Looking For Alaska: Mini-Series Review

Looking For Alaska

Photo from tvseriesfinale.com

When I was in high school, John Green was an author that was universally loved in the teenage crowd. I still remember sitting down with Looking For Alaska and freaking out over Alaska saying, “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.” with her entire chest. This novel lit a spark in young adults everywhere, and every time an adaptation rumor went around, there was a lot of discourse surrounding it: who should be cast, would it make a better film or tv series, why can’t some of our favorite books just stay books?

Finally, after many failed adaptation attempts, John Green signed the rights over to Hulu, for an 8 episode mini-series that would be released in October 2019. 

I was a year late to the party, which is sort of shocking considering how much of a fan I was of the book when I was younger. The truth is, I hadn’t read the book in about 7-8 years, and I was afraid that the story wouldn’t live up to what I remembered. I was sorely wrong. Looking For Alaska on Hulu captured the essence of the story perfectly, digging up so much nostalgia that I had buried deep inside. I truly forgot many of the main plot points, and found myself highly engaged with the slow moving and atmospheric story. 

Atmospheric Setting

The characters in Looking For Alaska all attend Culver Creek Prep School in Alabama, which is based on the high school that John Green himself attended in the 1990s. 

Having the story set in a boarding school allows for some freedom in the character’s actions and motivations. Typically in high school settings, stories can feel a bit unrealistic because the characters get away with many troublesome actions that teenagers in the real world would most likely not be able to get away with. Many of our parents tend to be watching a bit more closely in real life than they ever are in fiction. However, in Looking For Alaska, the characters are allowed that independence, because their high school is separate from their home lives. It almost feels like the kids are in college. They have their hang out spots on campus, the obligatory drinking and vulnerability sessions that come with a tight-knit group of young friends, and teachers that are life changing to their mindsets. 

Along with the physical setting, the show also takes place in 2005, which, for newer consumers of this story, will feel almost like a sort of historical fiction. There are no cell phones: they all have to use a landline that the students share. They do their research for their papers by sifting through books. The fashion certainly reflects the late 90s – early 2000s. 

According to John Green, this story always weighed heavy on his own heart, because he came to the realization that you can never actually turn back time. He wanted to capture his teenage years (friends, struggles, feelings of invincibility) by writing about it. Looking For Alaska is quite literally a time capsule for the best-selling novelist, and he struggled with the reality of letting this story go to the readers and to the television producers. Linked below is a video that John Green put together of his trip with the two main actors, Charlie Plummer (Miles) and Kristine Froseth (Alaska), where he visited his high school, allowing the actors some time to acclimate with the setting of the show. He stated in that video that,

“I’ve often felt like I was carrying Miles and Alaska around with me these last fifteen years, which has been lovely at times, and at other times very difficult. But as I watched Kristine and Charlie walking away from me that afternoon, I felt that Miles and Alaska were also walking away, off to explore Culver Creek together, and I felt myself letting go at last. Charlie and Kristine are both so passionate and generous and kind, and in many ways, they know Alaska and Miles better than I do.”

– John Green
Video from vlogbrothers

This perfectly leads us to the next, and in my opinion the most important part of the show: the casting.

The Cast of Characters

I’m going to talk about the 5 main characters of Looking For Alaska: Miles, Alaska, Chip, Takumi, and Lara. These characters make up the core friend group, and therefore are the heart of the show. I will say, other characters such as “The Eagle”, Mr. Hyde, and Chip’s mother are all favorites of mine, and I think that the casting of all of these adult figures were done expertly, and served as beautiful guides for our main characters.

Miles “Pudge” Halter

Charlie Plummer as Miles. Photo from elitedaily.com

John Green created a character that has his unique quirks, is described as scrawny, quite nerdy and awkward, but ultimately someone who yearns for untapped adventure in his life. When I read the book, I can safely say that I didn’t picture Miles as Charlie Plummer, but as soon as he spoke his first line of dialogue… I knew that he was the perfect match.

Charlie captures Miles’ socially awkward qualities to a tee, and throughout the series he develops beautifully. One thing that always struck me while reading the book was how Miles was never someone of many words. Even with his friends, he was much more internal than external, and we were able to grasp that because we were reading from his perspective, and therefore we were reading his thoughts. Obviously, when adapting a novel to screen, many of the thoughts have to be said out loud. Charlie did an incredible job delivering all of his lines with such a hesitancy, as if he was never sure whether or not he should speak them aloud. 

Much of his expert acting is most likely stemmed from the fact that Charlie has been a huge fan of the novel for many years. He used to write fan letters to John Green, and every time the story has been pitched for adaptation, Charlie did everything he could to be a part of it. He stated that he felt immensely connected to Miles, and that shows in his performance.

Alaska Young

Kristine Froseth as Alaska. Photo from weheartit.com

According to fansites, entertainment news outlets, and general online discourse, Alaska Young was the most anticipated character when it came to announcing the casting. When Kristine Froseth was announced there were mixed reactions. Alaska Young was a character that many people connected with for years, and the casting was incredibly important to this crowd. When I saw her picture, I also had hesitancies: she didn’t look how I pictured her in my head. 

I quickly realized how stupid that sounds. Because a character honestly has nothing to do with how they look. Their appearance adds nothing to the value of the character. After watching the series, I can say with full confidence that there was no one better to portray Alaska Young than Kristine Froseth.

My favorite description of Alaska is a direct quote from both the novel and the show: she was a hurricane. It’s not very detailed, but that is a very difficult essence to capture, and Kristine did it with ease. 

Like Charlie, Kristine was a fan of the book back when she first read it, and she, like many people reading the novel, felt a strange connection to Alaska. She stated that while externally they behave much differently, she felt that they were internally quite similar. Her performance throughout the show is stunning, but my personal favorite scene is the barn scene, when the group shares their deepest secrets. Kristine quite literally ripped my heart out describing the death of Alaska’s mother.

Chip “The Colonel” Martin

Denny Love as Chip. Photo from denofgeek.com

Chip is the character that provides the most comical relief in the story, so the casting had to be absolutely perfect. The audience needs that breath of fresh air when it comes to a story that has so much pain in its DNA.

Denny Love portrays Chip, and I think that out of all the casting decisions, this was the best. His comedic delivery, as well as the rage that Chip holds in himself, and his raw emotional moments, add up to make the most complex character within the story. 

Chip’s race was not explicitly stated in the novel, but John Green stated that the decision to cast a black man as Chip was a fantastic decision, one that allowed the television writers to explore themes that were left unexplored in the book. 

“It allowed the perfect person to be The Colonel, which I think is the most important thing… I mean that, I mean there was no one better on earth to play that role and I’m just glad we got the right person.”

John Green

Though I love Denny’s delivery on the comedic lines that the show has to offer, I think his character is the one that made me cry the most, which just goes to show the range that he has to offer as an actor.

Takumi Hikohito

Jay Lee as Takumi. Photo from popsugar.com

Takumi is another character that provides some comedic relief, but I would say that his main purpose to the group is being that harsh voice of reason. Whenever Miles and/or Chip have their heads deep in grief, or hope, or are quite honestly selfish in their actions and reactions, Takumi is the one who brings them back to reality. As a viewer, it was really important to have him there to balance out the emotional scale.

Jay Lee adds a lot of personality to the character and to the friend group established in the show. Watching interviews with the cast, it is quite amusing to watch and listen to Jay, because he is quite different from Takumi in character. He doesn’t have the same innate swagger that Takumi has, but is instead very sweet and introspective. Again, it just goes to show the talent that he brings to the project.

Lara Buterskaya

Sofia Vassilieva as Lara. Photo from mtv.com

In both the show and the book, Lara is a character that kind of sneaks up on you. She is not necessarily a main character until we reach the midpoint. Though she may not have the same weight that the other characters have, her presence is necessary to the group. 

Lara is very kind, but she knows how to stand up for herself. She knows what she wants and what she deserves, and this shows with her relationship with Miles. She knows when to cut it off in romantic terms, because she can tell that he has deep feelings for Alaska. However, she also is the one who shows up for him in his lowest moments of grief.

Sofia Vassilieva adds brightness to the character and makes her even more likeable than she was in the novel. I don’t remember having a particular attachment to her character in the book, but Sofia brings out another side of her that makes her impossible to ignore.

The Pacing and Overall Story

This adaptation felt very faithful to what I remember the novel being. Again, it has been many years since I have read it, but there were so many scenes that dug up the memories that I had stored away while reading the book back in high school. John Green was highly involved in the project, and has stated that he felt the adaptation absolutely did justice to his novel, which definitely validates my opinions on that aspect of the show.

While I was watching it, I did feel that it was a bit slow. I remember thinking, maybe this would work better as a film. However, this changed during the last few episodes. I realized once I had finished watching the show that we needed that time with the characters in order to feel intrinsically connected to them. This sounds incredibly cheesy, and it is, but spending that time with them makes you feel like you are a part of their friend group. And this is incredibly important, because it’s not enough for the characters to be experiencing the high level of grief that they do in the last couple of episodes – we have to go through it too. The show makes sure that we feel as if we have lost a friend.

The ending of this story means different things to me now than it did when I read it. When I read the book, I had never experienced the loss of a friend in the way that these characters have. Now, many years later, I have unfortunately experienced something similar, and I found that many of the lines (that I remembered from the book) hit so differently now. The story will affect people differently, depending on what they have experienced in their lives, but I truly believe that everyone can get something valuable from it.

The writing, the acting, the cinematography, and the heart that was poured into this project makes for a beautiful adaptation, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I think that it will speak to you in one way or another.

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