Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the book and the film “All the Bright Places”.
Everyone loves a good teenage love story, right? Hollywood thinks so, at least. In the last few years, we’ve received adaptations of nearly every cheesy high school romance novel known to man. But don’t be fooled—they’re not all that gushy. Netflix’s adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s novel, All the Bright Places, is no To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, to put it lightly.
Sure, there’s absurd adventures and a strong disregard for the status quo. There’s high school drama and a full spectrum teenage emotions. There are scenes that will make you say “awwww.” But it isn’t a typical love story. All the Bright Places tells the story of Violet Markey (Elle Fanning), a girl who gave up aspirations of journalism and a flair for partying after the sudden death of her sister, which still emotionally traumatizes her over a year later, and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), a boy who desires adventure and occasionally toys with death. While Violet is well-loved by her absent boyfriend and high-school bully-esque friends, Finch tends to be the laughing stock of their school. After meeting in an unconventional way, up on a ledge, they realize they have more in common than they previously thought.
The adaptation tended to focus more on their relationship outside of school and largely removed the high school drama aspect. It felt more like a story of two people finding each other in their trauma and learning to live again in spite of it, rather than a petty love triangle. The romance was just a part of their adventures and it was a part of how they grew together — it never solely led the narrative.
It was realistic, most importantly. The bleakness of everyday high school life was exemplified: the dim hallways, the scratching of the chalkboard, the hand-me-down cars. Its actors weren’t teenagers, but they weren’t the cast of Riverdale either. They looked frail and quirky, and they re-wore the same outfit twice. They truly mimicked the blandness of teenage lifestyle.
Another real aspect was the character’s struggle with mental illness. If you know anything about the story, then you know there isn’t exactly a happy ending. But leading up to Finch’s death, we see his anger and his feelings of hopelessness, as well as his fight with disassociation. It’s his main struggle in the book: constantly fighting to stay awake and conscious in life, avoiding slipping away. In the movie, seeing him struggle with his disassociation is heartbreaking because you can actually see him drifting in and out. It’s real and much harder to avoid than when reading the book. Elle Fanning did an amazing job portraying Violet’s grief. Her sadness was crushing, but her numbness was worse. Their trauma and struggles were not ignored or swept under the rug. They were there, in front of me on the screen, and I felt how I did while reading the book: completely heartbroken!
However, fans of the novel could also complain that it was too different from the original story. As someone who also cried while reading Niven’s book, I can vouch and say there are a few key differences. The major changes were the lack of Finch’s family backstory, less of Violet’s writing ambition and nearly no attention being given to her original friend circle. Many of these were subplots that would have either derailed from the main story of Violet and Finch, or added an unnecessary, dramatic element that didn’t feel appropriate to a story that deals with such heavy topics.
Finch’s family and Violet’s aspirations were shaping aspects of their personality: it seems as though they were not vital to the story and only appeared when they were needed. It just felt like a major component of Violet’s character and driving arc went missing with her magazine. Finch was lacking any backstory outside of the vague trauma briefly he briefly touched on when confiding in Violet. This just seems wrong, as meeting his dad’s new family was a shaping and difficult scene in the novel that gave an explanation to his harmful habits. While unnecessary teenage tropes were removed in order to be appropriate and concise, key elements of their personalities were, as well.
Adaptations are never perfect. Something is always left out or switched up. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate the story they’re attempting to tell. The movie kept the same somber tone and dealt with topics like suicide and mental illness sensitively, but authentically. I still felt the sadness of Finch’s death and the joy and anger of all the moments that came before. Just because the bell tower was forgotten doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope for the film. The Post-It notes were still stuck to his wall and the highest point in Indiana was still humorously disappointing. We can mourn for what was changed and lost in the adaptation, but we can also celebrate the attempt made to bring words on a page to life. We can also ugly-cry about the ending, too.
Featured image via IMBD