Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the John Green novel and new Hulu series Looking For Alaska.
I remember cracking open my best friend’s copy of Looking for Alaska in the seventh grade, in awe at the plume of smoke rising on the front cover. I read about how a friendless boy from suburban Florida went away to boarding school in Alabama, how he got caught up in relentless hilarity and found his tribe. I cried when tragedy struck, but was satisfied with Miles “Pudge” Halter’s character development, and what he learned about his own life from another’s death.
I was one of those nerds who watched “Vlogbrothers,” the YouTube channel run by John Green and his brother Hank. The channel they’re more well-known for among college students is “Crash Course,” but my friends and I called ourselves “Nerd Fighters” long before we needed help limping through biology.
John Green’s channel and books are aimed at middle and early high schoolers. They encourage young people to be proud of being “nerds,” to be relentlessly enthusiastic and to love learning. Of all my embarrassing middle school vices, this was hardly my worst. But Looking for Alaska was never the crown example of an empowering novel for teens to explore life, no matter how much we loved it at the time — and now, it’s the basis for a new miniseries on Hulu.
The screen adaptation of Looking for Alaska has been a long time coming. Talk of a film production began 15 years ago. The book was incredibly popular when it was published, and Green’s most famous novel, The Fault in Our Stars, only increased interest in his earlier work. With increased success comes increased criticism.
Green does not like to talk about this novel. It was his first, and it’s lacking in quality compared to his others, but that’s to be expected. We all need to grow and learn and change. And the book was personal to him — I know this from memories of Vlogbrothers videos, which are now permanently burned into my hippocampus because I thought they were entertaining in middle school.
[Read more: Review: Amazon Prime’s ‘Modern Love’ showcases many different kinds of love]
Looking for Alaska employs a common trope in bildungsromans about young men: “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Such a girl flirts with life, death and everything in between. She smokes and drinks with abandon, and she’s full of mysterious allure and quirky attributes. She has a name like Lux Lisbon, Holly Golighty or Ramona Flowers.
For whatever reason, she takes interest in a lackluster boy and teaches him about sex and love and tragedy and then — more likely than not — she dies. Her death concludes her character arc, which had no room for growth beyond quirkiness and depression, but launches her lover’s personality. She makes him deeper, and he moves on with a strong appreciation for life and the wisdom that comes with losing a spectacular woman.
There’s no question about whether the title character of John Green’s novel, Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), is a literary manifestation of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s beautiful and quirky and overtly sexual and so, so sad. And she makes protagonist Miles (Charlie Plummer) realize so much about life. And then she dies, in what was either an accident or a suicide, and leaves Miles damaged but altered forever, understanding something, or at least understanding that he knows nothing about the “Labyrinth” of life.
I suppose there’s some question about whether this is supposed to be subversive, but I really don’t believe it is. Personally, I think because it was John Green’s first book, and he needed to write about himself — because Miles is, at least in part, a self-insert — and Alaska was a way for him to manage that need. I think he’s grown from there; he’s a talented writer, and a person with a good heart.
Authors have as many twisted, self-serving experiences and desires as anybody else does. The difference is they put it out there for us to see. Peering into someone’s brain is not always easy. I was afraid for this show, that it would bring back the beautiful girl who kills herself to further the narrative, but I think it managed to stay away from that.
The show fleshes out Miles’s friends Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love) and his teacher Dr. Hyde (Ron Cephas Jones). It gives nuance to their family lives that the book didn’t. It made me cry far before Alaska’s death because of the cruelty of our friends and the devastation of isolation that high school can bring, and how when real tragedy, when death, is brought into that, it unravels a teenager’s childhood.
Dr. Hyde, the embodiment of age, limps along with his one functioning lung and his ancient words of wisdom. But he also provides a view into the pain of those no longer young, what it means to lose someone you love and then keep growing older while they are preserved forever, left behind. It is something Miles will have to live through, but the show tells us he will, as Dr. Hyde did, survive. It’s a level of depth not seen in the book, but Jones makes Looking for Alaska incomplete without the presence of Dr. Hyde.
Looking for Alaska was worth the watch. It’s a great performance of unanswerable questions. If you can get through the expected — but still painful — pretentiousness of the first episode, it’s so satisfying to watch. Froseth may as well be doing a Margot Robbie impression, but it absolutely works for the role of Alaska. “Y’all smoke to enjoy it,” she tells Miles. “I smoke to die.”
The show reintroduces an old, problematic literary trope. But it also does a phenomenal job of breathing new life into John Green’s long-loved words. If you can deal with a couple more death and cigarette metaphors, then log on to whoever’s Hulu account you steal and see what you can find in Alaska.