This isn’t a touching romantic story.
I recently managed to watch Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while. I read the book a while ago, as part of my efforts to get through 100 books in a year (I managed 12), and I quite enjoyed it.
Just for reference, here’s what I said about the book at the time:
The book is positioned as very much Not A John Green Novel. There’s a sort of low key reference to it at one point – the narrator very explicitly says that there will not be any schmaltzy messages or tumblr style quotes. He gives an example; I forget what it was, but it may as well have been “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”
It works, I think. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is much more acerbic and rough around the edges than a John Green novel. It feels very real. At the end of it, there’s no real message. (At least, not one that I took away from it.) There isn’t a love story, or a great romantic climax. Death just happens, and you’ve got to live with it.
If you’ve not yet gathered, the story is this: Greg befriends Rachel, a girl with leukaemia. It’s a bit awkward, but over time they get close; Rachel takes a particular interest in the films that Greg makes with his friend Earl. The pair of them then work on a film for Rachel, which they’re able to show to her before she dies. This is the basic plot that both the film and the book share; there are a few subtle changes made to the film which, though seemingly quite slight, I would argue actually fundamentally change the whole movie.
Primarily, there’s the dynamic that Rachel and Greg share. In the book, the pair of them had previously known each other, and sort of had a relationship that had petered out in the past. In the movie, however, they meet essentially at the start, not long after Rachel is diagnosed. It’s a subtle, but I think quite meaningful, change to the relationship and interactions between the pair. It becomes less about Greg confronting his own previous mistakes (because he’s quite an antisocial individual, who actively avoids making friends) and is much more about a guy who just becomes friends with a cancer patient because his mum asked him to.
That leads into my next point, then, because I think that the emotional arc and character development that Greg goes on is quite severely limited in this movie, compared to the book. Part of the story in the book is that Greg learns to open up to people and make genuine connections; one of his big character traits is that he’s a social floater by choice, with no real friends. Indeed, something he learns from Rachel is linked into this, with Greg ultimately realising that a standard university isn’t for him, and choosing to go to film school. This, weirdly, wasn’t included at all, as Greg chooses to go to the normal university, without really changing as a person particularly at all – I found that quite surprising, because it seemed to me that this was quite an important part of the story and its resolution.
(I think because of this, The Fault in Our Stars actually looks a lot better by comparison – because The Fault in Our Stars is actually about a cancer patient. This movie is just about a cancer patient’s selfish friend, and in some respects comes across as rather cynical in its approach to the audience.)
Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun movie, and I found it quite entertaining. The cast was quite strong – Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal (for some reason I thought he was Tom Hardy) were great to see, and Thomas Man (Greg) and RJ Cyler (Earl) both did quite well too. The real standout, though, was Olivia Cooke, who played Rachel, and was a real breath of fresh air whenever she was on screen – funny, passionate and engaging, she was very easy to like, making it all the more poignant when she eventually met her end.
I guess my problem with this movie, then, was that it wasn’t enough like the book – not because I think that the point of an adaptation is to slavishly dedicate oneself to the original text, but rather simply because the book was better. It’s odd, because I think this is a story that would have translated rather well to film, particularly given that the main character is something of a cinema aficionado; the extent of this, though, was a few stop-motion sequences and excerpts from their home movies. It’s not obtrusive or bad, it’s just… the concept could probably have been pushed further, I guess?
Thinking back on what I said in the original review – it’s not that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t have a message. The point of the original book was that there isn’t an easy message – death is complicated, and you can’t distill it down to something as simple as “pain demands to be felt”. There are lots of different things, with the characters having their own outlook on it all. For the film, though, they seemed to do away with this, focusing on one particular message from Jon Bernthal’s teacher character, and ending the movie essentially on this note.
In the end, I think that sums up the differences between the book and the film. One was far more generic, and far less insightful, than the other. It’s a shame, given that probably didn’t have to be the case.
Note: This is another movie I’ve come to wonder if, in hindsight, I was pretty unfair on – if nothing else, I’m normally fairly sceptical of any “it’s not like the book” film criticism. So I’d like to give this another watch and see what I make of it some time.