Five Feet Apart Makes Some Serious Changes From The Book

Photo: courtesy of Lionsgate.
The latest terminally-ill-teens-fall-in-love story is Five Feet Apart. This time, the illness is cystic fibrosis, which means the teens in question cannot touch. Like other YA stories of romance and illness, Five Feet Apart is both a book and a movie.
But unlike The Fault In Our Stars, the movie and the screenplay were created together, and the film actually wrapped several months before the novel published in November. Still, there are several key differences between the two iterations, and you can read them all below. Obviously, that includes major spoilers for both.

The Beginning

The book opens on the Stella, our heroine, looking at a drawing of flowery lungs, which was done by her older sister Abby. As she reminisces on happy times with Abby, her two best friends show up in her hospital room to visit and talk about their upcoming trip to Cabo.
The movie instead opens with Stella’s (Haley Lu Richardson) YouTube video from the end of the story. “Human touch. Our first form of communication,” she says, voicing over home videos of young Stella and Abby (Sophia Bernard), and a slow motion video of her love interest Will (Cole Sprouse) on the hospital roof. Then the movie flashes back, diving into the scene with Stella’s two friends, Camila (Cecilia Leal) and Mya (Trina LaFargue). In this version, the shots are tight, and the girls are giggly and excited. The setting doesn’t look particularly hospital-like.
It’s clear that Stella can’t go to Cabo, but she also doesn’t look visibly sick. As soon as Camila and Mya leave, Stella’s smile disappears, her cannula goes in, and she catches her breath. The camera pans around the room, which is suddenly huge and sterile.
Because the movie doesn’t include Stella’s internal monologue, we don’t know how she’s feeling as she helps her friends pick out bathing suits for the beach, and the contrast between the way she acts around her friends and the way she acts alone is much more pronounced.

Switching Perspectives

The book flips between Stella’s perspective and Will’s every other chapter, which allows us to be in both of their heads at key moments. The movie includes neither character’s stream of consciousness, but the camera’s focus flips seamlessly between the two. It’s slightly more focused on Stella, but that makes sense, given that her character has multiple surgeries in addition to the doomed hospital romance.

Haley Lu Richardson Makes A Great YouTuber

In both versions of Five Feet Apart, Stella is a prolific YouTuber, documenting her experience with CF for many years. In the book, we mostly see those videos through Will’s eyes, which are very loving. But in the movie, Haley Lu Richardson’s videos go beyond written description. She’s effusive and goofy.
There was a short behind-the-scenes video after the screening I went to, and in it Richardson explained that she loved filming the YouTube videos (it shows!), and that in another life she thinks she could have been a great vlogger. She’s right, and you can see it in the goofy videos she posts on Instagram, usually featuring her fiancé, Brett Dier, who plays Five Feet Apart director Justin Baldoni’s romantic rival on Jane The Virgin.

Does Stella Have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

One odd moment in the film is when Stella claims to be “clinically OCD.” This language does not appear in the book, and it’s never explained in the movie. Stella is certainly perfectionistic about doing her treatments, and feels compelled to make Will do his treatments, but that’s not indicative of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder on its own. We never see Stella discussing her mental health with any doctors or therapists. It’s possible she’s being hyperbolic about her obsessive tendencies, but making light of OCD seems out of character for her.

Poe’s Backstory

Naturally, the movie is on a slightly shortened timeline and doesn’t have space for all the exposition the novel contains. But Poe’s backstory in the book is heavy; he has CF and has been going to Saint Grace’s Hospital for over a decade, just like Stella. His parents were deported to Colombia, so he’s underage, sick, and alone. He’s gay, and has had a series of relationships go sour because he feels like he’s a burden, and leaves. His most recent ex, Michael, still loves him and stays in contact with Stella. Poe hasn’t seen his mom in two years.
In the film, We hear about Michael, and we understand Poe’s pattern of dating and dumping guys who really care about him. We see how much he and Stella love each other. And on the night of Will’s birthday party, Poe (Moises Arias) tells Stella he plans to go visit his mom with Michael, but we don’t know where Poe’s mom is, or that she’s been deported.
However, Arias makes the most of his short screen time at. In the scene where Will and Poe meet, and Poe explains to Will that he isn’t in love with Stella because he’s gay, and then quips, “Don’t worry, I don’t like white boys.”
There are a couple of other one-liners which weren’t in the book. My personal favorite was when Will sneaks into Stella’s pre-op room before her G-tube surgery, and she asks what he’s doing there, he responds, “I thought this was the bathroom, honestly.”

The Abby Reveal

Stella’s sister Abby doesn’t come up much, if at all, in the first part of the movie. Will is seemingly unaware that Stella has an older sister until he asks about the drawing of the flowery lungs on Stella’s wall.
In the book, Abby is mentioned right away, and Will hears about her when he asks about Stella’s Master List, which includes a trip to see the Sistine Chapel with Abby. However, in both the book and the movie, we learn that Abby has died at the same time that Will does — he does some detective work after Stella reacts badly to questions about Abby.

Stella’s Parents

An important part of the book is Stella’s relationship with her parents. As we learn in the movie, they separated after Abby’s death, which no one in the family was prepared for. But in the book, Stella’s parents cannot speak to one another, and Stella spends significant energy trying not to burden or worry them. She takes an Uber to the hospital when she gets sick, telling each parent that the other drove her, and makes sure to tell them about her G-tube surgery rather than letting Barb do it. The tension comes to a head when they are in the waiting room during the G-tube surgery, arguing, and Barb reams them out for not realizing how much work Stella is doing to protect them when it should be the other way around.

Barb, Trevor, and Amy

Barb, a veteran nurse who is ultra-strict with Will and has a soft spot for Stella, confronts Will after he sneaks into Stella’s pre-op room to comfort her before her first general anesthesia since Abby’s death (very romantic). She tells Will about two CFers she treated named Trevor and Amy, who fell in love.
In the book, she is livid, shutting down Will’s delusions that he isn’t that dangerous to Stella and explaining that Amy had B. cepacia, the dangerous bacteria that Will carries. Barb let Amy and Trevor break the six feet apart rule, and Trevor contracted B. cepacia, losing his chance at a lung transplant and dying two years later, while Amy lived another decade. Unsurprisingly, this story rattles Will enough for him to stop pursuing Stella.
In the movie, Barb doesn’t say Amy had B. cepacia, only that she let them break the rules and they both died on her watch. This seems less persuasive, since everyone who has CF is terminal, but it’s still enough to prompt Will to google B. cepacia and decide he’s too dangerous for Stella.

Will’s Art

Will is a cartoonist, and, naturally, his art is more fun in the movie, when you can see it. In the book, there are descriptions of his illustrations, most notably, a very emo drawing of himself as the grim reaper holding a scythe that reads “LOVE.” Thankfully, we do get this visual in the movie, though the “LOVE,” is omitted. Will is angrily drawing the dark self-portrait, and it’s the only moment in the film where he displays Jughead Jones-level angst.

Stella And Will’s Dates

Most of the details of Stella and Will’s dates are kept consistent between the book and movie, with the first happening after Stella vlogs that she’s decided to reclaim one foot of the “six feet apart” rule, shortening her distance from Will to five feet. They roam the hospital together all night, taking a romantic swim in the hospital pool.
The second date happens on Will’s birthday, when Stella pretends to forget it’s his big day, and then organizes a scavenger hunt that leads him to a dinner party with all their friends. In the book, the second date takes place 48 hours after the first one, but in the movie, that time is shortened to 24 hours. Not a lot changes in the story with this compression — it just seems even more impressive that Stella coordinated with her friends, Will’s friends, and planned a seamlessly executed scavenger hunt that turned into a picturesque dinner party in under a day.

Will’s Mom

Will has a strained relationship with his mom, who makes him do experimental treatments for his B. Cepacia when he would rather be focused on his quality of life. In the book, Will’s mom is more frustrating (she tries to slip Barb a $100 bill to ensure good care for Will), and more sympathetic. There’s a pivotal scene where Will accuses him mom of being more focused on his illness than on him, which results in Will realizing he is wrong, and that he should be easier on her. This doesn’t happen in the movie — the relationship is strained, but a little less so, and there is no climactic fight or resulting understanding.

The Tortured Goodbye

Here comes the big spoiler: Will breaks up with Stella. Not only does he end things with her, but he does it as though it’s a grand romantic gesture, the moment she wakes up from a lung transplant, with her family and her doctors around her, while she’s on a ventilator and can’t speak or move. He sets up an elaborate display of lights outside the hospital window, has her mom give her a book and a video he made, and then calls her from the other side of the glass to tell her he loves her too much to endanger her by being in her life.
It’s hard to read, but even harder to watch, with Richardson crying and struggling to speak from behind the ventilator. However, Will does a better job at explaining exactly why he made the choice he made in the movie. In the book, his explanation is full of cliches, and ends with him kissing the window. Thankfully, Baldoni did not subject us to that visual.

The Ending

Both versions of Five Feet Apart end with a YouTube video of Stella — the one that the movie used in the beginning. However, in the book, Will is watching the video eight months post-breakup while he waits for a flight to Rio with his friend Jason. Just as the video ends, he sees Stella at the airport, on her way to Rome with Mya and Camila. She approaches him, stands six feet away from him, and then five. It’s an ambiguous ending, but it leaves room for hope that the two might reunite.

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