Thoughts: Paper Towns movie

I just got to spend a Night on the Towns! As with TFIOS, there was a special early showing of Paper Towns simultaneously across the continent, followed by a livestream Q&A with the cast, crew, and John Green. 

A short summary of the story: Quentin has been in love with Margo ever since they were kids. Over the years, they've drifted apart, and Quentin has watched Margo become the most popular, legendary girl at school, thanks in part to her hijinks of mythical proportions: she often takes off to go do whatever, leaving behind clues as to her whereabouts. After Margo solicits Q's help out of the blue for one night of crazy schemes, she suddenly disappears. With the help of his friends, Q finds clues that Margo has left behind, and he finds himself on a mission to bring back the girl he loves.

For a more detailed discussion, check my writeup of the book here.

My writeup of the movie assumes that you have read the book, or that you don't care about me spoiling the book for you. Ye have been warned.

Okay, so some background on the making of this movie - the writers and producers are essentially the same people behind the TFIOS movie, and Quentin himself is played by Nat Wolff, who was Isaac in TFIOS, so you can pretty much expect a lot of similarities in style. In fact, I'm fairly certain both movies start off with the main character's voiceover narration saying, "The way I see it..." or "The way I figure it..." with music playing in the background and some sort of dreamy sequence going on visually.

I'm serious, that's how Paper Towns starts too. Not that it was done poorly, mind you, but having seen many a teen movie in my day, the voiceover narration gets really tiresome. I get bored of people telling me things, when I'd rather watch the exposition unfold on-screen. The narration does stop once the story really starts to kick in, so that's fine.

There were a lot of changes made, and they were all changes I was okay with. Paper Towns the book does have a lot of action in it - and by action, I don't mean explosions and car chases, but like, actual things happening, actively - but it also has a lot of introspection and reflection, as well as literary analysis, and that stuff doesn't translate too well on-screen. There is the one scene in the movie where Q is finds the Walt Whitman lines about the door jambs, and visually it was clear and dynamic, without just being all, "Hey audience, here's a dude reading!", and there are very quick references to Moby Dick, but that's about it. As much as I love literary analysis, I don't necessarily want to watch someone analyzing literature inside his own head because... that's boring visually. That would just be a guy sitting there staring at a page or a wall.

When you only have a short span of time to tell a story, you have to make things simpler and more direct - in the book, there was a lot of Q running back and forth all the time to the sketchy closed shop and driving around all over Florida (and in all that time, reading, thinking, reading, thinking), so I thought the screenwriters did a great job of cutting out all the excess and moving the plot along quite nicely. I found myself many times dreading parts that were to come in the movie, because it did seem a little draggy at times in the book, and then feeling relieved that the movie scenes were short and sweet after all.

They also changed the timeline of the school year for the story - the road trip at the end of the book takes place on graduation day, but in the movie, it takes place right before prom. Their deadline is that they have to make it back in time for prom, rather than the noon deadline that Margo specifies on her Omnictionary post.

And yes, as you could tell from the trailer, Q does end up deciding to attend prom. But I liked the reasoning for it - the book was very much about Margo as Q's manic pixie dream girl, and how he realizes he's wrong for seeing her as anything other than her true self. This is still communicated in the movie, but the movie ended up being as much about his friendships with the other characters in the story, and I loooooooved this. It did a better job of illustrating Q's emotional growth than even the book did, because Q in the movie applied his newfound revelations about truly seeing Margo to truly seeing his own life as well. We don't get that in the book, because it ends with the scene in Agloe between just the two of them. The movie takes it further - instead of his friends waiting around while he talks to Margo and then just finis, Q decides to stay behind in Agloe while his friends head home. They are frustrated and tired, and rightfully so. Q makes it clear that if he doesn't see Margo, then the whole thing will have been for nothing, whereas Radar and Ben say that it was about spending time together as best friends before they all head their separate ways for college. This was not in the book, and I really loved this because it gave the story some more depth. It shifted Q's character arc quite tremendously, because suddenly, his growth didn't just revolve around a person, but around his larger worldview. His getting left behind to deal with Margo on his own and then his having to take the long bus ride home alone taught him the importance of his friendships with Ben, Radar, Lacey, and Angela (who was on the roadtrip in the movie, but not in the book), and in the end, he does attend prom, and he has a grand ol' time wrapping up the last of his high school days.

So, it was a great buddy movie, and to make a great buddy movie, you need to have good "buddy" characters and good "buddy" chemistry. I have to say, Q's friends are what made this movie, because Q can be kind of... exasperating. And that's not a strike against Nat Wolff's performance - Q as he is written can be kind of thick-headed and frustrating (which is fine, it's part of his arc), and because he's the narrator, we are always constantly in his head and no one else's. With the movie, we get other perspectives in limited amounts, and this is wonderful, because we get to see Ben, Radar, Lacey, and Angela more as they are, rather than solely how Q sees them.

Ben was a far more likeable character in the movie than he was in the book. His comments in the book often read as douchey to me, but Austin Abrams gave just the right amount of nerdiness/awkwardness to his portrayal that made me like him better. The development of his and Lacey's relationship felt far more realistic and natural than it did in the book too - the scene of the two of them talking after the Cow Incident was really great. I also felt that the movie gave Lacey better depth as a character, and Halston Sage lent her this really great vulnerability. (It also helped that they cut out all the stuff about her calling Margo fat, because come on, who would say that about someone of Cara Delevingne's body type?)

Radar and Angela are my favorite part of the story! They have this adorable relationship, and Radar is extremely intelligent but not at all an awkward nerd. He's got a great strength about him that really anchors Ben and Q. Angela is not really an active character in the book, but in the movie, she gets to go along on the road trip, which actually makes perfect sense to me, and she becomes a great addition to the group.

Nat Wolff, Austin Abrams, and Justice Smith have an amazing chemistry. I don't know how much of their banter was scripted, but they were super believable as lifelong best friends. Their timing was perfect, if that makes sense - they never missed a beat in their interactions. And how great was the Pokemon scene?? I loved that the story ended up being just as much about their time together as it was about Q and Margo.

Speaking of, Margo is not physically present for much of the story. The crazy night of errands is much shorter in the movie than it is in the book, and then we only see her in flashback until the very end, when Q finds her. And that interaction in the movie is shorter than it is in the book too. But it's fine, because Cara Delevingne really takes that role and runs with it. She was great at embodying Margo's mythical qualities as well as her very human qualities. One moment I really loved was her brief moment of seriousness at the beginning after she enacts revenge on her best friends and her ex. There's a beat of silence that is short but reveals so much about who she is, the loneliness and betrayal she is feeling beneath her facade. And her ending conversation with Q in New York is far more sympathetic than it is in the book, but at the same time, she very firmly communicates how much Q was entirely mistaken about her intentions. Again, perhaps it's because we get to see Margo with our own eyes rather than through Q's, but Cara Delevingne's performance really revealed Margo as the flawed teenage girl she really is (in a good way), well before Q has his revelation.

And maybe that's why all the voiceover narration might have been needed: because in the end, Q can be an unreliable narrator. This is the thing he actually learns about himself, that his perceptions of others are not truth, but by the time we see him learn it in the book, we've already had to spend all that time in his head. Viewing his character arc from the outside was a lot better. And again, this is not a knock against Nat Wolff, who did a great job at keeping Q at that balance between dreamy-romantic-hero-wannabe and boy-who-is-weirdly-obsessed-with-girl. Q became more likeable in this movie version as well.

So, this all sounds like I liked the movie way better than the book. I wouldn't necessarily say that. It's more that, I liked the movie as an entirely separate entity from the book. Again, there were things I really liked about the book that I didn't feel would translate well to the screen, so I think it's good to take them each for what they are - the same story told in two fundamentally different forms. I'm sure there will be plenty of fans that will nitpick all the differences and who will get upset because the movie was not just like the book, but I'm not one of those people - I'm okay with change as long as it serves a good purpose (I'm looking at you, Insurgent movie!!!! *glares*), and I felt that that's what happened here. I think the movie is great as a companion to the book, but I think that it's also great separately from the book, so you could probably still enjoy this movie without reading the novel first. I myself read the book months ago, so I'm fuzzy on some of the details, but all in all, I didn't feel like anything important was missing, plotwise.

It was fun. Paper Towns the movie does not pack the same emotional punch as the book (which does have some rather dark moments), and speaking of emotional punch, it's definitely not TFIOS part 2, but that's a good thing. Paper Towns is a great thing all on its own.

PS - There was a GREAT surprise cameo during the gas station scene on the road trip :) I definitely did not see that coming, and there were quite a lot of squeals coming from the teenage girls sitting behind me.

Check out the swag we got:


  1. I was VERY disappointed with prom.... The book and the movie seem to paint him as someone who would NEVER attend prom..... I see it as selling out to become part of the paper life she hated so much. If they had to alter the character enough to have him attend prom, they could at least have done a deus ex machina that gave Ducky a happy end note like in Pretty in Pink. I'm sad about the characters being alone at the end of both movies.... one has an excuse, but it offends the romantic in me (its why I was annoyed by the ending of the book).


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