“Have you ever stopped to wonder,” a character asks in a key scene in John Green’s young-adult romantic tearjerker novel The Fault in Our Stars, “why you care so much about your silly questions?”
The Fault in Our Stars — in cinematic as well as literary form — cares quite a bit about silly questions, such as the meaning of life and death and love and suffering in a universe sliding toward oblivion and whether there is Something beyond giving some larger context to our existence, choices and experiences.
It also cares about what it feels like to wait for days for that first text message from a boy one has just met, whom one likes more than one is prepared to admit, even to oneself.
It’s a story that is attentive to the culture gap between, on the one hand, a girl whose favorite literary work is a novel that speaks to her profoundly about living with a terminal condition and, on the other, a boy whose favorite literary work is a novelization of his favorite video game. It is also attentive to how easily that gap can be bridged by charm, bravado and something in common, such as a history of cancer.
In short, The Fault in Our Stars is not a typical romantic tearjerker — as Hazel Grace Lancaster (effortlessly persuasive Shailene Woodley) warns us in an opening voice-over.
Movies, Hazel tells us, usually “sugarcoat” sad stories: “Beautiful people learn beautiful lessons, and nothing is too messed up to be fixed with an apology and a Peter Gabriel song.” Nothing wrong with that, Hazel says, except it’s not “the truth.” Hazel promises us the truth, adding, “Sorry.”
This is a bold thesis statement — a bit too bold for a movie that proceeds to bring its star-crossed lovers together in a low-key Meet Cute and gives us so idealized a boyfriend as Augustus Waters (charming Ansel Elgort).
A smart, morose 17-year-old who has lived with cancer since childhood, Hazel carts an oxygen tank wherever she goes and dutifully attends a cheesy cancer support group at an Episcopal parish to please her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), like a child wearing a sweater because her mother feels cold.
One day at support group, Hazel literally bumps into Gus, who makes no secret of his instant attraction to her. When Hazel asks him why he’s looking at her, he answers with disconcerting directness, “I enjoy looking at beautiful people, and I decided a while ago not to deny myself the simpler pleasures of existence.” All rightee then.
Gus has lost his left leg below the knee to cancer, but other than his prosthetic limb, he seems to be in fine shape. He’s upbeat, self-deprecating, gallant, humorous, lives in the moment and calls Hazel’s mother “Ma’am.” If he’s almost too good to be true, at least he approximates an ideal actually worth idealizing, as opposed to icky literary heartthrobs like Edward Cullen and Christian Grey.
Gus’ go-for-it bravura reflects his longing to lead an epic life, to make a difference in the world. When he says he fears “oblivion,” he doesn’t mean nonexistence, but leaving the world unchanged, as if he had never been. He does believe in an afterlife: “Not like a heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps and live in a mansion made of clouds. But … I believe in Something. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“Maybe there is no point,” Hazel counters.
“I refuse to accept that,” Gus replies.
Heady stuff for a romantic tearjerker — and there’s a lot more of this stuff in the novel, along with reflections on such topics as, um, Zeno’s paradoxes of motion and Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. Yes, your teenage daughters are reading this.
John Green is a smart guy. He and his smart brother Hank run the popular VlogBrothers channel on YouTube and have produced educational videos on history, literature and science. (Their fans are called “Nerdfighters.”)
Green self-identifies as a Christian (I’ve read that he’s Episcopalian and considered ordained ministry before becoming a writer). Hank is an atheist, and, at times, the brothers’ worldviews seem to be in dialogue with one another. While the film honors both the spirit and the letter of its source, it can’t capture the full scope of the novel’s themes. Unfortunately, some of the novel’s philosophical and spiritual open-endedness has been lost in translation, to the film’s detriment.
For instance, the film includes the novel’s skewering of the cancer support group leader’s personal foibles and over-earnest piety about the group meeting in what he insists on calling “the literal heart of Jesus” (a reference to the church’s cruciform architecture). In the novel, Hazel and Gus adopt this phrase, ironically at first, though through sheer repetition the irony wears thin and the words are what they are. The usage crops up in the film, but without the effect of the novel’s repetition.
Likewise, the film includes a couple of religion-knocking bits during a funeral, with one character talking about “fake praying” and a main character endorsing dissembling to comfort the grieving — but omits that same character’s reflections at the funeral on the idea of believing in Something and what it would mean to picture the dead being Somewhere. In a film with voice-over narration, that could easily have been included.
If I could add one line of first-person narration from the book to the film, it might be the debunking of the popular sentiment that our loved ones will “live forever in our hearts.” To the narrator, this absurdly implies “the immortality of those left behind”; it even amounts to saying to the dead, “I am your God now. … I own you!”
The upshot of these omissions is that the book’s delicate balance between skepticism and faith is somewhat unbalanced. It’s not a deal breaker, but critical engagement with the film’s existential themes is even more necessary than with the book. Better yet, comparing and contrasting the film with the book will highlight important bits of the book missing from the film.
A good bit of the drama of the story in both the book and the film is concerned with the implications of Hazel’s favorite novel, which ends with an unfinished sentence and leaves open many questions about the characters’ lives that Hazel wants answered.
As the mysteries around the novel build, along with wishes for answers from the mysterious, reclusive author, the author becomes a kind of literary metaphor for God. (This is even clearer in the novel, where the author himself has a character, the Dutch Tulip Man, in his own novel who represents God.) Who can say what happens to characters after the novel ends but the author? Who can say what happens to us when we die but God?
If the author represents God, then disappointment with the author represents disappointment with God. Are questions about what happens to the characters after the novel meaningless — and are the comforts of religion just as meaningless?
One character insists that this is the case, snapping that Hazel is merely “a side effect of an evolutionary process … a failed experiment in mutation.” Shortly after this, we hear the words of Anne Frank:
I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains. … Go out and try to recapture happiness in yourself and in God. Think of all the beauty that's still left in and around you and be happy. … When I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.
The Fault in Our Stars does not adjudicate between these two worldviews. The only thing it insists on is the value and abiding meaning of love, even in a life cut short.
Although Gus’ family members appear to be at least nominally Christian, none of the important characters is particularly devout or pious. Nonmarital sex is an accepted fact of life in their milieu, as it is for most Americans today. (Gus says at one point he’s a virgin, but that doesn’t last.)
The upshot is a flawed but empathic, fairly honest movie about flawed but empathic, honest characters. There are a few missteps, notably a scene involving a supporting character whose behavior doesn’t come across as credible here. But the big emotions of love and grief work. I wouldn’t say it left me satisfied, but it left me appreciative.
“Pain demands to be felt” is a line from that favorite novel of Hazel’s that crops up repeatedly. The Fault in Our Stars is about feeling all the feels, but it takes ideas seriously, too.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.
Caveat Spectator: Brief sensuality and a bedroom scene with partial, non-explicit nudity; an obscenity, some crude language and much profaning of God’s name; heavy drinking (by an adult) and a couple of depictions of moderate drinking by teenagers (legally in one instance, given the location). Might be okay for mature teens.