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Teens have turned to John Green’s young adult novels to escape the labyrinth of adolescence since he released “Looking for Alaska” in 2005.
The path to adapting a screen version of the award-winning teen drama hasn’t exactly been “straight and fast,” as Green wrote in the novel, but now an upcoming limited Hulu series chronicles the tragic tale of awkward Miles “Pudge” Halter and the mysterious Alaska Young.
The novel depicts Pudge’s journey to follow poet Francois Rabelais’ last words and “seek a Great Perhaps” as he moves from a small town in Florida to Culver Creek Preparatory High School in Alabama, where he meets Alaska.
A movie version of the story was confirmed by Green in 2015 and was set to have the same writers as “The Fault in Our Stars” — Green’s 2012 book that was adapted into a hit 2014 film starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort about a young couple with cancer — but the film never made it to production.
Green says he’s “thrilled” with the long-awaited adaptation. As he writes in the novel, “nothing is instant,” anyway.
“I feel so fortunate. It's just such a moving expansion of the story,” he says. “I could never have imagined back when I published the book in 2005 that one day there would even be such a thing as a Hulu limited series, let alone that one so wonderful would be devoted to that little story.”
Josh Schwartz, the show’s co-executive producer and showrunner who also produced teen drama “The O.C.,” says he fell in love with the book and the characters when he read an unpublished copy 14 years ago.
Back then, when Schwartz was still working on “The O.C.,” the duo decided to set the adaptation in 2005. In the Hulu series, Green’s characters can be seen watching the iconic early 2000s show for a splash of nostalgia, Schwartz says.
Schwartz says he and co-executive producer Stephanie Savage aim to capture the “universal and timeless” emotions they felt during their teenage years. Making television for teenagers is rewarding because of their passion, he says.
“The things that you love when you're in high school, the movies that you love, the TV shows you love, the music that you listen to,” Schwartz says, “You love those things in a way that you will never love anything else again.”
The New Yorker has called Green “the teen whisperer,” and he says he’s also interested in writing about teenagers because of the feelings he remembers.
He writes for teenagers who relate to Pudge, who would often forget he’s not “the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things,” in the novel.
Teenagers ask big questions about “meaning” and “justice” independent from their family for the first time, without “any kind of ironic distance,” Green says.
Culver Creek Preparatory High School, the setting of the story where Pudge first meets Alaska, is based on a boarding school Green attended in Alabama, “but the story is very much a novel,” he says.
The show, which debuts on Friday, stars Kristine Froseth as Alaska Young and Charlie Plummer as Miles "Pudge" Halter.
They decided to cast black actor Denny Love to play Pudge’s best friend, Chip “The Colonel” Martin to inform some of the tension between his character and the wealthy students at the school.
Pudge, the first-person narrator in the book, has memorized famous people’s last words from Edgar Allan Poe to Princess Diana to James Dean to John F. Kennedy.
Green says he wanted to showcase Pudge’s overly simplistic mindset about death and how it plays a role in life at the beginning of the story.
“He has to grapple with the reality that death is full of ambiguity. It's full of failure. It's full of guilt,” he says. “And these simple stories of last words, while they're very narratively compelling and fun, often just aren't the whole truth.”
Teen dramas like Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” have faced scrutiny for the way they handle death and mental illness. The “Looking For Alaska” team has worked hard to carefully portray these themes, Green says. He doesn’t aim to encourage teens to “smoke to die” like Alaska laments in the novel, but teach adolescents an important lesson.
“This is a book, I hope, that is about the catastrophic failures that can ensue when people fail to treat other people as humans. And our responsibility to each other is to try to find ways to imagine each other complexly,” he says. “We talked a lot about making sure that this doesn't further that old lie, that somehow harming yourself is a way to achieve your goals.”
“Looking for Alaska” was Green’s first novel, but now he’s published six books that have sold over 24 million copies worldwide, and adapted “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns” into major motion pictures.
On top of his career as a No.1 New York Times bestselling author, Green still makes YouTube videos with his brother Hank Green for their audience of over 3 million “nerd fighters.”
There’s some of Green in his narrator, Pudge, he says — but he also sees himself in self-destructive Alaska.
Like Alaska, Green struggled with negative impulses, felt separated from others and experienced major depression when he was in high school, too. Green leaves a few last words of advice for viewers struggling with mental health.
“As someone who's lived for most of my adult life with serious mental illness, I feel like I can say with some authority that there is hope. Even when your brain tells you there isn't, there is hope,” he says. “And I encourage people who need help to get it today.”
This segment aired on October 17, 2019.
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