Turning a book into a movie is often quite difficult, particularly with the tired old rhetoric that the book is always better than the movie. While this is often the case, it is tough odds to work against for filmmakers. Adapting Jesse Andrews’ novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl into a motion picture also certainly had its own unique challenges. For starters, the book is fantastic, setting the bar rather high for the movie. Secondly, and more problematic, was the brevity of the book. MEDG is a book that can be easily read in one day. Not only that, but most of the text is dedicated to the oftentimes strange personal thoughts of the narrator and protagonist Greg Gaines. Plot-wise, I thought making a full-length film would be a stretch. Additionally, I was not exactly sure how they would go about stepping into the mind of Greg.
But, after winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance and receiving generally high praise from critics, I figured that director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had a found a way to work through these supposed problems and I decided to give it a watch, with an open mind that it just might be better than the book (oh, the humanity).
What I found is that the book and movie are both great, and hard to say which one is truly better because they differ in important ways. The movie is not a completely faithful adaptation of the book, but that allows the movie to shine in its own ways. The core of the story is still the same. High-school loner Greg Gaines (portrayed in all his awkwardness by Thomas Mann) whose only goal is to become “friendly” with everyone, but not friends with anyone is forced by his mother to hang out with his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) as she battles with leukemia. Also, Greg makes films with his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler). In the end, he is roped into making a film for Rachel, a task he does not think he can adequately perform.
In both the book and the movie, it is evident that the story is in no way trying to imitate The Fault in Our Stars. Repeatedly, Greg stresses it is not a love story — and it isn’t. Also, for better or for worse, Greg rejects the notion that he is hanging out with Rachel because he is a good person or even that he is a good person. While the book and movie are on the same page (or roll of film, right?) in this sense, they treat the subject matter slightly differently. The book seems to focus more on humor than on emotion while the movie takes the opposite approach.
The funniest part of the book, in my opinion, is when Greg explains his various and awkward failed attempts at picking up girls over the years. The best example of this is when he explains that he thought poking fun at the prettiest girl (Madison Hartner) would increase his chances of her liking him. This plan backfired when he took it a bit too far — to the point of severe bullying, making her cry as he repeatedly called her names such as “Madison Fartner”. In the book, this part is laugh out loud funny, but poignant too as it transitions into the announcement of Rachel’s cancer.
However, this part is not included in the movie. Maybe because the director knew he could not portray the humor in the same way as in the book. Or maybe because the movie is meant to be more on the emotional side. Either way, the movie did succeed in being more emotionally accessible than the book. The book often shuns the notion that it should be viewed as a sad story while the movie embraces this idea far more.
The book does not hide the fact that Rachel does die in the end, as if to shield the reader from the potential emotional shock. On the other hand, the movie repeatedly reassures the audience that Rachel does get better and it is a happy ending. For someone who does not know this is a lie, it makes the conclusion that much more shocking and sad.
The last time Greg sees Rachel is also far more emotional in the movie than in the book. For starters, the viewer is not even sure there will be a last time they see each other. Moreover, their final meeting takes place as Greg is showing the movie he made for her. Her slipping into a coma mid-movie, understandably, sends both Greg and the audience into an emotional frenzy. The lighting and camera-work is also particularly important to capture the chaos and panic of Rachel and Greg’s last moments together.
In the book, her coma/death is treated much more matter of factly. Greg simply relays the information of her coma and subsequent death rather than living it in real time.
After that fact, the movie continues to allow the relationship between Greg and Rachel evolve through Rachel’s letter to the University of Pittsburgh explaining what Greg meant to her (an important part coming from Rachel as the overly humble Greg would never realize or comment on the positive impact he really did have). And Greg comments on how he can still learn about Rachel even after her death.
Those two pieces help the conclusion of the movie greatly and really drive home the importance of Greg and Rachel spending time together during her last months on earth.
Now, was the overall profound sadness of the movie enough to outlast the humor of the book and make me say the unthinkable, that the movie was better? It’s hard to say. But I will say this, I do love both the movie and book and for different reasons. If I want to laugh and find humor in an otherwise bleak story, I will read the book. But if I want to have my heart strings tugged on by a story of friendship and death, then I will watch the movie.
Both the book and movie are necessary to do the story justice, because it is a sad story and it is a funny story. And when you take both works together, you realize that even in the saddest situations, you can find humor and, like for Rachel, it can be all together necessary for getting through whatever bad thing life throws at you.