Songs and Selves
by Andrew Collins
Author John Green has achieved two great literary accomplishments in his body of work.
The first is his repeated creation of authentic child-poets – characters who are dreamers of dreams, philosophers in essence, but definitely still 21st century teenagers.
Second, and wonderfully embodied in his novel Paper Towns, is Green’s knack for spinning out a number of disparate strands – ideas, literary references, plotlines, and dramatic tensions – and then tying them together in a conclusion chock-full-o’ sucker punches of unapologetic zeal for the adventure of life.
The film version of Paper Towns (released to DVD Oct. 20) strives for that same genius, with about as many delightful hits as disappointing misses.
Like the book, it follows the final weeks of Quentin Jacobson’s senior year of high school. Quentin (Nat Wolff) lives next door to the coolest girl ever, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), and is in love with her. One seemingly random evening, Margo comes to Quentin’s window and asks him to join her for a night of epic shenanigans. He reluctantly follows along and ends up having the time of his life. But just as a future with Margo begins to appear possible, she disappears, leaving a trail of clues for him to follow.
Quentin does what any teenage guy would do in that situation – find that girl.
From a structural perspective, the film tries to take up a few too many of the aforementioned strands without sufficiently developing them. In the opening flashback, for example, when Margo and Quentin find a dead man in the park, she speaks about “all the strings inside someone breaking,” but the film never revisits this idea.
Likewise, Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass” gets enough screen time in the film to lead Quentin to his own doorjamb to find a clue from Margo, but Whitman’s masterpiece doesn’t stay on as a guide to life, as it does in the book – even though it wouldn’t have been very hard to include it further. A brief scene of Quentin in English class, for instance, offered the perfect opportunity to show him asking his teacher about “Leaves of Grass” – but we only learn that he has missed a quiz.
I wonder if this is indicative of the times. Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars achieve a special status among YA literature because they manage to work writers like Shakespeare and Whitman into the lives of prom- and videogame-obsessed kids. The reader thus has to wrestle with great literature in order to fully appreciate the story. Yet these literary elements have been largely stripped out of the film adaptations. Part of this, in fairness, could be limitation of the medium. The film Paper Towns would have been pretty boring if it tried to faithfully capture Quentin’s experience of reading through “Leaves of Grass” over and over again in search of clues. But I can’t help wondering if today’s movie-going audience would be literate or thoughtful enough to appreciate a stronger literary element.
And yet, there is much to make this movie worthwhile. For starters, it is very well cast. It’s nice to see three high school seniors on the big screen who actually look like 18-year-olds stuck in awkwardly evolving adolescent bodies (Wolff is a young 20 years old, and Austin Abrams, who plays Quentin’s friend Ben, is in fact 18 years old.).
And as a story, Paper Towns still manages to distill a few big themes and deliver them clearly, if a bit heavy-handedly.
In Quentin’s dogged pursuit of Margo, he learns that you can’t make real people into mythic, larger-than-life figures: “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person,” he says. The myth always ends up being a projection of our own hopes and will always let us down.
At the same time, Quentin’s quest drives him to break down the paper facades of upper-middle-class suburbia. “All the things paper-thin and paper-frail,” says Margo. “And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.” She’s right. In the process of stripping away the structures that gave his life a sense of safety and normalcy, Quentin experiences the thrill of leaving the comfort zone of routine. He sees that life is full of joys that surpass our paltry expectations, if only we’ll take a chance and step out to seize them.
It’s a worthwhile antidote to the cheap distractions of smartphones, social media, and high school gossip. Margo’s refusal to follow the path suburbia maps out for her exposes the tension between the slog of preparing for the future and the momentary rush of “bringing the rain.” It’s an understandable feeling, caught between the straight-laced life of good grades and a college education, and the heart-pounding immediacy of spending your nights avenging injustice, taking nonstop road trips from Florida to New York, or dancing in empty conference rooms in the tallest building in town.
How does a kid choose one or the other?
Well, maybe she could start by reading some Shakespeare and Whitman.