Boarding schools are strange places, little fiefdoms of byzantine social politics and spiking teen hormones. Culver Creek Academy — the setting for John Green’s 2005 best-selling young adult novel Looking for Alaska and, now, Hulu’s eight-episode adaptation of the story — is particularly surreal. The high-pressure academic institution in a sleepy Southern hamlet is populated by characters that read like fairy-tale archetypes: the charming but clueless young hero, Miles “Pudge” Halter; the rebellious ingenue Alaska Young; their sidekicks, smart-talking Chip “Colonel” Martin and brainy Takumi Hikohito; a group of carelessly cruel, privileged enemies; and the wise yet stern authority figures. In the new show all of this, plus much of the plot and dialogue, remains unchanged from Green’s book.
But beneath the surface, Green’s story has gotten a facelift for our present moment. In 2005, the book was a revelation for its clear-eyed depiction of teen angst and love, and a generation of readers grew up smitten with the inscrutable Alaska, infatuated Miles and feisty Chip. But everything looks different in the light of 2019’s political landscape and evolving social norms, and so the novel Looking for Alaska — originally told entirely through Miles’ eyes — can feel dated, at the very least for its fixation with what some have deemed an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (Many, including Green himself, have wrestled with the way in which he deals with this trope in his books.)
Today’s TV landscape features shows like HBO’s Gen Z hit Euphoria, Netflix’s controversial 13 Reasons Why and candid Sex Education, and major-network sitcoms and dramas that present diverse depictions of family and teen life. The only way Looking for Alaska could work in this moment is with a broadening of voices and more explicit exploration of themes like sexuality, consent, mental health, race and privilege — and fortunately, that’s what the eight-episode series delivers. Some of these themes, particularly sexuality and privilege, are certainly present in the book, but not with the kind of intention brought to them by executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who were also behind The O.C. and Gossip Girl. (Green also serves as an executive producer on the series.) The story is the same, but the emotional beats it hits — self-discovery, betrayal, grief — are thrown into sharper relief by the more nuanced telling.
Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, knows how to tap into teenage emotion. But where he fixates on feelings, Schwartz and Savage — also experts in teen drama — like to see the big, dramatic picture. Though they’ve softened their usually snappy tone to match the meditative pace of this story, their instincts for drawing out insider-outsider tensions remain sharp.
The series is shot with a dreamy reverence for the sepia-toned magic of boarding school in a humid early autumn, when Miles arrives as a new student to find adventure after a lackluster high school experience in his native Florida. It’s set in 2005, but it could be any year in the past few decades: Alaska wears bell-bottoms and chokers, student pranks run rampant and school dances involve the “Macarena.” The kids drink contraband wine, talk in over-wrought witticisms and smoke illicit cigarettes in the woods. (Today, that might be vaping — but the show is committed to its old-school cigarettes.) And the rich kids get away with everything. It’s all timeless teen stuff. Even the music — songs popular in 2005, from a particularly poignant cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” — helps situate us in a familiar past.
Into that haze of nostalgia marches Alaska, a long-legged and bookish young woman with an eye for trouble and a scholarship. She was always a feminist in Green’s writing, bold about her sexuality and quick to excoriate her classmates for casual sexism. Now — with scenes flashing back to her childhood and showing her dealing with teachers and responsibilities of her own — her motivations, and frustrations, come into sharper focus. At one point, she dreams of a future in which she is “inspiring girls to be their unapologetically badass selves” by running a feminist bookstore. At another, she frankly instructs Miles and his new girlfriend in the finer arts of some sex acts — for both of them. (In the book, the only focus is on male pleasure.) Even Miles seems to have internalized today’s rules of consent, nervously checking in with his girlfriend as they reach new bases: “Is this OK?” The show hits these notes with a light touch, but the updates are noticeable, exhibiting evolved norms of communication and turning Alaska into more than a cipher for Miles’ dreams.
In one scene, Alaska and Miles have the following exchange: “Alaska,” he asks delicately, “are you suffering?” “Aren’t we all?” she responds. “It’s kind of the human condition.” “I mean you. Specifically,” he says. Her answer: “I mean sure, I guess.” It’s just a few lines of dialogue, but it’s an addition that resonates. In the book, mental health and depression are never directly addressed; Alaska is referred to, repeatedly, as “moody.” But in 2019 teen mental health awareness — and concerns about anxiety, depression and suicide rates — have become regular topics of conversation. The simple act of Miles verbalizing his concern, and Alaska’s admission that she struggles, are tweaks that matter. No, a school therapist doesn’t materialize to address the many problems these kids are facing. But at least we get an example of how to ask, and a reminder that it’s OK to answer honestly.
The show works hard to give supporting characters backstories that matter, too. The new adaptation’s biggest and worthiest addition is the casting of Denny Love as Chip, a scholarship student with lofty ambitions. Chip is a troublemaker with, yes, a chip on his shoulder. In the book, his anger can seem misplaced. With his race explicitly stated in the show (it went unmentioned in the novel), his struggles to fit in at Culver Creek, accept the status quo and get ahead academically make even more sense. This isn’t just about socioeconomic privilege; Chip’s fight is also about finding a place for himself as a young black man in a southern boys’ club. (Example: a moment in the show when his girlfriend’s dad refuses to let him be her escort at her debutante ball.) Another new revelation: the backstory of the wise old religion professor, Dr. Hyde (This Is Us’ Ron Cephas Jones). In a tender new scene, he opens up to Alaska and Miles about the love of his life and the AIDS epidemic that claimed his life. And Lara (Sofia Vassilieva), a Romanian immigrant, has more of a voice here than on the page, given space to reflect on the changes that moving across the world has wrought on her family’s fortunes.
Green has said this book was based on his own adolescent experience; it’s a personal story. Meanwhile the show, by the nature of its medium and its carefully calibrated updates, has a more universal and relevant message. I was in boarding school in 2005, too. But the book failed to strike me as relatable; Alaska remained too much of a mystery. The show, however, hit home — and not just for its throwback music and early-2000s fashion. It’s poised to do the same for today’s teens, for reasons that go far beyond appearances.