A problem many filmmakers face when adapting a book is fan backlash. Not everything in a novel can make it onto the big screen, whether because of time constraints or production limitations or story changes. Time and time again, fans have voiced their complaints about films they say mangle their beloved books, leaving out important elements or adding in unnecessary filler. So what happens when a book and a film are written by the same people and are nearly identical? Does that make a difference? Yes. Does it make the film stronger? Well . . . that depends.
Five Feet Apart centers on Stella and Will, two teens with cystic fibrosis who fall in love during their stay at the same hospital. Their relationship, however, is complicated by the fact they must stay at least six feet apart at all times—while this is a general rule of thumb for anyone with cystic fibrosis due to the danger of cross-infection, it’s especially important for Stella because she has a good chance of receiving a lung transplant soon, and Will’s B. cepacia infection could jeopardize her spot on the transplant list if she catches it. Stella, ever the problem-solver, decides to tempt fate by “stealing back” one foot, so she and Will can feel a little bit closer by being the title’s five feet apart. The novel, penned by Rachael Lippincott, was published in November 2018. The film adaptation premiered less than four months later, on March 15, 2019, with screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis contributing to both the screenplay and the novel.
Seeing as the same people worked on both the book and the film, I was expecting them to be nearly identical, and I was proven correct. While the book goes into a bit more detail concerning arbitrary things, like Stella’s friend Poe’s love of soccer, there weren’t any substantial changes in the film—at first. As soon as the credits rolled, I realized something that, while it seemed small, made all the difference in how I viewed this story: the parents were practically nonexistent.
Stella makes it clear in both the book and the film that her parents’ marriage is failing miserably due to recent tragic events, and we even see a few interactions with both of them in the book to solidify just how much they’re still hurting. In the film, we get one short scene with Stella and her mother, and that’s it. Her parents factor in near the end, but their character development—the little they have, anyway—is rendered almost invisible because we haven’t spent any time establishing their struggles on-screen. They aren’t the primary focus in the book by any means, but their animosity toward each other is a huge stress trigger for Stella and a big reason why she’s not as cynical about her condition in the first place.
Will’s relationship with his mother is also very sparse in the film. She, too, shows up near the end after being absent except for the first few minutes, whereas in the book her presence is a little more prominent. Will’s resentment of the way she handles his cystic fibrosis is a huge reason why he’s so bitter and morbid: she has money to send him all over the world for drug trials and the best treatments possible, but he feels that she doesn’t really care about him as a person, as her son. There’s an important moment in the book when Will accuses his mother of not knowing anything about him and not caring, but upon opening a birthday present from her, he realizes that she does pay attention to his interests, and his perception of her may not be right after all. The film gets rid of this scene entirely, and I was disappointed that they did, especially since in the book it left a bit of hope that Will and his mother could rebuild their damaged relationship in the future.
I believe it’s time now to wander into true spoiler territory. One thing I was desperately hoping the film would change was Poe’s untimely death, but I was disappointed. In the book, it happens when he’s finally decided to get back together with his ex-boyfriend Michael, and they’re making plans to visit Poe’s family members in Mexico, whom he hasn’t seen in a long time. While the film only mentions Poe’s family offhandedly one time, and we never actually see Michael on-screen, the sting of losing Poe still hits audiences in the face because he simply doesn’t deserve it. What makes his death even more infuriating is that it plays into the Bury Your Gays trope, which I would have hoped new media would be smart enough to avoid in 2018 and 2019. Too often we see LGBTQ+ characters killed off, usually as a way to give straight characters motivation or someone to grieve. It’s no different in Five Feet Apart: Poe’s death prompts Stella to decide she’s done with her treatments and wants to live her life as normally as possible, leading to her and Will almost dying after an ice-skating accident. Poe has his own little character arc going on, but it’s all thrown out the window the minute the nurses notice something isn’t right with him. He joins a long list of LGBTQ+ characters who exist solely to further the development of their straight peers through death, which isn’t fair to actual teens (especially queer teens) reading and watching.
One thing I will praise the film for is leaving out the hallucination Stella has when she’s drowning during the climax of the novel. Stella desperately wishes she could know whether her older sister, Abby—who died in a cliff-diving accident before the story proper—felt pain when she died, even though she knows it’s impossible to find out. Her grief is still fresh and painful, but the book ruins it when Stella sees her dead sister as she herself is near dying; Abby assures her that her death didn’t hurt and urges her to keep fighting and living. Honestly, I almost put the book down when I read this part. Why be subtle when we can have clear-cut answers about death? The movie mercifully leaves it out, allowing Stella and the viewer to never know whether Abby felt pain or was scared. That’s much more realistic and relatable and doesn’t add an unneeded layer of cheese to an already teary third act.
The important events in Five Feet Apart are preserved in the film, so fans will be satisfied that many things are the same and the changes made are minimal. The fact the screenwriters worked on the book must have helped maintain that element of fidelity, even if they did away with important familial relationships and kept in a very harmful plot device. However, in the future, I believe filmmakers should consider whether or not being faithful is coming at the expense of telling a good story.