Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2473
Author: John Green (b. 1977)
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First published: 2008
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenplay by: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Jaz Sinclair
Paper Towns is an Edgar Award–winning young adult mystery novel whose plot seems tailor-made for a movie. The main protagonist, Q, is smart, verbal, and observant, with the right disposition to solve a mystery. His two best friends, Radar and Ben, are also intelligent. The three teens have been outcasts in their school, but having the chance to track down the most talked-about girl in the school broadens their social circle and their social standing. The plot utilizes the classic “fish out of water” trope by taking the characters and placing them in unfamiliar, daunting circumstances.
The film version of Paper Towns is directed by Jake Schreier, who has had great success in advertising and music videos. Prior to this movie, he had directed only one full-length film, Robot & Frank (2012). Screenwriting partners Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber previously wrote the screenplay for The Fault in Our Stars (2014), another adaptation of a John Green novel, as well as (500) Days of Summer (2009) and The Spectacular Now (2013), so they were well versed in material dealing with unresolved crushes, unrequited love, teen angst, sexual desire, and witty banter.
John Green is a “rock star” in the YA genre. His sixth novel, The Fault in Our Stars (2012), debuted as a number one New York Times best seller and was made into a highly successful film starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as the romantic leads. The movie's high box-office gross (more than $300 million worldwide) and its positive reviews have made John Green's works sought after for filming. Paper Towns was published four years earlier to wide acclaim, with many critics hailing it for presenting a look at life in an ordinary suburb. Green's raw depictions of teenagers in their “natural habitat” have earned him both fans and detractors; his work has been applauded for showing teenagers who drink alcohol, have sex, and talk candidly, and it has been condemned for those very same reasons.
For Green, Paper Towns had one very important, significant purpose: to deconstruct the character type known as the “manic pixie dream girl,” a phrase coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in a review of the 2005 film Elizabethtown to describe a female character who “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” (Rabin, “Bataan”). Though the manic pixie dream girl is typically quirky and free spirited, her main defining feature is her lack of independent goals beyond improving the life of the protagonist. As such, it is a “fundamentally sexist” trope, according to Rabin, one that relegates a female character—usually the primary romantic lead—to nothing more than a “[prop] to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize” (“I'm Sorry”). Green intended Paper Towns to be a thorough rebuttal of this trope. On his Tumblr account, he wrote, “Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl; the novel ends (this is not really a spoiler) with a young woman essentially saying, ‘Do you really still live in this fantasy land where boys can save girls by being romantically interested in them?’ I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.”
At the heart of the movie Paper Towns is a question: After Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) vanishes, will she be found or not? A better question to ask is, how can someone be found if they were never there in the first place? In a voice-over that helps advance the plot and fill in necessary details, Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) muses, “She always loved mysteries. Maybe with all the things that happened afterward, she became one.”
Throughout the movie, following the novel's example, the screenwriters and the director emphasize the role of windows in advancing the plot points. Symbolically, the windows represent the way Q has been looking through, rather than at, Margo. He has been her neighbor for nearly a decade, but how well does he really know her? Has he ever really seen into her—the real Margo—as opposed to just looking at her and through her, fabricating what he wants to see?
At the film's very beginning, after childhood friends Margo and Q part ways, the passage of time is depicted via glimpses of Margo through her bedroom window. Margo grows incrementally older as the audience watches her evolve through the window into her room. Q's voice-over tells the viewers that the pair drifted apart over the ensuing years, so that “by the end of school,” he “barely thought of her at all.” Though his words claim that he is no longer interested in her, he is shown eyeing her at the exact moment that this statement is made. She, obviously, has never left his consciousness. He cannot forget that the “miracle of Margo” ever happened.
One night, weeks before graduation, Margo reenters Q's life by crawling through his bedroom window. Her unannounced arrival draws him into her orbit once again, and she persuades him to take part in nine acts of vengeance during the night. “We are righting wrongs,” she tells him. The movie shows four of the pranks, all of which end with a large M spray-painted on a wall or a door and a carefully worded pun handwritten by Margo and left on a note. After finishing the final act, the two get in Q's car to drive away.
With her head resting against the car window and the lights of traffic glowing behind her, Margo looks radiant. Gazing at his dream girl beside him, Q has never felt more alive. Rather than just going home, Margo says they need to “reflect and think of our great achievements.” They go to the SunTrust office building, where the guard lets them in after hours. Standing in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, the two look out at downtown Orlando, sprawled beneath them. Q notes how the city and the developments all look “beautiful at a distance.” Margo turns to him and states, “Everything is uglier up close.” He quickly says, “Not you.”
During this office interlude, Margo shares a major theme of the film and the book: “It's a paper town, full of paper houses and paper streets. All the people, too. I've lived here eleven years and I've never come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.” At the end of the night, when they return to their houses, Q asks if things will be different tomorrow. She replies that she hopes so and then embraces him tightly. Margo encourages Q to always feel this way—his newfound confidence and boldness should be his regular manner. She then exits his vision, returning to her house by way of her bedroom window.
When it is obvious to everyone at home and at school that Margo has once again disappeared—she has a habit of running away—Q feels the need to locate her. Because he felt so liberated during their night of the “great adventure,” he begins to look for clues about where she has gone. However, Q is smart enough to recognize, as he acknowledges in his voice-over, that “if she's gone, she won't be found until she wants to be.”
Windows factor in once again when Q discovers a poster of musician Woody Guthrie taped to the back of Margo's window shade. He immediately sees that as a sign, a clue as to where Margo might be, and persuades his friends Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams) to go across the way and investigate.
The “clues” that are left behind for Q to decode involve the music of Woody Guthrie and the poems of Walt Whitman. Because of time constraints and the attention span of the audience, the unraveling of the messages is faster and simpler than in the book. One of the clues leads to a note that is left in Q's doorjamb. It is the address of an old, forgotten souvenir shop. On the walls of the shop, there is graffiti about “paper towns,” warning that if one goes there, one may never come back. Q looks up what a “paper town” is and discovers that it is a fake town placed on a map to guard against copyright infringement.
The next day, while he is in English class, his teacher lectures about “the pursuit of the white whale”—a reference to Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick (1851). It is clear that Q is becoming Ahab, and the missing Margo is his white whale. Q, Ben, and Radar agree to go on a 1,200-mile road trip to find Margo, whom they believe is holed up in a paper town called Agloe, New York. They are joined by Ben's new love interest, Lacey (Halston Sage), and Radar's girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair). The addition of Angela to the road trip is a distinct departure from the original novel. While driving, Q proclaims proudly that he is Captain Ahab, and Angela wisely points out that Ahab is not the hero of that book.
As with Ahab, Don Quixote, and other literary crusaders who go off tilting at windmills, Q's mission seems to be doomed to failure. When they arrive in Agloe, Margo is nowhere to be found. Q's friends desert him and head back to Orlando. He waits for Margo to reveal herself, but she does not show. Eventually, he hitchhikes to the bus depot so he can buy a ticket home. While he is in a convenience store, he looks out the window and sees Margo casually strolling by.
When he catches up to her, Q and the audience discover that there never were any clues. None of the messages that he uncovered were intended to guide him to her; they were just notes to let him know that she was all right. At that moment, an observation from the beginning voice-over resonates: as Q noted that Margo would always leave messages for her little sister, Ruthie, letting her know that she was all right, the scene showed a note written in a bowl of alphabet soup.
The final conversation between Q and Margo is steeped in unspoken truths finally given voice. Margo dismisses the notion that Q loves her and reveals, “People have always looked at me and seen what they want to see. It's a myth.” She has chosen to hide out in Agloe because it is a “paper town for a paper girl. Not a lot to do, but a great place to think and read.” She involved Q in this because he was her first partner in crime, and she wanted him to be her last. Q bids her good-bye and gets on the bus bound for Orlando. As the bus pulls away, Margo is left standing on the street. She watches it drive away, and the audience sees Q through the bus window as he heads for his brand-new life. Q's closing voice-over tells the audience that Margo was not a miracle; she was not something special; she was just a girl.
When the book Paper Towns debuted, it received primarily positive reviews. Orlando Sentinel reviewer Rebecca Swain noted that the book “convinced [her] that jaded adult readers need to start raiding the Teens section at the bookstore.” In his review for Booklist, critic Michael Cart praised Green for his use of symbolism that fused reality with a heightened, stylized imagination: “Green ponders the interconnectedness of imagination and perception, of mirrors and windows, of illusion and reality.”
The film adaptation of Paper Towns is faithful to the spirit of the book, even though certain events have been streamlined or eliminated from the script. In a video posted on YouTube in April 2015, Green stated, as reported by Ashley Ross for Time magazine, “Yes, the Paper Towns movie is like the book but also, you know, it isn't. What I really want from an adaptation is to feel the feelings I felt while reading the book, right? But the Paper Towns script that Weber and Neustadter wrote … is just brilliant because it finds a way to capture both the story and the ideas.”
The novel has had its share of controversy. In June 2014 it was removed from the summer reading list of a middle school in Pasco County, Florida, after a parent had objected to its sexual content; it was returned to the list the following month after the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter to the school district superintendent challenging the removal. The movie has not had any such complaints lodged against it, due to its rating of PG-13. Though there are some references to sexually transmitted diseases, a few profanities, and a glimpse of a boy streaking naked from a house—his genitals are not seen—the movie is devoid of full nudity and overt acts of sexuality.
The movie opened in July 2015 and had grossed $85.5 million worldwide by December of that year. Its reviews were mixed, with some critics stating that it had a talented cast of young performers but that it somehow failed to forge an emotional bond with its viewers.
- Alter, Alexandra. “John Green and His Nerdfighters Are Upending the Summer Blockbuster Model.” The Wall Street Journal, 14 May 2014, www.wsj.com/articles/john-green-and-his-nerdfighters-are-upending-the-summer-blockbuster-model-1400088712. Accessed 30 Nov. 2015.
- Barragan, James. “John Green Rocks ‘Bookchella’ and Reveals His Favorite Written Words.” Los Angeles Times, 13 Apr. 2014,articles.latimes.com/2014/apr/13/entertainment/la-et-jc-john-green-favorite-lines-20140413. Accessed 30 Nov. 2015.
- Talbot, Margaret. “The Teen Whisperer.” The New Yorker, 9 June 2014, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/09/the-teen-whisperer/. Accessed 30 Nov. 2015.
- Cart, Michael. Review of Paper Towns, by John Green. Booklist, 1 June 2008, p. 79. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=32821005&site=lrc-live. Accessed 17 Dec. 2015.
- “Paper Towns.” Box Office Mojo, 2015, www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=papertowns.htm. Accessed 17 Dec. 2015.
- Rabin, Nathan. “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown.” Review of Elizabethtown, directed by Cameron Crowe. AV Club, Onion, 25 Jan. 2007, www.avclub.com/article/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-emeli-15577. Accessed 17 Dec. 2015.
- Rabin, Nathan. “I'm Sorry for Coining the Phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’” Salon, 15 July 2014, www.salon.com/2014/07/15/im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dream_girl/. Accessed 17 Dec. 2015.
- Ross, Ashley. “These Are the Biggest Differences between the Paper Towns Movie and Book.” Time, 24 July 2015, time.com/3969840/paper-towns-movie-and-book/. Accessed 30 Nov. 2015.
- Swain, Rebecca. Rev. of Paper Towns, by John Green. Shakespeare's Coffee, Orlando Sentinel, 11 Oct. 2008. Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20090421073443/http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment_books_blog/2008/10/review-paper-to.html. Accessed 17 Dec. 2015.