The final words of François Rabelais were, “I go to seek a great perhaps.” These famous last words are the motto for a young man called Pudge and the impetuous for his story, where he seeks adventure in other people. Initially, he has met some good luck, as he transfers to a private school in Alabama that could only exist in a writer’s imagination and gets assigned the only friends worth having at the place. Translated from the smash John Green book with a deft touch, Josh Schwartz’s fine adaptation lifts the spirit from the page, landing between schmaltz and genuine affectation, led by strong characters.
Looking for Alaska has curated a novel sentimentality of its own. It’s positively inundated with the pop culture of 2005. As a grace note, it always holds the feeling of the scene. When The Strokes come on – and you have lived the time – you know what it means to be defined by its music. And that soundtrack is wide and far-ranging, placing credence on a nostalgia that’s too rarely precisely portrayed in media of its time. Yes, we have reached the first period of nostalgia for the early-aughts with all their growing pains. The ever-present facet of technology, the bold and mature videogames, the shifting new sound of the first generation not reaching for the future, but humbled by it, returning to the roots of art more realistically than its ‘90s counterparts. This is a story surrounded by literature and literary setting. It gets the feeling right of the text. Only sometimes we must ask, is the cover of the Death Cab for Cutie song the right choice? Would we not think about it so much if there weren’t so many darn covers? They still must capture the essence of the sound of the time and the place, and they have. Looking for Alaska lives there.
There are hardly other Young Adult authors as ready for adaptation as John Green. He writes a complementary image for the screen. What happens sometimes, especially with this romantic mystery, is that things that would not occur to a character on the page, are readily apparent to us on-screen. We are steps ahead at all times, not because we have read the book, but that you cannot hide the pacing beyond the text. The image of something starkly described from one vantage point, shown to an audience, is overwhelming in its obviousness, to everyone except that character. What it does exceedingly well is to bring the spaces to life. To realize the minute details: the small difficulties of living the camp life.
Can we give abundant enough credit to the emerging Charlie Plummer? It’s of important interest to this critic, as noted in our Lean on Pete review, that Plummer emerges as a generational talent. He conveys multitudes of expressions without leaving character, always showing feeling without hardly emoting. He must emerge through his superb acting work because he’s just that damn good and holds the entire operation together. What an absolute joy to watch him flourish again. And how about Kristine Froseth, starring as the soon-to-be-iconic literary character, Alaska Young? Her acting is only short of a revelation, too. She takes on the opposite functions, clearly emotive, guarded, playing a whirlwind of emotional outpouring and self-preserved containment. They are outstanding on-screen together. Also standing out is Timothy Simons as overbearing counselor The Eagle, an extremely funny character move from his work on the great Veep (2012-2019). Meanwhile, Denny Love plays the important character of The Colonel and is broadly good but modulates emotion wildly. His story remains touching and secretly the heart of the text and show.
Looking for Alaska remains a story of self-discovery through the experience of other people. It’s a perfectly lovely Young Adult story, as good as those come. It retains John Green’s effervescent ease with characters just fine, it does not hurt any in Josh Schwartz’s care. Occasionally, putting it on the screen loses the forced perspective of the mystery from the book. What is already obvious, is extremely obvious when given an image. Yet, through exemplary character work, it still maintains the texture of the story. The experience of watching people who love Gabriel García Márquez the way you do is just going to be different. Accepting that, Hulu offers the next vital Young Adult series – it’s even great, perhaps.