I read The Duff back in 2011 when it first became popular on BookTube. Its a young adult novel by Kody Keplinger that articulates through one girl’s perspective the idea of being the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” and how everyone, at one point or another, feels less than their companions. I thought it was a quirky book and a pretty quick beach read, so I gave it four stars on Goodreads and then moved onto other things. Then last year I started seeing movie trailer previews and notices about Mae Whitman’s casting; I immediately added it to my “to watch” list. After all, I love a good dramedy and that’s exactly what The Duff is. It’s one part coming of age teenagers and one part witty humor: my favorite.
I didn’t account for the screenwriter’s creative license, however.
In theme, the book and movie were similar. They nailed a lot of the same emotional conclusions and reality checks about being the Duff, but that’s about the last comparison I’m able to make. Plot wise, the book and movie were totally different.
*SPOILERS TO FOLLOW*
First things first, Bella Thorne’s character, Madison, was totally made up. After seeing the movie with my friends, I went to buy a copy of the book. Since the movie cover was cheaper, I bought it, but I was surprised to find Thorne on the cover. Since her character isn’t actually in the book, she didn’t really belong there. I think Thorne’s character was supposed to be a stand in for all of Wesley’s hook up girls – in the book there are several – but her character infused the plot with a layer of cyberbullying that didn’t need to exist. She also personified a mean girl culture that in the book was more mild and almost exclusively Bianca’s own internal commentary.
Which brings me to my next point: the relationship. Bianca and Wesley’s relationship in the book was in no way PG-13. There’s none of the movie’s happily ever after, I’ve always liked my neighbor B.S. Their relationship was fire and ice from practically the first chapter when Bianca threw a drink in Wesley’s face, a physical relationship which eventually evolved into an emotional one. (Reason to be explained below.) The fact that the screenwriters chose to change that says a lot about a) the movie’s demographic audience – can’t show R rated scenes in a movie for teenagers – and b) our culture’s perception of sex.
Another major change was in the family dynamics. Part of what draws Bianca and Wesley together is that they’re both from “broken” homes. In the movie Wesley’s parents are going through a rocky divorce, but in the book that’s actually Bianca’s parents. Don’t get me wrong, I love Allison Janney in anything, but her self-help industry was supposed to be a roadshow that left behind an alcoholic father falling into relapse. That’s a big thing to leave out. It completely affected Bianca’s relationship with Wesley – who she initially went to for escape – and instead made it all about overcoming her Duff-ness. But she’s really not that shallow and neither was Wesley. In the book he comes from a very wealthy family that neglects him all the time. His playboy lifestyle and behavior can be explained by a pathological need for attention and love that he obviously wasn’t getting from his parents and that makes him more likeable. By changing their family dynamics, the movie made their relationship less about common connections and more about a shallow “boy next door” romance.
Another minor thing that irritated me was the scene with Toby Tucker. In the book it specifically states that he wasn’t anything like a guitar playing hipster. And what do they do? They make him a guitar playing hipster. His character was supposed to be a considerate nerd just out of a bad breakup with a bowl cut and Harvard aspirations. He was never supposed to use Bianca the way he did in the film, though I guess Bianca breaking up with him would have been less interesting to watch. Obviously the screenwriters chose to use their date as an opportunity to reinforce the Duff-centric plot and I sort of get why they did it. You can only have so much focus in a 2-hour movie. But, again, it removed some depth from the storyline.
Ultimately I’ll say this: I liked the movie. I thought it was funny and enjoyable and exactly what a high school demographic is looking for. They even played up the importance of social media to make it more relatable and tossed in a funny teacher for some comedic relief. I especially loved the on screen chemistry between Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell; they were great together. But I don’t think that the movie should really be considered an adaptation of the book. While it managed to articulate a wholesome conclusion about Duffs and self-love, it really messed up a lot of the motivations and character backgrounds that gave the book its sense of reality. I’d have liked to have seen it follow the source material more closely.