The adaptation of cult literary phenomenon The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, has sent many a teenage girl flocking to cinemas across the world to watch their favourite love story play out on screen. As a twenty-something who has not had opportunity to read the novel yet, I was pleasantly surprised by this intelligent, funny and heartbreaking film about two teenagers trying to be ‘okay’ with the cards life has dealt them.
The critics of this movie seem divided between the older professional critics, and the young adults who have read the book and are grateful to see their favourite story brought to life. There’s been very little middle ground, especially in terms of the demographic who’s opinion should probably matter more than anyone: cancer survivors, cancer patients and the families and friends of those suffering.
I am not a teenage girl, a middle-aged journalist or a cancer survivor, but I have recently bared witness to the cruelty it bestows on close family. A harsh reality at any age, I felt like a bit of a masochist willingly watching a film I knew skimmed too close to fresh wounds. Despite the tears that did fall, The Fault in Our Stars was also oddly comforting.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort) are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit and a disdain for the conventional. They meet when Hazel’s parents decide she is depressed and needs to attend a support group for cancer patients. The sixteen-year-old was diagnosed with thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs at the age of thirteen, forcing her to carry an oxygen tank in lieu of a purse and reflect on the impossible odds that she is still here. Augustus (or Gus) by comparison had osteosarcoma until his leg was amputated and now spends his cancer-free life trying to seize life and live better than before.
Naturally the two are fated by author and filmmaker to fall in love between hanging out, reading one another’s favourite books, and using what little privilege they are afforded to go on an enlightening trip to Amsterdam, that includes stunning landscapes and a memorable trip to the Anne Frank house.
It sounds kind of twee and cheesy when you list it like that. Except it’s not when you watch their story unfold.
It took a while for me to pinpoint what it was that stopped me rolling my eyes and declaring The Fault in Our Stars another sick flick engineered to pander to our craving for tragic love stories. For me, it was the characters: two teenagers who, unusually for film, are not reduced to the stereotyped clichés that plague our media. They’re both intelligent – Hazel spouts medical jargon without pause and Gus uses metaphors as a coping mechanism – funny, likable characters. And yeah okay, they’re your typical white, middle class, heterosexual couple and you could easily write them off as such if you weren’t inclined to dig a little deeper, but they’re just so… human.
No, not Hollywood human. The kind with flaws that are as visible as the acne on a teenagers chin. Gus is pretentious and hides behind bravado. I suspect John Green wrote him that way intentionally. Did I mind? No, because I understand the kid’s need to be that way. Could Hazel be a little full of her own self importance? Yes, but no more than any other person.
I guess it just made a nice change to watch a young adult movie that doesn’t talk down to or assume its audience aren’t intelligent or emotionally mature enough to handle the material. John Green has vocalised his distaste for adults treating kids like another species, an opinion that comes as no surprise when you consider that his experience working at a children’s hospital inspired the novel.
“I think generally we have a habit of imagining the very sick or the dying as being kind of fundamentally other. I guess I wanted to argue for their humanity,” he told The Atlantic. It comes across in the film, for which Green was on set for the most part. These kids are sarcastic, jaded, argumentative, imperfect humans who have been forced to grow up too fast – that’s who they are, not their cancer.
If I was to be really picky I would have asked for a few more instances that brought home the reality of the conditions they and their families were coping with. There are moments of course; Hazel struggling with stairs, flashbacks to treatments and episodes in the hospital, but it’s very easy to forget Hazel is sick thanks to her healthy glow and the eventual moment you stop noticing the tubes running up her nose. Perhaps that’s the point Green was making above though: we need to stop looking for the signs of sickness and start treating cancer patients like human beings again. Ones who are allowed to live out a love story as much as the rest of us on film or otherwise.
It’s comforting to know they potentially could.
I will have to give the book a read sometime soon, and if you want a break from the crash, bang, boom of the summer blockbuster season, give The Fault in Our Stars a look. You might just find a little perspective.
The Fault in Our Stars is out now.