Turtles All the Way Down: Is the Movie Based on a True Story?

‘Turtles All the Way Down’ is an insightful teen romance that centers on a high school girl with OCD and anxiety. Aza Holmes leads a challenging life juggling germophobia, anxiety, and low self-esteem. She is supported in her daily life by her close ones, especially her quirky best friend, Daisy. Directed by Hannah Marks, the film follows Aza and her continuous struggle with mental illness as she learns methods to control it while trying to live a fulfilling life.

Things take a dramatic turn when Aza is reunited with her childhood crush, Davis, and the two begin a romantic journey together. Despite her thought spirals and lack of confidence, Davis is supportive and empathetic, treating her with care and consideration. Many viewers may find themselves deeply resonating with Aza’s story and investigating whether it draws from real-life experiences.

Turtles All the Way Down is Inspired by John Green’s Experiences

The story for ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ is based on renowned author John Green’s novel of the same name and draws from his own experiences with mental illness. This personal understanding regarding the thought processes and isolation felt by someone with obsessive behaviors imbues Aza Holmes with a sense of relatability for others with similar experiences. “I had to write with enough distance from myself to make it ok, to make it feel safe,” said John Green in an interview. “And so Aza has somewhat different focai of her obsessive concerns and the behaviors she uses to manage them. I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions.”

Image Credit: Bystander Revolution

He added, “The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it.” ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ authentically portrays Aza’s struggles with OCD, anxiety, and germophobia, shedding light on the challenges faced by individuals grappling with mental illness. The film delves into the intricacies of OCD, a mental health disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, as well as anxiety, which often accompanies OCD and exacerbates Aza’s difficulties.

Germophobia, a specific manifestation of OCD, is depicted in the film as Aza’s intense fear of contamination and illness. This fear drives her to avoid germs and their possible sources, causing an aversion to physical contact with others. As seen in the movie, Germophobia can significantly impact a person’s daily life, causing distress, isolation, and disruption to normal activities. This difficulty and isolation are poignantly presented in the film as Aza regularly falls into thought spirals during everyday activities, often being rescued by Daisy.

While Green has penned bestsellers like ‘Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances,’ ‘Paper Towns,’ and ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ is the first time he deeply delved into a personal issue of mental health very close to him. “It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression, I could look at it, and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it,” continued Green in the aforementioned interview.

He further added, “And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.” A key difference between Green’s narrative in ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ and some similar works exploring mental health is the resolution and takeaway of the story. Aza does not miraculously overcome her seemingly insurmountable issues but learns to adapt and live a happy life with them. This is because Green has also had the same mental health journey over the years, which is likely true for the majority of people dealing with disorders of this magnitude.

It’s a continuous and often tumultuous battle that rages on with varying intensities. Through Aza’s character, ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ provides a nuanced depiction of the emotional and psychological toll of living with OCD and anxiety. Aza’s inner turmoil, largely seen in the movie through her relentless thought spirals and struggles with intrusive thoughts, offers us insight into the daily battles of individuals with OCD. The film also explores the impact of Aza’s mental illness on her relationships, including her budding romance with Davis. She adopts a pessimistic attitude toward the possible relationship from the start, recognizing the monumental effort required for her to be with him.

 However, with help from her loved ones and Davis himself, Aza taps into her resilient spirit and realizes she is accepted and appreciated for who she is and not defined by the issues that plague her. Director Hannah Marks’ thoughtful approach to depicting Aza’s experiences ensures that the film remains true to the core message of the source novel and understanding of individuals living with OCD and anxiety. By drawing from John Green’s own experiences with mental illness, ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ offers a poignant portrayal of Aza’s journey toward self-acceptance and understanding. Through Aza’s story, we are reminded of the importance of empathy, compassion, and support in the face of mental health struggles, fostering greater awareness and understanding of these often misunderstood conditions.

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