5 Lessons From John Green’s Movie Adaptation, Paper Towns

Aug 21, 2015 5 Min Read

Photo credit (above): WallpapersCraft


The film version of John Green’s popular young adult novel, Paper Towns, has many a teenager and adult alike fluttering in excitement over the story of love, friendship and adventure.

The film brings us from Orlando, Florida, to the paper town of Algoe, New York: a fictionalised town printed on maps as a copyright device, in order to fish out counterfeit copies.

Margo Roth Spiegelman has been the love of Quentin Jacobsen’s otherwise mundane life ever since she moved in to the house next to his. With Margo, life for Quentin (known as “Q” to his friends) becomes all about adventures… until they begin to drift apart in high school.

Unexpectedly, Margo enlists Q as her “sidekick” for a night of heart-racing mischief. The next day, she goes missing, and Q takes it upon himself to find her using the clues she has left behind. Here’s what we can learn through Q’s coming-of-age journey.

1. The clues are in the details

When Margo abruptly disappears the morning after a prank-filled night, Q, believing that Margo has purposely left clues behind for him to discover, makes it his mission to absolve the mystery behind her disappearance.

The clues aren’t big, like footprints or tyre tracks. The first clue lies in a poster hanging on Margo’s wall, visible from Q’s bedroom window. They are as small as simple lines in poetry books, as easily missed as a tiny scrap of paper hidden in a door jamb, and as un-obvious as pinpointed marks on a wrinkled map.

What’s the lesson here?

It’s important to focus on the big picture, but neglecting the small differences could be detrimental to you, whether personally or on a larger scale.

As Sir Richard Branson says:

“Instilling attention to detail throughout your company will prove especially important when the business begins to gain ground. Employees across the business should be focusing on getting it right all day, every day.”

2. Perseverance: Failing 19 times, succeeding the 20th

Q hits a few dead ends in his quest to search for Margo. One of the main problems he faces is looking at the wrong things in the wrong places.

Regardless, he never stops looking. If he doesn’t find an answer the first time, he returns again to search again.

Even Ben, one of Q’s best friends, perseveres in his somewhat dubious quest to find a girlfriend, eventually attending prom with Lacey Pemberton, the girl of his dreams.

Willie Horton, a self-help and personal development author-cum-trainer says:

“To succeed you have to be single-minded and ruthless. You have to be ruthless with yourself, with working on and maintaining your focus and state of mind. You have to be ruthless in terms of sticking to your objective.”

Unfortunately, there’s a problem in a society where everyone expects instant results, and gives up when it doesn’t happen.

From the words of Vince Lombardi, an American football player (and later on coach): “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”

3. We’re on each other’s team

Whilst Q makes it his sole responsibility to search for Margo, he finds himself surrounded by the support of friends both new and old. His loyal friends Ben and Radar are by his side during most of his discoveries, and they are later joined by Lacey and Angela.

Rushing to reach Margo in upstate New York and make it back to Orlando in time for prom, Q and his friends work as a team to make it there and back in time – even with setbacks in the form of cows in the middle of the road, and necessary toilet and gas station breaks.

Even when there are disputes, at the end of the day, the most important thing is each other’s happiness.

Being a great leader would all go to waste if you don’t have the rest of your team to back you up, and if there is no system of support.

4. Living your life, the best way

At the beginning of the film, no one knows who they are or what they want. Q believes his dream is simply to go to college, and then to get married and settle down.

When Margo enlists him as her “getaway driver” the night before she leaves town, Q says he can feel his heart beating in his chest – he has never felt this sort of excitement before.

“That is the way you should feel your whole life,” Margo tells Q.

Life is largely about figuring out your dreams and ambitions, but also to have fun doing it.

You can study hard, be a top student, get the grades you want and into your university of choice, but it won’t truly make you happy and successful unless you have a passion for what you’re doing.

Famed novelist E.M. Forster said it best when he said “One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested.”

It’s true – the most successful people and companies believe in loving what you do, and always feeling excited about what is to come.

5. Leaving the paper town

On a wall in a derelict strip mall, Margo spray paints the words “You will go to the Paper Towns. And you will never come back.”

The paper town of Algoe, New York, is a form of escapism for Margo; she runs away to escape expectations and responsibilities.

When (spoiler alert!) Q finds Margo, we contemplate if he will stay with her.

(Another spoiler alert ahead:) However, he chooses to leave Margo behind, to join his friends at prom and then to leave for Duke University to continue his studies.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when it comes to figuring things out for yourselves. Margo’s fascination with paper towns lies in the way that it is a flimsy, man-made creation, where actions are meaningless.

In a selfish bid to find herself, Margo too disappears into her paper town, leaving Q and everyone else behind.

She finds it hard to leave and return back home, where she’ll be expected to grow up just like everyone else.

Unlike Margo, Q is able to resist the temptation of running away and avoiding his responsibilities.

He returns back to Orlando to celebrate prom with his friends, successfully closing the adolescent chapter of their lives, before they part ways to start the new chapter of adulthood.

In conclusion

Paper Towns follows, along with a physical (road trip) journey, an “emotional and spiritual” journey, as Green himself describes it.

In all our lives, we’re expected to go somewhere. Not always the same path, but always forward.

As long as we’re committed, we surround ourselves with the right support, and have in our hearts drive, passion, love and excitement, we’re sure to be making the right choices.

Arielle, an avid John Green fan, was excited to be given the opportunity to learn from Paper Towns. She hopes you learn as much from it as she did. For more Movie Wisdom articles, click here.

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Lay Hsuan was part of the content curation team for Leaderonomics.com, playing the role of a content gatekeeper as well as ensuring the integrity of stories that came in. She was an occasional writer for the team and was previously the caretaker for Leaderonomics social media channels. She is still happiest when you leave comments on the website, or subscribe to Leader's Digest, or share Leaderonomics content on social media.

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