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Hulu's Looking for Alaska Changed My Mind About John Green's Novel and My Own Depression

A retrospective on boarding school trauma

Megan Vick

[Warning: The following essay contains graphic language about suicide that may be upsetting or triggering for some people.]

I had a lot of feelings when Hulu announced that Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage would be adapting John Green's debut novel, Looking for Alaska, into an eight-episode miniseries. Excitement, because Looking for Alaska is by far my favorite of Green's novels. Fear that the book might not be adapted faithfully. And bitterness; it had long been my dream to bring Looking for Alaska to life myself.

You see, like Green himself and the teenagers at the center of his book, I left home at 16, seeking my "great perhaps" at a boarding school for gifted students. For Alaska's adventure-seeking teens, it was Culver Creek Preparatory Academy. For me, it was the North Carolina School of Science and Math, a public residential school in Durham, North Carolina, just a stone's throw away from Duke University campus. Not only was I convinced that Science and Math would be my ticket out of the suburban South, but I truly believed there could be nothing more fun than living at school.

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In a recent conversation with Green, he quoted a friend who told him, "Boarding school gave me the best years of my life, and a lot of other things, too." That aptly summed up my experience at Science and Math. Boarding school gave me an unforgettable education and friends I will have until the day I die, but it was also the hardest two years of my life -- and I almost didn't survive.

Prior to my junior year, every shred of my self-confidence was tied to being smart. I ranked fourth in my class at my first high school (no amount of studying can help a fat kid ace gym). But Science and Math was full of smart kids. That was kind of the point of the school. A lot of them were even good at gym, which seemed genuinely unfair. It was only a matter of days before I realized I was out of my depth, and the more I tried to paddle to the top, the deeper I sank. I scraped through my first year with a demoralizing C average, crushing my father's dreams of ordering "Second-Generation Ivy League" T-shirts. In fact, I had fallen so far from academic grace that my physics teacher wrote on my end-of-term report card that if I didn't undergo a radical "personality shift," I'd fail to reach my potential in life.

I was more stubborn than anything else, and I returned for my senior year, if only to prove that teacher wrong. Yet somehow, that year was even harder. There were good things in my life; I had loyal friends and some teachers who really believed in me. My English teacher even suggested I skip college and go straight to L.A. to write a TV show (I wish I had listened to her sooner). But it was hard to focus on the positives when I was surrounded by a cloud of constant self-doubt and anxiety. I felt lonely and melancholy, and my depression was compounded by college application stress.

Kristine Froseth, Looking for Alaska​

Kristine Froseth, Looking for Alaska

Alfonso Bresciani, Hulu

I hit my breaking point in late fall after a campus-sanctioned dorm party. The common room was transformed into a nightclub dance floor, packed so full with dancing teenagers that the windows completely fogged over from our body heat. As an adult, I realize that's disgusting, but as a teenager that was intimacy. We had a girls-only dance circle toward the back of the room, but when I turned around to twerk to Petey Pablo's "Freek-A-Leek," I saw my best friend grinding with the boy I had been in love with for the better part of a year. I was devastated. Not only was I a fat loser who probably wasn't going to get into college, but here was certifiable proof that I was also going to die alone.

On my heartbroken walk back to my own dorm room, I thought, "Why wait?" Why stick around until I was 70 to confirm what I already knew: Everything would be so much better if I wasn't around to screw things up. Everything would be so much better if I didn't exist.

I locked my dorm door, leaving the lights off as I scrounged around the room. Science and Math's extensive list of contraband items meant there wasn't much to work with. I settled on a disposable pink razor, the type that came a dozen in a pack at Walmart. With only the light from the hallway coming in from under the door, I pressed the blunt blade to my wrist, but it just scratched my skin. I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to cut deeper before I gave up in a fit of sobs. I threw the razor away and cried myself to sleep.

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I'd love to say that I found a counselor the next day (they were available on campus), or called my parents, or talked to that English teacher who saw me more clearly than I ever saw myself. But I didn't tell anyone about it. I told myself that I didn't need the help because I didn't actually try to kill myself. I just held a razor for a while and cried. I was more at risk of giving myself tetanus than doing any bodily harm. But the truth is, I didn't tell anyone because I was ashamed. I didn't want to admit that I had tried to give up and even failed at that. I think I was lucky that just having the razor scared me enough, pushed me enough to go on the next day, and the day after that. And while I did manage to graduate from Science and Math, I never was able to articulate how I felt making it through that experience, even to the friends who made it through with me.

And then I found John Green's book. I fell deeply in love with Miles, the narrating protagonist inspired by Green himself. I fell in love with Miles' friends, too, specifically the enigmatic Alaska Young who was simultaneously precocious and introverted. Green tapped into the weird isolationist nature of the teenage boarding school existence, and the ferocious loyalty it fosters. We lived on a square-mile island that became our entire world. Most teenagers worship their friends over their parents, but for boarding school kids, friends become immediate family because they are the only ones who really get the situation. Looking for Alaska's Smoking Hole hangout reminded me of our illicit gatherings on Hunt Field. The gas station where Miles and The Colonel bought cigarettes was our Elmo's Diner. The quad that served as the social center of Culver Creek Prep was just like the swing set outside Bryan Hall where S'Mathers hung out before curfew.

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The first time I read the book, I finished it in a matter of hours. I felt so understood by this stranger living thousands of miles away, an author who had gone to a different school at a completely different time. Green was able to articulate far better than I ever could that infuriating feeling of adolescence when you're old enough to see that the world is broken, but you're too young to do anything meaningful about it. I read about Alaska and her Life's Library and saw myself. Looking for Alaska is told entirely from Miles' point of view, but even through his rose-colored glasses, I could see Alaska's loneliness. I could feel it, because it was mine as well.

By the time I read Looking for Alaska, I was already in Los Angeles, taking fledgling steps toward screenwriting. I made it my mission to be the person to adapt it for the screen. Obviously, there was no one who could understand it the way that I did. Little did I know, by that time, Schwartz was already making his first attempt to bring Looking for Alaska to the screen. He'd try a few more times over the years, and so would other screenwriters, but no one was able to get Green's most personal novel off the ground. It took almost 15 years for Schwartz and Savage to make it happen, ditching the movie idea for an eight-episode miniseries on Hulu. I had to resign myself to the fact that another stranger, this time a few dozen miles away, was going to bring this story to life.

I was terrified. More than arrogantly wanting to make Looking for Alaska myself, I wanted the book to be adapted faithfully. I didn't want my precious connection to the characters who meant so much to me to be tainted by someone else's vision.

Charlie Plummer, Looking for Alaska

Charlie Plummer, Looking for Alaska

Steve Dietl, Hulu

I carried that fear to set earlier this summer for a feature story on the adaptation, but I was rewarded with a surreal experience. I practically squealed sitting on Miles (Charlie Plummer) and The Colonel's (Denny Love) duct-tape-patched powder blue couch. I unabashedly wept amongst Alaska's (Kristine Froseth) towering piles of books. I felt relieved to discover the actors loved this book as much as I did, even if they didn't have a boarding school existential crisis to forge their bond with Green's words. And Schwartz... well, I probably owe him an apology. I knew after doing my research that Schwartz and Savage could be trusted to handle the material, but I did not expect them to completely change my perspective on the story itself.

While the book is entirely from Miles' point of view, the Hulu version allows us an expanded look at all of the characters, especially Alaska. It was important to see Alaska outside of Miles' love-tinted vision to understand how truly sad she was. Three quarters through Looking for Alaska, the eponymous character dies in a horrific car accident, which means we only have six of the miniseries' eight episodes with Alaska Young before she drives off into the night with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.21. However, in order to preserve the ambiguity surrounding her death, the show only gives us glimpses of the accident, most of them in a series of images at the beginning of the first episode. The last part of the book, and the series, is spent with her friends trying to understand what caused her tragic death. Green doesn't answer that question in the book, and neither does the miniseries.

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Een though Alaska's motives are never explicitly stated, I had always assumed she had sped into the deadly impact on purpose. I projected my own history between the lines of Green's novel to arrive at the answers that felt true to my own experience. It seemed so obvious to me that Alaska killed herself, even if her friends were reluctant to believe it. It wasn't until I watched Schwartz and Savage's adaptation that I realized that in a weird way, I had problematically used Alaska's fate to validate my own emotional trauma. Since I related to Alaska, my mind was so preoccupied with her narrative that it overrode the grief of everyone she left behind. The most essential thing the miniseries does is show that Alaska's death wasn't justifiable -- that whether her accident was exactly that, or the purposeful taking of her own life, or a mix of both, what happened to her was a tragedy. It's ironic that I could love Looking for Alaska as much as I do, and yet for 10 years completely miss the point: There aren't any answers.

The last two episodes of Looking for Alaska masterfully depict the damage and grief that follow the accident. I hyperventilated-ugly-sobbed through them, especially when The Colonel begs The Eagle (Tim Simons) to kick him out of the school for being the one to let Alaska get in the car in the first place. Don't even get me started on Miles angrily delivering the book's iconic line comparing people to rain and Alaska to a hurricane (the quote is scrawled on an autographed poster above my bed) to his mother, who will never understand how devastating the loss is for him. The grief suffered by everyone Alaska left behind hit me harder watching this series than it did in any of the half-dozen times I've read the book.

Seeing Alaska in a different light meant excavating feelings about my own high school experience, specifically that night in the dark with the godforsaken razor. It's hard not to imagine what I'd say to that sad, lonely version of myself if I had the chance. I'd like to tell her that she isn't crazy, and her feelings are valid, but she should lighten up. I'd tell her that we do get into college. In fact, we get a full-tuition scholarship, and in less than a year, we'll ship up to Boston to start the rest of our life. And that boy? Fifteen years later, he's one of your most beloved friends. Most of all, I'd like to reassure her that she's going to be OK, even if she still needs to be reminded of that every once in a while.

I've also thought about what I'd like to say to anyone else reading this who feels like I did, or like Alaska: Please do not wait to reach out to someone if you are having these feelings. Talk to someone you trust, call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or use any of these resources, which Hulu posted after the final episodes of the miniseries. You are not a failure, and it's not better here without you.

Looking for Alaska is now streaming on Hulu.