Looking for Alaska is an adaptation of John Green’s bestselling book, which follows Miles ‘Pudge’ Halter as he moves from Florida to boarding school in Alabama. There Miles makes friends, pulls pranks and experiences what is presented the defining moment of his life with everything (as shown by the title card of each episode) becoming before, or after this event.
Looking for Alaska deserved a mini-series, which gives the TV show breathing room to explore the themes and events of the book whilst keeping the plot from meandering.
The book’s focus is primarily Miles’ obsession with Alaska and the slow revelation of her character, culminating in the realisation that placing someone on an unknowable pedestal is not the way to really know someone. The show doesn’t drop this theme, but presents Alaska as a fully formed character from the beginning, delving further into her relationships with other characters, and her complicated relationship with herself. This is the case for every character: Miles’ roommate, The Colonel, transcends his role as Miles’ guide to become the beating heart of the show. Even Miles’ discipline obsessed teacher is given complex motivations and becomes a much more sympathetic character than within the novel. The TV show in many ways becomes character motivated, rather than theme motivated like the book.
One of my favourite aspects of TV show was its decision to focus on class divisions within Culver Creek High School, with the scholarship full-time boarders often pitted against the wealthier weekday only students. Although both sides pull pranks and agitate each other, it is made clear that Miles and his friends have significantly more to lose, knowing that a potential expulsion could ruin their entire future. The way that the show has this inform Miles’ group’s relationships with each other, their academics as well as the subtler themes of race and discrimination was fascinating and perceptive, but didn’t overwhelm the story lines.
In many ways the TV show feels like a period piece, firmly placed in 2005, when the book was released and set. There’s an obvious lack of technology, hilariously outdated dress sense and, most obviously, the carefully cultivated soundtrack, courtesy of showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, of the O.C. fame. This really helps the show’s nostalgic quality and, along with the general haziness, summer camp style of Culver Creek and emotional outbursts, reinforces the coming-of-age aspects of the story. Looking for Alaska pays attention to the small details, making the characters and settings feel lived in, delicately walking the line between their teenage characters coming off pretentious and treating their problems with heft.
Graffiti’d on the wall in the character’s ‘smoking hole’ is a Walt Whitman quote: ‘These are the days that must happen to you’ which is never explicitly referenced by any of the characters but provides a subtle theme for the entire series.
Looking for Alaska is a admirable adaption of a beloved novel, presenting a different take on the major focus of novel, using the visual medium to make up for the fact that the audience isn’t privy to Miles’ internal narration. However, even more crucially, Looking for Alaska is an excellent standalone TV show, with flawed, realistic characters, emotionally resonant performances and tremendous writing and acting, to present a more thought out and grounded coming-of-age story than usually seen.
Looking for Alaska by John Green is available to buy now at available bookstores. Watch the trailer for the Hulu series below: