Director Jake Schreier could “easily relate to” the protagonist of Paper Towns, Quentin Jacobsen. “I wasn’t all that cool in high school,” he told Refinery29. “There were plenty of girls I used to idolize. When you’re young, you think your problem is just that you’re just not bold enough — and if you had been, then you could have gotten that girl, or whatever. And the question you’re not asking yourself is: Did that girl want to be gotten?”
That question is at the center of Paper Towns, which plays with the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But there's another, bigger question to ask, one that represents the filmmakers’ biggest challenge: How do you make a movie that tries to kill the idea of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl while also featuring a character who is seen as one herself for most of the movie?
Manic Pixie Dream Girl, for those who are unfamiliar, is a term for 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.” The writer who coined the phrase, Nathan Rabin, is "sorry" to have made it up in the first place, and wrote about a year ago that “calling a character a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is nearly as much of a cliché as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.”
John Green has written that his novel Paper Towns (the basis of the new film), “is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl” (emphasis Green's). He also declared in a 2008 blog post, “If someone finishes Paper Towns believing in the MPDG, or if the novel in the end seems to further the bullshit myth of the MPDG, then PT is a failure, at least on that front.”
But other Green works have been criticized for their MPDG elements, and the author admitted in the above mentioned blog post that his book Looking for Alaska (the next of his novels in line for a big-screen treatment), may be deserving of that critique. Last year, Matt Patches wrote “the case against” Fault In Our Stars' Gus Waters, suggesting that that film's hero is the male version of the MPDG — i.e., a “Manic Cancer Metaphor Boy.”
Both the book and the film versions of Paper Towns are told from the perspective of Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), who pines for his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). Margo is not just a girl to him, she’s a “miracle,” and she’s the subject of enough high school legends to rival Regina George (though, at least Margo’s heart is in the right place). One night, she calls on Quentin to help her exact creative revenge on her cheating boyfriend and others who wronged her. But the next day, she disappears. So Quentin decides it’s his duty to go off and find her, following the idiosyncratic clues she left behind, which include a highlighted passage of Leaves of Grass and a Wilco-Billy Bragg album.
He wants to imagine his life to some degree as a hero’s journey, but she’s not going to end up being a character the way he imagined her to be.
Making the movie’s anti-MPDG message clear was a “tricky” feat, according to Schreier. The movie is told from Quentin’s point of view, and we have to start the movie seeing Margo the way that Quentin does. As an audience, “we have to buy into it before we break it down,” Schreier said.
“It was a really, really fine line to walk, because he is the protagonist of the story, and to some degree, it does revolve around him. And then we also wanted to make sure that we were being as exceptionally balanced as we could be, and honest to who Margo was as a character, and that she would have her own story,” Schreier said. “He wants to imagine his life to some degree as a hero’s journey, but she’s not going to end up being a character the way he imagined her to be. She’s not the damsel in distress, she’s not the prize to be won at the end of it, and she has her own story to tell.”
I never played her as a dream girl. I played her as who she was. That’s the movie’s job, to show her as that person. I just was playing the character.
Delevingne told Refinery29 that Green and Schreier “trusted” her with Margo. “They both thought that I understood her more than either of them actually did,” she said. Delevingne didn’t see it as her job to play Margo as some kind of ideal: “I never played her as a dream girl. I played her as who she was. That’s the movie’s job, to show her as that person. I just was playing the character.”
Schreier said that Delevingne had “good insight” and noted that having a woman’s perspective was vital. “If you’re a bunch of men trying to make a movie about women’s issues, you better be ready to listen to the women that are making that movie with you,” he said.
But that’s where Paper Towns doesn’t entirely succeed. Though it tries to make a point about how men see women, the fact is, it’s still about a man’s journey, not a woman’s. Yes, the wool is pulled from Quentin’s eyes, but we never fully see Margo for who she really is because that’s not the story this movie is telling — a fact that Quentin admits at the movie’s conclusion, saying, "that’s her story to tell."
Schreier has a solution: “If you really want to solve the problem of Manic Pixie Dream Girls and male protagonists, the best thing to do is to make movies with female protagonists.”