The Fault in Our Stars
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (thematic elements, some sexuality, brief strong language)
Here’s the thing about John Green’s best-selling young adult novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.”
It’s a book about a teenage girl, a girl who isn’t in love with a vampire or fighting for survival in a dystopian death arena. This girl has terminal cancer. She has no illusions about the fact that she’s dying, which makes “TFiOS” the rare YA read that dares tackle the thorny intricacies of reality. Its heroine is an ordinary young woman, though she happens to be unusually sharp-witted and insightful, which makes her certain fate all the more heart-wrenching.
What’s remarkable about “TFiOS” is that it was written by a thirtysomething man, who has no trouble at all getting into the head of 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster. As if that wasn’t enough, he draws beautifully nuanced, sympathetic portraits of Hazel’s anguished parents, too. It’s quite a literary feat, one that holds enormous appeal for readers at any stage of life.
Teenagers love “TFiOS” for the epic, star-crossed love story at its center. The sweet but doomed affair between Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters is adorable but never precious. Green sets a pivotal romantic scene between the two at Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House of all places.
Adults are wrapped up in the book for different reasons. How you respond to it has a lot to do with your beliefs about and experiences of life and death. After I read it, I sank into an existential funk for days. This is a book that’s brutally honest about the end of life and the process of dying. It raises questions we don’t like to think about. Is it possible to die gracefully? How important is it to leave a legacy? Is it worth it to love when love inevitably leads to loss?
You can see how all of this might be an awkward fit for a Hollywood movie.
Surprisingly, director Josh Boone’s adaptation of Green’s beloved novel gets it mostly right. It’s not perfection, by any means, but it does nothing to dishonor its source. It’s also one of the few movies you’ll see this summer with a young woman in a lead role that doesn’t require her to jump out of moving trains, shoot a bow and arrow or undergo a magical transformation right before the prom. Female moviegoers showed their gratitude last weekend to the tune of $48 million. “TFiOS” even beat out Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” and Disney’s “Maleficent” at the box office.
“TFiOS” succeeds largely on the talents of its ingratiating performers. Shailene Woodley, the luminous young star of “Divergent” and “The Descendants,” plays Hazel Grace, a thoughtful Indianapolis girl whose diagnosis of throat cancer at the age of 13 is a death sentence, postponed by an experimental drug. The disease spreads to her lungs, so Hazel is in and out of the hospital, frequently short of breath and must constantly tote an oxygen tank behind her.
With a lot more than fashion on her mind, Hazel’s only accessory is the cannula, or transparent tube, that wraps around her ears and feeds air into her nostrils. To his credit, Boone takes care that the physical manifestations of Hazel’s cancer remain front and center throughout the film. This isn’t one of those movies in which we’re told the heroine is dying but never see any evidence of it.
Because she prefers to mope around the house reading and watching reality TV, Hazel’s mother (Laura Dern) and doctor declare her depressed. Mom’s solution is to send her daughter to a cheesy cancer support group in a church basement. Hazel can’t stand the meetings and their trite, sentimental speeches, but she does meet Augustus Waters, a charming 18-year-old cancer survivor with a prosthetic leg.
Augustus takes one look at Hazel and is smitten. Hazel clearly enjoys his attentions but is slower to reciprocate. In her volatile state, she considers herself a grenade. It’s her responsibility to minimize the damage she causes to those around her, she says.
Despite her protestations, Hazel and Gus bond over their mutual sarcasm, blunt approach to the prospect of impending death and Hazel’s favorite novel, “An Imperial Affliction,” written by the reclusive Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Hazel’s obsession with addressing the questions left unanswered at the end of Van Houten’s book send the couple on an unforgettable trip to Amsterdam, where they discover, as Augustus says, that the world is not a wish-granting factory.
Woodley’s pensive, unglamorous but utterly charismatic performance is a marvel. Her Hazel Grace is more full of life than most people who foolishly bank on the assumption that they have years and years ahead of them. She and the irresistible Ansel Elgort — who plays her brother in “Divergent” — have a warm, rich chemistry that turns even the most potentially maudlin scenes into heartfelt moments, particularly an Amsterdam love scene that is tender, bittersweet and sincere in a way teenage love scenes rarely are.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber penned “The Spectacular Now,” another teen drama starring Woodley. They’ve filed down some of the rougher, more profound edges of Green’s book, perhaps to make it more palatable. They’ve also softened Hazel a bit, shying away from some of the negative but honest emotions, like rage and despair, that are present in the book.
I wish the movie didn’t require a voiceover. Narration almost always comes across as too on the nose in films that hover dangerously on the edge of becoming obvious and “inspirational,” but the book’s deeply internal qualities practically demand such a device.
I wish Boone didn’t resort to cutesy visual gimmicks, like the wiggly text bubbles that pop up on screen whenever Hazel and Augustus communicate.
I wish Hazel’s parents got the poignant, three dimensional portrayal they deserve.
I wish the movie didn’t have the weepy emo soundtrack all quirky, youthful rom-coms seem to have.
I wish the director had a better handle on the tone of the film, which sometimes segues choppily from irreverent humor, to melodrama, to genuine sorrow.
“TFiOS” the movie might have you reaching for a Kleenex, but Green’s novel reached right inside you and ripped out your guts.
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