Jenny Han‘s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of Lara Jean Song Covey, a hopelessly romantic 16-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down when her secret love letters are accidentally mailed to, well, all of the boys she’s ever loved.
Netflix is at the helm of the film adaptation for Lara Jean’s tumultuous love life and, much like with Love, Simon, I was curious about how this beautiful story about not just falling in love but realizing what love is would pan out on screen.
Here’s what I found:
Han’s Lara Jean (played by Lana Condor) is reserved and quiet but with a huge heart that she doesn’t know what to do with; she loves her family more than she loves vintage. But, she can be a bit of a crybaby — a very loveable and sweet crybaby, though. Because this is a young adult title and everyone who has been 16 knows that having your crush know how you feel about them is the absolute end of the world, it’s understandable that Lara Jean would have her share of tears to shed.
Yet, Netflix gave us a teenage protagonist who had fewer tears to cry than jokes to crack. Condor’s interpretation of Han’s affable character is hilarious and strong and brave. She doesn’t back down to Peter Kavinsky’s possessive ex-girlfriend at any point; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. She has no issue confronting her feelings for Peter head-on, especially when she realizes it’s not all fake after all. Very simply put: she’s fierce.
Peter and Josh
Ah, Peter and Josh Sanderson — the loves of Lara Jean’s life and recipients of those unfortunately-delivered love notes. The slow burn of this love triangle is a central theme in Han’s novelization but for the most part, I found that tension lacking on-screen. After all, Peter and Lara Jean pretending to be a couple is in part to hide her true feelings for Josh.
Josh: the boy next door, the perfect guy and the forbidden fruit of Lara Jean’s desire because of his relationship with her sister, Margot. But in Netflix’s version, Josh falls flat and winds up becoming somewhat forgettable — and the love triangle feels like something of an afterthought than what’s fully fleshed out in the book.
On the flip side, Peter is supposed to be the “handsome boy” we readers will love to hate — the arrogant jock who can’t get enough of himself, but on-screen, there is no real reason not to like/love him. He’s sweet and loveable. He’s someone whose feelings are clear — in a stolen glance, bashful smile kind of way — and the sort audiences will be rooting for.
Lara Jean’s relationship with her family in Han’s novel is of huge importance and as much a central theme of the story as love. She can’t have Josh — the boy she’s loved for years — because in her eyes he will always belong to her older sister and nothing could be more sacred. The Covey family is tight-knit, with all of the girls taking on household roles from a young age since their mother died.
Lara Jean lies to her sister for nearly the entire story because she can’t bear the thought of hurting Margot with the mere implication she has feelings for the boy she left behind. The film adaptation really undercuts the importance of family in Lara Jean’s eyes, even going so far as to remove the secret kiss shared by her and Josh that results in a very nasty and emotional blowout between the two sisters.
As the catalyst of the entire story, the letters cannot go unanalyzed. In the novel, the sending of the letters is meant to be a mystery until Lara Jean’s little sister, Kitty, reveals she’s the culprit in a moment of frustration. Contrarily, Netflix shows Kitty in the act. It’s hard to say whether Kitty sending out the letters in anger or out of the hope that it earns her sister a boyfriend is a better motive — it’s really a toss-up but both play well to the two versions of the character.
One important thing that the movie approaches head-on that isn’t at all considered in the novel is Lara Jean’s decision to address the letters. Margot suggests that maybe Lara Jean didn’t always want her fantasies to stay secret, and Margot is always right. But in both iterations of this Han’s tale, the letters are how Lara Jean muses what she discerns are feelings of love, and how she realizes just what that is in the closing chapters.
My verdict: In the end, while the movie is something I will surely watch, again and again, Netflix’s washing out the love triangle and eliminating all of the push-and-pull between Lara and Peter hurts the adaptation too much for it to surpass the source material. The novel is thoughtful and warm and about a young woman trying to figure out herself in her own family and in the lives of others. Still, the network gives a solid adaptation of a lovely book with a great movie that even ties into it pieces of the follow-up novel, P.S. I Still Love You.
What the keen observer might notice throughout the movie is that not all of the letters are accounted for by the time the credits roll. As this is the first novel in a series the ending is deliciously promising.