The YA author talks 'Little Women,' representation, book-to-screen challenges, and more
Even after it seemed like a done deal, Jenny Han wasn’t ready to believe that her YA romance To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before would be turned into a movie.
But here we are, with a delightfully breezy adaptation now streaming on Netflix, directed by Susan Johnson and starring Lana Condor (X-Men: Apocalypse). Reviews and buzz are strong, and more importantly, it’s got a stamp of approval from Han herself.
Han didn’t adapt the novel — that honor goes to scribe Sofia Alvarez — but she did have a say in the production process, describing herself to EW as “the spokesperson for the readers.” To All the Boys centers on homebody teenager Lara Jean, who suddenly finds her love life thrown into chaos after sending letters out to a series of past crushes. Published in 2014 (with several sequels subsequently published), the book resonated for its sweet, low-key romantic charm.
Han, who’s been published in YA for more than a decade, chatted with EW in a wide-ranging conversation about the process of adapting her novel, the scene in the movie that made her cry, and the feeling of landing in a moment when Asian-Americans are finally getting a Hollywood spotlight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been getting published for a while now. What’s the feeling, to finally see your work hit the screen?
JENNY HAN: It’s pretty surreal. It’s fairly common for an author to get a book of theirs optioned, but it’s pretty rare to actually see it come to fruition. For me, that’s been the crazy part of it, that when it actually seemed like it was going to happen, part of me was still disbelieving. I’ve seen projects come so close only to not happen so many times with my stuff, but also friends of mine. So it was pretty thrilling when it actually did happen.
What was your first reaction to seeing the movie?
I was really nervous. [Laughs] And then I was so happy. I thought that the movie did a good job of capturing the spirit of the book. To me, the main hope is that the movie can do that, because obviously it’s never going to be a direct replica of the book; they’re two different mediums.
This movie is landing at the same time as Crazy Rich Asians, and so it’s a nice — and rare — time to see Asian-American stories centered in Hollywood a little bit here. How do you see this moment, and being a part of it?
I think it’s really exciting. Growing up, I never got to see an Asian-American girl star in a teen movie, so I’m really happy to be a part of the film with Lana, and to see her be the hero of a story. Hopefully we’re at a tipping point. Hopefully if these movies do well, we’ll get more, and that just means more stories for more people and from more points of view — more kinds of representation.
YA seems to be ahead of the curve in that regard.
It’s a conversation that kids books has been having for a while, and I think the reason for that is we are writing for kids. In my experience — I’ve been in this business now for like 15 years — people who work in this industry all care about kids and want to see them have everything. We want to see them thrive; we don’t want to see them feeling left out. So many of us do school visits around the country, and we still how diverse America really is. It spurs us to create art that makes more and more kids feel seen.
What is it about this space that you love writing in?
I started writing my first book for young people when I was in college. I was only a couple of years out of my teens when I began; I felt closer to that experience than I did as an adult. But I’ve always been drawn to stories about young people. That experience is so singular, and it’s one that you will remember for the rest of your life. You experience so many things for the first time — as a writer, firsts are more compelling than any other moment, for the most part. You don’t really know when the last time you’re going to do something is; the middle can often be a bit blurry. Firsts are very potent.
The other piece of it is that usually when you ask an adult what book is most meaningful to them, they’ll say a book they read when they were a kid. The books you read as a young person are books that stay with you forever. I think that is the biggest privilege of writing for young people. You feel like you can help shape somebody. When I get an email from someone who says, “Your book was the first book I ever read” or “Your book is what made me love reading,” it’s just such an honor.
I feel like with this book particularly, it’s resonated on such a wide level. Has it seemed that way to you over the years?
Yeah. I’ve felt so humbled by it. I set out to write a story that felt very classic in the way that, when I was growing up, reading books like Little Women or other classics like Anne of Green Gables, I think people really connected to those heroines. I was hoping to write something that would resonate with people and feel very warm-hearted — light and funny and optimistic, and that would make people feel really cozy. I mean, there’s less representation of teens who just want to stay home and be low-key on the couch baking cookies and watching Netflix.
Right there with you.
[Laughs] That was my challenge! How do you write someone who doesn’t want to leave the house? I loved Little Women when I was a kid, and I think most writers relate the most to Jo because Jo’s a writer. But she’s also somebody who loves adventure, and she’s trying to be in the world and forge her own path. That’s an exciting character. I don’t know anybody who was like, “I really relate to Beth! I see me in Beth.” Beth was the boring one. I thought, “Let me take on that challenge a little bit.” How do you dive into that person’s inner-life? I think this character has a rich inner life that I was excited to explore.
Did anything about the adaptation process surprise you?
I was on set a couple of times, and I had a few conversations with the director, and also Lana. I felt like I was involved a bit in the moviemaking process: I could give a note on something or give my ideas of how her room should look or how she should dress. I was pretty fortunate in that way: I’m sure you know this, but when an author sells the rights to something, they don’t really have any more control. You’re giving it over to someone else’s vision. That’s how it goes. I was able to get feedback. It wasn’t always taken, but at least I was able to. From my perspective, my biggest role in it was to feel like I was the spokesperson for the readers, telling them, “I feel like this scene is really important” or “Here’s what my readers really love about the books; can we explore that here a little more?” Things like that. I was invested it in being the best movie it could be for people who people who loved the book.
To that point, was there a scene that was particularly meaningful to watch play out on screen?
Well, there’s a scene with Lara Jean and her dad that takes place in a diner, and that wasn’t in the book!
Right, it’s a great scene.
It actually made me tear up when I saw it. I loved seeing John Corbett as the dad, and the little choices he makes as an actor that really resonate and make the scene grow really rich and impactful. That to me was special. One scene I was excited about seeing, and also nervous about, was the hot tub scene. I was texting Lana, “Just remember: You’re nervous, this is a new experience for you.” [Laughs] It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, having a bit of a make-out in a hot tub. I really wanted it to still feel as innocent as the character is. And romantic and sweet! But I thought they did a really nice job.