Review: Paper Towns by John Green (Book & Movie)

A “paper town” is a fictitious location on a map designed by cartographers to prevent copyright infringement. It can also mean an abandoned subdivision, a ghost town of sorts that doesn’t really exist for anyone. John Green’s book (and now movie) expands these concepts to a metaphoric level. His characters live in a subdivision of Orlando, Florida, caught in a cloud of suburban disillusionment so thick it would make Holden Caulfield’s head spin. Everything in their lives is two-dimensional and lifeless, a paper town filled with paper people. Or so Margo Roth Spiegelman believes, anyway.

At its roots Paper Towns is a coming of age story. The main character, Quentin, has had a crush on his next-door neighbor since they were childhood friends and biking buddies. But Margo is the type of girl who exudes confidence, the kind who inspires awe and fascination wherever she goes. As Margo becomes increasingly popular, their friendship dissolves until all that remains is unrequited love and a distant view from Quentin’s bedroom window.

Then one night Margo unexpectedly demands Quentin help as an accomplice in her revenge plot. In a series of crazy stunts, Margo and Quentin serve justice upon the wrongdoers and then just as suddenly she disappears from town. But being Margo the myth means leaving behind certain clues and Quentin, hopelessly in love with the very idea of Margo, is compelled to follow them.

This book is certainly one part mystery – finding Margo monopolizes the majority of Quentin’s thoughts – but it’s also about the journey. Quentin grew up as a rule follower, the boy with a perfect attendance record whose only aspiration in life was to get a job, get married, and put up a white picket fence. He was a paper person in a paper town as Margo would call him, determined to live an uninspired life for lack of any better ideas. But in finding Margo Quentin also found himself. He infused more life in the last few weeks of his high school career than in all the others because he started taking chances and appreciating his friends and surroundings.

Its his identity as much as Margo’s that builds out the metaphor. Quentin has grown up with an idea of who Margo is, has fallen in love with the mental image he’s created of her, but those expectations aren’t real. “What a terrible thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person,” John Green writes, and it’s true. Margo was not the myth Quentin believed her to be, not the manic pixie dream girl trope he was in love with. And Quentin wasn’t really made of paper. In following the straight and narrow he’d given in to that lifeless, phony lifestyle, but finding Margo and participating in her revenge plot helped him overcome that. It was why she’d left him the clues in the first place; she’d always believed that he could be more, that he was more than the lemming his suburban paper town had raised him to be.

I read the book for the first time in 2011 and I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t like it. It was amusing, sure, but I didn’t really understand the hype. So when the movie was announced I made a point of rereading it and I’m glad that I did. It’s never going to be a favorite, but I’ll admit that I understood its message better after the second go.

As for my thoughts on the movie, I definitely enjoyed it. Nat Wolff is an adorably awkward actor, perfect for Quentin’s character, and the whole cast meshed well together. I even thought that Cara Delevingne was good, almost as if Margo the character had been made for her specifically. Overall it was a pretty faithful adaptation, deviating only a bit in the plot to focus on the more core ideas of the story. The things that were cut weren’t all that important and the time crunch made sense to keep the momentum going.

That all said, I had the same problem with the Paper Towns movie that I had with The Fault in Our Stars. John Green is a beautiful writer and I have a lot of his most famous lines memorized and quoted on my walls. But reading something with context and metaphoric understanding is not the same as hearing it aloud and so some of Quentin’s narration sounded really pretentious in voice over form. Basically it lacked the necessary context for graceful delivery and so in that one respect, I wish they hadn’t been quite as faithful to the book.

What did you think of Paper Towns? Leave your thoughts on the book and the movie in the comments section down below!

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