Jenny Han’s book trilogy “The Summer I Turned Pretty” reads like a love letter to summer, mixing comedy and romance to capture the attention of many. Following the first book’s release in 2009, the series continued to gain success until recently becoming an Amazon Prime Video series of the same name. Fans of the books and newcomers to the story adored the series, causing the show to quickly climb to the No. 1 trending position on Prime. That said, book-to-screen adaptions inevitably make adjustments to the source material, and this new series is no exception.
Han is widely known for her popular book series “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which Netflix adapted into a collection of movies that raised her profile. However, before she wrote that series, she authored “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” which follows soon-to-be 16-year-old Isabel Conklin, known as “Belly,” as she makes her yearly summer visit to “Cousin’s Beach.” While the beach house remains the same, Belly experiences shifts in her relationships with lifelong friends Jeremiah and Conard Fisher. The boys finally see her as more than a little-sister figure, which Belly has anticipated every summer. Belly navigates her visit, choosing between the charming and comfortable Jeremiah or the moody yet exciting Conrad. However, many other conflicts complicate her time there.
In the book, Belly’s time is spent trying to balance new experiences while also cherishing her favorite summer pastimes. One main change viewers noticed to the plot of the television series was the addition of a “debutante ball” in which Belly and her love interests participate. While the book includes various time skips and uses the beach house setting to ground the story, the show opts for a more linear timeline with more locations.
In both adaptations, the trio spends ample time on commonplace summer activities such as swimming. Surprisingly, though, the debutante ball becomes the primary focus of the television series, driving the plot forward. As Belly prepares for the event, she meets new characters as well as encounters conflict. Depictions of Belly practicing a waltz or securing her date not only make for great entertainment but also provide those who read the book with new information about where each episode will lead.
While Belly can be shy and hesitant, she is ultimately a competitive, witty and personable character who gains confidence both in the book and the Prime Video series. Portrayed by actress Lola Tung, Belly is a hopeful romantic who values her friends and family above all else, which is consistent with the books. However, the Prime series deviates from the original plotline by paying more attention to side characters and their development.
In the book, Belly’s older brother, Steven, is primarily referenced in minor sibling quips or in relation to the Fisher brothers. However, the Prime series dedicates more time to his character’s actions, depicting his romantic relationships and ambition to attend Princeton. Steven’s more prominent role throughout the video series not only fleshes out his character but allows other characters to be developed as well.
The younger characters aren’t the only ones with increased relevance: Laurel (Belly’s mother) and Susannah (Jeremiah and Conrad’s mom) receive additional attention in the television series as well. Laurel and Susannah’s relationship strengthens throughout the episodes, branching out in new ways while displaying the history between the two women. While the book provides perspective on their role as mothers and how it affects them both, the series allows these characters to exist beyond their motherhood. Susannah and Laurel manage romantic relationships with the same gravity and care as Belly does, broadening the messages of the series to match any age range.
The producers carefully picked out the soundtrack with each individual scene in mind. Among an array of well-loved Taylor Swift songs, dreamy Frank Ocean melodies, or upbeat angsty songs by Olivia Rodrigo, the music of the series is a harmonious gem of its own.
The soundtrack perfectly matches the setting filled with summer nostalgia; the images of sunny beaches and beautiful beach houses come to life from the book’s pages. Costuming was equally strategic in fitting the nature of each character. From the colorful patterns of Jeremiah’s outfits, to the summery and delicate fittings of Belly, to the more simple and subdued colors of Conrad, each wardrobe is a perfect match.
Han expressed in interviews that increasing representation with her stories was a long-held goal of hers, one that the Amazon Prime series allowed her to further. Han stated that she limited the characters in her work due to fear of acceptance or warnings from publishers. In her work with Amazon Prime Video, however, she proudly aimed to include Asian American representation, evident in the casting of the Conklin family and other POC characters. Another change from the book series fans noticed was that Jeremiah’s character was now more sexually fluid, showing romantic interest in both guys and girls. The multiple forms of representation not only build the story Han has pushed for, but reach and relate to wider audiences.
The beauty of Han’s “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is that it subverts expectations by adding to the classic love triangle format all viewers are used to. The story is equally about letting go of the old as it is about accepting the new, as well as celebrating all forms of love — both platonic and romantic — that can appear in unexpected or familiar places. Whether you prefer to read or watch, everyone can find something to appreciate in “The Summer I Turned Pretty.” Given the success of the first season, there is certainly more for loving audiences to expect of the series in the future.