The “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” story might have come to an end on screen with the release of its third and final film on Netflix last month, but the legacy of the franchise lives on, connecting with its dedicated fan base via fashion lines, home goods and, of course, the three books on which the movies are based.
“It feels really satisfying to be able to see the story through ’til the end,” “To All the Boys” author Jenny Han tells Variety. “Because it is three books and when we made the first film, I don’t think anybody was thinking that we would get to do all three. I hoped it, obviously, but it’s such a privilege to be able to tell the whole story.”
Over the last three years, the “To All the Boys” franchise has captivated audiences with almost six hours of content, taking them through the break-ups and make-ups that accompany high school relationships.
So often, teenage-focused romantic comedies are delivered to viewers in a pretty package tied with a bow — boy meets girl, boy chases after girl, the couple faces some obstacle to their relationship, only to overcome it and live happily ever after in less than two hours. But the “To All the Boys” franchise promised something different — a more inclusive version of the story, with an Asian American girl at its center, and more fully realized supporting characters around her.
With its authentic depiction of the ups and downs of teenage life, the modern take on the rom-com has created an incredibly close fan connection to the characters, proven by the “To All the Boys” Instagram account, which has over two million followers. The movies have also been a huge success for Netflix, with the streamer touting the first installment as one of the “most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing.”
The films have also spawned a home goods line at Target and a clothing line at H&M that launched in the U.S. on Thursday, both of which Han has found particularly thrilling, as Lara Jean’s style played a big part in her personality both in the books and films.
“One of my favorite parts of working on the movies is getting to work with Netflix’s great merchandising team. They just dream up all kinds of wild stuff and really reach for the stars,” Han explains.
Of the inspiration behind Lara Jean’s style, she adds: “I think that because it’s a contemporary romantic story, people thought it was just going to be your everyday, sort of cool, teenage clothing. But I was like, this needs to have as much of a look as ‘Harry Potter.’ It’s not robes and scarves, but [Lara Jean’s] identity is very much reflected in the way that she dresses because she is an introvert and her style is her voice.”
Han’s books (published in 2014, 2015 and 2017, respectively) have also seen a massive boost, with the series shooting to No. 1 on the NY Times Bestseller list in the weeks after the first film debuted on Netflix in 2018. In March 2020, the author announced that the series had spent 52 consecutive weeks on the list.
Ultimately, “To All the Boys” has been a wild success story, especially considering that rom-com trilogies are certainly rare in film — with the “Bridget Jones’s Diary” series, the “Before” trilogy and Netflix’s “The Kissing Booth” (which is also releasing its last installment this year) as some of the very few examples. Han contends that they are even more rare in publishing.
“In the book space, usually, you would only see a fantasy trilogy,” Han, who also served as an executive producer on all three films, explains. “It’s something that you didn’t see as often, to do a trilogy that is about love and growing up and that’s the central concern of the story.”
Looking back, Han says there was a lot of initial interest in adapting “To All the Boys” into a film, even before the first book debuted. And, there was one detail she wasn’t willing to budge on: the lead character, Lara Jean Covey, had to be Asian American.
“It was really important for me to have elements of her cultural identity, just in small, everyday kind of ways,” Han explains. “I was like, we have to make sure there’s a rice cooker in the house and they have to take their shoes off in the house, like things like that.”
But Han says Hollywood studios “weren’t willing to make the movie with an Asian American lead, and so it ended up being [made] at Awesomeness because they were willing to do that.”
Enter Matt Kaplan, who at the time was the head of the film division at Awesomeness Films. (Kaplan now heads ACE Entertainment, which produced the other two “To All the Boys” films). The road to producing the first movie began with a cold call from Kaplan to Han, in which the producer pitched the author his take on what a film version would look like.
“It was just a book that I really loved,” Kaplan says. “[The rights] had been sold to another company, and I always kept it in the back of my head as something that if it ever became available, I wanted to do it.”
A lifelong lover of rom-coms like those of director John Hughes, Kaplan saw an immense opportunity to revitalize the genre for a global audience.
“I noticed the pattern that rom-coms were not something studios were focusing on, specifically not youthful rom-coms. When I optioned the book five years ago, there wasn’t a lot of content, especially in the youth market, that explored different cultures in a commercial, modern way,” he recalls. “But at the core of what ‘To All the Boys’ is and was, is a love story of firsts. We thought that would resonate with young people no matter what, but then the idea that we could focus on a Korean American young girl and the culture of her family was something special.”
The first film was financed independently and set for a theatrical release. But then Netflix — which had not yet become a major producer of original films — expressed interest in distributing the project.
“I think it ended up being the smartest decision that the producers could have made, to sell it to Netflix,” Han says, noting the streamer’s global reach. “Every country that has Netflix got to watch it at the exact same moment, and they really got behind the movie in a really big way.”
Reflecting on the wild ride the books and films have taken her on, Han says: “It’s just very moving to think that this thing you came up with in your head, alone, is now something that a bunch of people have decided to spend their time and their talent working on.”
“People can choose to do a lot of different projects and the fact that they chose to work on this and they want to make the best story out of it, is amazing,” she continues. “As a novelist, the process is pretty solitary, for the most part. And to be in this [moviemaking process] with other people, I love being part of a team.”
Rounding out Han’s “To All the Boys” dream team were the film’s stars. Since the books already had a huge and passionate fan base, the casting of leads Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) sent the movie soaring to new and viral heights. Seemingly overnight, Centineo’s Instagram follower count grew from 800,000 to 13.4 million, and Condor’s from 100,000 to 5.5 million. Madeleine Arthur, who played Lara Jean’s spunky best friend Chris, says she didn’t see it coming.
“When we were making it, I knew that we had a really good script and all the actors were amazing and everyone in front of and behind the camera was terrific,” Arthur says. “But you just never know until you release something if the viewers will embrace it. And with ‘To All the Boys,’ it’s been given the warmest, warmest welcome.”
She adds: “To be able to have a full beginning, middle and end with all three movies — where there are relatable characters for everyone to identify with — I feel like that really resonated with audiences all over the globe. It’s so lucky that we get to continue to tell this story, that it didn’t just end after one movie. We’ve gotten to see the characters explore so much more of their lives.”
Arthur, Han and Kaplan maintain that, beyond Lara Jean and Peter’s storybook romance, the intimate look into each character’s personal growth is what has kept fans coming back for more. Even supporting characters like Arthur’s Chris were developed into three-dimensional figures, with their own tertiary storylines. Though Chris serves as a foil to Lara Jean’s hopeless romanticism in the first two films, the last sees her forming a love story of her own with Peter’s best friend, Trevor.
“It’s a case of opposites attracting, and sometimes that ends up being the most special relationship and the best person for you,” Arthur says of Chris and Trevor’s relationship. “I feel like Chris kind of lets her guard down a little bit when Trevor walks into her life and they do share a sense of humor, they’re very cheeky and spunky together.”
Kaplan adds that the franchise stands out because it marked a new progressive moment in the rom-com genre.
“We were kind of ahead of the movement and I think that’s why we were attracted to the material. The world’s changing, you know?” Kaplan says. “Having a young, female, empowered lead character who is Asian American and has a global connection, I think that’s why you’re seeing that moment happen. People sit down to watch a movie or a show because they want to connect to whatever they’re going through in the story they’re watching. Ultimately, telling stories that are modern is what will make rom-coms work.”
Part of that formula has been about giving Lara Jean’s family larger roles in the films. Lara Jean’s sisters, Margot (Janel Parrish) and Kitty (Anna Cathcart) deal with their own growing pains, and their father, Dr. Covey (John Corbett) remarries. The third film also features Peter working through his relationship with his father, a storyline Han felt strongly about keeping in the film.
“The theme is really about the ways that families change and that it can feel very scary and destabilizing in the moment, but that there can be really beautiful things that come out of that change,” Han explains. “For Lara Jean, the world keeps changing around her and she has to keep finding her footing. I think the reason why that theme is important to me is just that, throughout the course of your life, your family will keep changing. People will pass away, people will be born, people will get divorced. It’s not something that stops when you’re a kid. So I think it’s just an important lesson to take in.”
Plus there’s the watchability factor; Han says some fans have told her they’ve watched each film more than 17 times, a trend which she hopes continues.
“I think there is something to be said about wearing your pajamas and eating ice cream out of the carton and being on your couch with a blanket,” Han says. “It really lends itself well to that cozy watching experience.”
Arthur agrees, adding that she thinks the franchise has something for everyone to enjoy.
“I think that it will live on as one of the great love stories of the 21st century, if I can be so bold. And I feel like people will come back to it year after year and enjoy it,” Arthur says. “It’s warm, it’s relatable, it has an eye-catching color palette, it tells a story that can resonate with so many and I feel like it’s for all ages, too.”
With “To All the Boys,” Kaplan feels as though he’s recaptured that feeling of the classics he grew up on.
“Just like how I felt about ‘Ferris Bueller’ and a lot of those John Hughes movies, new generations who have never seen ‘To All the Boys’ will find the franchise on Netflix,” Kaplan adds. “They’ll be able to go back and rewatch them from the beginning, hopefully 10-20 years from now. I’m really proud of that.”
And Kaplan thinks this success story is just the beginning, with his ACE Entertainment hoping that lightning will strike again, with their upcoming adaptation of “Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight” starring Haley Lu Richardson.
“I think rom-coms are just going to continue to explode. I don’t know if they’re always going to take the same fashion as the American rom-com,” he adds. “I just think it’s going to get more global and more honest of what people’s experiences are.”