I came to be aware of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars, from the same source that alerted me to Buffy Summers: Time magazine’s year-end best of lists. Like most of the civilized world, I thought the idea of basing a television show on that goofy movie was nuts. How desperate could this new WB network be for programming? And then, one year (probably 1997), I saw that Time had Buffy the Vampire Slayer listed as the best show on television. I had to tune in, right? The first episode I watched was “Go Fish,” a steroid-themed installment and one of the weaker outings of the entire series. But, I stuck with it, and Buffy is one of my favorite shows of all time. (It used to be my clear favorite, but Breaking Bad has muddied the waters for me on that.)
Similarly, I had never heard of John Green, but two years ago Time listed his YA novel The Fault in Our Stars as the best non-fiction book of the year. Again, I was intrigued and used an Amazon gift card I’d gotten for Christmas to procure the book. I’m not sure I’d agree with the “best fiction book of the year” accolades, but it’s a very strong novel, in some ways a master class in voice and tone. Set in the world of pediatric cancer and survivor support groups, Green’s novel is about people who have been jaded by cancer and, therefore, have a fairly ghoulish sense of humor about it. But, the book was never glib, the joking about cancer never ignored the tragedy the disease leaves in its wake. When they announced a film version (Of course there would be a film version; it was a bestselling novel.), my first thought was if they don’t balance the tricky tone right, the movie is going to be a disaster.
They got the tone right.
The screenwriters are Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, who have previously collaborated on The Spectacular Now and (500) Days of Summer, one of the best romantic comedies in recent years. The writers have done something you don’t see all that often, they get out of the book’s way. They realized they had very good source material and simply ushered it to the screen. I am an avid reader and nothing bugs me more than when screenwriters feel like the book just wasn’t good enough, so they have to add their own spin to it. I’m not suggesting that books don’t need to be adapted in sometimes major ways when they translate to film, but it bugs me when somebody thinks a great book just wasn’t great enough. I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan, and I remember going to see Be Cool, the movie version of Leonard’s sequel to Get Shorty. The screenwriter for that masterpiece thought he needed to invent characters that didn’t appear in the book. Gotcha. The greatest crime novelist in the history of written language and winner of the National Book Awards Medal for Outstanding Contribution wrote something you could actually improve by adding in characters he didn’t need. What a hack! Congratulations, your movie was terrible largely due to your own arrogance. When the Coens made True Grit, they transposed most of the book’s dialogue, because they wanted to make a movie from the book, because they loved the way the book was written. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to rewrite it.
Thanks for letting me vent that; I’ve been holding it in for a while. And, kudos to Weber and Neustadter for having the good sense to preserve their source material and to not feel like they needed to leave their fingerprints on it.
Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year old who was diagnosed with stage four cancer at age 13. An experimental drug treatment has prolonged her life, but it’s also left her very sick, with weak lungs requiring constant oxygen therapy. Hazel views herself as a grenade. She knows that she is going to die sooner rather than later, so she tries to limit the number of people that will be affected by her death. At the behest of her doctor and mother (Lara Dern) who think Hazel is suffering from depression, Hazel starts to attend a support group for teenagers who have cancer. Like most teenagers would, Hazel sees the group as eye-rollingly silly. And then, one day August Waters (Ansel Elgort) shows up. Gus is a former star athlete who’s lost his right leg to cancer but has been in remission for 18 months. Gus takes an immediate shine to Hazel, but she hesitates to get close to him.
They bond over her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, written by an alcoholic and now Salinger-like recluse named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). That novel ends in mid-sentence, and Hazel has questions about what happened to the characters. Gus uses his request from a Make-A-Wish-like organization for him and Hazel to travel to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten. That meeting goes terribly wrong, but Hazel finally lets her guard down to Gus. “I fell in love the way you fall asleep,” she says. “Slowly, then all at once.” (Hey, aspiring screenwriters, that line was taken directly from the book.)
I don’t want to get into spoilers here, if people haven’t read the book. Let’s just say some tragic things happen. Thankfully, the film never loses the book’s caustic wit, even in the most difficult or heartbreaking situations. This isn’t weepy, gross, Nicolas Sparks territory we’re asked to navigate. This is clear-eyed and true. Will this film bring audience to tears? Very likely, yes. But, it’s not maudlin or manipulative. After all, isn’t it kind of disgusting to create a story about dying people only for the sake of making the audience cry? It’s emotionally honest, and it’s very, very well acted.
Shailene Woodley is a boss. She’s the perfect actress to embody Hazel, and she carries the film effortlessly. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s in every scene of the movie. Her work in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now is so good, nobody should be surprised at this point. But, this is a star-making role in a high profile vehicle, and she knocks it out of the park.
Gus might be the more difficult role to get right. Elgort gives him the swagger of a star athlete but undercuts it with a goofy sense of self-awareness. He doesn’t take himself seriously. This is a kid who knows he’s good looking but is self-conscious about having a prosthetic leg. He’s very charming. The chemistry between these two really works. The film wouldn’t work without it. Also, I’d like to publicly apologize for using the word “swagger” in this paragraph.
The Van Houten stuff in the book was its weakest material, but I was kind of impressed that Dafoe makes it work better on film. The character makes more sense here, though I still think his big scene is fairly awkward. But, he makes a return appearance near the end that still makes no sense at all and could be handled better in about a dozen different ways.
I was a mess reading the last third of the book, and I was a mess through the last third of the movie, even though I knew what was coming. It will be interesting to see how critics respond to The Fault in Our Stars. They tend to be resentful of these kinds of films that wear their hearts on their sleeves , but this one is very much a cut above the usual teen romance. It’s going to be a huge hit for a segment of the audience that is still chronically underserved.