The Fault in Our Stars
It takes a sure hand and a lot of talent to create a story which is concurrently tragically poignant and at the same time smartly and snarkily distrustful of the basic elements of tragically poignant stories. John Green’s young adult novel The Fault In Our Stars is beloved not just because it is a devastating story of the unfairness of life, love and loss, but because it was wildly funny and intelligently clear-eyed about its potentially overwrought subject matter.
Let’s face it, the basic storyline can not be more tragic – a teenaged girl suffering from terminal cancer finally finding a true romantic connection with another teen cancer patient, one who is in remission, but not until after it cost him his leg. Is it possible, or even prudent, to surrender to love when life itself is so fragile and temporary?
However, Green’s characters refused to wallow in their hardships. These were smart, funny, hip, cynical children whose biggest secret – even to themselves – is that they were really frightened romantics. Because of this, the book has cultivated a passionate pop culture following in the two years since its release.
Of course, a book’s massive popularity can be a blessing and/or a curse to filmmakers who dare to try a film adaptation. The movie will have a built-in audience, but if it changes things up too much or does not do the story justice, that audience will turn upon the filmmakers ferociously.
For the most part, The Fault In Our Stars respects its source material, staying mostly very faithful to the book – both as far as not monkeying with the plot line and greatly capturing the novel’s delicate tone.
It is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a high school student who has been living with the sentence of terminal cancer since she was thirteen. For now, medication and the oxygen tank that she must carry everywhere have been keeping the illness at bay, but she realizes that it’s only a matter of time before she will no longer be able to fight it off.
Because of this, she has pretty much isolated herself in her own world. Her parents (played by a heartbreakingly good Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) try their best to be there and be supportive, while not completely allowing her to disappear into the dark funk.
On their insistence, she periodically goes to a cancer support group at the local church. Hazel takes it all with a grain of salt, cynically mocking the experience to herself, until the day that she meets Augustus (played by Ansel Elgort, reunited with Woodley after playing her brother in this spring’s hit Divergent.)
Augustus is also a cancer survivor, currently in remission, though it took his left leg. Like Hazel Grace, Gus shares a gallows humor and quirky outlook in life. Soon they are becoming closer and closer, sharing adventures, movies and their favorite books. Particularly hers, a novel about life with cancer by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe), who never wrote another book after the one.
Hazel fights opening up and falling in love with Gus, knowing that she is – as she put it – a grenade that will eventually go off and destroy all around her. However, eventually she gives in to her emotions, even though she knows they will eventually end in tragedy for one of them.
It’s a devastating quandary, one that the actors tackle bravely and truthfully. (How many upcoming actresses would take a role where for the entire length of the movie you have to wear a breathing tube?) It also mostly does not soft-pedal the situation, Hazel can be moody and obnoxious at times, but she is mostly a nice and smart girl who was dealt a shitty hand by life.
The one slight problem I noticed about the film, which I did not feel so much in reading the book, is that the character of Augustus seems to be a little bit idealized. Gus is constantly doing everything in his power to lift Hazel Grace up, putting her wants and needs and fears before his own. He lives and breathes only to show her his love.
Of course, as an adult male, I’m not the target audience. I’m not even necessarily saying that it was a bad idea for a character to be played as a romantic ideal. At least judging by the theater full of teenaged girls sobbing uncontrollably around me, perhaps that makes him a more attractive as a dream guy character. True, his selflessness is admirable, but for me it sometimes also made him a bit hard to believe.
However that is a small quibble in a film that does so many things so very right.
For example, Hazel’s relationship with her parents, who try not to let on how distraught they are in front of their daughter, make for some of the most devastating moments in the film.
And yes, the film is devastating. You should know that before you go in. Yet it does have a surprisingjoie de vivre for a film which revolves so completely around death. The Fault In Our Stars is really that life is finite and sometimes bad things happen to good people. And sometimes, some good comes out of that, too.
Jay S. Jacobs