Those who read Jenny Han’s 2009 novel “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” and the two books that followed, knew a bit of what to expect from the series, which dropped its first season on Friday, June 17.
The premise was simple: A young girl, Belly, and her mom go to a beach house every summer and stay with the mother’s best friend and her sons. Bely has always had a crush on one of the boys, Conrad, and is best friends with his brother, Jeremiah. Ahead of her 16th birthday, she returned back to the beach once again and they all took notice that she was no longer a little girl.
The seven-episode series follows the same realm with newcomer Lola Tung portraying Belly.
“I really wanted to find actors that felt real and natural and fresh. There’s a feeling of discovery about that. The linchpin was going to be Belly because everything hangs around her. She’s the main character and so it was the most important that we found our right Belly,” Han tells Variety. “Lola had this freshness to her. She was still 18 when we cast her and she turned 18 on the show, but I think it’s really hard to manufacture a kind of innocence or newness to things. This is our first part and she had never done it before. There’s so many meta elements to that — to Belly’s big summer and Lola’s big summer.”
Here, the author and co-showrunner dives more into the differences between the book series and the TV show, her vision for future seasons and those incredible needle drops.
When you were adapting the book, how much pressure did you feel when it came to who Belly chose romantically at what point in her life?
It’s a bit of a balancing act, because I really had to weigh what the fans are expecting with where the show is going creatively and find that balance. My priority has always been that I want fans of the book to feel really satisfied by the story we’re telling, but also for them to know that this is an adaptation in a new medium, so it’s not going to be exactly the same. I think those are sort of the two things that are always in my head.
In the first book, Belly turned down Jeremiah. In this, she gave him a shot and they were together. Was there a chance that she was going to be with Jeremiah at the end of Season 1 instead of kissing Conrad?
Yeah, that was kind of moved up in the first season. When I was doing Jeremiah’s POV in the second book, I was very much swayed in all directions. I don’t want to spoil too much but the books have been out for a while. You never know what could happen with the show. I was open minded going in to it. I was considering a lot of different possibilities.
So, are you team Conrad or Jeremiah?
I definitely had moments of going back and forth for sure, because I think in order to write these characters, you have to love them and you have to understand them and have empathy for them. So I had a lot of empathy for both of these brothers. And my heart would definitely turn just like Belly’s would.
Can you talk about the decision to make Jeremiah bisexual in the show?
I was looking at this adaptation and thinking, if I was to write this book today, how would I write these characters? They’re all the same characters, but I think culture has moved in many ways and I think this younger generation is a lot more free about labels and more open minded and less on a binary. So I felt like for Jeremiah, it really made sense for him because I think he’s a character that’s very comfortable in his own skin and at ease with himself. I think it was it was a really natural choice to make.
It was great to see the young men in this show constantly asking if they could make a move on Belly. So thank you for that. We also see her become more experienced and starting to talk about sex. Will the future seasons include conversations around that even more?
Well, thank you! We’ll see! We’re still writing the second season now. So, I think we’ll figure out where that goes.
Susannah and Laurel’s friendship, as well as their individual personal relationships, were a much bigger part of the show than the book. And really, their friendship is a love story in itself. Did you know that you wanted to go deeper into that when laying out the show?
One of the pleasures in adapting this for TV was that we got to expand out from Belly’s point of view, where in the books, it’s really interior because you’re literally in her head. For the show, we got to expand our world and spend time with other characters in their heads. It was important to me for these two women to have their own storylines that are separate from being the roles of mother or wife — that they had their own inner worlds and their own coming of age. Both of them are at different inflection points in a way. I really wanted to show the breadth of female friendships and the intensity of it and the intimacy of it and really celebrate how these two women chose each other, and they’ve been choosing each other for decades. They really prioritize their friendship, so much so that they choose to be at this house together and bring their kids with them and create this magical world as one family.
Susannah dies between the first and second book. What conversations did you have with Rachel Blanchard early on about her character and the arc she was going on?
We have a lot of conversations about Susannah’s trajectory and all the cast members read the books as well, so everybody was coming into it with that base of knowledge. I would say that Rachel and I talked a lot about how I think that Susannah is like one of the most important characters in the first season. I think every single person is in her orbit in a way and they’re all there because of her and she’s very beloved by all of them. People are sort of reacting off of her in many ways. She’s setting people off on different journeys, so it was important to me that the person I cast for that part was somebody that drew people in, someone that you could just fall in love with.
Obviously, we have to talk about the music because it’s a character in itself in the show. There is a lot of Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Ariana Grande. Can you explain your process of getting the rights to those huge hits?
It was pretty much in the normal way of writing a scripts and then hoping that people would give us permission. As it went on, there were certain scenes where I asked for 10 different songs to try. Pretty much everything that we went after, we were able to get for the most part. The way I approached the music was thinking about how I think that there’s always that song of summer. You remember where you were at when it was the big song and there’s something really nostalgic about music that just can transport you to another place in time. So, I wanted the show to have that immediacy but also that feeling of a memory. I really wanted songs that were recognizable.
To get the rights to the music, our process was to show the artist the script so that they see the scene and have that context of what it was going to be, because some artists are selective about who they grant the rights to and they don’t want a theme that’s going to be like super violent or something. Different artists handle it different ways, but that was pretty much the process for all the music that we approached.
So this is a three-book story. You already got a Season 2. Are you planning for three seasons?
It’s totally up to what Amazon wants and really, truly what audiences want. I would love to get three seasons because there are three books. So I would love to be able to finish telling that story the way that I wrote it. But I certainly don’t take anything for granted. I just hope people find the audience and people love it and want more.