By Diana Langat
A large majority of novels that have been adapted to the big screen go on to become “amongst the highest grossing at the box office” (Westwell and Kuhn 2019). This could be attributed to the phenomenal acting and directing or because they portray books that have become household names. Books are often attractive to production because they are often “out of copyright,” so they are “ripe for adaptation” (Westwell and Kuhn 2019). Adaptations come with risks, however, one namely the daunting task of filling the large shoes that beloved novels operate in. One may argue that comparisons between films and their novels is unreasonable because they are “different vehicles” used to “experience a story” (Hall n.d.). Still, these comparisons fabricated by audiences, namely critics, occur and will affect ratings and viewings.
There are two “schools of thought” when thinking of film adaptation. The “traditionalist school believes that a film should mirror the original work, the novel, as faithfully as possible.” (Graham 2011). This form is often used for highly popular books whose plot is the major cause for initial reader curiosity and interest (Hill 2012). The second, however, is more loose in its interpretations, instead “borrowing certain elements from the novel.” Using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as the primary example, two traditional adaptations include the “1972 BBC mini-series, Emma, and the 1995 BBC/A&E mini-series, Pride and Prejudice. Two modern adaptations of Austen’s novels are 1995’s Clueless and 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary” (Graham 2011).
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is no exception to the trend of successful movies stemming from successful novels. This report will explore the roots of the success of the 2018 summer hit, beginning with literary beauty that is the novel. It will then examine the movie adaptation process and influence. The differences between the movie and the novel is very minimal, indicating the adaptation form is traditional. The third portion of this report will discuss how this choice in adaptation demonstrate the movement towards the diversifying of the romance industry, both in literature and film.
Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, was born on September 3, 1980 and raised in Richmond, Virginia to Korean parents (Simon & Schuster n.d.). She’s always had an affinity for writing, doing so as a kid and “read[ing] like crazy.” She never thought being a writer was “possible,” always seeing it as a “dream job” (Nicolaou 2019). It wasn’t until undergraduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did it become a reality. Han began writing her first novel during this time. Shug is a about a young girl who tries to navigate the trials that come with junior high school. This novel encouraged her to continue and receive her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing for Children at the New School (Grochowski 2017). Besides To All the Boys, Han’s other notable works include The Summer I Turned Pretty trilogy, the series that earned her the title of New York Times bestselling author.
The idea for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before “came from [Han’s] own life.” During an interview, Han revealed that, like Lara Jean, she used to “write love letters to the boys” she was trying to get over, leaving all of her emotions on the pages and sealing them “in a hatbox,” her way of finding “closure” (Lim 2014). The final product, a 384-paged Simon & Schuster book, was released on April 15, 2014 (Wikipedia, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 2019). Even before the movie release, the story line was a great hit. The novel received multiple awards, including Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award Nominee, ILA Young Adults’ Choices, the Flume: New Hampshire Teen Reader’s Choice Award Nominee, amongst others. Kirkus reviews found the novel to be “an ultimately compelling exploration of teenage growth and young love.” This positive reception granted the novel 40 weeks on The New York Times Bestsellers list and eventually two sequels (Wikipedia, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 2019).
Han began writing the novel in the midst of co-authoring another trilogy called Burn for Burn (Lim 2014). In an interview in 2017, Han attributed the reason why it took her “years” to complete To All the Boys to this, saying she had to work on it “on and off for years” (Grochowski 2017). Still, this long journey provided time for Han to pour herself into the story, inserting her “love to bake,” her home state, and her close relationship with her sister (Han 2018). A large reason why Han borrowed from her life is because she wanted her books to “look like the world.”
Once she has a compelling idea for a story, Jenny Han begins writing her stories without any sort of plan. In an interview, she revealed:
“I don’t outline anything in advance. That can be really scary. I liken it to walking blindfolded. I’m trying to head towards somewhere, but I have no idea how to get there. I don’t write in order, either. I’m taking things as they come, following my fancy” (Nicolaou 2019).
Because she doesn’t plan out her books, the third book came as a surprise to herself and her readers since To All the Boys was only supposed to have a sequel. She only “intend[ed] to write two books,” but as she was writing the second book, P. S. I Love You, she realized that there was so much she wanted to explore with Lara Jean’s life that she couldn’t fit in the second sequel. Like with any character, Han wanted to come “full circle” with Lara Jean, “arriving at a place where she was experiencing the changes and choices Margot did in the first book” (Nicolaou 2019).
Before releasing her novel that she had worked countless hours on, Han felt the feeling of anxiety and fear. During an interview, she touched on how she recognized the difficulty of rejection by people to the work of art she found “important” and valuable. Still, through navigating this field of uncertainty, Han found “hope” (Lim 2014). Her hope came from the possibility that her work would impact and influence an industry where the heroines were historically white. Growing up, Han never saw “an Asian American girl be the lead of a teen movie.” Her female heroine being Asian American “excited” her, because she knew that for many other young girls, the lack of representation she grew up with would not be as prevalent in their time (Nicolaou 2019). She later expanded on her desire for diversity in literature in an interview, saying:
“I want my books to look like the real world, and the real world is populated by all kinds of people. I think diversity in young adult literature is very important because it reflects what the world really looks like, and that it’s a larger experience. It’s not just one narrow experience” (Lim 2014).
Like its novel counterpart, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before experienced great success on screen. Netflix went as far as to say that it was “one of the most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing.” Along with Set It Up and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, To All the Boys had over 80 million subscriber accounts view the film over summer (Fang 2018). The reason for this wide positive reception may be because of the actors or the story itself. One journalist offered the following reason:
“[I]t plays off of familiar tropes and archetypes: not deconstructing them or taking them apart, just executing a classic formula with care and affection. But mostly, it’s because of the unabashed sweetness of this movie, and the way it builds itself around nice people who care about each other and want to do nice things for each other, like for instance writing each other love letters or letting the other person use them as a pillow during a nap. It is heart-melting.”
After the novel’s initial success, Han was approached by many production companies who wanted to bring the novel to life. While a great number of companies loved the plot, many wanted “Lara Jean’s character to be white, and not Asian American” (Yahr 2018). In an interview, Han commented on the lack understanding that many possessed, saying that it was “alarming” to see how many didn’t view changing the race of her protagonist as an “issue” (Han 2018). Still, Han held out until she found a company that was excited about the ethnicity of the heroine. This company, named Overbrook Entertainment, was founded by actor, Will Smith, and his business partner, James Lassiter (Wikipedia, Overbrook Entertainment 2019). It was released by Netflix on August 17, 2018, four years after the release of the novel (Wikipedia, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (film) 2019).
The film was written by Sofia Alvarez, a Julliard graduate who was born into a family of writers. Like Jenny Han, Alvarez began writing at a young age, writing and directing a school play called “Blue Horns.” After attending Bennington College for literature and theater, Alvarez “immersed herself in playwriting in Julliard.” After moving to Los Angeles, the opportunity to write for To All the Boys arose, and she spent around a year working on the screenplay, drawing both from “her own experiences and imaginations while attempting to stay true to the warmth of the book.” Like Han with the novel, Alvarez’s father said that the movie is “ripe with [Alvarez’s] distinct humor and personality” (Britto 2018).
Even though she visited the set twice throughout the production process, Jenny Han still had a helping hand throughout filming. For example, she made “mood boards” for the producers and the director better help them understand Lara Jean’s aesthetic. Oftentimes, minimal effort is put into costumes design for a “contemporary realistic story”, but Han felt that it was “crucial” for the character’s fashion and style to be presented correctly. Because she created Lara Jean as introverted, Han felt that her fashion was Lara Jean’s way of “express[ing] herself.” Han continued to assist Lana Condor in portraying Lara Jean correctly by “text[ing] her the night before” big scenes, helping her calm her nerves but also giving her insight on Lara Jean’s thinking during those moments (Han 2018).
According to journalist Erin Ailworth in her article, “Rallying Cry: Romance Publishing 2018,” there’s a lack of diversity in the romance industry and there’s very little being done to change it. One significant example is the 2019 RITA awards, when no authors of color were selected as finalists (Ailworth 2018). Regarding cinema, before this summer, it was “radical” and “practically unheard of” to have an Asian American character be the protagonist (Mei 2018). To All the Boys diverged greatly from classic rom-coms that had “blindingly white casts” (Yahr 2018). Some of these classics include Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994), Pretty in Pink (1986), and The Princess Bride (1987) (Fear, et al. 2019).
Part of the reason why the diversity was so successful was because it was being created by people who saw value in having a diverse lead. Looking at the beginning of this journey, Han’s insistence on the maintaining the heroine’s ethnicity contributed to this. A producer had commented to her that “as long as the actress capture[d] the spirit of the character, [then the] age and race [doesn’t] matter.” Her response, brilliantly put, emphasizes her loyalty to the diversifying of the genre, saying that Lara Jean’s “spirit is Asian-American” (Yahr 2018).
It is important to note that her ethnicity was not viewed as something that defined her, though it is integral to her identity (Forstadt 2018). There’s a significance in “normalizing a diversity of identities” rather than seeing them through a “lens of exoticism.” This is shown through the widowed father in his attempts to create Korean food to keep his daughters connected to their deceased mother’s culture (Mei 2018). This allows for the movie to present a character that many people can relate to through more than just race. This was deliberate in Han’s writing process and Alvarez’s screenplay writing.
“The way I conceived of Lara Jean was to be a modern-day children’s book heroine, the same kind of heroine I grew up reading, except I never really saw an Asian-American girl be the heroine. She’s bright, she’s optimistic, she’s really romantic, she’s very much an American girl. The American girl doesn’t look just one kind of way, not in 2018, not ever. That’s what I wanted to showcase for the girls who don’t fit that mold of what people think an American girl looks like, but also for the girls who do fit that mold, because I think that representation is good for everybody” (Grochowski 2017).
Though not every viewer was Asian American, it was easy to find a part of you in Lara Jean. Knowing that others experienced the same struggles gives a sense of unity and common ground for each viewer.
To All the Boys was released the same week as Crazy, Rich Asians. Together, according to journalist Marina Fang, they “demolish[ed] the longstanding entertainment industry myth that movies by and about people of color don’t sell” (Fang 2018). Because of the relative newness of these movies, its difficult to show if this trend will continue. Because a sequel to the movie was announced last December, there’s hope that the romance industry will continue to diversify its character to reach and connect with a wider audience.
Ailworth, Erin. 2018. Publisher’s Weekly. June 8. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/77209-rallying-cry-romance-publishing-2018.html.
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n.d. Simon & Schuster. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/To-All-the-Boys-Ive-Loved-Before/Jenny-Han/To-All-the-Boys-Ive-Loved-Before/9781442426719.
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Yahr, Emily. 2018. The Huffington Post. August 24. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/08/24/some-important-lessons-from-the-success-of-netflixs-to-all-the-boys-ive-loved-before/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.570628329ded.