February 24, 2015 by Jason Seligson
Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, a film, based on the novel of the same name, premiered to rave reviews at Sundance this past January. It received the festival’s top honor too: The U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Bloggers and critics are already calling it the next Fault in Our Stars.
Here’s the short pitch: Me & Earl & The Dying Girl follows Greg Gaines, a high school senior who befriends a girl named Rachel, after finding out she has leukemia. Like a lot of high school kids, Greg and his only friend Earl have tried to fly under the radar as they wade through the rough social waters of adolescence. Also, they make really terrible movies together in their spare time.
I first picked up Me & Earl nearly two years ago, but didn’t finish it; and although I mostly blame putting it down on a busy internship, I also recall not being drawn to Earl as a narrator. After revisiting the story recently, I found I had a different opinion. The crux of the novel is about the time Greg and Earl spend with Rachel; what they take away from getting to know her, and how they ultimately come to terms (or fail to) with her illness. As the story’s protagonist, readers spend the most time with Greg; however, that doesn’t mean everyone will find him all that likable or compelling.
The story is sad and somewhat irreverent, but it has heart. Earl and Greg aren’t very complex characters, but the two are also funny and charming together in their own way. The two need each other because they are each severely lacking something the other has. Earl comes from a more difficult home life (and so Greg’s parents act as his pseudo-guardians), but interestingly, it’s Greg who suffers more emotionally than he does. Earl might not come across as such a thoughtful guy at first, but he consistently proves himself to be vastly more grounded and intelligent than Greg is.
A lot of comparisons have been—and will likely to continue to be made with the release of the film—to The Fault in Our Stars. Perhaps part of what made me put Me & Earl down nearly two years ago was out of loyalty to that other story. Preference is all a matter of personal opinion. Some fans might prefer Me & Earl for the way the characters talk, or maybe the lack of existential questioning that ensues. Everyone is entitled to their opinion—but what bothers me is reading reviews for Me & Earl that carelessly puts down The Fault in Our Stars as an inferior piece of literature.
Like many people, The Fault in Our Stars means a lot to me, and I’m protective of it. But no one should have to tear down one thing to build up another. In fact, despite different tones and characters, there are a lot of similarities between the two. Jesse Andrews, like John Green, clearly knows the tropes of traditional cancer stories, and makes no apologies in telling his story as honestly as possible. Greg, like Green’s Hazel Lancaster, assures the reader that he is self-aware; he doesn’t want you to get the impression that this is a sentimental story, one where he has a life-changing realization or is made a better person through his experience knowing someone who is sick. Lastly, in their own ways, both novels have surprising endings.
Me & Earl‘s distinguishes itself from The Fault in Our Stars in its story, but more specifically with its protagonist’s attitude. Depending on your opinion of Hazel, that may either be a big problem or a welcome change. But in Me & Earl, readers are stuck with Greg Gaines, for better or worse. More often than not, I found myself wanting to shake Greg, desperately hoping he would eventually feel something more than he lets on. Unlike Hazel, Greg isn’t sick; he also has a difficult time connecting to others (aside from Earl), and doesn’t have a very high opinion of himself. Greg has so many qualities that make him lack an innate ability to really understand illness. It takes a lot of things for Greg to both admit that he has feelings about Rachel’s situation, and to identify precisely what those feelings are.
After an especially motivating pep talk from Earl, Greg starts to take steps toward withdrawing from himself and becoming a somewhat better person. I think that’s what makes the novel ultimately work. It’s funny, and it definitely doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, but there’s still genuine emotion under the surface. The power of Me & Earl is that Greg is essentially lying to the reader the entire time. He says none of what happened during his senior year involving Rachel made any difference to his life; but that’s not true. The truth is, Greg just doesn’t know what to make of what happened, which is very human. Greg’s been wildly self-involved, but he’s also been wildly empathetic, whether he knows it or not. So, what’s clever about the novel is ultimately frustrating and vice-versa.
The film version of Me Earl and the Dying Girl will be directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, with a screenplay written by author Jesse Andrews, and will probably be released later this year. I approached reading Me Earl & the Dying Girl with skepticism. But I couldn’t be happier with the result, and I’m thrilled to see it. I can speak with some authority, (now knowing the source material) that the movie won’t be a carbon-copy of The Fault in Our Stars; but it can still be something great. It’s a funny, honest story that succeeds on its own merits, and it adds something unique to the canon of stories about illness.