I saw the film adaptation of John Green’s Paper Towns this week. After reading Green’s first two novels, Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines, I wrote THIS POST in which I criticized Green’s use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in both books. To be fair, I then went on to criticize my own use of the trope and vowed to never do it again.
Later on I read Paper Towns and absolutely loved it (Spoilers ahead for the book and the film). In many ways, the book’s protagonist, Quentin, is the most me of any character I’ve encountered in a book, and the wake-up call he gets at the end of the book is one I sorely needed at his age…and for about a decade after that.
Let me tell you a story (And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m about to cheat a bit, since I told this story a couple of years ago in a previous post. But if you didn’t read that post or don’t remember it, it’s new to you!) –
I fell in love for the first time when I was in Ninth Grade. She was beautiful and smart and never one to shy away from voicing her opinion. We started out as friends. Then I finally got up the courage to ask her out...and was immediately shot down with a version of the “I don’t think of you that way” speech. One thing I have to give younger me credit for is accepting that and not thinking that she’d change her mind about me one day. I knew she wouldn’t. She later told a mutual friend that she didn’t think of me as a guy but rather as my own species. Fortunately, I can laugh about this now, but at the time OUCH.
The upshot of all of that was that I was able to date other people instead of spending all of my time pining for her and waiting for her to come to the obvious conclusion that she should be with me. It’s not that I didn’t love her, but I was able to focus on our friendship instead. We remained good friends throughout high school, talked to each other about our various relationships (at the end of our junior year I started dating the woman I would go on to marry and later divorce), and then we went off to different colleges…at which point I became a massive jerk and cut off just about all contact with my friends from high school. That’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s what happened.
Outside of two or three instances, I didn’t see her for the next fifteen years. But I dreamt about her. Even as my own relationship moved from dating to engagement to marriage, I would still have dreams of the girl from high school on an almost weekly basis. After talking to my college roommate about it (years after we’d graduated), he finally explained to me what was going on. I wasn’t dreaming about my friend from school. Instead I was dreaming about my ideal woman. My friend was just her avatar.
Several years ago, my ex-wife and I took our kids to visit another city miles from our home. While shopping, we ran into my high school friend and her husband. This was…unexpected. For me it was a bit like going to look for shoes in my closet and instead finding Alyson Hannigan. Yes, it was wonderful to see her, but I really wasn’t prepared to suddenly be confronted with this woman that I’d so built it up in my mind. Quickly pulling myself together I…
No. I’m lying. I didn’t pull myself together. Instead, I babbled at her nearly incoherently for a few minutes (It may have been less than 60 seconds. Time gets extended when you’re mortified), and we went our separate ways. I spent the drive home kicking myself, but soon thereafter, I came to the conclusion that I was being completely ridiculous when it came to my friend for one very simple reason: I had absolutely no clue who she was anymore. Could I even say that we were friends? Sure, we were close in school, but when I ran into her, we were barely acquaintances. The woman in my dreams may have had her face, but she wasn’t my friend in any other way.
This realization put an end to her appearances in my dreams.
I basically lived one of the primary themes of Paper Towns, which is that we tend to see people how we want to see them rather than for who they really are.
So what of the movie?
I liked it.
Really I did.
But the filmmakers took a book I loved and turned it into a movie I mostly liked. My less enthusiastic response to the film really goes back to the theme of the book. Yes, the idea is presented in the movie, but it’s now almost secondary to the idea that Quentin needs to embrace life and really live it (or something like that).
In the book, Quentin’s final meeting with Margo is more of a confrontation than anything else. She is not happy to see him, and the whole point of “I am not the girl you think I am” slams into Quentin (and this reader) with unmistakable force. It’s important that it happens that way. Quentin learns in no uncertain terms that he did all of this for nothing, the Margo in his head that he’s pined over for nine years doesn’t exist, and the real Margo doesn’t really give a damn about him. Quentin needs to get emotionally smacked around in order to wake up and go back to his life.
As I said before, the movie covers some of the same ground, but it’s so much gentler. I realize that I’m complaining that the main character, a character I’ve already said that I closely relate to, doesn’t take more of an emotional gut punch. In the movie, he gets a milkshake and makes in home in time for prom with his friends. It’s perfectly nice. But it’s not what so affected me about the book.
- Alan Decker
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