No, of course the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before movie doesn’t include every single book scene — but that’s what makes it such a fantastic adaptation.
Inevitably when there’s a book to movie adaptation, what follows is a chorus of people crooning that the book was better.
And while I’m not denying that this oft-repeated phrase is often warranted, I do also want to say that I think we book fans (myself included) are often guilty of demanding a direct book to movie translation, which is impossible, rather than a story adaptation, which is all a movie version can ever be.
Because no matter how great a book is, there is no earthly possibility of doing a direct translation onto the screen. First of all, a direct translation would take more hours than I’d be willing to sit in a movie seat. Secondly, these are two mediums that certainly have similar aims — telling a good story — but have to tell that story in decidedly different ways.
Because whereas a book has many pages’ worth of inner monologues and introspection to its benefit (especially true of a YA book like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is written in first person) and the time to luxuriate in small character detours and narrative side plots, a movie must rely on its characters’ dialogue and facial expressions, as well as on its scenes and cinematography.
In fact, a book to movie adaptation has the very hefty job of drawing in new fans, appeasing existing fans and condensing hundreds — or even thousands — of pages of narrative into a cohesive and engaging story that — if all goes well — will make us want to take the time to read (or re-read) the book.
Fortunately, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before manages to not only hit all four of these factors, but it absolutely knocks them out of the park. And if my Twitter timeline and the press in general are anything to go by, I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so.
So what makes this adaptation so good? Here are three reasons why To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has nearly everyone — book fans and newbies alike — swooning hard and hitting that replay button again and again.
Adapting the most essential storylines
According to my Kindle, the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before book is 358 pages long.
According to Netflix, the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before movie is one hour and 39 minutes, with probably nine or so of those minutes going towards end credits. No matter how much we might’ve wanted it, the movie was never going to be able to fit all 358 of those pages onto the screen.
And here’s what made the movie so successful: it didn’t even attempt to do that. Instead, it understood that capturing the book’s spirit and its heart was always going to be more important — and would tell a better story — than following the letter of the book.
The To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before movie centers itself exactly where it should — on Lara Jean and her letters. It understands that the letters are more than just a plot device or a way to get things moving, they are also symbolic of Lara Jean herself — a little old school, a little whimsical, more than a little romantic and very much closed off and hidden away from the rest of the world.
The movie zeroes in on the fact that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before isn’t necessarily an A to B love story and that it isn’t really a story about Lara Jean choosing between Josh and Peter at all, but about Lara Jean choosing to open herself up to love and life and the world around her.
With that central theme in mind, the movie then works to incorporate any scene and moment that allows Lara Jean to understand that choosing to open herself up to love beyond the limits of her family can be scary and is absolutely a risk, but that it’s worth it to do so.
So yes, that means that the Christmas Cookie Bonanza got cut, as did the antique shopping trip — but that also means that we got beautiful scenes of Lara Jean connecting on a deep, personal level with Peter, of her being encouraged to open up by Lucas, Chris and her dad, and of her being loved and supported by her sisters.
The movie understands that it must tell a complete and evocative story in the span of an hour and a half, and rather than trying to include every single fan favorite scene, it instead decided on the much more emotionally satisfying route of telling a great story onscreen.
Smoothing out the characters
In a book, you have the luxury to travel with your characters through hundreds of pages’ worth of scenes and conversations. In a YA book, with its narratively convenient first-person point of view, you are able to have a character’s inner workings and motivations and history explained to you in detail.
A movie does not often have this luxury. It has to convey character motivations, personality, and history through dialogue, costuming, and a handful of scenes. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before helps this along a bit with its occasional narration from Lara Jean, but it wisely chooses to use this rather sparingly.
In the book, a lot of the characters come with a few more rough edges than we see in the movie. A book can do this, because it — and we — benefit from having Lara Jean explain to us, for instance, why she and Chris are still friends despite being so different, and we can see in deeper detail the bonds of sisterhood between Lara Jean and Kitty as well as Lara Jean and Margot.
In fact, one of my favorite descriptors from the book is when Lara Jean explains why Margot and Chris don’t like each other, saying that, “Margot thinks that Chris uses me; Chris thinks that Margot controls me. I think maybe they’re both a little bit right.”
Now, the movie doesn’t do away with these character traits altogether — we see Margot as the prototypical older sister, way less sentimental than Lara Jean and always ready to take charge; we see Chris as a friend that’s decidedly different than Lara Jean — darker and edgier than Lara Jean’s soft, pastel nature.
But the movie understands that because we care about Lara Jean so much — and it’s so easy to care about her — we want to see her surrounded by people who likewise care about her. Without the character building and explanation afforded to us by the novel, the most salient features of characters like Chris and Margot might leave us wondering whether these two are rather toxic influences on her.
So the movie wisely again chose to soften the edges of these characters, still making them unique and realistic, but once again using them to add to both Lara Jean’s journey towards opening herself up to the world and to the movie’s overall warm, optimistic, and loving tone.
In fact, there is no greater example of the benefits of softening these characters than the one that is currently on everyone’s mind — Peter Kavinsky.
Peter Kavinsky: A soft and tender boy
I know that this might be a potentially controversial take, but here it is regardless: movie Peter Kavinsky is 100% superior to book Peter Kavinsky.
Ok book fans, stay with me for a moment here. I know what I just said is almost inflammatory, but here’s the thing: I was so enamored by Peter Kavinsky in this movie (as was, according to my Twitter timeline at least, almost every person between the ages of 12-45 who is attracted to men) that I went back and re-read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and realized that, well —
Peter Kavinsky is kind of a dick for about 60% of the first book.
And I say the first book because by the third book, Peter Kavinsky has reached his final form and is 100% the soft, tender boy we see in this movie (and in the second book, he’s no longer a dick but is a Very Dumb Boy for about 60% of it).
One of the best and most surprising things about the movie is just how tender, vulnerable and — let’s be real here — smitten Peter Kavinsky is almost immediately. He’s charming and sweet, attentive to Lara Jean, intent on taking her seriously, listening to her and treating her well.
This is not the case in the book.
In the book, Peter starts out being absolutely what you would think of when you conceptualize a stereotypical popular jock — he rarely takes things seriously, he’s vain, and he’s kind of rude.
For example, whereas the movie scene of the two creating their contract was charming and sweet, with Peter readily agreeing to watching Sixteen Candles, taking Kitty and Lara Jean to school and writing in the ski trip, the book scene has Peter saying he won’t pay for stuff, walk her to class or buy her flowers, as well as a stipulation that he won’t watch romcoms, explaining that he can tell that she’s the kind of girl who does.
Again, the book can do this, because it has the time and luxury of showing Peter’s arc from a superficial jock to someone who genuinely cares about Lara Jean and wants to be around her. However, we only have so much time in the movie and that sort of turnaround would be unbelievably fast, leaving us with a love interest who we wouldn’t want at all for Lara Jean.
So instead, the movie gives us peak soft Peter Kavinsky, a boy who agrees to a fake relationship with Lara Jean and then seems to forget it’s all fake two days later. Again, this coincides with the story the movie is trying to tell: that of Lara Jean and her realization that it’s not just ok, but in many ways necessary, to open ourselves up to love and life.
In order for that to be true, we have to see her with someone who she can both open up to and is worth loving and being loved by. The movie isn’t about Peter K’s dynamism, but about Lara Jean’s — which is to our great benefit because we get to see Peter Kavinsky, ultimate soft, tender boy, for basically the entire film.
So, when it comes to deciding whether the book is better than the movie or the movie better than the book, my take is this: the book is the book and the movie is the movie. They both offer us similar stories in their own different, but equally lovely ways.
Rather than debating on which one does it better, I think we fans should count ourselves incredibly lucky that we now have two wonderful ways to experience the story of Lara Jean and her not-so-secret love letters.