I was a pretty big fan of John Green during my early teen years. I mean, who could resist the vivid stories of teenagers with so much tantalizing drama in their lives?? Not me. It was my weakness. I cried, again, along with the rest of them when I saw The Fault in Our Stars in theaters for the first time back in 2014. I even tolerated the mediocre adaptation of Paper Towns that came out the year after. But Looking for Alaska has always been my favorite of the John Green tales, and I’ve had to wait until 2019 to finally see its story hit the screen, and it wasn’t in the way I was expecting. I was skeptical at first, a John Green television show? Looking for Alaska, with its foreshadowed and somber ending, as a Hulu original? But, after watching the first episode, I am pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised. Turn back now if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t wish to spoil it for yourself.
First off, Charlie Plummer’s Miles, or Pudge as his roommate quickly names him, brought the book straight back to me though it’s been years since I read it. Said roommate Chip (a.k.a. The Colonel), played by Denny Love, is also as blunt and in charge as I imagined him. Kristine Froseth plays the complicated Alaska Young with finesse and depth as well. In the opening scene, we get a quick glimpse at Miles before he arrives at Culver Creek.
His parents are painfully awkward, even more so than himself. He’s sitting at their dining room table surrounded by more snacks than one could count, waiting on his classmate to show up to his goodbye party. His mom is sure they’ll eventually show, but Miles isn’t as naive. This is the subtle way the show creators, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, establish Miles’ motivation for going to Culver Creek. His unpopularity/thirst for adventure is briefly addressed though, the showing moving almost immediately on to Miles arriving at school. I think they could have spent a little more time establishing his motivation and reason for going to Culver Creek. They lean on his fascination with last words and use his love of poet François Rabelais’ final statement, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps,” as another reason for Miles’ thirst for adventure.
Regardless, once we’re thrown into the world of Culver Creek, there’s no going back. It’s got that all-encompassing, summer-camp feel, and the culture quickly permeates Miles. It’s clear how instantly he falls in love with Alaska’s tortured soul and her sly manipulation of him starts early. Schwartz and Savage do a great job of showing Alaska’s subtle flirtatious side, emphasizing how she acts when they are alone together and focusing on telling looks she gives him.
The first episode lays out future conflict quite skillfully, with scene of the first night bust. Alaska’s roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend get caught with drugs and alcohol and on the precipice of a salacious act if you catch my drift. They’re both swiftly expelled, leaving the student body scratching their heads as to who tipped off the Eagle (a stoic and cowboy-esque Timothy Simons). The “Weekday Warriors,” as The Colonel snarkily calls the privileged, white and rich crowd of Culver Creek, are quick to blame The Colonel for the downfall of one of their own. And, the conflict is off and running.
This establishes an on-going war between The Colonel and his crew and the Weekday Warriors, in which Miles has to find his place. The Weekday Warriors approach Miles in the cafeteria and offer him a place on their side if he acts as a spy on The Colonel. Miles quickly denies the offer, and claims to instead be Switzerland. The Warriors inform him quite ominously that he’ll have to choose a side, and The Colonel later reaffirms that.
The Weekday Warriors don’t give Miles much time to decide, and firmly place him on The Colonel’s side when they drag him out of bed the next night in his tighty-whiteys. They pull him to the dock on the river, proceed to wrap his entire body in a plastic cling wrap straight jacket, and toss him into the water. Miles just barely escapes drowning, and he attacks of the river swan, with his life. When he finally makes it out of the water, he walks drearily into Alaska’s room for comfort. What he finds is a crying girl who only treats him with hostility. And with that, his year at Culver Creek is off to an entertaining start.
Just in the first episode, there are already clear improvements made by the showrunners compared to the book. I always really loved John Green’s Looking for Alaska but the most frustrating part about it was how limiting a story told entirely through Miles’ perspective was. Alaska, while meant to be misunderstood by the other characters in the book, was never given her due. The show has already showed her more compassion and given her real complexity. Even though the show will continue to follow Miles closely, it gives room for the other characters to have a voice and shows how truly they will come to give Miles the biography-worthy life he’s always dreamed of.