Page To Screen is a column examining literary adaptations in conversation with their source material. Call up your book club and set out some canapés, we’re talking reading.
I have yet to watch Love, Victor, the sequel series to the 2018 gay teen romance film, Love, Simon. But when I do I hope the series treats Victor better than this film did Simon.
The film is not an actively pernicious work. Like the Young Adult novel it is adapted from — Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, written by Becky Albertalli — Love, Simon is earnest in a way that very few post-Mean Girls high school films are. In an interview for PFLAG, director Greg Berlanti surmises the way he approached the film: “everyone deserves love.”
That ethos is evident in the way Love, Simon approaches its characters. While the majority of its energies are focused on Simon and depicting his struggles with being openly gay in a society with ingrained homophobia, it finds small moments of empathy for its supporting cast too. The film tackles topics like Abby Suso’s strained home life, Nick Eisner’s self-esteem issues, or Leah Burke’s feelings of being isolated from her friends non-judgementally. Everyone deserves to have their story heard. “Everyone deserves love.”
Where the film stumbles, however, is in how it suggests we express that love. Before becoming a novelist, Albertalli worked as a high school counselor, and sections of Simon Vs, particularly those where Simon reconciles with how he is treated by others on account of his sexuality as a gay man, read as advice she might have given to actual students. Simon, nor the reader, are asked to forgive those who mistreat him, even if they are apologetic.
As a piece of Hollywood fair, the film is bound by a different set of storytelling rules than Albertalli, one that favors redemption, even if that redemption is not necessarily deserved.
In Love, Simon’s case, we’re asked to accept the redemption of Simon’s blackmailer, Martin Addison. Martin’s leverage against Simon is the emails he has been exchanging with his pen pal-of-sorts, a fellow gay closeted student at their high school, who goes by the nom de plume “Blue”. After a bit of carelessness on Simon’s part (forgetting to log out of his personal email on a desktop in the school library) Martin discovers the emails. Instead of logging out, and politely keeping quiet about Simon’s sexuality, Martin instead screenshots the emails and threatens to post them online unless Simon helps him get with his friend, the new transfer student, Abby Suso.
The novel and film both take great efforts to underline that Martin does not understand the full gravity of his threat. Martin — obviously, aggressively heterosexual — feels the need to clarify to Simon that he is “not interested” in him and suggests Simon should date his brother because “they’re both gay”. Displayed is Martin’s total lack of empathy, mitigating Simon’s interiority on account of his sexuality; because Simon is interested in men, Martin assumes he will be interested in any man, an assumption that forgets how attraction works and one that is all too common in real life.
Martin elaborates further in the novel (an elaboration that is, perhaps, tactically omitted from the film), confessing that since his brother came out, his parents have been making a “big deal” of it, putting up pride flags, and attempting to make their home as gay-friendly as possible. The between-the-lines of this statement are clear: he feels emotionally dislocated by his brother’s sexuality, and he is taking it out on Simon.
What he is failing to consider is why his parents are making a “big deal” out of it. Martin’s parents recognize that coming-out is something that leaves a child vulnerable. Accompanying the act is the fear that a parent’s unconditional love has secretly been conditional all along. The conditionality of love has never been threatened in Martin’s life, so he does not have empathy for his brother, or Simon, or the homosexual experience at large.
Martin, then, is a surrogate for the heterosexual reader/moviegoer, with his arc — where he goes from blackmailing Simon to supporting him — being the one that they are meant to latch onto. As Martin learns empathy for Simon, so do they.
Empathy Does Not Equal Forgiveness
The toughest part of Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Love, Simon, especially as a gay reader/viewer, is when Martin outs Simon to the school. This plot beat is essential to Simon and Martin’s character arcs, of course, the former realizes how much lying hurts (both himself and others), and the latter realizes how much grief he put Simon through by blackmailing him. Still, the scene where Simon tells Martin, “I’m supposed to be the one that decides when and how and who knows, and how I get to say it, that’s supposed to be my thing”, is tough to digest.
It is clear from the moment he does it Martin regrets outing Simon in front of the entire school, and he asks Simon to forgive him. But like coming out, it is also Simon’s choice who he forgives and for what. Simon rejects the apology; Martin has learned empathy, he won’t out someone again, but that doesn’t change the reality that he did. Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda resolves Martin’s character arc with him realizing that the best thing he can do for him is to no longer be involved in his life, and emailing him to express as much:
“And me being jealous of how a girl like Abby could move here and choose to befriend you out of everyone, and you have so many friends already, and I don’t think you even get what a big deal that is… I’m just saying that it seems like it’s so easy for you, and you should know you’re actually really lucky… You deserve it completely. You’re an awesome dude, Spier and it was cool getting to know you. If I could do it again, I would have blackmailed you into being my friend and left it at that.”
Love, Simon resolves Martin’s character arc differently. The narrative culminates, as it does in the novel, with Simon asking Blue to meet him at the local carnival, in the hopes that their online flirtation can become a real romance. At first, Blue doesn’t show, and Simon worries that he’s going to be jilted, that Martin leaking the emails has scared him away for good. At the last second, however, Blue arrives, and they kiss — it’s melodramatic in the way romance films should be.
The film makes one major change to the way this sequence of events plays out. Before Blue arrives, Simon runs out of tickets for the Ferris Wheel (the ride he asked Blue to meet him at) and it looks like he is going to have missed his window. Just before he gets off the ride, however, Martin runs up to him and offers him his tickets, as a kind of apology — as redemption.
This redemption, however, subordinates Simon to Martin. Once again Simon is subject to his whims, reliant on his goodwill. While Martin is a force for good rather than ill, his dynamic with Simon is identical to their dynamic when he was blackmailing him. Martin gets redeemed, but it comes at Simon’s expense. Simon could, in theory, reject the tickets, and lose his chance to meet Blue.
But that’s not really what matters. By offering the tickets, Martin has reinserted himself into the situation after Simon explicitly told him to get lost.
While Martin’s intention is good, the underlying meaning is anything but, because he has only learned his lesson in the most superficial kind of way. On an intrinsic level, he does not respect Simon. If there is any empathy, it only extends insofar as it makes Martin feel like less of a bad guy, not empathy for empathy’s sake.
Conclusion: A Happy Ending, But for Who?
A Hollywood film has to appeal to a broader audience than a novel. The cost of making a film is far greater than the cost of publishing a book. As the surrogate character for the heterosexual viewer, it makes sense to soften the portrayal of Martin’s character. The majority of moviegoers are heterosexual, you don’t want to make them feel villainized.
The issue is not that they changed Martin’s arc, but rather how. It is unlikely that Greg Berlanti (an openly gay man himself), or the film’s co-writers, Issac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, set out to make a film that short-changed its gay characters at the expense of the heterosexual antagonist, but that is what happened.
Berlanti’s motto writing the film feels particularly apropos. “Everyone deserves love”, yes, and forgiveness is the ultimate expression of love. But the film fails to comprehend one of its source materials’ essential lessons. Simon does not have to provide that forgiveness, nor that love, especially not to the person who held his love ransom.
Do you feel Martin Addison deserved his moment of redemption or not? Discuss in the comments below!
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