A Tale of Two Margos: Paper Towns and the Loss of Story Through Character

Last night, I went to see the much anticipated teen movie, Paper Towns, the second movie based on one of John Green‘s young adult novels.  The book, Paper Towns is one of my favorites I’ve ever read for a variety of reasons (i.e. depth of character, diverse cultural references, the message of understanding that each person is just a person and nothing more).  So naturally, when I heard about the plans for the book to become a movie, I was filled with the all too familiar combination of excitement and worry that all readers feel when their favorite books are turned into movies.  The feeling that begs the question, “Will I be disappointed?”

I’m sorry to say that I was, in fact, disappointed.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there were many aspects of the movie that worked quite well.  The casting, for instance, was almost perfect; Nat Wolff clearly had a full understanding of Quentin’s view of the world, and his friends were exactly as I pictured while reading the book.  The sets, too, were chosen as if they saw what I had imagined while reading.  Everything from the abandoned mini-mall to Margo’s bedroom were flawless representations of the book’s settings.

But so much was different from the book, and unnecessarily so, for the most part.  The most glaring and disheartening difference is the disparity between Book Margo and Movie Margo.

[There will be a few spoilers in here, so fair warning if you intend on reading the book or seeing the movie!]

Going into the movie, I was already a bit nervous about the representation of Margo Roth Spiegelman.  When I initially heard that former model Cara Delevingne was to play Margo, I was confused and somewhat upset.  Book Margo is unconventionally beautiful; she is full-figured with cropped, dark hair (as you can see on some of the earlier covers of the book).  Quentin describes her physical appearance as not stereotypically “pretty;” it’s her personality and mystique that make the boys swoon.

But Delevingne is almost the opposite.  As a young model, she is stereotypically pretty: tall and thin with long, sleek hair.  What makes her distinctive are her striking facial features and signature strong eyebrows.  But Book Margo isn’t supposed to be model-beautiful; that’s all part of her characterization.  She isn’t supposed to look conventionally “perfect,” but she seems to be so on another level.

However, I was willing to overlook this flaw as long as Delevingne accurately represented Book Margo’s personality and faults.  Though John Green seemed to believe that Delevingne had a strong understanding of Margo’s character, I don’t think that it shows on the screen.

And I don’t blame Delevingne completely for this; it was probably a combination of the writing and direction as well as acting that caused Margo Roth Spiegelman to be so poorly represented.

Book Margo is an unconventional heroine (revealed to be an anti-heroine at the end).  She is fierce and intimidating, at times mystifying and at others terrifying.  She is not only mysterious and thrill-seeking, but also forceful to the point of hostility.  The key to her miraculousness to Q is that he chooses to overlook the negative aspects of her psyche.  He chooses to see her as a two-dimensional symbol of what he wishes his high school life could be like: adventure, disregard of consequences, urban myth-like escapades.

But Movie Margo is only a shadow of Book Margo.  Movie Margo lacks not only the brazenness of a girl who paints her fingernails in the front seat, but also the aggression, the anger felt by a girl who was never understood but never fought to be.

This is revealed most obviously in one of the final scenes in which Q finds Margo.

The book ending is shocking.  For Q and his friends to come all the way from Orlando, Florida to Agloe, New York only to have Margo receive them so inimically is infuriating.  She whips out all kinds of insulting remarks, yells at Q when he calls her on her selfishness, and snaps that she didn’t want to be found in the first place.  And for Q to have been hopelessly imagining this reunion to be some kind of running-to-kiss-each-other-thank-God-you-found-me-I-love-you-type fantasy, he was angry, too.  But fierce Margo gives way to slightly-rational Margo, who talks out her problems with Q and recognizes his ignorance and concern.  Until the very end, she is fighting for something to make her feel alive and real, even against her best friends.

What should be the most compelling scene in the movie falls completely flat.  Because the reason for the time crunch to get to Agloe is to get to prom on time rather than to save Margo from potential suicide, there is so little riding on their arrival in the paper town.  And because they don’t find Margo right away and Q’s friends leave him behind, there is no uproar upon finding her.  Because Q finds her walking down the street, he doesn’t get to see that she now lives a somewhat squalid life.

Movie Margo is not fierce.  She is not alarmingly combative.  She is passionless and passive.  She has no fire.  She sees Q’s appearance as unexpected but not upsetting. Whereas Book Margo is completely aware of her power over others, Movie Margo doesn’t seem to understand his fascination with her.

Movie Margo’s reaction is completely watered down.  Rather than peaking sharply, the climax fades into the ending, leaving me irritated and bitter, when I should be having an epiphany about the human condition (which seems to be the goal of all of John Green’s books).

Margo’s anger in this scene is key to understanding Quentin’s imagined view of her and her frustration with her lack of true identity.  The whole theme of the book is that you can never know a person entirely; no matter how well you think you know someone, how you personally view them is never the full picture.  The movie expresses this theme in Margo’s apparent apathy about Q’s arrival and her lack of intention to lead him to Agloe.  But that leaves little to no impact on the audience.  The jarring nature of Book Margo’s reaction makes the reader feel how Q feels: irate and betrayed by a once endearingly mysterious girl.  The movie leads only to a sense of disappointment and blind acceptance of reality.

I do not feel anger about the flaws in the Paper Towns movie, but rather a deep sadness that I saw a story that affected me so strongly misconstrued into a saccharine unresolved love story.  I love John Green, the causes he supports, his positive attitude and belief in the strength of individual people, as well as his ability to capture moments in high school life perfectly on the page.  It is for this reason that I wish that the Paper Towns movie would have better reflected the story he created and the character that helped me to learn a vital lesson about understanding the people around me.

Did you read or see Paper Towns?  What did you think about it?  Do you think that the choices made in the movie were justified?  Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

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