When I found out back in 2017 that Netflix was creating a film adaptation of Jenny Han’s novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I felt the same way most devoted readers do when their favorite book is about to become so much more—elated but burning with questions. What if they don’t include all of the best moments? What if they change too much? Which actors could encapsulate all that I love about my favorite characters? As the To All The Boys series draws to a close with the recent release of its third and final entry Always and Forever, Lara Jean, I reflected on how faithful the film adaptations had remained to the original books and what had been lost (and gained!) in Netflix’s execution of such a beloved story.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Looking back, I was one of the lucky ones, an early fan of the series that subsequently devoured the books in one sitting as each one was released. For the past six years, I’ve read and re-read the trilogy, shared it with my mom, and gossiped about the happenings with my friends as though everything we were reading was real—what would we have done if we too wrote love letters to five boys and found out they were mailed to their recipients?
I recommended it to other readers who, like me, saw themselves in Lara Jean Song Covey. Up until then, I’d never read of a heroine who also loved scrapbooking, baking, watching eighties and nineties rom coms, and staying at home playing board games instead of going out. Though I’ll never come close to sharing her fashion sense, Lara Jean was my mirrored self, and after all, what other reason is there to read fiction?
I certainly feel no envy for screenwriters who translate the written word to screen. When you’re condensing timeframes and plot lines, it’s easy to mess up (Divergent and Maze Runner, I’m looking at you) and impossible to please everyone when attachment and nostalgia are involved.
While the To All the Boys film trilogy is no carbon copy of its source material, that hasn’t stopped the series from becoming a cultural phenomenon.
All three films capture what makes Lara Jean so endearing as a protagonist. Played by Lana Condor, Lara Jean is just as charming, whimsical, and romantic as she is in the books, amplifying her love of daydreaming. We see her fantasize about kissing boys in Anne of Green Gables-esque prairie fields, play out the rest of her life with her boyfriend Peter (including a hilarious shot of Noah Centineo in a polo and a pair of khakis only a dad would wear), and hold fake conversations with her love interests to sort out her feelings.
She becomes more beautiful against the set design and cinematography. Her bedroom, with flower wallpaper, string lights, hair accessories, hat boxes, clothes, and books all over the floor, is the kind of room teenage girls dream about.
The films also handled Kitty, Lara Jean’s little sister, with all the grace and humor she deserved. As much as I loved her in the books, she always came across as immature, babyish, and a bit of a pest. Anna Cathcart’s interpretation of Kitty, however, is an outspoken feminist (largely in part to the “Feminist” necklace she always dons) with a logical head on her shoulders. I also appreciated that her motivation to mail Lara Jean’s letters came from a place not of spite or idleness but out of genuine want to help her sister experiment, explore, and grow.
But while Lara Jean and Kitty’s personalities are intensified and made more complex, other characters, especially those in supporting roles, are denied the same treatment.
One of my biggest qualms with the first film, for example, will always be its depiction of Genevieve, Peter’s ex-girlfriend and Lara Jean’s enemy. Whether it was the fault of the screenwriter or her actor Emilija Baranac, Gen didn’t come across as complex as the novels paint her to be. Whether she’s insulting Lara Jean’s shoes or confronting her about Peter in the most unnaturally written ways, she becomes a caricature, the “mean girl” that has long become a tired misogynist ideal. She improves in Always and Forever, Lara Jean, becoming somewhat friends with Lara Jean when they’re both accepted to NYU, but she’s robbed of the emotional depth and intrigue we saw in the books.
Margot, the oldest Song sister, was more bearable in the films, toned down from an uptight neat freak with zero filter and open distrust of change to a responsible and reliable shoulder for Lara Jean. But after the first film, she doesn’t serve much purpose other than occasionally FaceTiming Lara Jean to unload wisdom in her times of need. Unlike in the books, we never see her date another person after her ex-boyfriend Josh, accept their new step-mom Trina, or grow as a character at all.
Even Peter, the main romantic lead, failed to charm me consistently throughout all three films.
Noah Centineo, as unbearable as he is as an actor in other films, is a near-perfect Peter Kavinsky. He shares great chemistry with Condor and Cathcart. He’s the reason for the revival of the himbo jock (with Zac Efron’s Troy Bolton as the previous holder of that title) and why so many people everywhere are raising their standards for men—who else would drive across town for road trip snacks or try Korean face masks or learn how to braid his girlfriend’s hair before they go off to college and her little sister can’t do it for her?
But his reunion with Lara Jean at the end of the second film wasn’t earned. I know the conflict of P.S. I Still Love You is that he’s not the boyfriend Lara Jean thought he was going to be, but after they break up, he doesn’t redeem himself at all the way he does in the book. Asking Lara Jean for a do-over is nothing compared to gifting her a snow globe, openly challenging the secondary love interest John Ambrose, and promising to move mountains to win her back. Film Peter doesn’t try, and it’s only part of what makes that film so disheartening and unbearable to watch (I can’t begin to describe how much I detest the overly blue color grading, that montage of Lara Jean lip-syncing to Ashe’s “Moral of the Story,” and the way she and Peter float into the sky at the end).
All three films cut a lot of great material—Lara Jean’s Sixteen Candles birthday party organized by Peter, heartwarming moments between the Song sisters, Lara Jean and Peter’s love letters to each other—which shortens the runtime but at the cost of simplifying characters who are otherwise complex, interesting individuals in Lara Jean’s story, as well as their own.
But I also love the moments that weren’t present in the books, such as all the diner scenes with Lara Jean and her dad where they mourn her mom in the most vulnerable and honest ways. In Always and Forever, we see a surprisingly heartwarming scene between Peter and his estranged father making the first steps toward possible reconciliation. Seeing him as someone more than Lara Jean’s boyfriend for the first time made me sympathize and adore him more.
Despite the imperfections, the To All the Boys trilogy was a cultural reset. Not only did it give much-needed representation to the Asian community, but it also made viewers everywhere realize that teen rom coms could pay homage to the classics while being original, funny, and well worth the watch. It’s a strange feeling knowing that this is the final chapter of Lara Jean and Peter’s love story and that marathoning all three films often will be my only form of solace. Still, it’s like they say: there’s nothing like reading the books.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever is now available to stream on Netflix.