By Melissa Agar
The Fault in Our Stars (20th Century Fox, 2014) – Director: Josh Boone. Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber (s/p); John Green (book). Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Randy Kovitz, Toni Saladna, David Whalen, Milica Govich, & Allegra Carpenter. Color, 125 minutes.
Confession time: I am a 42-year-old woman, and I read young adult literature. I know this is something that has been discussed ad nauseum in the media lately as the debate has raged between those who feel YA literature can still appeal to adult readers and those who think that YA literature’s watered-down themes and plots are beneath the sophisticated adult reader. For a long time, I fell into that latter camp. I read my share of youth-oriented literature when I was in junior high, but I didn’t think that I could take anything from such literature now that I was a supposed “grown up.” And then I started teaching high school English.
Initially, I would read the occasional YA book so that I could determine whether or not students were accurately analyzing the literature in their book reports. A couple of times, I read books because I was intrigued by what students were saying or I wanted to learn more about the parts they left off. Ultimately, though, I realized that reading YA books would allow me to be a better teacher. It allows me to help match students with books that will appeal to them. It allows me to relate to them and the things that matter to them. I found myself pressing books into hands of students who would subsequently fall in love with the characters on the page the way I had, and I found my students coming to me with books that had inspired them that they wanted to share with me. That is how The Fault in Our Stars came into my life, and that is how I found myself huddled with students at rehearsal on Monday afternoon sharing our thoughts over the film adaptation that hit theatres.
The Fault in Our Stars is, to be honest, the Love Story of the 21st century. It tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley), a precociously smart and wry 17-year-old who has been fighting cancer for several years. While a drug test has prolonged her life beyond what was initially expected, Hazel is dependent upon a constant supply of oxygen from a backpack she carries with her. She is also fully aware that she has an expiration date, that death for her is less of an “if” and more of a “when.” As a result of that, she largely keeps the world at bay, recognizing that she is, as she says, “a grenade” and that her death with devastate all of those who are close to her, especially her devoted parents (Dern and Trammell).
That determination to live a life of relative solitude is put to the test, though, when she attends a teen support group and meets Gus (Elgort). Gus is a survivor, but his battle with cancer cost him a leg. Like Hazel, Gus is a preternaturally wise and deeply philosophical young man who fears oblivion, the idea that he will die without any notice or effect on the world. Gus and Hazel are instantly drawn to one another and soon bond over their love of the book “An Imperial Affliction,” a book remarkable in that it ends mid-sentence. Hazel yearns to meet with the book’s reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Dafoe), and discover the fates of the characters in the book, a dream that Gus is able to make true through a little Googling and use of his “Make a Wish” wish. Soon, the two are jetting off to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten, with Mama Lancaster in tow, and falling headlong into love. Of course, those of you who know Love Story (or any of its more recent progeny) know that tragedy is surely lurking around the corner. (It’s a book about kids with cancer; of course tragedy is lurking around the corner!)
Okay, let’s get this part out of the way first – this is a sad movie; you will cry. My matinee auditorium was filled with sobs from women throughout the audience. Author John Green has created characters that we genuinely love. Hazel and Gus are not perfect – they can be a little petulant, they can be thoughtless – but they are kids we root for. They are smart, funny, and honest, but above all, they are brave. They’re the kind of kids we wish all kids could be like, kids who face their obstacles with passion and courage. Because Hazel and Gus are such richly drawn characters on the page, readers are naturally fiercely protective of these characters. For the past six months, my students have bemoaned the choice to cast Woodley as Hazel. They pointed to the whiny character she played on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager and couldn’t imagine how a character they loathed on that series could become a character they so adored. What my students didn’t know was Woodley’s film work, particularly her standout performance in 2011’s The Descendants, a role I was certain would earn her an Oscar nomination (it didn’t – although she was nominated for a Golden Globe and won an Independent Spirit for her work). As I re-read The Fault in Our Stars this spring, I could hear Woodley’s voice in Green’s first-person narration. Woodley was, perhaps, the only young actress who could pull this role off.
While she can often come across as whiny onscreen, there is also a toughness to a lot of her film work and a sense of determination. Hazel Lancaster is not a character who accepts her fate with a brave smile. This is not Mandy Moore in A Walk to Remember. Woodley’s Hazel is scared, yes, but she is also angry and determined to face her fate on her terms. Woodley is a star in the making, and by attaching herself to some of the most popular YA adaptations (she also starred in this spring’s Divergent), her wait to stardom shouldn’t be long.
The rest of the cast supports Woodley’s work beautifully. In a perfect world, an Oscar nomination is waiting for Dern's gorgeous work as Hazel’s grieving mother. Dern brings a wounded grace to this role and added more depth than I found on the page. Hazel’s concern as to how her death will affect her parents becomes much more palpable in the hands of Dern and Trammell. Ultimately, though, this is a film about teenagers, and the teenagers acquit themselves well. Woodley delivers the performance that audiences are most likely to remember, but her chemistry with Elgort is lovely. At times, his Gus seems a little too perfect, but this was true of Gus on the page, too. He’s just a little too good to be true, but Elgort manages to add a couple dents to the veneer and give us a Gus that’s a little closer to human.
A couple months ago, a colleague and I read papers submitted by potential candidates for our high school’s Honors English program. Eighth graders were asked to write about the book that had meant the most to them. Of the roughly 30 candidates we assessed, nearly half of them wrote about The Fault in Our Stars. This is a book that has meant a lot to millions of teenagers (and a decent number of adults). And now, these kids have a film that remains largely faithful to that book and breathes life into the characters who have inspired them. Yes, it is a bit emotionally manipulative and some of the dialogue, while beautiful, rings false for those who know how teenagers actually talk. But when it comes right down to it, it is a film that is examines the lives we lead and how we face the inevitable destination of every life’s journey. It is a film that will likely not fade into oblivion.