After a long time of really wanting to, I finally sat down on Friday night to watch Netflix’s new movie of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and tl;dr it was amazing and totally deserves a watch.
I was a little concerned when I heard that this book was being made into a movie, honestly. I’ve read all three of the books in this series and they’re definite favorites, and it’s always a bit scary to watch movies made out of books you love. But thankfully, the movie lives up to the quality of its source material.
Much of the discussion I’ve seen surrounding this movie is about the diversity of it – the story surrounds Lara Jean Covey, a 16-year-old mixed-race girl in a story normally reserved for white characters. The story doesn’t shy away from Lara Jean’s Korean heritage, and instead integrates it purposefully into her character, while also allowing her to play the normal romance story roles. It’s a great example of what more stories should do going forward, and I definitely think it’s valid that so many people are talking about this aspect of the movie in a positive light.
But I also think this movie has a ton of other great things about it, and I wanted to talk about those aspects for a moment. As is the case for my other reviews, I’m gonna give a general overview of the story and a bit more of an explanation of my thoughts on it without giving any spoilers away, then I’ll be taking a spoiler-laden dive into it for those who have seen it or don’t care about spoilers.
Overview (Spoiler Free)
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is about Lara Jean, a junior in high school who lives with her older sister Margot, younger sister Kitty, and father in Virginia. Lara Jean loves to bake and has a penchant for fantasy. Though at home she’s outgoing and sentimental with her family, in school she is a shy, reserved girl who mostly stays out of school politics.
Throughout the course of her life, she has had crushes on five different boys, all of whom she decided to write a letter to in order to sort out her feelings for them. She stores these letters in a hat box in her closet, addressing them but never intending to send them out.
The story begins as Margot is moving off to college in Scotland, leaving Lara Jean “in charge.” Though she’s nervous about this prospect, she does her best to set an example for Kitty and deal with the change with grace. Then, unexpectedly, Lara Jean’s letters disappear and she soon finds, to her horror, that they have been sent out to all the boys on her list. Though one is addressed incorrectly and returns to Lara Jean, all the rest go out, including one to Josh, Margot’s ex-boyfriend who Lara Jean has been crushing on secretly for years, and one to Peter, the somewhat arrogant lacrosse jock who up until recently was dating Lara Jean’s former best friend.
Afraid of making Margot upset, Lara Jean devises a plan with Peter to pretend to date him, to serve the dual purpose of making it clear to Josh that Lara Jean isn’t in love with him and to make Peter’s ex jealous.
It’s a fun and heartfelt movie, well-acted, with great music and a really intriguing storyline. If you’re not someone who enjoys YA romance fare, you probably won’t like this one, but if you do it’s a standout in its genre for the relatable and round main characters and delightful writing.
A Deeper Dive (Spoiler Time)
The biggest mark of a good adaptation is that it retains the feeling of the source material. Every book-to-movie adaptation must be a little changed, but the most important thing is that the soul remains intact, and I think “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” does this perfectly.
What I loved about the books so much was the feeling they gave me. Jenny Han’s style of writing and the world she creates is warm and loving, like the literary equivalent of a cup of hot tea on a rainy day spent inside.
The movie captures this feeling surprisingly well thanks to the wonderful acting of Lana Condor as Lara Jean, who sells the reserved yet loving character so well it’s like she was exactly who Han had in mind as she was writing it. Plus, the soundtrack has an indie flair but still holds onto a nostalgic, gentle sound that matches this feeling.
And that’s good, because this story is primarily a character-driven one, and pays a ton of attention to the way characters relate to one another. Overall, I think the movie does a good job holding onto the strong characters, but there were a few missteps thanks to the fact the story had to be cut down for time.
As I’ve already mentioned, Lara Jean’s character is still well-developed even in the pared-down time. Her little character traits that made her so relatable and real in the stories – her messiness, her love of baking, her particularness for tradition – is still there and well-integrated. Peter’s character is explored well too, I think, never making him compromise on his sometimes obtuse personality in order to mold him into a likable romantic interest. Both characters’ flaws are explored well, and overcoming those flaws is what makes viewers root for them and their romance.
Unfortunately, a few characters, namely Chris, Josh, and Gen, don’t get as explored as they do in the books. This makes sense, because following the plotlines that give all three of these characters a bit more roundness would have probably taken away from the central focus of the story – Lara Jean’s quest for emotional vulnerability. I suspect there might be adaptations of the two sequels of this book, so I’m optimistic that one if not all o these characters will be explored further in those.
Though I really do wish Gen in particular had gotten even a whiff more of depth. Though in the books she is a real mean piece of work, she is later revealed to have deeper motivations to dislike Lara Jean beyond “she kissed my not-yet boyfriend that one time while playing Spin the Bottle.” Though I thought the “It wasn’t tongueless to me!” line was hilarious as an explanation as to why Gen does the horrible things she does, it does cheapen and possibly take away the possibility of further exploration of her character in the possible sequels.
Still, the primary emotional conflict, after all, is Lara Jean’s struggle to open herself up to anyone except her immediate family, and I can’t fault the movie too much for not being interested in exploring her backstory with Gen. That emotional line is well established and followed through, anyway.
But what really makes this movie, and this story, fun is the woven threads of fun plot tropes it uses to great degree. The fake dating trope is the big main one I want to talk about, because it’s not only a fun trope, it’s also really well integrated into the themes of the movie.
After all, the only reason Lara Jean enters the fake relationship with Peter is because she’s attempting to avoid emotional vulnerability with Josh. And from the get-go she’s making strict rules with Peter to avoid being emotionally vulnerable with him, too. But it’s that attempt to appear emotionally vulnerable with Peter to the outside world that provides Lara Jean’s first brushes with love. So, not only is the trope exciting to watch play out, it isn’t forced in the narrative thanks to the thematic connections it makes.
Overall, this is a fun movie and something I’d definitely watch again. And it really made me hope for adaptations of the entire series (Netflix, please).