Jenny Han Explains Her Adaptation Process and Changes for 'The Summer I Turned Pretty' Prime Video Series

The author and showrunner says she approached the adaptation as, 'How would I tell the story today?'
by Amy Amatangelo — 

Gavin Casalegno and Lola Tung in 'The Summer I Turned Pretty'

Prime Video

Author Jenny Han was in her mid-20s when her novel The Summer I Turned Pretty was published in 2009. Its sequels It's Not Summer Without You and We'll Always Have Summer soon followed. Now 13 years later, Han has turned the books into a Prime Video series.

"It was really interesting for me as a writer but also just as a woman," Han tells Metacritic of revisiting her source material.

"I think I was different and the world was different. And I approached the adaptation as, 'How would I tell the story today? What is different and what is the same?' Really the priority for me was two-fold: One was wanting the original readers to feel satisfied because I know they've been waiting a really long time and I wanted to make sure it felt like the story they were expecting. But at the same time for me as creator, I wanted to look at, how can I best tell this story for the TV screen?"

The Summer I Turned Pretty follows soon-to-be 16-year-old Belly (Lola Tung) who spends every summer at the idyllic Cousin's Beach with her mom Laurel (Jackie Chung), brother Steven (Sean Kaufman), her mom's best friend Susannah (Rachel Blanchard) and Susannah's teenage sons Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno). Over the course of the first season's seven episodes, Belly navigates growing up as she is pulled between her feelings for the two brothers, but it also charts the story of mothers and teenagers and adult friendship.

Han is no stranger to having her work adapted for the screen, with Netflix turning her To All The Boys I've Loved Before into a series of films and a forthcoming spin-off. But this time, she got to steer the ship as showrunner on The Summer I Turned Pretty.

Here, Han talks to Metacritic about bringing this new trilogy to life on-screen, the key changes she made, and what viewers can look for in the show's already announced second season. 

How different is it to write dialogue for a book versus dialogue for the screen?

The dialogue was no problem. I think to me the real challenge is the inner monologue. Those books are written in the first person: You are in Belly's head. You should feel as close to her as if you are her as a reader. When you are adapting, everything has to be on screen. So whatever she's feeling, we are going to have to know it via dialogue or whatever visual you are getting. We do have some voice-over. But to me it was important to not go overboard with the voice-over [and for it] to feel like a really light touch. Luckily, Lola is so expressive and she does so much in her performance that I don't think it needs a lot of help in that sense. 

Whenever I read a book, I tend to visualize in my mind what the characters look like. Does that happen to you when writing the characters?

It's weird. I don't ever think too hard about the physical of my characters even as a novelist. Yes, there are physical attributes. But I'm not super picturing somebody's face, it's more the way they make me feel. I didn't feel very prescriptive about how people looked in comparison to how they are described in the book. I know for the readers some of those details are very important — the eye color or the hair color — but for me it's just not as high on my list. It's more like, do they understand who this character is? Do they get the essence of them? I really felt like that was true for our cast.

The hardest piece of it was always going to be finding our Belly. I think it's a real tightrope to walk in many ways. And one of my priorities is trying to find someone who felt as close to that age as possible because some things I don't think you can really manufacture. Somebody who is still not fully formed and doesn't have to act young because they are young and they are not far from maybe the same experiences. It just feels really real and honest, and that's what I was looking for in the cast: a sincerity and a genuineness to it. 

How difficult was it to find your Belly?

We met a lot of amazing and talented actors for the part. It was really who I thought felt the most like Belly to me. Who was I going to lock into and feel really invested in her story and root for her every second she's on camera? And once I saw Lola's tape, my heart just swelled with emotions. I felt like I immediately loved her. I knew that's how I wanted the audience to feel as well.

One difference from the book is Jeremiah is now attracted to both boys and girls or "equal opportunity," as he puts it. Can you talk about making this change to his character?

I think making Jeremiah sexually fluid was one of the ways it felt more like 2022 where it's not such a binary thing. I think young people aren't as concerned about labels and are very much in exploration and so is that character. He's only 16 years old and he's really figuring himself out. And I think that, to me, it's still very much the character of Jeremiah because he is very comfortable in his own skin and he's not self-conscious and he doesn't have hang-ups about that stuff, and that was true of him when I wrote the books and it's still true today. That, to me, felt like an honest representation of the character.

It is also totally not a big deal in the series which I thought was a really great message for the show's viewers.

I'm somebody who doesn't really care too much about message but more what are they getting from it. People often think of children's book authors and YA authors as, "Every story for young people should have a lesson for them," and I don't think that's true. The thing I care the most about is telling stories that feel like honest portrayals.

The other big change is the season-long arc of Belly making her debut at the Cousin's Beach Debutante Ball. That's not something that happens in the book. 

What I was looking for was that physical manifestation of coming of age. There are so many different ceremonial rites of passage that different cultures have everything from a bat mitzvah to a quinceañera. I just wanted to see her have a moment of stepping into womanhood. In many ways it is old fashioned, but it's something that still feels just satisfying to watch. The story really is about her growing up and having this big moment of stepping out on her own and doing something for herself. I thought that was just a really fun way to do it, and also I like balls. I like to get dressed up. And it's nice to have something to count down towards at the end of the season.

The series has already been picked up for a second season. Have you already started thinking about story arcs for the next season?

Boy, have I! In the writers' room, we are finishing up. Luckily I still have the template of the novels. Some things were changed in the first season, so some things will shift in the novels. But again, I know there are certain tent pole moments that people will expect to see so I want to be sure to deliver on those. 

The Summer I Turned Pretty is


Get to know Jenny Han:
Han's previous trilogy includes To All the Boys I've Loved Before (Metascore: 64), To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (54), and To All the Boys: Always and Forever (65). She is also currently working on a Netflix spin-off of the To All the Boys franchise entitled XO, Kitty