Netflix series ‘Dash and Lily’ strays from source novel, but not to its detriment

Midori Francis plays Lily in Netflix's "Dash & Lily." Photo courtesy of Netflix/Fair Use

By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service

It is a rare occasion when a movie or television adaptation of a book is better than the novel, but Netflix has managed to finally pull it off.

A lot of Netflix’s content is novel-based, and even though some of the shows and movies are popular, they’re never as good as the original. For example, their most recent project, “Rebecca,” starring Lily James and Armie Hammer, received a lot of criticism for bringing nothing new to the table. 

“Dash and Lily,” the streaming platform’s latest series, does not have that problem. Based on the young adult novel Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, this show actually strays very far from its original source material — but it is surprisingly all the better for it. Maybe some of the antics aren’t exactly believable at all times, but their overall delivery updates the story and allows for a fun Christmas adventure with stronger plot points and more character growth. 

“Dash and Lily” isn’t the first page to screen adaptation to come from Levithan and Cohn. Previously, their novel Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was made into a Hollywood film, and even more recently, their novel Naomi and Eli’s No Kiss List was picked up by Netflix and made into an original film. Both were relatively well done. They were entertaining, featured strong female actresses and adhered pretty well to the stories of the books. The authorial pair seem to favor big city hijinks, often setting their protagonists loose on some crazy love story that involves a string of adventures and mishaps. “Dash and Lily” offers many of the same charms as its predecessor — with its whimsical New York City setting and the colorful ensemble of characters — but it builds from there, taking new twists and turns that may make it the best Levithan and Cohn adaptation yet. 

Our story begins in Manhattan’s legendary independent bookstore, The Strand. It’s December and cynical teen, Dash, played by Austin Abrams, is browsing the stacks. As Dash’s internal monologue floats over the scene, he happens upon a red notebook with the words “do you dare?” scrawled across the front in sharpie. First, Dash tries to give the book to a clerk, assuming it was misshelved, but something compels him to look inside. When he opens it up, he finds a message that can only be decoded by a scavenger hunt through the books. Dash accepts the challenge, completing every task laid out in the book but one: he doesn’t leave it back on the shelf for the next player. Instead, he takes it, leaving a dare of his own for the writer, a quirky, oddball named Lily (played by Midori Francis). What unfolds next is an anonymous back and forth, wherein the two teens continue leaving “dares” for the other person to complete in exchange for personal information about themselves. 

Things start off very similarly to how they begin in the book, but the updates are immediate. The series is set in present day, and often employs modern technology to push the story forward. The book was published in 2010 but yields no significant evidence of when it was meant to take place. While this isn’t necessarily a detriment to the book, the most technology they really use are phone calls and the subway. Texting and FaceTime accelerate things in the show by allowing the characters to reach one another more quickly and quips about things like the dating app “Grindr” make the show wittier and more engaging for young audiences. But that’s just the beginning. 

Though the basic idea of the plot is kept the same, some of Dash and Lily’s dares are altered. Luckily, the best dare from the book is kept: Lily’s dare for Dash to sit on Santa’s lap at Macy’s in exchange for her name. This scene translates into hilarious on-screen theatrics and is almost identical to the book. An angry elf, a not-so-jolly Santa, and a giant candy cane brandished as a weapon? What could be better? It was a wise move to include this spectacle. Outside of this instance, many of the following dares are completely original to the show. It feels like these alterations were probably made with pacing in mind, but it doesn’t matter. The book’s absent dares are not missed because the show’s dares are just as amusing and thoughtful and keep the same spirit. 

At times, the new dares give even better insight into the characters than the originals. For example, in episode 5, “Sofia & Edgar,” Lily dares Dash to make mochi with a “room full of Japanese grannies.” Not only does the task require patience, but the language barrier adds another layer. This scene is used as a device to show audiences how Dash has struggled with maintaining a level head in the past and gives glimpses of his relationships with other characters in the show. In exchange, Dash dares Lily to go to a pop-up art event called “The Breakout Room.” Here she is dared to make a piece of art and then destroy it. Again, we’re given insight into the characters through Dash’s suggestion that she can get out pent up frustrations and Lily’s refusal to destroy her creation. However, later in the episode, Lily gets some very bad news and finally lets loose, smashing a family of snowmen in the park to smithereens for some catharsis — an idea that never would have occurred to her had it not been for Dash. 

Other changes that were made in the series, like the introduction of certain characters, deepen our understanding of these characters and boost the plot. Dash’s best friend and Lily’s great aunt are both met either sooner or later than they are in the book. Lily’s aunt, “Mrs. Basil E,” comes into the book pretty early. In the show, her “grand entrance” is held off until closer to the end. Structurally, the wait improves the story because the aunt’s delayed appearance builds tension and results in an eventual “surprise and delight” for the audience. Dash’s best friend, Boomer, comes into play much earlier and becomes a much more integral piece in the game because of it. The audience learns more about him than in the book, and as a result, becomes more endeared to him. 

 At points, it feels like the show has marched away from the book completely, and while ultimately this is a good thing, the show does still try to offer up sly references to the original throughout. These small homages are meant to be special Easter eggs that only someone who’d read the book would know. Some diehard fans or novel purists may hate it, but too bad. These breadcrumbs are a nice tribute to the novel and its readers, creating a fun thing just for them, despite all the major alterations. 

The two biggest changes, however, are also the two biggest improvements. They divert completely from the novel and, as a result, make the story more relatable and believable. Firstly, Lily’s backstory is revamped. In the novel, she feels like an “outcast” because of a nickname she received in elementary school. On show-and-tell day, her gerbil gets eaten by one of her classmate’s pets, and she explodes into hysterics, forever being deemed “Shrilly.” While this isn’t the most out of the ordinary occurrence, it seems sort of bizarre and paints Lily as somewhat childish and, well, shrill. In Netflix’s version, Francis’s portrayal of Lily is softer and more empathetic, instead of feeling ostracized because her childhood crush calls her weird at a school dance after she tries to give him a friendship bracelet. When the flashback scene shows her peers all laughing at baby faced Lily, teary-eyed and clutching her bracelets to her chest, the audience is compelled to feel for her. Almost everyone has felt this pain — the sting of rejection — at one point or another, and your sympathy is stronger for a heartbroken misfit than it would be for a shrieking schoolgirl. 

The second substantial deviation is a complete omission that makes the series so much better. Toward the end of the novel, Dash and Lily become infamous amongst a group of internet “mommy bloggers” after one of the rambunctious dogs Lily walks in the park knocks a baby from its stroller, and Lily catches it in mid-air. The mommies accuse her of “baby-snatching” and call the authorities, resulting in a trip to the precinct and Dash and Lily’s faces on the front page of almost every local tabloid. While this is a somewhat droll anecdote and par-for-the-course in a Levithan/Cohen team-up, it is also distractingly silly and detracts from the main plot. It felt disjointed from the rest of the story, and it is not to the series’ detriment that it doesn’t make an appearance. 

“Dash and Lily” isn’t without flaws, however. Some critics could argue that one ridiculous scene is just substituted for another in the adaptation. By this, they would, of course, be referring to the guest appearance of Nick Jonas, who was also a producer on the show. The scene that features Jonas’s cameo is definitely cheesy and extraneous. While the moment was most likely meant to be funny, it came off as attention-grabbing and overly commercial. It didn’t add anything to the story, and some audience members might find themselves rolling their eyes. Fortunately, this failed attempt at comedy is fleeting and forgivable, and the rest of the series is genuinely funny and in direct contrast to the artificial humor of the producer’s awkward insertion.

It’s clear from the start — between the Jewish Punk concert featuring the “Challah Back Boys” and the “Cinderella” style caper involving a majorette boot — that this show doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s okay. It’s meant to be a sugar plum sweet holiday story, and that’s exactly what it is. These warm and fuzzy, happy (and a little too good to be true) endings wrapped in a bow are the lifeblood of this time of year. People love and crave them, and this is made especially true by the pandemic that is still going strong. Maybe it isn’t groundbreaking (okay, it definitely isn’t), but “Dash and Lily” is worth watching for the escapism, belly laughter, festive cinematography and killer holiday soundtrack. All rolled together, this series will lift your spirits and offer a fantastic reminder of how great the holiday season can be, even when we may have to spend it away from our loved ones.

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