Author Becky Albertalli on 'Love, Simon,' the Groundbreaking Adaptation of Her Gay Teen Romance

Becky Albertalli - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Decisive Moment Events

The author of the book that inspired the movie discusses mental health, her role in the film adaptation and what makes the movie so groundbreaking.

Love, Simon is poised to make history as the first mainstream gay teen romance studio movie. 

The film's debut caps off a slick marketing campaign rife with cheeky jokes — "Coming out March 16" — and a prerelease run that has seen a line from its trailer — Simon's awkwardly delivered flirt, "I said, I like your boots!" — become a mini Twitter meme.

Directed by Greg Berlanti and starring Nick Robinson (Jurassic World), the story centers on high school student Simon Spier and his bourgeoning relationship-in-emails with an anonymous boy he knows only as "Blue," which is pitted against his fear of coming out as gay.

Love, Simon is as joyously awkward as the book it is based on: Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Intense fan loyalty has driven Albertalli's novel into the mainstream, following its release in April 2015. 

Albertalli — a former therapist, the author of the recently released The Upside of Unrequited and an outspoken skeptic of Golden Oreos — caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about her book and how she has dealt with the increasing attention Love, Simon has received.

When you were writing the book, to what degree could you picture it becoming a movie?

I think early on most of my [author] friends got film deals for their books, and it didn't happen right away for Simon. Someone must have asked me, "Are you expecting any movie stuff to happen?" and I was like, "God, no. This book was half told in emails. It's not going to be made into a movie."

I didn't have the ability to see how a movie could be made of a book that is half told in emails and that is so, so much inside Simon's head. I didn't see a solution. And [when Simon was optioned for film,] my production team immediately saw a solution. I think it would probably give too much away to explain how they did that, but the way they did it is so seamless, once people see it, it's like, "Oh. Of course this is the perfect way to portray the emails in a way that works for film."

Did the production team see replicating Simon and Blue's email conversations as a challenge?

That was one of the things I asked when we were trying to pick the right producer, and I was just like, "How are you going to do this? Are the emails even going to be a part of it?"

Everybody knew that what they didn't want to do was have a whole lot of footage of Simon writing emails. There actually is a little bit of email, but it's done in really interesting ways. It's not a whole lot of content of Simon sitting at a computer screen for half the movie.

I think I've learned from that. I tried to be a little more creative even as I wrote future books. Because I'm like, that's just a creativity fail on my part that I couldn't see that.

Before you started writing, were you ever one to care about book-to-movie changes?

As a reader and as a viewer, usually when I watch a movie, I'm caught up enough in the movie that I'm not breaking it down to the details anyway.

As we started the process of adapting Simon — and keep in mind that, in the early stages, there was no part of me that thought this would ever become a film — they were like, "Yeah, we want to not start the movie with the Martin email moment." Which is where the book starts. "We want to develop Simon's environment and introduce his family and friends before that, and here's why ..." And I found that really exciting. I really loved seeing why they were making those choices, why this worked better for film, because they're just such different forms of media.

With a book, you can be so internal, and there's so much you can learn from being in Simon's head. With the movie there are some things that you just have to show. As far as the final product is concerned, I'm thrilled with it. It's unbelievably perfect. I loved the changes.

Were there things that the movie adaptation adds or left out of the book that stands out to you?

There's this new character they added named Ethan, who is played by Clark Moore, who is phenomenal. Clark is an openly gay actor, and he plays this character Ethan, who is the only openly gay student at [Simon's high school] Creekwood that Simon knows of at the beginning of the story. Ethan's been out since the beginning of high school. The bullies pick on him, and he cuts them down so fast — intellectually, he runs circles around the bullies. He fends for himself, and he also struggles.

There's this awesome scene with Simon where they unpack the ways where they each thought the other one had it easier. Ethan is somebody who is more identifiably gay to his peer group in terms of his clothes and his style and his interests. None of his friends were surprised he was gay. He gets picked on a lot, and there's a toxic masculinity component to the way he gets teased. Ethan is not seen as being masculine enough. Whereas Simon and Blue, their friends don't know that they're gay. For them it's taking them a little longer to feel comfortable coming out.

Simon doesn't really understand Ethan. He doesn't feel like he has anything in common with Ethan. There's this really lovely scene that screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker added between these two boys who are not a couple, not into each other at all and are not even good friends, but they find that common ground and they talk about that. I wish I had explored that in the book, but I'm so glad it gets explored in the movie. It's amazing to see.

Ethan is like my adopted child. I didn't create him, but if I can have him, I will claim him. I'm obsessed with that character.

What do you think is the significance of seeing that dynamic of masculinity and femininity as it relates to queer boys on the big screen?

With the caveat that I am not the expert voice on this — because I'm not — I can say what my reaction was to that.

The inclusion of Ethan was so important because one of the main narrative thrusts of the movie trailer of Simon is [Simon saying], "I have this totally normal life. I'm just like you." There's this main narrative that's pushing into that territory of, "He's gay, but not too gay." It's one of those messages where I get that certain people need to hear that, but it could potentially edge on problematic. Like, well, who's not normal then? But what they do with Ethan is so important because Simon's idea of normal, you realize, gets totally flipped on its head. You realize there are other ways to be a gay teen boy. There are other ways to express your sexual orientation but also your gender. It's almost like shades of gender expression that come in, in terms of masculinity versus femininity.

Ethan's character is definitely the kind of character we see as a sidekick, joke character in other movies, but here he's not treated as a joke.

I'm curious whether you think there are aspects of representation that a movie can capture that a book cannot.

I think there are. [In a movie] you have the opportunity to integrate the perspectives of a lot of people who have lived a lot of different experiences. For example, Ethan is a black, gay character played by a black, gay actor. I think Clark Moore, the actor, is bringing his own experiences to his interpretation of the character, and it's beautiful. It's something that, as an author, I could never reach quite that level of authenticity. And every single actor is doing that with their character, and every single person on the production team, and in the art department, and all the different groups of people who are working on this story behind the scenes. It was incredible to see. What that has the potential to do is to expand this story in ways that I didn’t realize were possible.

What do you think fans have misunderstood about your role in the production of Love, Simon

Seriously, I don't blame them [about the misunderstandings]. I did not know anything about this process before going through it. 

But in general, people definitely think I'm Fox studios. Every day I get tons of messages asking, 'Can you set up a screening in my city?' I don't set up screenings. I can barely plan my kid's birthday party. 

I had people who wanted to audition. I understand and respect that, but I don't cast movies. 

I have a pretty large reader base in Brazil, and I love the book community there, and they've been wonderful and supportive, and I think it was a pretty huge blow to them when the movie's release date got pushed back. And there was an organized mini-campaign that was like, "Let's tweet at Becky and Fox." And I'm like, "Don't tweet at Becky." I left Twitter for a while because people were screaming at me. 

What toll does all of this take on your mental health?

For me in particular, I have generalized anxiety disorder, so I skew anxious on the best of days. It's definitely a big whirlpool of anxiety with this movie coming out. I'm very much a people-pleaser, and with a book out, I had to learn that you can't please everybody with your book. And a movie is such a bigger scale that you also can't please everybody. And, statistically, more people are going to be displeased. 

[As an author] you end up being the face of this major production for a lot of people, but with very little control over the details. So I lucked out. I'm the face now of this phenomenal movie. There's a little bit of anxiety there, too, though, because I don't know that I deserve to be the face of this movie. 

For example, I introduced a screening [of Love, Simon]. After the movie was over, I got up to let somebody out of my row, and someone came up and hugged me and cheerfully was thanking me. Which was so beautiful, but also I felt so bad, because I'm the biggest fan of this film, but also this is [Love, Simon director] Greg Berlanti's baby. It ended up being this whole receiving line of people who were all so moved by this film, and on one hand it was just the most special moment, but on the other hand, there's that discomfort of, this is one of those things I can't take credit for. I know [the movie] is phenomenal. I just got lucky, and I'm there along for the ride.

People will tell me, "It's your book. This movie wouldn't exist without your book and your story." And, yes and no. I don't know. It's hard to know how much of it is yours.