Why "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" Will Rock Your World

August 18, 2018

Just in case you somehow missed it, yesterday marked the worldwide premiere and upload of Netflix Original, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The film is based on the beloved best-selling book written in 2014 by Young Adult author Jenny Han (and later followed by two subsequent titles). The release of this film is for many reasons super important and incredibly exciting – and that’s without touching on my bias as a mega fan of the series who owns all three novels in hardback, having read them all at least twice – so of course, I had to write about it.  

I’ve mentioned my love of the series on this blog before, but I’ve also discussed my complicated relationship with book to film adaptations. Truth be told, I was mostly thrilled to see my OTP of all time grace the big screen but like any other loyal reader, I had my reservations. As a reader you want an adaptation to be nothing less than faithful, you want the casting to be something out of your wildest dreams, and you want the spirit of the story to translate perfectly on film. When you become so attached to a fictional character, following their stories as a method of escape and comfort yet with the vigour of a staunch best friend watching from the sidelines, it’s only normal to feel protective, territorial even. You’re bound to be both the adaptation’s biggest supporter and its biggest critic.

I followed the media tour for the film and felt comforted by Jenny Han’s pride in the final product, knowing surely, she’d be the one most invested in the outcome. I felt relief as I grew fonder and fonder with the casting choice of Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actor, as protagonist Lara Jean Song Covey. But there were a few other casting choices that I wasn’t sure about. So, to say I was both eager and apprehensive at the same time pretty much captures my feelings yesterday as I hurried home post-shift at work to sit down on the couch and force my siblings to watch To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Before I dig into my thoughts on the film, which I’m still digesting, here are a few reasons why this series holds such a special place in my heart, thus, why I am so invested in the film! Obviously, these reasons all mean that I am also encouraging you to not just watch and support the film (which shares many of the elements listed below) but to read the series as well. When done right, book adaptations can be great! But simply put, books are always better than the movies.

  1. It’s a romantic contemporary young adult novel with a nostalgic air about it. The story is led by protagonist Lara Jean Song Covey, who experiences one of the most cringe-worthy (really, the second-hand embarrassment was real) social blows imaginable in her junior year of high school. Lara Jean is neither a misfit nor a cheerleader, she’s a hopeless romantic and a serial-baker who flies under the radar just doing her own thing. But she’s forced out of hiding when 5 letters, each addressed to a boy she once fell in love with, are mailed out to each recipient. The letters were written but kept to allow for closure, to seal away any remaining feelings whilst honouring a time that once was. However, one of those letters was addressed to her neighbour/older sister’s boyfriend Josh. Certain situations unfold and it’s decided that Lara Jean must do everything in her power to keep her past feelings from her sister and to have Josh kept in the dark without further explanation. Cue, the classic yet never unsatisfying fake-dating trope as a diversion. Interest peaked? 
  2. The story is your typical “popular guy” gets with “less popular quiet girl” under unconventional circumstances yet it’s executed brilliantly. However, the story isn’t about the reinvention or the do-over of Lara Jean. In fact, throughout all three novels, she stays entirely true to herself and is never expected nor encouraged to change. During the series, she undergoes tremendous character growth without straying from her morals/values. She is somewhat of an idealistic traditionalist and her views are challenged and revised from time to time. But in a period of young adult literature where protagonists feel less tangible and slightly harder to tell apart, Lara Jean remains your relatable and trustworthy friend.  
  3. Apart from being the type of romance that’s good for the soul, the story has a strong focus on family and sisterhood. The Song girls, Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty, are a dynamic trio that serves to represent both the magic and necessity of sisterhood. I have a lot of sisters, yet you don’t often read about sisters, let alone sisters who are thick as thieves. The family lost their Korean mother early on, leaving their White gynaecologist father to raise the three girls. Whilst the story does a brilliant job at having the story be told by a Korean-American protagonist without making the story be about her being Korean-American, the father's efforts to maintain Korean culture in the family is beautiful. Having a girl of colour centre stage of her own story is so valuable, especially in 2018. While some may take this for granted, in choosing to write Lara Jean as a girl of Korean-American heritage, it allows other Asian girls to feel deserving of their own stories, as both protagonists and love interests, in a society that only saves those spaces for certain types of white women. 
  4. The romance is literally the equivalent of all things good in the world. Lara Jean’s fake boyfriend Peter Kavinsky, pretty much takes the crown when it comes to fictional boyfriends. Like he literally spoils Lara Jean’s little sister Kitty with daily car rides to school and buckets of affection (big brownie points). While he is described as visually too good to be true, his personality isn’t without flaws. He has his own moments of bad judgement and angst over family issues, but Jenny Han allows him to be vulnerable. Han doesn’t regulate him to simply being a “handsome boy”, even if he does that very well.
  5. To All the Boys I've Loved Before doesn’t oversexualise or make unrealistic what it’s like to be a teenager with a crush or in a relationship. Instead, it honours the cluelessness and confusion inherent to navigating first loves. Sure, most of us survive high school without needing to fake-date the popular guy after our inner secrets are completely exposed, but its representation of adolescence and romance feels very in touch with what it’s actually like to come of age. Basically, less Riverdale like and more your actual high school internal dialogue.    
Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky making official their contract.
But the film? How does it add up? Ok, the conclusion is this, the film honours all of the above points. As far as adaptations go, especially in the age of Netflix originals, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is completely worthy of a spot on your Netflix list. Lana Candor was absolutely perfect as Lara Jean, authentically capturing both her charm and grit. If you’re anything like me, you will actually feel personally attacked by how relatable her views on life and love are. I initially wasn’t sure of Noah Centineo as Peter, but I had no choice but to fall in love with him onscreen. Together, they’re pretty much the dream time.

The Netflix Original felt modern but very true to the book even if it diverted slightly from the plot of the first novel, incorporating some elements of the second book, Ps. I Still Love You, towards the ending. While that provokes some questions regarding how a potential sequel would be produced, I completely understood why those changes were necessary for a smooth and wholesome transition into film. Another difference, the audience finds out how the letters got sent pretty much at the start of the film, whereas readers of the book are left to speculate until a reveal at the end of the novel. As a picky reader, I couldn’t get past Kitty and Margot (Mona from PLL!), who I personally felt were cast wrong. Kitty was seemingly older and more annoying in the film, whereas she’s younger, feistier, and more endearing in the novel. But if that’s my only gripe with the film then I think that’s called winning.

Lead actor Lana Candor with Author Jenny Han
To surmise, I’m pretty much just as obsessed with the film. Everyone involved did a great job to settle the collective anxiety of all Jenny Han fans, even including a noticeable cameo by the author herself! The movie left my sisters wanting to borrow my copy of the book which I think is a super telling sign of an adaptation well done. I hope that both fans of the series and Netflix viewers will embrace the film with both arms open because truthfully, it’s the type of rom-com we’ve all silently been begging for.
Revision: It has since come to my attention that there is upset from the Korean community over none of the Song girls being played by actors of Korean heritage, with the assumption from casting directors that different Asian cultures are interchangeable. There is also a lack of celebration and discussion of the girl's Korean culture in the film in comparison to its notable role in the book series. I think To All the Boys I've Loved Before makes a fantastic and crucial start at providing Asian representation on screen and I encourage everyone to hype up and stream this film so that this is only the start of more to come. However, I completely recognise the frustration of fellow Korean fans and stand with them.

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