When author, blogger and all-around champion of the young adult population John Green first told acquaintances of his intent to write a novel about two cancer-diagnosed teenagers who fall in love, the initial reaction by many was, so he has claimed, “Oh – like a modern Love Story.” That film, starring a young Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw as two ill-fated lovers, was a major box office success back in 1970, and for four decades has been seen by many critics as the epitome of the manipulative, four-hankie melodrama. So naturally Green’s reaction was a derisive one, especially as he has made it his goal to promote forward thinking among teenagers – definitely not the sort of hackneyed, canned sentimentality of old-school soap opera. His book was going to be about real emotion.
He wrote this book, called it The Fault in Our Stars, and watched as it took the world by storm, becoming a bestseller and herding in a fresh import of confused, soul-searching teenage girls as devoted members of his widespread following. These girls identified with protagonist Hazel’s pessimism and ironic worldview, finding truth in her voice in a way that so many teenage boys have in the voice of Holden Caulfield. As it turns out, a contemporary all-American girl need not have cancer, as Hazel does, in order to feel that living one’s life – when looked at from a cosmic, or mortal level – is a futile effort; all she need have is hormones, a developing intellect, and a need to be proven wrong.
Inevitably, Hollywood came calling, and thus, we have this movie. How to approach such a beast? One walks into the theater with such conflicting points of view clamoring to shape one’s viewing experience. There are some who swear it’s a truly moving, realistic depiction of a young couple without much time in the world. So bring the Kleenex. Others have stuck firmly by the conviction that anything labeled “young adult” is inevitably “juvenile”, and thus one should bring a barf bag instead. Leave the Kleenex at home for a follow-up breakdown as one contemplates the bleak prospect of our popular culture ever going anywhere but downhill.
I can’t say I favor either position, although they both lurked in my mind as I sat down to take in this motion picture. All I can say is that I prefer movies that make you cry without setting themselves up as such, and that I’ve read plenty of young adult books that do touch on something authentic, sometimes more so than most fiction written for grown-ups. Oh well – better just watch the thing, and figure it out for yourself.
This is what I think: The Fault in Our Stars is not like Love Story in that it does not take itself too seriously, although it seriously believes in the struggle of its main characters. Shailene Woodley is her natural, glowing self as Hazel – an appropriate choice in casting that further compounds the novel’s status as the token idol of adolescent girlhood, seeing as Ms. Woodley earned her stripes playing in The Secret Life of the American Teenager for ABC, and earlier this year starred in another teen novel/movie adaptation, Divergent. There are moments in the film when her grace is readily apparent, and the “it” factor beams from her sparkling eyes like so many tears. The sensitivity that is imparted between herself and Ansel Elgort, as Hazel’s love interest Gus, is easy to accept, the fresh youthfulness of both actors unmistakable.
Yet there is an equally unmistakable simplemindedness here that calls into question the true worth of Mr. Green’s purported good word, something that I daresay ought to be treated with as much skepticism as Hazel has for a good-intentioned cancer support group leader’s “Heart of Jesus” meetings she goes to. For the majority of this feature, I wasn’t feeling much in the way of sadness – aside from an occasional tug at the heart, whenever a particularly hard truth of Hazel’s cancer came up – until the third act, when things really took a turn for the worse and the terminality of the situation became clear. But everything before then, quite unwittingly, worked in the opposite direction, and actually made this viewer feel somewhat impatient with the two love birds (and especially with Gus; there is room for a great performance within the structuring of the role, but Elgort doesn’t play it to the fullest of its possibilities).
The thoughts these kids share are tender, but they are also self-idolatrizing and prematurely defined. Their exchange is warm and filled with feeling – but there is also a cocksure and unsophisticated flair to their speech (his more than hers) that renders the substance of what they say childish and shallow. They are teenagers, and the greatest fault in The Fault in Our Stars is that it cannot seem to conceive of any world, any reality outside that one which is known by its two central characters – who themselves cannot fathom anything more pressing, more grievous, than the situation at hand, in which they find themselves so earnestly struggling.
This is not to say that limited perspective cannot be a merit to a movie; it has been used quite effectively before, notably in films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Breakfast Club (1985). But in those cases there was a reasoned creative intention behind the choice, an effort to cinematically depict the self-possessed drama of teenagers. And in both cases, the drama arose from how outside forces clashed with the inner tribulations of the adolescent mind. Here, one intuits that whatever places, people or ideas these kids have touched on have existed purely for the sake of serving them, and their closed perspective does not make one think of the commonplace angst that cognitively restricts teenagers, but rather of the blindly self-centered, uninspired conceitedness that so many have pointed out are the growing characteristics of America’s iPhone-armed, middle-class, white youth.
Nowhere in the film is this more apparent than the scene where Hazel and Gus visit the Anne Frank home in Amsterdam, where they go to meet Hazel’s reclusive author idol with trip money donated through a charity organization. The moment they arrived, I felt chills run down my spine – not because I’d developed any sudden affection for the two, but because I was suddenly confronted with footage of Nazi Germany, the faces of the persecuted Jews – and suddenly I was reminded of a very real pain, a very real suffering, that had nothing whatsoever to do with the burdens of our suddenly very insignificant protagonists.
Hazel has a great difficulty breathing as she makes her way up the many flights of narrow steps to the Frank family’s annex hideout, pausing to collect herself on several occasions. But she finally gets there, and then – standing in this bare, sacred place, filled with the ghosts of people who lived and died in a way so agonizing, so inhumane, so profound – she makes out with her boyfriend for the first time. They stand in the center of the tiny room, and as far as the movie is concerned, they are all that’s worth looking at. The other tourists applaud; Gus takes a bow. And thus the memory of Anne Frank is made second-fiddle, along with everyone else, to the sweeping violin solo that is the heart of this movie.
At this point, I’m sure, I’m beginning to make this work sound even more detestable than Love Story, and Mr. Green’s words about his characters’ “real emotion” sound far away indeed, cheapened by the exclusion of any sort of emotion belonging to any other person. And yet – here comes the pivot in this lengthy criticism – I do not mean to make this film sound offensive (you won’t find it so if you choose not to read it too deeply, or too cynically), nor do I wish to entirely undermine the clearly good intentions of our friend John Green. In complete fairness, I have not read his book, and so I cannot say whether this film adaptation’s overarching simplemindedness can be found in the pages of its source material. There’s plenty that I find objectionable about this movie, but I realize that it is necessary for me to give old John the benefit of the doubt – seeing as he did not write the screenplay, and because, gosh-darn-it, I know too many lovely people who have so positively responded to his book. So I’ll afford him my doubt.
The title is a misquotation of Shakespeare, and while I originally found this contortion of the Bard’s words regrettable, even embarrassing, I now realize that there is a hint of meaning behind the choice. “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” growls the evil Cassius as he persuades his fellow Roman to help in righting the wrong of dictatorship that they’ve so meekly allowed the almighty Caesar to step into. The words, taken in context, acknowledge the responsibility one holds in allowing the world to pass oneself over, the power one has in determining one’s fate: “the fault lies not in our stars…” But for a cancer victim – and, more broadly, the American teenager – how can fault belong to anything but the stars? Life is so big, isn’t it (even though all I can see is a fraction the sky, a fraction of infinity)? How can I possibly alter my fate, when life has slowly drained all self-determination from my being?
Perhaps the realest aspect of The Fault in Our Stars is that it grapples with the question of limitation, the not being able to seek out more, experience more, become more because of circumstance. It plays this question out within the context of a terminal illness, but ends up speaking more subtly for the sentiments of an entire generation – limited, perhaps, by the overwhelming burden of a poorly defined infinity. It is a movie that serves its young subjects – as it does its young audience – sweet sorrow on a gilded tray, promising that such bittersweet stuff is reality, and oh, how bitter it tastes… but also oh, how sweet. Decide for yourself whether this is a meal you’re willing to swallow; there are plenty of others who’ve already had a sampling, and have left the buffet quite contentedly full. We have Mr. Green to thank, and congratulate, for that.