When The O.C. showrunner Josh Schwartz optioned the rights to the unpublished manuscript of Looking For Alaskain 2004, John Green was an unknown. Green would go on to write other books (including the very successful The Fault in Our Stars, previously adapted into a feature film) and to build the online Nerdfighter community with brother Hank.
But, in 2004, he hadn’t done any of that yet. Alaska, published in 2005, would be his first book, and it would end up taking almost 15 years before it was adapted for the screen, improbably in the hands of the young TV writer who first saw something special in it.
Can I say…? Thank god that it took so long. The eight-episode streaming series didn’t even exist as a format in 2004, and what a loss it would have been if we’d never seen this long-form adaptation of Looking For Alaska. In a letter sent to TV critics, Schwartz and co-creator Stephanie Savage call the project “a labor of love.” You will feel that love in every frame, in every mid-aught soundtrack selection, in every performance.
For the unfamiliar, Hulu‘s Looking For Alaska is set in 2005, and follows high school misfit Miles “Pudge” Halter (Charlie Plummer), who convinces his caring, but emotionally-distant parents to let him leave his home in Florida to attend junior year at his father’s Alabama-based alma mater: Culver Creek Academy. Miles is obsessed with learning the last words of famous dead people, and is in search of his “great perhaps”—something he actually tells people—a quest inspired by French Renaissance writer François Rabelais’s final words, and that brings him to Culver Creek.
Don’t let Culver Creek’s camp-like aesthetic fool you. This is still a private boarding school, which means class tensions between the rich kids who go home on the weekends and the scholarship kids whose future trajectories could truly be changed by the prestigious school. When Miles is paired with Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love) for a roommate and meets Chip’s best friend, Alaska Young (The Society standout Kristine Froseth), both scholarship kids from working class backgrounds, he is immediately pulled into the ever-escalating prank war between the two groups. Shenanigans ensue.
This is a familiar set-up. From Netflix’s Elite to chwartz’s The O.C., we’re trained as viewers to expect certain tropes—from class warfare to romantic quadrangles—in the private school soap subgenre. While some of those tropes are there (more class warfare, less romantic quadrangles), this is not teen melodrama. Melodrama implies a heightened level of emotions evoked by the depiction of sensationalized events. While I don’t think there’s anything inherently lesser about teen soaps as a genre, Looking For Alaska falls firmly into the grounded, coming-of-age drama category. While some of the characters’ experiences may be heightened for dramatic efficiency, this is a story that prioritizes the exploration of grounded universal experiences, like love and loss, and how we reconcile the inextricable two.
Like Miles,Looking For Alaska is endearingly open about what its thematic aims are. When the students are assigned the essay question “What is the most important question human beings must answer?” from intimidatingly cool teacher Dr. Hyde (Ron Cephas Jones), the TV series is obviously assigning the question, too. When unexpected tragedy strikes the Culver Creek community part way through the series, the academic exercise becomes all too real, as Miles and his young friends are forced to grapple with grief, the infuriating mysteriousness of tragedy, and the recognition of the ephemerality of all things.
In lesser storytelling hands, this kind of Big Questions, coming-of-age structure could be nail-scratchingly pedantic. Looking For Alaska is anything but. You will find yourself wanting to spend more time in this setting, with these characters—even and perhaps especially when the unbearable happens. The series deals with huge themes like grief, friendship, love, and family with nuance and specificity. It is funny and heartbreaking—sometimes, at the same time, which is damn near impossible to pull off.
Though I am a John Green fan, I have yet to read Looking For Alaska so I can’t speak to how this adaptation relates to its source material. Knowing that the novel is told from Miles’ first-person perspective, however, I can guess that Savage and Schwartz put a lot of work into making this an ensemble drama, and to expanding out the other characters’ stories and backstories.
It works incredibly well. Miles may be our audience surrogate character into this world, but he is far from the only character who gets to be the protagonist of this story. Alaska, Chip, and Dr. Hyde are all give the power of perspective at various points in the narrative, and to varying degrees. The choice not only gives the world glorious texture, but also allows us to see Miles from various points-of-view.
Choosing a star performance in this plethora of stunning, brave work from a mostly young ensemble is difficult and unnecessary, but I want to take the time to talk about Denny Love’s portrayal of Chip. Love delivers a layered, vulnerable performance that moves from confidently charismatic to devastatingly raw when the situation demands it. Watching his character change and unfurl is one of the most engaging draws in a series filled with reasons to keep watching. (Honorable mention goes to Sofia Vassilieva as Romanian student Lara, in a supporting, but memorable role that is one of the few characters who gets shortchanged in the series’ conclusion.)
While the story mostly keeps its focus on the teenagers, Looking For Alaska includes an all-star supporting cast of “older” actors, including the aforementioned Jones; Timothy Simons as the uptight, well-intentioned dean of the school; and Deneen Tyler as Chip’s mom Dolores—all of whom continue in Fake Empire’s long tradition of complex, supportive adult characters in teen-centric dramas. Looking For Alaska is a story that recognizes the things that adults understand better than kids, and the things that kids understand better than adults, and the ways in which those two different bases of knowledge can make communication between those two groups so damn hard sometimes.
“The truth is: I wrote the book because I wanted to go home,” Green says in a YouTube video reflecting on his debut novel in the face of the adaptation. “By which I mean: The Fall of 1993, smoking cigarettes under this bridge with people I loved who loved me. I’d never loved peers like that before: ferociously, without any self-consciousness or fear. That couldn’t last, of course, and it didn’t.”
More than anything, Looking For Alaska is a story about the ephemerality of all intersections of place and time and the people we meet in there. It is a story about young people coming to grips with the inescapable reality of the ephemerality, perhaps for the first time, and how that recognition can serve to remind us of the immense gifts of living at least as often as it can remind us of the costs of those gifts.
Hulu’s Looking For Alaska limited series is sure to become a coming-of-age mainstay, a series teenagers and adults alike will turn to for comfort and catharsis as the seasons of their lives turn and loss inevitably comes, as it is wont to do. If you’re lucky and alive and changing, you don’t come of age just once. Looking For Alaska is a lovingly-crafted reminder of that fact, a narrative signpost in the labyrinths we all must live in.
All eight episodes of Looking For Alaska will drop on October 18th on Hulu.