Arts movie review

A lighthearted take on John Green’s novel

A young adult adaptation that’s worth seeing

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Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne star as Quentin and Margo in Paper Towns.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation


Paper Towns

Directed by Jake Schreier

Based on the novel Paper Towns by John Green

Starring Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith, Austin Abrams

Rated PG-13

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It was about 1 a.m. the night before the screening, and I had just put down John Green’s Paper Towns. I had read his other books in high school, but for some reason, Paper Towns had evaded my bookshelf. Of course, reading the book could have been a huge mistake, biasing my view of the movie — after all, book fans seem to be set up for eternal disappointment at the theater. As expected, there were changes, additions, and some things that were integrated differently or left out completely. But John Green was an executive producer for the film, so fans can rest assured that the heart of the novel has been carefully transplanted from paper to the big screen.

I entered the surprisingly sparse theater with my friend Ali. About a dozen or so seasoned movie critics were scattered among the seats. I imagine that the two of us were the only members of the audience who had read the book. We were the only ones who laughed at the inside jokes, and Ali turned heads when she let out a fangirl shriek during a scene where a popular star made an unexpected cameo. We enjoyed the film immensely, adaptation and all.

The movie is based on a young adult novel — it’s a coming of age story, and at times, is a little trite, containing trope after overdone trope. Boy falls in love with a mysterious girl, they are childhood friends, they grow apart in high school, girl runs away before senior year is over, boy and friends go on an epic road trip to find her — we’ve seen this sort of thing before. Regardless, I liked its focus on self discovery and the dangers of expectation, and though these themes are explored ad nauseam in media geared toward young people, in Paper Towns the delivery is refreshingly nonstandard. We don’t get what we expect, and we can definitely see that our protagonists are flawed (the story reminds me of 500 Days of Summer in a way). The characters have many insightful lines — most of these are quotes pulled from the novel — but it is clear that they are still figuring things out, and aren’t as wise as their eloquence would have us believe.

I was disappointed that the film ignored the darker parts of the novel, which detracted from the sense of urgency Quentin and his friends felt when trying to reunite with Margo and made the rationale for their road trip significantly more superficial. Instead, the movie focused on the lighthearted aspects of the novel and was packed with teenage humor. You can look forward to an improvised rendition of the Pokémon theme song and lots of “it’s-the-end-of-senior-year” hijinks.

Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne were convincing as the awkward Quentin Jacobsen and the enigmatic Margo Roth Spiegelman, respectively. However it was Justice Smith (who plays Radar) and Austin Abrams (who plays Ben) who stole the show. Radar has a cut and dry wit and the movie is riddled with his stinging one liners, and Ben is somewhat crude and lacks a verbal filter — the two are easily the most entertaining characters in the film.

Some movies get a lot flack for fan service, for including inside jokes likely to fly right over the heads of the average viewer, and for working in quotes from the book (which admittedly, can be cheesy, even though we wait with bated breath for the narrator to deliver the iconic lines). But I think fan acknowledgement is a positive development in today’s media culture, so in this respect, I’m pleased that the Paper Towns filmmakers seemed so aware of their audience.