[National Review Online; June 6, 2014]
It was “beautifully tragic,” my young companion said, and judging from the sobs and sighing all around us, this opinion was widely shared. The film is based on the best-selling Young Adult book by the same title, authored by John Green (best known, with his brother Hank, for the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers). The novel bucked current trends by not being set in a near-future dystopia ruled by vampires. Instead it’s a dying-teenager story, but not of the usual sort. It’s literate and funny. It doesn’t exploit the drama of diagnosis, horror, and teary acceptance; the characters have had cancer for years already, and have worked out believably different ways of living with their condition. (As a one-time aspirant for the Episcopal priesthood, Green spent some time as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. Hard lessons learned greatly benefit the storytelling.)
The Fault in Our Stars is driven not by the characters’ medical charts but by their personalities, and those personalities are intriguing. The book’s huge success led the adapters to stick close to the text, which is all to the good.
The narrator is Hazel Grace Lancaster, 16, who nearly died of thyroid cancer a few years ago. An experimental drug has given her back some of her life, but her lungs are compromised, so she wears a cannula under her nose and drags an oxygen tank around. Hazel gets by on deadpan wit and plainspoken realism. The character is carefully drawn to be neither too vulnerable nor too hard, and actress Shailene Woodley hits the perfect center of that target.
Hazel’s mom fears she’s depressed — “presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.” That compulsively reread book is the novel An Imperial Affliction, by Peter Van Houten. AIA (as Hazel refers to it) is narrated by a teenaged girl with cancer, and the book ends suddenly in the middle of a sentence, signaling her death. Hazel desperately wants to know what happens to the other characters. She feels Van Houten is the only person who understands her. However, he has moved to Amsterdam, gives no interviews, and has not published anything in years.
Hazel reluctantly agrees to attend a teen-cancer support group, and meets Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), who is in remission after losing a leg a couple of years ago. When the group leader asks how he’s doing, Gus replies, “Oh, I’m grand. I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.”
That’s the setup: Hazel is skeptical and wry, while Gus is ironic and debonair, and they’re both very bright. There’s not a lot of plot, actually, but they’re an interesting couple to watch, both so acerbic and bright. As Gus talks with Hazel after the meeting, she battles feelings of attraction, but everything changes when he puts a cigarette in his mouth.
“Are you serious?” she exclaims. “You think that’s cool? You just ruined the whole thing.”
Gus pretends surprise at her reaction. Then he tells her, “They don’t kill you unless you light them. And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.”
Gus pursues Hazel openly, in his droll and gallant way, and Hazel resists. She knows that anyone who gets close to a cancer patient is going to get torn apart. “I’m a grenade,” she tells Gus. “And one day I’m gonna blow up and obliterate everything in my wake, and I don’t want to hurt you.”
She has adopted Van Houten’s bleak outlook, but Gus believes in heroism. He says, “I want to live an extraordinary life,” no matter how short. He reads novels about Sgt. Max Mayhem, which have, Hazel observes, “a sentence-to-corpse ratio of nearly 1:1.” He seeks “honor, sacrifice, heroism, and embracing your destiny.” When he says that the one thing he fears is oblivion, Hazel blasts him with her Van Houtenish conviction that oblivion is inevitable, and one day the whole human race will be gone.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that she ends up falling in love with him anyway. And it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that she and Gus and their friend Isaac all encounter medical crises. What you probably wouldn’t anticipate is that Gus and Hazel, on a Van Houten–seeking trip to Amsterdam, wind up making out in the room where Anne Frank and her family hid.
It made slightly more sense in the book: They’re in Amsterdam anyway, it’s likely they’d go sightseeing, and it’s on this trip that Hazel is finally falling in love. What’s not in the book is that the Anne Frank Museum’s speaker system is playing a recording of tender, hopeful lines from Frank’s diary while they smooch. The scene is an off note, though about the only one in the film.
(Why does Amsterdam come up at all? Van Houten could have holed up next door to J. D. Salinger in New Hampshire. Maybe it has to do with Green’s thanks, in his acknowledgments, to “The Dutch Literature Foundation, for giving me two months in Amsterdam to write.”)
The change of scene benefits the movie, in that Amsterdam offers more visual delights than Pittsburgh (here standing in for Indianapolis), and the scene will surely boost Amsterdam as a romantic destination in Young Adult eyes. But the Frank Museum will find it a mixed blessing if teens create a tradition of making out where Hazel and Gus did.
The Fault in Our Stars is a little longer than it needs to be, at 125 minutes, yet it goes down smoothly. It feels less manipulative than many similar tales, perhaps because of the originality of the characters, and perhaps because of Shailene Woodley’s precision in striking a tone. (She also cries convincingly and beautifully.)
The one dramatic difficulty is in balancing the two main characters; Hazel is down-to-earth and seems realer than Gus, who deliberately adopts a droll and gallant air. This isn’t the fatal plot flaw it would have been to send a happy pixie into Hazel’s dour life, so she can learn to smell the roses; the character is more subtle than that, and Ansel Elgort stays strong, not cute. It’s just that a character with some deliberately adopted artificiality of manner, set against Hazel’s direct, illusionless style, is inevitably going to seem less real. Gus is an interesting and even a believable character, but he just doesn’t have the weight to hold down his end of the story.
On the other hand, the encounter with Van Houten is almost too strong; he’s bitter, drunk, and insulting (“I refuse to pity you in the manner to which you are well accustomed”), and Willem Dafoe, in unrelenting closeup, is pretty scary. It’s an extraordinary scene, but that makes it almost too much for the structure to bear.
Don’t expect to hear any complaints from fans of the book, though; “beautifully tragic” dying teenagers are as irresistible as they have ever been.