Based on the best-selling, internationally adored young adult novel by teen whisperer John Green, The Fault in Our Stars film adaptation has been highly anticipated for some time, and I count myself as one of the anticipators. The source material is infinitely quotable and horrifically sad, yet maintains a realism and humour that is rarely seen in the so-called “sick lit” genre. It rises above the illness that provides much of the plot, and becomes a very lovely story about falling in love and being loved. The film adaptation tries desperately to reach that same lofty height… and just falls short.
The story is of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17yr old girl from suburban Indiana who has had terminal stage 4 thyroid cancer since she was 13. Though her illness is maintained through a cocktail of trial drugs and painful hospital procedures, the disease will eventually kill her, and if the sheer knowledge of that isn’t enough to remind her of her own fragility, the tank of oxygen that she has to pull around with her everywhere surely is. Introverted and depressed, her parents encourage her to attend a local support group for young people with cancer, and though she is rightfully cynical about the stereotypical and unhelpful “support” she’ll receive there, she makes the effort to keep her parents happy. It’s there she meets Augustus Waters, an 18yr old cancer survivor and amputee, and they immediately form a connection with help from both Gus’ outgoing and upfront personality, and their shared love for a book about a cancer patient, written by an American author who is in a self-imposed exile. As they explore their relationship and venture to Amsterdam to obtain answers from their reclusive and flawed hero, they navigate unexpected challenges with their health and their relationship, and ultimately experience the beauty and horror that is provided by your first pure and true love.
One of the most beautiful things about the book is simply the way John Green writes. He seems to have a way with words that speaks directly to young people, without alienating anyone over the age of 18. He isn’t condescending; he speaks the truth, and writes for smart young people who like other smart young people. The film aims for this too, but tends to fall short. The book, though not massive in length, is multi-layered and covers a fair amount of Hazel and Augustus’ lives within and outside of their relationship, and much of this was cut for the film. In fact, the biggest plot point/reveal is cut down significantly, and in such a way that I can only imagine that for people who haven’t read the book, that particular moment must seem almost idiotic. In that sense, the writing is sloppy – they knew what the tween girl fans wanted, and those girls wanted as much Hazel & Gus romance as humanly possible, cohesive and complex characters be damned. I suppose one can’t blame them for targeting a huge money-making demographic, but considering John’s book is so much more than a teenage cancer book, it seems a shame to make the movie to be exactly that.
The performances from the two leads were outstanding though, and Shailene Woodley was the perfect Hazel, swapping out some of the forthright sass from the book for a sort of awkward introversion, which works much better on film. Ansel Englort delivers a swagger-filled Augustus, though it was a shame we didn’t get to see more of the somber side of the role – what little we did see, he nailed. Laura Dern and Sam Trammel do well as Hazel’s ever-present parents, though Willem Dafoe was incredibly underused as Hazel and Gus’ author hero, Peter Van Houten. He has barely two or three scenes, and has to ham it up to get his point across in such a sort period of time. It’s a shame.
I went and saw this at a screening with other fans of the book, set up by the book’s publisher. Whilst I certainly wasn’t the oldest in attendance, there was a hell of a lot of 15 – 19yr old girls there, and boy, was their presence felt. You can’t deny that the movie nails it’s demo, because these girls were HOWLING. You could hear chairs shuddering and sobs shaking through their bodies towards the end of the film, and it actually became almost too distracting. In a weird way though, it proved useful to me – I was able to step outside of the film, and experience it through the eyes of these megafans, and from their perspective, I get it. I get why they are so affected. As much as the book achieves so much with its intelligent prose and complex, verbose characters, the film achieves the ultimate teenage romance, within the confines of this horrible illness. They’re not obsessed with each other, but they’re always with each other. They’re playful and sarcastic, but never mean. They make love, and it’s awkward and romantic and humorous all at once. It is the teenage girl romance dream, with a touch of cancer. The film keeps things mostly quite shiny – a single spat between the two, no sickening looks at the actual side effects of these disgusting and dehumanising diseases – but not shiny enough so young women feel as though they’re being deceived. I get it. It IS romantic. It just lacks some of the nuances that book delivers so masterfully, and for that reason, I think there will be a decent number of people who walk away and unfairly label it “just another cancer movie”. It isn’t that. But it isn’t what it could have been either.
I enjoyed it, and I think a rewatch in a setting where I can immerse myself in what is on screen (ie, with no bawling women around me) will be helpful for me to really appreciate what is put on screen, because the performances ARE good, the direction is good, the soundtrack lovely and well measured. And ultimately, I got what I expected. It is just a shame that so much of the nuanced originality of the source was lost in translation, a great shame indeed.