This book to film comparison contains spoilers.
I feel like the lead-up to the If I Stay movie has been huge. I’ve seen so many people rave about Gayle Forman’s novel and the movie has had a healthy advertising run on Australian television. I finished reading the book the same day the movie was released and headed off to an afternoon showing. For such a short book, I felt there were a few substantial changes but they were mostly welcome ones.
Mia Hall thought the hardest decision she would ever face would be whether to pursue her musical dreams at Juilliard or follow a different path to be with the love of her life, Adam. But what should have been a carefree family drive changes everything in an instant, and now her own life hangs in the balance. Caught between life and death for one revealing day, Mia has only one decision left, which will not only decide her future but her ultimate fate.
The plot is, for the most part, the same. There are some notable differences, like the fact that the flashbacks are much more linear. In the book, each flashback is triggered by something Mia experiences in the hospital so things are scattered and the story is all over the place. That makes it seem more realistic, since we wouldn’t normally say, ‘Hey, I’m going to rethink my life exactly in order over the last two years.’ But it wasn’t going to work for a movie. The linear progression helps move the story along and showcase the highs and lows of Mia’s life as they come.
At the beginning of the movie, Mia and Adam have unequivocally split after having a fight at the New Year’s party. In the book, they’re still together but have started to drift apart.
In the book, both of Mia’s parents die at the scene of the accident. In the movie, only Mia’s mother dies at the scene (which she finds out much later); Mia’s father lives for a while longer and dies on the operating table. I feel like this change may have been to maintain Mia’s hope that her family was going to be okay.
Mia also isn’t airlifted to another hospital in the movie. She and all her family are in the same hospital, which allows Mia to see her younger brother, Teddy, in person. When Mia learns of her parents’ and Teddy’s deaths (two separate occasions), she runs around the hospital and falls to the ground each time, which takes away some of the impact of the action.
The change in hospitals provides a better reason for why the family friend, Willow, is allowed to have control over who gets to see Mia in the ICU. In the book, Willow works in another hospital to Mia’s and just swoops in to take over, which seemed a bit strange.
I wasn’t a fan of the whole ‘walk into the light’ thing in the movie, or the way that Mia’s movements aren’t really explained. In the book, Mia makes attempts to understand her ghostly presence and ends up walking into a wall on the assumption that she should be able to pass through it. Ultimately, she realises that she can affect her surroundings just as she did before the accident, but no one seems to notice. Mia is also completely unsure of how she can decide to die. At one point in the book, she worries about falling asleep.
‘I am still not entirely clear on the particulars here, but I do know that once I fully commit to going, I’ll go. But I’m not ready. Not yet. I don’t know why, but I’m not. And I’m a little scared that if I accidentally think, I wouldn’t mind an endless nap, it will happen and be irreversible, like the way my grandparents used to warn me that that if I made a funny face as the clock struck noon, it would remain like that for ever.’
In the book, Mia wakes up as a result of hearing the cello music and wanting to feel Adam’s hand even though feeling everything else would be unbearable. In the movie, Mia is woken by a combination of cello music, Adam singing a song her wrote for her, and hearing that she has been accepted into Juilliard. The order of all these things makes it seem almost as though Mia goes, ‘Now that Juilliard has accepted me, I have something to live for.’
My copy of the novel has a few film extras, including an interview between Gayle Forman (the author) and Chloë Grace Moretz (who plays Mia in the film). When asked how it felt to play the two different sides of Mia, Moretz’s answer was this:
‘The Mia you meet in the flashbacks is a girl. She’s just experiencing love for the first time. She’s just experiencing success in the classical world. She’s becoming a woman. The Mia you see in the hospital, she’s a shell of who Mia used to be. She’s not a person, per se. She’s like a thought, this resolved, angelic person.’
I found that description to be perfectly accurate. Hospital Mia, who is our narrator, feels tenuous and I wasn’t sure if I liked her at all. She felt like less of a person than her family and friends did. My first thought was ‘This is going to work so much better in the movie’ and it did. Hospital Mia’s emotions were perfectly captured by Chloë Grace Moretz and that helped me identify with her more.
Flashback Mia in the movie is even better. While she is undoubtedly shy, she has thoughts and opinions and arguments and everything that makes her feel completely and utterly real. Her relationship with Adam is more complicated and one of my favourite scenes was her fight with Adam after his first big concert. Something about their argument and the way Mia was taking no shit just made me so happy. She’s in love with Adam but she’s not blind to the fact that he’s being a dick.
Chloë Grace Moretz also did a pretty good job at playing the cello. I’m sure some of the more complicated scenes had a professional subbed in but Moretz says in the interview in my book that she did learn to play cello for her part and it showed. Her fingering and playing for some of the simpler scenes was very believable.
In the movie, Adam (Jamie Blackley) has moments of being incredibly sweet and caring but, for the most part, he comes off as a gigantic tool. Maybe if the book had been told in a linear fashion, he would have come off bad in that as well but I never really saw Book Adam as a bad guy. Confused, worried, and stupid in love, yes. But not bad.
In order to raise the stakes for the movie, the conflict in Mia and Adam’s relationship was heightened. There’s a cute scene where Mia and Adam talk about living together when Mia starts college. Adam takes this idealistic and vague plan as a certainty. When Mia admits that she has an audition for Juilliard, which is clear across the country, Adam starts acting like a petulant child. He tries to be happy for her but ultimately says that Mia is breaking her promise that they would live together next year and accuses Mia of abandoning him like his parents did.
This is the argument scene that I’m so in love with. Adam has been touring around with his band (called Willamette Stone in the movie instead of Shooting Star), gone for days or weeks at a time, sometimes with little to no notice. At this particular point, he even tells Mia at the last minute that he’ll miss her birthday and has to cancel the plans they had made. When he gets angry about Juilliard, Mia says, ‘So you’re allowed to follow your dreams but I can’t follow mine without your permission?’
Even then, Adam doesn’t back down from his selfish position. He gets in his band van and drives off, but not before Mia can say, ‘Just for the record, you’re the one getting in the van.’ Movie Mia’s comment is absolutely true: Adam doesn’t want to be ‘abandoned’ but he abandons Mia over and over again, and expects her to do nothing but go to a second-rate school and wait for him to get back.
Considering Adam first saw and fell for Mia when he watched her playing her cello, and he has known all along how dedicated she is to her music, he really should have known better. Adam is a year older than Mia and should know by now that sometimes idealistic plans made in high school aren’t permanent. In their argument and in this movie relationship, it seems as though Mia is more practical and grown-up than Adam.
Although Adam is more of an arse in the movie, I do like that relationship dynamic better. In the book, the conflict is always paraphrased or skipped over and it feels like it never really reaches a climax. Mia and Adam are waiting for the inevitable break-up but neither of them wants to admit that it’s coming.
In order to focus more heavily on the romance side of things, Mia’s relationship with her best friend is cut from the movie entirely, which is disappointing.
In the book, Kim constantly attempts to braid her hair and always ends up with half of it escaping by the end of the day. The mention of her Judaism is touching and plays a part in her lack of a boyfriend, her relationship with her mother, and her praying for Mia at the hospital. I particularly like the tension between Kim and Adam, who aren’t each other’s biggest fans. All these (usually) small descriptions of Kim inform her character and made her bounce off the page. And the fact that Kim and Mia became friends after getting into a legit fist fight in sixth grade? Come on. Adorable.
In the movie, Kim is portrayed by Liana Liberato, who is funny and cute but not the same fierce Kim I came to love. I still cried at her ‘You still have a family’ speech, though. That made me tear up in the novel and I’m glad that it still had that impact on screen.
Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard give perfect portrayals of Mia’s parents and a few added scenes make them even more loveable. Jakob Davies as Teddy is sweet and still has that same Teddy spark even though a lot of his scenes have been shortened or removed.
I really wish that there had been more scenes that showcased Adam’s interaction with Mia’s family, especially Teddy. In the book, he is so heavily involved with that family, so comfortable with them, and completely in love with the family dynamic that each of their deaths are almost as terrible for him as Mia’s own might be. In the movie, while he likes Mia’s family, he doesn’t seem all that close with them.
Gran (Gabrielle Stacy) was downplayed in the movie and we got none of her eccentricity or belief in angels but Stacy Keach as Gramps was brilliant. His speech in the book made me cry outright and the on screen version had everyone in my cinema (even though there were only a few of us) in tears.
If you’re looking for a completely faithful adaptation of If I Stay, you might be disappointed with some of the significant changes. But I loved it. I liked the book but I think seeing it as a movie made all the difference. The music is more entrancing (I especially loved the Labor Day scene), and Mia’s personality shines through Chloë Grace Moretz’s portrayal. The emotional impact thrived in the transition from page to screen.