It occurred to me while attending a screening of Everything, Everything that the only job more thankless in filmmaking than adapting a beloved novel may be adapting a beloved YA love story. On one hand, you have an audience of excited young fans ready to cry foul as soon as you leave out a single plot detail, line of dialogue, or dreamy description from the book. On the other hand, no matter how good the book is, it’s awfully tough to please a contingent of snobby film critics with the movie-studio-approved versions of the endearing coming of age stories that are page turners among today’s teenagers.
Given the impossibility of pleasing everyone and the very real possibility of pleasing no one, Everything, Everything director Stella Meghie chooses to cast her lot with the readers and aligns the film closely with her source material in both narrative and tone. It’s a wise move, given that the novel Everything, Everything was a very well-reviewed bestseller.
Both the book and the film tell the story of Madeline Whittier (Amandla Stenberg), a girl diagnosed as a baby with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), which basically means she’s allergic to everything and can never leave her very sterilized house, because if she does, she will have a reaction to something and die probably. So she lives in her house, online, and in her imagination, only interacting with her mother (Anika Noni Rose) and her nurse (Ana de la Reguera) until a boy named Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door. Olly is handsome in that careless, fictional way that is attractive to teenage girls, and he’s charming in that guileless, fictional way that is attractive to pretty much everyone. Despite having to communicate entirely through windows, cell phones, and longing looks, Maddy is smitten.
Believably so – Stenberg and Robinson have the kind of on-screen chemistry that means you almost forgive them for being so attractive that it’s hard to believe either of them could be a nervous teenager. And even though they don’t quite pull off awkward the way that YA couples do on the page – where no one has perfect skin and teeth – in their best scenes, there is a sweetness and vulnerability in their interactions. The relationship in the film is at its best when it’s truest to the kind of young love that’s uncertain and quietly all-consuming.
It’s when Meghie and screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe venture from that awkward, relatable connection that the film falters a bit. The pace slows down during a section about two thirds of the way through when they start to lay on a pretty heavy, angsty teenage gloss. Without giving too much away, Maddy and Olly have some extended time together, and it seemed to drag. And there’s an unnecessary imagined scene in a field that is so oddly reminiscent of Twilight that you have to wonder what inspired it, and why on Earth it didn’t get cut.
But when it avoids the temptation of pandering to a teenage audience – as it mostly does – Everything, Everything is well-constructed as a film, and Meghie does a particularly good job of using the medium of film to do things the book couldn’t. On the most basic level, it’s visually beautiful movie. Because of Maddy’s illness, everything has to be bright and clean, but there’s also so much attention to the texture, light, and color that it’s just pretty to look at.
There’s also some interesting use of Maddy’s imagination as a pseudo physical space. Conversations done over text or chat in the book are imagined as in-person in the film. I wondered if that imagined physical proximity would rob audiences of the tension of the first real in-person meeting of the two, but not to worry – it doesn’t.
If you’re in the “books are always better than movies” camp, Everything, Everything is probably not going to convince you otherwise. And even outside of fidelity to the book, I do wish the film had less teen soapiness. But beyond just being a strong adaptation, Meghie has found ways to take advantage of the opportunities she has in making a movie, and I think other directors could learn from that. Besides, in the category of “YA adaptations about pale dudes who are worried about the wellbeing of the vulnerable young women they care about” Everything, Everything is way better than Twilight.