When it comes to pleasing a fan base, adaptations of young adult novels may be the trickiest to tackle. (See: The many would-be franchises to popular YA novels that failed to launch due to fan criticism.) Often, there's a passion for YA fiction that simply doesn't accompany novels that skew older in readership.
Fortunately, fans won't have anything to fear in Netflix's adaptation of Jenny Han's To All The Boys I've Loved Before. It's 10 Things About You for the iPhone generation, complete with a fake relationship that turns authentic, and oodles of opposites-attract tension. While the movie isn't completely faithful to the events of the book (fans may find that the ending of the film is much more satisfying than the first book's conclusion is) director Susan Johnson hopes that the essence of the novel is still intact for Han's loyal readers.
"We borrowed a little bit from the second book to sort of round out this first script," Johnson explained to Refinery29 at the To All The Boys press junket. "It's really about hoping you're picking and choosing the right moments that the fans of the book want to see.'" There are now three books in the To All The Boys I've Loved Before story.
The film, out now, stars Lana Condor as Lara Jean, a 16-year-old dreamer (but not doer) who gets the scare of her life when the love letters she has written to her different crushes over the years are released to their not-actually-intended recipient. A series of events leads to Lara Jean and former crush Peter (Noah Centineo) to embark on a fake-but-maybe-actually-real romance in order for Lara Jean to effectively deny feelings for the recent ex-boyfriend of her sister Margot (Janel Parrish).
When fans talk about moments that they love in To All The Boys, what they most likely mean are the markers of epic romance. Lara Jean is the girl who fantasises about being kissed in the middle of a field, but when it comes to acknowledging her feelings for the boys who just might want to take her up on that fantasy, she's terrified. Though Lara Jean's one-time crush Peter and Margot's ex Josh (Israel Broussard) are worthy contenders for Lara Jean's heart, Johnson argues that the movie isn't so much about "the boys" as it is what Lara Jean believes she deserves. Exploring her romantic options — once her biggest fear — gives Lara Jean the courage to actually start living.
"She's not sure she’s worthy of love in her head," Johnson explained. "I think that's a big fear everyone has... if we can really reveal who we really are to the people we love, will those people still love us? There’s a lot of love to go around, and Lara Jean ultimately gets this inner strength to be herself, knowing she's worthy of love."
Still — To All The Boys is a romantic comedy, through and through. It's certainly a worthy addition to the romantic comedy renaissance that also includes Netflix's The Kissing Booth (itself based on a Wattpad story-turned-novel by Beth Reekles) and millennial workplace comedy Set It Up. To All The Boys has will-they-won't-they tension. There are multiple love triangles. There's even an actual, non-dream-sequence kiss in a field! Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie are the two divisions: #TeamJosh or #TeamPeter.
The two boys that Lara Jean "loved before," Josh and Peter, represent two distinct rom-com tropes, and the fact that the two tropes appear next to one another is... well, confusing for any potential shipper.
Josh is the boy-next-door — the person who knows you better than anyone else ever could hope to. (Think Mark Ruffalo's Matt in 13 Going On 30.) Peter, meanwhile, is the popular guy with the heart of gold he only reveals to that one special girl. (Like Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles.)
"I was on Team Josh," Johnson admitted. "And then Noah played Peter with such honesty. There’s the scene in the diner, just after the party, where they really relate to each other the first time. And I just remember him doing that scene, and thinking, Oh my gosh that’s so honest and so raw, and Peter is actually a kind, thoughtful person."
Condor herself cannot decide between the two. "I always get the question, who did you like: Josh or Peter? And truly that question keeps me up at night," Condor joked at the press junket. "I’m happy Lara Jean ended up with Peter because I'm not trying to steal a sister’s boyfriend. I’m not trying to add that drama!"
That's the other thing: In the case of Josh, it's Lara Jean's older sister who is, technically, the "other woman" in the story. Except, here's the thing: Margot is actually great, and a true mother figure to Lara Jean, who lost her own mum at a young age. It devastates Lara Jean that she could even still have such romantic feelings for her old childhood friend Josh, simply because acting on them would mean hurting Margot.
It's nice, especially considering that there is a universe in which Margot and Lara Jean are bitter rivals. Though Margot is slightly type-A (perhaps due to the fact that she's had to step in to care for Lara Jean and their younger sister following their mother's death), she's never the snotty princess the audience hates — because Lara Jean herself loves her.
"It's sisterhood over everything," Parrish noted at the junket of the relationship between Lara Jean and her character Margot. "Even though there is a little fight over a boy [after Margot finds out about Lara Jean's letter to Josh], if Lara Jean needs Margot, she will be there — that’s her sister. [The movie is] very much about women empowering each other instead of tearing each other down."
"I was really happy that it was just pure love," Condor said. "I’m happy they didn’t add more conflict [between Margot and Lara Jean]. I think it’s totally possible to have a good relationship with your sister. It doesn’t have to always be this crazy fight [to be interesting]."
To All The Boys could easily be about any pair of sisters, any shy teenage girl who is forced to face the reality within her fantasy love life. However, as in Han's source material, Lara Jean is Asian-American. It's so rare to see an Asian-American woman playing the romantic lead that the most notable is Constance Wu's Rachel in Crazy Rich Asians — a film which came out in the US just two days before To All The Boys dropped on Netflix.
Clearly, Hollywood has some work to do.
"When I was younger there were no Asian-American leads in [American] film or on television," Parrish revealed at the press junket. "I could never say, 'I am inspired by this because I see myself in that actor.' I’m happy to be part of [increasing representation for Asian-Americans] with this film."
"I’ve been very, very fortunate that I came into acting right as Hollywood and the industry is changing. Those before me I’m sure have faced way more discrimination in casting rooms," said Condor, who will next appear in SyFy's series Deadly Class . "I have a great team that wants me to work on everything, not just something that’s specifically Asian, but everything."
Condor added that despite her experience, there is still a long way to go:
"It is frustrating when you go in [to a casting audition] and the full waiting room is blonde, blue-eyed girls, and you’re the one ethnic woman in that waiting room. You kind of question why you’re there. But I will say, I’m seeing so much more inclusion and diversity everywhere that I go in the industry, and I’m hopeful. If this movie can just make the smallest dent [for representation], I’ll be so happy."