Review: 'Looking for Alaska' resolves original novel's problematic storytelling

by Nicole Aboodi | 11/7/19 2:05am

When I was 11 years old and first cracked open John Green’s novel “Looking for Alaska,” I immediately fell in love with the air of mystery that surrounded Alaska Young, the elusive girl of male protagonist Miles Halter’s dreams. Every emo tween wanted to be Alaska: free-spirited and enigmatic, as shown through the eyes of a helplessly enamored boy.

However, I now realize how wrong 11-year-old me was: Book-Alaska was the perfect embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The reader was never privy to anything going on inside her head. She would have random outbursts and show depressive tendencies that were portrayed as interesting tics or a secretive nature. By only existing in Miles’s gaze, Alaska never had any agency. She was created solely for Miles’s pleasure.

Surprisingly, Hulu’s new mini-series based on Green’s novel solves this problem wonderfully, by not only allowing the audience into Alaska’s view, but also all the other characters’ as well. 

Just as the book did, the show follows Miles, a bored Floridian portrayed by Charlie Plummer, seeking adventure at his new boarding school in Culver Creek, AL. He immediately befriends his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin, portrayed by Denny Love, who introduces him to Takumi and Alaska, portrayed by Jay Lee and Kristine Froseth respectively. The four friends stumble through their classes, romances and pranks excitedly; their conversations are stained with the infallible intelligence that could only come from hard work, lots of reading and a loquacious writer’s room. While Miles lusts after Alaska, the show’s framework hints at an ominous event looming in the future, as each episode has a countdown, separating the “Before” from the “After.” 

Rather than only showing Miles’s perspective, the show expands its scope to include the best friends, the dream girl and the compassionate educators. By broadening the scope, the show eliminates the single-mindedness and the problematic male gaze that the book had. Alaska’s actions no longer hold no meaning. Miles’s fascination with Alaska is no longer a clear romanticization of mental illness. Instead, we see her world through her eyes. Her random breakdowns and inexplicable actions actually have explanations; we can understand her more now. We see that her interactions with Miles aren’t her entire personality, but rather such a small facet of who she is. 

Froseth’s Alaska has a backbone and dreams. She’s not just a sexual expert who somehow knows the ins and outs of adolescence; she craves adventure just as much as Miles does, and she hopes to pursue a career in literature while implementing her feminist ideals into her everyday life. Alaska is no longer a shell of a person whom Miles glorifies just because she’s beautiful — rather, she’s a fully fleshed out person with passions and problems and inner conflicts. 

And the same goes for The Colonel. Although Miles’s focus is his love life, the show shines when the camera puts us in The Colonel’s shoes. It’s pretty rare that the minority best friend character is permitted to outshine the white protagonist, but the show “Looking for Alaska” now qualifies as an exception to this rule. The Colonel is wildly intelligent and hardworking, allowing him to easily become the most likable character of the bunch. But the show fleshes out his storyline, providing him with an intricate background and a complex relationship. His love for his girlfriend, a wealthy student named Sara, portrayed by Landry Bender, exemplifies an amazing conflict within someone who has such strong principles; it’s a realistic representation of how being young and in love isn’t always sunshine and kisses. Sara and Chip’s relationship reveals a tear in The Colonel’s tough exterior, especially in a glorious sequence in which he writes other students’ essays to afford a new tuxedo for her debutante ball. While Miles wanes and Alaska falters, The Colonel provides a stable lightning rod of friendship and loyalty, reminding the characters and the audience that what matters is a bright future, friends and family. 

The breadth of rich characters and their development over the course of the eight-episode arc is emblematic of creator Josh Schwartz’s talents; Schwartz can take a gaggle of teenagers with seemingly ordinary problems and produce a beautiful, multifaceted group out of them. The “Looking for Alaska” bunch aren’t particularly unique or brilliant, they’re just struggling with the human condition — or more specifically the teenage condition, with which they overthink, overanalyze and overfeel. The show captures the angst and the melancholy perfectly, juxtaposing it with the pure joy and lust all of the characters feel.

By showing different perspectives from all of the characters, including a wonderful Dr. Hyde, portrayed by Ron Cephas Jones, the show breathes new life into a story that could have been stale. After all, the book predated the teen drama genre and it could have easily been a bad copycat of “The O.C.” or “Gossip Girl.” Instead, it came from a fresh, imaginative ground that birthed a heart-wrenching and relatable mini series. Allow yourself to get sucked into the universe of Culver Creek and recall how you too once sobbed that hard, cared that much and felt that intensely.