Arts quarantine theater

‘Looking for Alaska,’ a sweet fantasy that transcends the adaptation

In a world where poetry is plucked from thin air, the Hulu limited series is sappy in all the right ways

Looking for Alaska
Created by Josh Schwartz
Based on Looking for Alaska by John Green
Starring Charlie Plummer, Kristine Froseth, Denny Love, Jay Lee, Sofia Vassilieva
Streaming on Hulu

It’s been fifteen years since John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska was published, and the limited series adapted from the book has finally been released on Hulu. Following years of stagnation in production as a potential screenplay, the 2019 release of the series marked an exciting moment for long-time fans of Green’s work. 

The film adaptations for Green’s other books — The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns — have gained a reputation for their melancholy portrayal of the teenage years. The latest to join the crowd is no less painful, as readers may know, and yet its re-interpretation of Green’s earliest publication does bring something new to the screen. 

The series takes place over eight episodes, adopting the storyline from the original novel with more lingering sentimentality than one might expect from contemporary young adult (YA) shows. The setting is a throwback to a pre-2000s era, free from smartphones and technology, taking place in Culver Creek, Alabama at a boarding school that’s impossibly similar to summer camp. Cheeky bell-bottom jeans and vintage T-shirts all make a bold appearance, adorning the actors with an extra hint of vintage. 

Looking for Alaska follows bookish teen Miles “Pudge” Halter (Charlie Plummer) as he transfers from Miami to a boarding school in Alabama in order to find, in the words of French poet François Rabelais, his “Great Perhaps.” Pudge’s hobby is memorizing famous people’s last words, and he finds out that the students at his new school are no less literary. Just like any good YA story, Pudge’s narration captures the excitement and heartbreak of first love, the timelessness of a coming-of-age story, and the sticky sweet nectar of nostalgia. 

While the show mostly sticks to the narrative from the novel, there are a couple of significant changes. There's a stronger backstory for Chip “Colonel” Martin (Denny Love), a brainy prankster and scholarship kid who befriends the titular Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth) early on in the story. On screen, we follow his struggles as a young black man finding his place in a Southern society. Love’s performance is electric, bringing an energy to the Colonel that was difficult to find in the book. 

Likewise, characters who primarily played supporting roles to Pudge in the book have their own arcs in the show. The elderly religious studies teacher Dr. Hyde (Ron Cephas Jones) has an expanded role as a mentor to Alaska, and the Weekday Warriors, the rich kids who return home on the weekends, get their own storylines as well, including an entire episode dedicated to a Southern cotillion.

The stilted, unrealistically eloquent language of the characters from the book doesn’t disappear in the show, but the actors are able to slide the dialogue smoothly into their shenanigans, making it easy to forget that sixteen year-olds are quoting Kurt Vonnegut and Gabriel García Márquez on a daily basis. While Alaska, Pudge, the Colonel, and Takumi (Jay Lee) are pulling pranks against their stoic headmaster Mr. Starnes (Timothy Simons), aka “The Eagle,” you don’t notice that their casual banter is just a shade more sophisticated than normal teenage lingo. 

The show’s pacing gives it more time to explore the brokenness of Alaska’s arc. A mysterious, charismatic character from the start, she quickly becomes Pudge’s love interest and pursuit. Froseth portrays Alaska’s enigmatic and aloof persona with nuance, keeping the character at a persistent distance from the viewer.

The chemistry between the members of the main cast is palpable, and it makes for one of the best parts of the show. Whether it’s a tender moment between the Colonel and Dr. Hyde or a light-hearted post-Thanksgiving jive, the characters bring to the screen an energy that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

In a conversation Green has with his fans after the conclusion of the show, he said that he was trying, more than anything, to use his stories as a way to time travel. From the views of the sunlit lake to the montage of cigarette smoke and cheap wine and fleeting friendships, that’s just about how you’ll feel when the show is over.