara DeLevingne as a thinkpiece.
— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) July 23, 2015
The reverse chronology of the adaptation of Green’s books may lead to a difference of interpretation of his female leads, which is fascinating. Will Alaska be the Margo of John Green films? We never know. The screenplay was written by the same people who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, and once again a lot was taken from the text, but so much of it was too obvious. Margo’s role as the MPDG was basically flagposted with lines like “What, so you’ll be happy when you’re 30?” and “I never would have done any of these things if it wasn’t for you”. In Q’s opinion there’s no point to the roadtrip if they don’t find Margo, and if I was Ben or Radar I would have slapped him across the face. Quentin’s obsession with Margo reminded me of Benjamin Braddock’s obsession with Elaine in The Graduate, another coming of age film that I don’t really like. I’m glad that Q goes back to Florida for Prom, but there’s still no moment between Lacey and Margo.
Cheryl Klein, an editor at Scholastic who worked on Harry Potter, has been a guest on Pottercast, which was my favourite Harry Potter podcast. On that podcast she mentioned the author Lisa Yee, who wrote the same story from the perspectives of all three protagonists as a trilogy. I want to watch a film about these characters from anyone’s perspective except Q and Margo’s, and that’s my main problem with Paper Towns.
- The Ansel Elgort cameo was pretty great.