Forget what you think you know about John Green and watch Turtles All the Way Down

Aza and Daisy look in a mirror
Image: New Line Cinema

In director Hannah Marks’ hands, Green’s most personal novel turns into a wonderful movie

At the height of John Green’s popularity, most people knew the YA author for a very specific genre: sad teen books, usually about shy-yet-pretentious boys in love with spirited yet emotionally available girls. That was always a derogatory oversimplification of Green’s novels, which often deconstruct common YA tropes more than they give into them. But years of warped online perspectives on Green’s work, heightened by aesthetic Tumblr posts and Pinterest mood boards, meant that when the 2014 movie adaptation of Green’s tragic teen romance The Fault in Our Stars came out, the were calcified, preconceived notions of what a John Green Book™ was. (Never mind that The Fault in Our Stars flipped the gender roles, with a reserved girl and a vivacious boy.)

As with many figures who get very popular — especially those whose niche fandom blows up into mainstream success — John Green and his assumed conventions became very uncool to like. And when the movie adaptation of Green’s book Paper Towns released in 2015, detractors began harassing and bullying him online to such a degree that Green left social media. The vitriol against Green has since died down, though his work and the many adaptations based on his novels still inspire shallow readings based on a specific internet era.

But Turtles All the Way Down, a Max adaptation of Green’s 2017 novel, steps away from those previous conventions — which is interesting, considering Green has stated this is his most personal book. It goes to show that what he’s become known for doesn’t actually speak to the power of his work. The coming-of-age drama follows a 16-year-old named Aza Holmes (played by Isabela Merced in the movie) grappling with OCD, and Green poured a lot of his own personal experience with the disorder into the novel.

[Ed. note: This post contains setup spoilers for Turtles All the Way Down.]

Aza and Davis about to kiss
Image: New Line Cinema

Like many John Green stories, this one starts with a funky hook. Aza’s best friend Daisy (Cree from Big Sky) finds out that the son of a fugitive billionaire is actually Aza’s childhood crush, and urges them to reconnect, hoping she and Aza can find the missing billionaire and earn the FBI’s $100 million reward. It’s a hooky set up, much like that in Green’s other works like Paper Towns (a popular girl going missing before graduation) or An Abundance of Katherines (a former childhood prodigy trying to create an algorithm to predict romantic success).

But the key difference is that Turtles’ quirky hook fades into the background once Aza reunites with her crush Davis (Felix Mallard). Sparks fly, and she’s confronted with the possibility of a romantic relationship for the first time in her life. She starts thinking about her future and grappling with her disorder, and how it plays into every aspect of her life. The missing-father mystery fades into the background. (Davis isn’t particularly concerned about his father, who he describes as a “shitbag.”) The novel is deeply internal — it focuses so much on Aza’s thoughts and anxieties that Green himself doubted it could be translated to film.

And yet director Hannah Marks (Don’t Make Me Go) pulls it off. She and screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker do a fantastic job of conveying Aza’s thought spirals: When Aza’s anxieties overwhelm her, her inner monologue slowly overtakes the dialogue, and the present scene starts getting interrupted with flashing images of Aza’s worries, usually involving bacteria and microbes. Translating this kind of internality from page to screen isn’t easy, but instead of forgoing it completely, Marks uses sound and visuals to enhance Aza’s inner dialogue. The result is achingly raw.

Aza looking haunted in Turtles All the Way Down
Image: New Line Cinema

Unlike past John Green movies, particularly The Fault in Our Stars, Turtles All the Way Down limits the romance plot to a scant thread. It’s probably the weakest point of the movie, partially because Mallard is a little too suave to play the dorky yet endearing Davis. We get a sense that Felix and Aza shared a connection when they met years ago at a camp for bereaved kids, but their instant attraction to each other as teenagers is a little hard to buy. That’s OK because Turtles All the Way Down isn’t really a romance story.

What really drives the book and movie is how Aza struggles with OCD, the thread most personal to Green. Marks’ team adds a little more external plot to give the film shape, including a brief side quest to Northwestern University to meet a professor Aza idolizes. But the heart of the movie all comes back to Aza’s internal life. Merced portrays her fantastically: her anxieties, her awkwardness, her desperation to be normal and to be taken seriously. Cree also does a phenomenal job as Daisy, the fanfic-writing best friend who tries her best to root for Aza, but can’t always handle Aza’s more difficult moments. (I’ll almost forgive Daisy’s fanfic site for having a large image of her face on it, because she’s such a great character; but c’mon, who puts their real name and face on fic?)

Aza and Daisy look in a mirror
Image: New Line Cinema

It’s actually another common John Green-ism to have a quirky best friend who gets a little sidelined in the story to make way for the main romance, but Aza and Daisy’s friendship is the biggest driving force here. They have realistic banter and a solid friendship, but the movie shines when that friendship is tested. One of the most chilling scenes is a fight they have while driving, which escalates into the movie’s climax. Their friendship must literally be broken apart in order to be repaired.

In a way, Max’s Turtles All the Way Down is an anti-John Green adaptation — at least, it’s anti preconceived notions of John Green. He’s been trying from his very first novel to deconstruct the tropes he accidentally became known for. But sometimes it takes an outside hand to free a story from judgment and give it a new form, so it can shine without an author’s (however ill-attributed) reputation on it. Marks crafts a fulfilling coming-of-age story from Green’s book. Turtles has familiar John Green touchpoints — a gimmicky story setup, a teen romance, a quirky best friend — but it turns the story inward and pulls off a fantastic character exploration, one that feels like a gut-punch in its best moments.

Turtles All the Way Down is now streaming on Max.

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