It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a month since the release of the first season of Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty.
The streamer’s adaptation of Jenny Han’s 2009 bestseller was an immediate hit when it dropped last month, and it’s not hard to understand why. Written and produced by Han, the script and storytelling are absolutely brilliant, the cinematography is gorgeous, the acting is wonderful, and the soundtrack is to die for. It is nearly everything fans could have hoped for in an adaptation, but there are definitely a few places where the show takes some liberties with the source material.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how the first season of the show stacks up against the first book in the Summer I Turned Pretty series.
Warning: From this point on there will be spoilers for both the show and the book.
While every screen adaptation makes some changes to the book’s plot, there are definitely some changes that are more notable than others. In the case of The Summer I Turned Pretty there are three of these big notable changes that I want to talk about, plus two smaller changes that might end up becoming one of those big changes in future seasons.
The entire debutante storyline was added completely for the purposes of the series, and in some way it makes sense. The book is wonderful, but it really only has about six characters that carry the story: Belly, Conrad, Jeremiah, Cam, Laurel, and Susannah. Plus, a lot of what is happening throughout the book is primarily happening inside Belly’s head. For the purposes of a show, especially one that wanted to move away from being solely first-person narrated, it made sense to introduce a big plot point that created opportunities for new characters and moved the story along.
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Even though it didn’t exist in the book, the debutante scene works wonderfully to carry some of the key points from the book. For example, Belly doesn’t have many friends outside of Taylor. It also serves to clearly show the money differences between the Conklins and the Fishers. Plus, it reminds viewers that these are teens and are still growing up and it gives a better outside view of Belly’s actions and state of mind over the summer. It even offers opportunities for fans to see the love triangle between Belly and the Fisher boys in action – like the debutante ball itself and the charity volleyball tournament – in ways that don’t exist in the book.
However, on the flip side, the debutante storyline is kind of a dated choice. The show itself acknowledges that the whole debutante scene is steeped in patriarchal traditions, although Susannah does point out that this version puts a big emphasis on charitable giving and there was even a female escort. That being said, at times it still felt like a bit of an odd choice for a show so aimed at a young, modern audience.
Much to my surprise when I reread the book after watching the show, Steven is only in the first half of the book. He leaves to head off on a college tour with his dad about three weeks into summer and is completely out of book well before the 4th of July, even missing Belly’s birthday. So while Steven is a fabulous character in the show, and I love what they were able to do with him and his storyline, absolutely none of it exists in the book.
Who Knows About Susannah?
In the book, both Jeremiah and Conrad know that their parents are in the middle of a divorce, and by the time Belly finds out at the end of the book they also both know that Susannah’s cancer is back. In fact, in the book Jeremiah actually tells Belly to go easy on Conrad because he’s dealing with all of this. The show limited the knowledge to Conrad for most of the season, and it did a wonderful job showing him working through his feelings on everything with Cleveland. Jeremiah and Belly learn about Susannah’s cancer the same night in the show, leading to some highly emotional scenes that shift the tone of the news from what it was in the book.
Meanwhile, in the show, Laurel didn’t know about the divorce – or the reason for it – until after the 4th of July when she accidentally forces Susannah’s hand on the issue. Whereas in the book she seems to have known the whole time – although since the whole thing is from belly’s perspective and she doesn’t know it is hard to tell what all Laurel knows or doesn’t and when.
One of the smaller plot points that shifted between the book and the movie revolves around the necklace Conrad didn’t give Belly for her birthday. In the book, Belly doesn’t know anything about the necklace. However, she does find it in the second book in the series, and instead of confronting Conrad about it, she simply starts wearing it. In the show, she finds it and confronts Conrad about it on the 4th of July, and I will admit that for plot purposes it did make some sense to splice it into this season of the show. However, it does open up some potential problems for season two.
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The last plot difference I want to mention is the way the season ended. Despite the tears we all shed during that finale, the ending is actually happier than the book ending in that Susannah actually agrees to try out the treatment. In the book, she is determined not to go through that again, and there is no version of the scene where the boys try to talk her into the treatment.
Along with plot changes, characters often see a lot of change between the page and the screen. They may gain new characteristics, their role might be expanded, or they might even be created specifically for the show. The Summer I Turned Pretty does all of these, and while some are more obvious than others, like the brand new characters, they all play into making the show stand out from the book.
Let’s start with the obvious changes, the characters created specifically for the show; the debutante girls and Cleveland Castillo. Given that the entire debutante storyline is specific to the show, it makes sense that the deb girls are also new to the show. Not only does this change offer Belly more female friendship than she had in the book, but also created the boys’ dates for the summer. In the book, Conrad is sort of vaguely interested in a girl in the book, but he in no way dates anyone over the summer; neither does Steven – given that he isn’t in much of the book. So all of the drama around Belly’s jealously, her being called a fuck-girl, the skinny-dipping/girl’s clothes being stolen, and all of Steven’s girl drama never happened in the book.
Cleveland is also completely new. The book has zero adult characters outside of the Fisher and Conklin families, and Laurel certainly never has any sort of love interest in the book. However, his addition creates some really fantastic depth to the story. Not only do we get a deeper glimpse into Laurel through knowledge of her career – tied to her semi-feud with Cleveland – but, her reactions as an adult just getting back into dating are highly relatable! Her panic over texting Cleveland and her reaction when she does finally text him have had especially great reactions from fans. Not only does Cleveland add so much to Laurel’s story, but his relationship with Conrad gives viewers a much deeper look at everything Conrad is dealing with than the shallow view Belly gives readers in the book.
Jeremiah’s sexuality is one of the new characteristics added to the show, as he is never described as anything other than straight in the book. However, in the show, he is very clearly identified as bi or pan. This was a great way to add a bit more representation to the show, and since in the book Jeremiah is kind and quite flirty anyway, it was an easy shift for fans to follow.
The show really fleshes out Taylor’s character and actually, in my opinion, makes her more likable than in the book. In the book, Taylor is only mentioned in the past tense, and she never visits the summer that the book is actually about. Her crazy flirting with the Fisher boys and her nicknaming of Jeremiah as Jeremy is explained in a flashback in the book, but only vaguely referenced in the show; whereas her make-out with Steven happens in both the book and the show. However, in the book, it takes place in the same flashback as her flirting with the boys, but in the show, she actually visits twice during the summer and her moment with Steven happens during her first visit. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fight and drama that ensues following the Steven debacle, the Belly/Taylor friendship is a much bigger feature in the show, and I personally think it actually ends up being healthier that way.
In the books, both Mr. Conklin and Mr. Fisher only exist in flashbacks. We learn that Belly and Steven spend weekends at their dad’s sad apartment and that he is taking Steven on a college tour trip, but he never actually makes an appearance in the book. Mr. Fisher on the other hand is barely mentioned in the book. However, we actually meet both dads in the show! In fact, Mr. Fisher’s appearance acts as the catalyst for Laurel, and to some degree the kids, learning about the impending divorce.
Laurel and Susannah
The show gives a much deeper look into Laurel and Susannah’s relationship since we finally get to see it without Belly’s lens filtering it. The scenes with these two are brilliant, and a great example of the kind of friendships every girl, perhaps everyone in general, wishes they had! Even when Laurel is overbearing or Susannah is pushy they know each other’s boundaries, so even when they fight they work it out and are still friends despite the crazy circumstances. Plus, the scene where they get high and raid the kitchen is, in my opinion, much funnier in the show than in the book, and seeing the two go out to the bar is perfect. Plus the way Susannah encourages Laurel to go after Cleveland is peak BFF behavior!
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Updating The Story
As I mentioned in the intro, The Summer I Turned Pretty was first released in 2009, and while the story was largely timeless there were a few areas that Han decided could use some updating for the show.
Moving Outside Belly’s Head
In the book, everything is from Belly’s perspective so we never see anything that happens outside of her viewpoint. Meaning that all those wonderful scenes from the show between Susannah and Laurel are completely new for the show. The most we got from them in the book was stolen snippets of conversation. Also in addition to Cleveland being a new character, all of those moments with him are a departure from the book. Not to mention the moments we get in the show just with the boys like Steven’s experience at the poker game and Jeremiah’s jealousy when he sets off the firework at Belly and Conrad. Through all this, the change in perspective made by moving the story out of Belly’s head completely shifted the style of the story in the best way possible.
While it is never explicitly stated, the book heavily implies that Belly is white, making numerous comments about her tan among other smaller hints. In fact, to my memory, the only character who is truly identified as anything other than white is Cam, who is French on one side and Japanese on the other. The show moved toward a more accurate and diverse representation with the Conklin family portrayed as Asian-American, Cleveland as a Filipino man, plus the deb girls offer characters that are queer, Black, curvy, thin, and everything in between.
The timeline of the show and that of the book are drastically different. From when the boys learn information, to the dads visiting, to flashback events being shoved into current timelines, to who meets who where, it’s a completely different summer than the one in the book. That being said, the creation of a more linear and simplified timeline actually makes a lot of sense in terms of moving the story from page to screen. The kinds of details the book was able to provide in flashbacks don’t transfer nearly as well to the screen, mainly because they often happened primarily in Belly’s head. The shifting of the timeline makes the show simpler for people who have not read the books to follow without feeling like they are missing something the way it might if they had not adjusted things.
All in all, there were a substantial number of changes made in the transition between the book and the show. However, at least in my opinion, these changes made The Summer I Turned Pretty into a show that, while not a completely accurate adaptation, is both wonderfully true to the source material and imminently rewatchable. Even if one, or more, of these changes frustrated you as a fan of the book, it is hard to argue that Han, once again, did anything other than a wonderful job adapting her book for the screen.