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DVD Review: Looking for Alaska

April 28, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, first published in 2005, is a modern classic that would easily deserve a spot on a list of the greatest young adult novels of all time. That’s high praise, I know, (especially from me, a self-avowed fan of YA literature), but I still contend that it is Green’s best work.

This is why I was nervous before diving into the new miniseries adaptation of Looking for Alaska, which premiered on Hulu last October and is now available on DVD. You see, it’s very easy to mess up adapting a book like this. It could have been watered down, the controversial and edgier elements taken out, and the core of the characters lost in translation from page to screen.

Plus, I have been waiting ages for a proper movie adaptation of the book, which has been stuck in development hell for years, with Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley at one time attached to direct the project. I will admit that I am still curious what Polley would have done with the material in a film version, but I digress, because any doubts that I had about this adaptation were pleasingly assuaged within the first couple of episodes.

And by the time I was partway through this beautifully produced and brilliantly acted eight episode miniseries, I knew that I was witnessing something special. Around episode four, the benefit of doing this story as a miniseries becomes really apparent. The serialized storytelling format allows each of the characters to feel fully fleshed out and three dimensional, and for the devastation of the story to build and build as the series progresses, slowly but surely ripping our hearts out before documenting the healing that comes afterward. This is, quite simply, an exceptional adaptation.

The story begins with Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer), a shy teenager obsessed with the “last words” of historical figures, being dropped off at Culver Creek Academy, a boarding school in Alabama. Miles is searching for something deeper in his life, a “great perhaps” as he calls it, that he hopes to find away from his sterile upbringing in Florida. The first person that he befriends at the school is his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love), who ironically gives Miles the nickname Pudge, because he is so skinny. Being African-American and coming from a poor home, Chip is automatically an outsider at this elite, predominantly white school.

Chip takes it upon himself to show Miles the ropes, and brings him into his oddball group of friends, including Takumi Hikihito (Jay Lee), a bright and mischievous Japanese student, and Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), an outgoing, wise beyond her years teenager whose free-spirited nature belies a troubled past and deep emotional issues. Miles instantly falls head over heals for Alaska, whom much of the story will come to revolve around. But she remains just out of reach, already attached to a college guy, Jake (Henry Zaga), and encouraging Miles to instead go out with her friend Lara (Sofia Vassilieva), a sweet Romanian girl who has a crush on him.

The plot escalates as the kids find themselves locked into an ongoing and increasingly extreme prank war with the “Weekday Warriors,” a group of rich, white jocks so named by Chip for the fact that they have opulent homes to go back to on the weekends. This all happens under the nose of the strict dean Mr. Starnes (Timothy Simons), whom the kids have dubbed The Eagle for his eagle-eyed nature and disciplinary actions, with the threat of expulsion hanging over their heads.

The whole series is just over seven hours in total, and the extra length provided by this format allows the show to really develop each of the characters, even the supporting ones. There is a lovely subplot with their teacher, Dr. Hyde (beautifully portrayed by Ron Cephas Jones in one of the show’s most touching performances), who is able to take on new life here. The show retains the book’s narrative structure of counting down the days “before” and “after” a tragic event that will alter the lives of all involved.

The pranks that the kids pull off are often very funny, but one of the most enduring aspects of Green’s novel is how the author explored themes of grief and depression in a way that respected the emotional maturity of his teenaged characters and readers. This is one of the defining features of this adaptation as well. The show is heartbreaking when it needs to be, and doesn’t shy away from having the characters endure trauma and emotional pain for long stretches of time, taking us through the grieving and healing process in a way that feels real and honest.

The pitch perfect casting is the biggest key to the success of this miniseries, and the book’s main foursome are extremely well cast. Plummer, a very expressive young actor, does an excellent job of carrying the series on his shoulders, delivering a nuanced and nicely understated performance. Love delivers standout work as The Colonel, both charismatic and emotionally raw with anger broiling just below the surface, and Lee is a real scene-stealer.

Froseth, a Norwegian model and actress, is exceptional in the title role, which was the hardest of them all to properly cast. She is extremely close to how I pictured Alaska when reading the book; a magnetic, highly articulate presence who puts others under her spell, while struggling to contain her own inner suffering that she keeps hidden from the world. Froseth is positively captivating to watch as Alaska, while brilliantly hinting at the pain that the character is experiencing underneath.

The series also smartly sets the story in 2005, the same year that the book came out, which allows the characters to exist in their own insular world, free from the outside influences of smartphones and social media. The show does a very fine job of transporting us back to that time through its set decoration and costume design, and it’s accompanied by an excellent soundtrack of mid-2000s indie rock songs, which provide instant nostalgia for adult viewers above a certain age.

Created by Josh Schwartz, who previously produced the teen TV dramas The O.C. and Gossip Girl and purchased the rights to Green’s book while it was still in manuscript form and has been trying to get a film of it made for nearly fifteen years, Looking for Alaska is an extremely well realized adaptation that not only does justice to the book but also compliments it perfectly. I say that as a fan of the book, but also as an objective viewer. This is a superb miniseries that serves as an immersive character-based drama, as wildly entertaining and incredibly moving as Green’s book deserves.

The three-disc DVD set also includes eighteen deleted scenes to accompany several of the episodes, which provide some good additional moments with the characters, as well as the two featurettes Finding Your Tribe and In Search of a Great Perhaps: Taking Alaska From Page to Screen on the third disc.

Looking for Alaska is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s approximately seven hours, five minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: April 21st, 2020

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