John Green’s work isn’t too difficult to recognize: it usually features two ironically funny, slightly introverted, hipster teens. It also usually features deep—and rather dark—musings on the nature of being, and the inevitability of death. Sometimes, these musings are on the nihilistic side, featuring a gloomy solipsism that pulls oddly at the fabric of the teen novel. This was especially true of his astoundingly popular book The Fault in Our Stars: a romance about two teens, each fighting cancer, each obsessed with an eccentric novel that eventually leads them to Europe and back. The main character in TFiOS is a teenage girl, Hazel Grace, who knows death is an inescapable part of her life, and learns how to cope with it.
Paper Towns is a bit different: it follows protagonist Quentin, who has had a lifelong crush on his neighbor, the mysterious and lovely Margo. She’s known for fantastical exploits and adventures—the sort indicative of a spontaneous and fun-loving nature. Though the two were friends as children, they’ve slowly grown apart. But Quentin never stops admiring Margo from a distance. One night, she lets Quentin into her world: she invites him on a whirlwind excursion, fraught with mischief and pranks. The next day, however, she disappears. Quentin is devastated, until he discovers clues that Margo left behind for him—slips of paper, circled words on a record album, highlighted words in a Walt Whitman poem. He becomes obsessed with one purpose: to find Margo, and declare his love to her.
This novel doesn’t touch on death in the same way The Fault in Our Stars did. Rather, it’s more about our ability to know and understand the “other”: the people in our lives that we think we know and love, but so often misunderstand. The book is replete with quotes from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: a work in which Whitman slowly beings to identify with others to the point of becoming them. As Quentin reads Whitman and searches for Margo, his interactions with his best friends—Ben and Radar—begin to reveal ways in which he doesn’t understand or know them truly. Radar tells him, “You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves.” Meanwhile, Quentin begins to see new parts of Margo, the girl he’s always admired from a distance, and he begins to wonder: has he ever really known her? Who is Margo, really?
The problem with the book, and film, is that even the “real” Margo seems fake. Our progression toward the authentic Margo seems almost illusory, as she ever remains a dreamy, impossible version of female accomplishments and eccentricities. Green is trying to make a point about how we mystify, and even deify, “the other”—but since Margo never becomes really human, book falls flat in making this point.
Quentin’s friends are real: they have flaws, quirks, weaknesses. Margo, however, is an almost-perfect mystery: her “weaknesses” are feelings of not fitting in, worries about acting fake or inauthentic. Yet she’s still the girl who breaks into Seaworld in the wee hours of the morning, the girl who writes in a jumble of capitals and small-caps because “the rules of capitalization are so unfair to words in the middle.” She has a mammoth, diverse vinyl album collection, one that she hasn’t told anyone about. She reads Walt Whitman and Sylvia Plath. She remains ever a manic pixie dream girl: a character that Nathan Rabin once wrote “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The manic pixie dream girl is “the most deliciously delirious young woman, always up to her false eyelashes in madcap romps,” as Neda Ulaby wrote for NPR. Doree Shafrir wrote for The Daily Beast that indie films are particularly obsessed with this female character, who is “detached, mysterious, impulsive,” loves indie bands, and is “always just out of reach, making herself scarce at crucial moments.” That’s Margo, alright.
Interestingly, Vulture Magazine’s Matt Patches accused John Green of creating the first manic pixie dream boy with his TFiOS character Augustus Waters, Hazel Grace’s boyfriend. “He’s a bad boy, he’s a sweetheart, he’s a dumb jock, he’s a nerd, he’s a philosopher, he’s a poet, he’s a victim, he’s a survivor, he’s everything everyone wants in their lives, and he’s a fallacious notion of what we can actually have in our lives.”
Of course, the great point (*spoiler*) of all Green’s stories is that we don’t often get what we want—whether it’s death, distance, or misunderstanding, something always separates us from happily-ever-after. But that doesn’t make his characters any more real, any less aspirational and crush-worthy. Regardless of whether Hazel ends up with Augustus, or Quentin ends up with Margo, there’s no question that she’s the perfect girl, and he’s the perfect guy. It’s just fate, really, that gets in the way.
The film “Paper Towns” is a little more redemptive, in this sense, than the book. Green ends his novel in the deeply philosophical (as he is wont to do), with both Quentin and Margo pondering metaphors that properly describe existence, and our ability to understand each other. It’s touching, it’s interesting—it’s even a bit profound in places. But it still casts each onto themselves, in lonely individualism. It leaves us as islands, beckoning to each other in the dark, never able to fully understand or reach each other.
The film, however, brings the plot back to Green’s strength, the camaraderie and delight that makes his work worth reading: the friendships. In all Green’s books, the friendships are diverse, funny, heart-touching. The side characters are often more real, relatable, and endearing than the protagonists. And this is perhaps especially true of Paper Towns, in both its film and literary adaptations: Ben (played by Austin Abrams in the film) and Radar (Justice Smith) are fantastic friends. The film, in its conclusion, reminds us why such friends—the ones we’ve known and loved for ages, who annoy us to death but remain loyal—make life truly miraculous, and help us bridge the gaps between the islands.
Green tried to tell the story of a manic pixie dream girl who wasn’t. But instead, he tells a story of disillusionment, misunderstanding, and the friendships that help us overcome both. Near the end of the book, Quentin says, “Imagining isn’t perfect. You can’t get all the way inside someone else.” But as Radar has pointed out earlier, that’s not the point: we are supposed to love what we don’t understand, appreciate what we are not, and recognize the mystery and beauty of those around us—their warts and all. That’s what friendship is.