The following is a review originally published in Word and Film.
The movie does justice to the book. I’ll start there, since that’s the most important news about The Fault in Our Stars for the multitudes already in love with John Green’s book. For those unfamiliar with this best-selling young adult novel about a romance between two teens with cancer, there’s also good news: To dig this movie, we don’t need to be in love with the book.
But let’s pull back, shall we?
Sixteen-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is depressed. The Stage IV thyroid cancer that has “colonized her lungs” may have stabilized but she could relapse at any moment. Not to mention that it’s hard to lead a typical adolescent existence when she has to lug an oxygen tank everywhere and has been staring down death since the age of thirteen. So Hazel holes up in her bedroom rereading An Imperial Affliction, a story (within this story) about a child with cancer, while her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) worry.
Things change when Hazel’s mom forces her to attend a support group for kids with cancer (led by a Jesus freak played by comedian Mike Birbiglia). There, she meets the irrepressible Gus (Ansel Elgort), a seventeen-year-old former basketball star who’s lost a leg to a sarcoma now in remission. Gus announces he “fears oblivion,” which sparks sharp words from the pragmatically philosophical Hazel. (There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it.) “Sparks” being the relevant word, the two commence a courtship and travel together to Amsterdam to track down Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of Affliction. Then the Big C makes a rude reentry.
At heart, “TFIOS” is less of a love story than a primer in how we may navigate our mortality with grace. (It’s no coincidence Gus seizes upon Hazel’s eponymous middle name.) The book manages such heavy material not through flippancy but through an earnestness overlaid with smart gallows humor. Though she can summon adolescent backtalk with the best of them, Hazel’s need to ensure her loved ones will be okay upon her demise always lives close to the surface.
Director Josh Boone’s just the chap to translate all this to screen. If anything, his prior feature, “Stuck in Love,” sagged under its own significance, though that extra weight could be attributed to bad writing rather than his good intentions. Here, he is armed with the script of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500 Days of) Summer and The Spectacular Now), and these boys know from clever yet deeply felt dramas. Things keep moving just lightly enough, just brightly enough, and lingering just long enough on the ever-moving canvas of Woodley’s face.
For this film to work, we must believe that Hazel is both unadorned and beautiful, inside and out. With her clear eyes and clearer emotions, Woodley manages this, and more. I’d say it’s the performance of her career except she has a knack for consistently turning in what seem like the performances of her career. As Gus, Elgort is more of an acquired taste; he’d read as dopey if this brand of unthreatening exuberance, coupled with long limbs and dreamy eyes, weren’t the stuff of teenaged girls’ dreams. And I have no quibbles with the supporting cast: Dafoe ably sinks his (funny-looking) fangs into the bombastic Van Houten; Dern tones down her rawness like any responsible parent; Trammell shows more of the wet-eyed decency that wins him hearts on “True Blood”; and, as Gus’s best friend Isaac, Nat Wolff proves a wonderful wag. (Green has credited him with many of the film’s funniest lines not included in the book.)
There are, of course, weaknesses at hand. How couldn’t there be when translating such a beloved novel to screen? Change too much and disappoint TFIOS loyalists; tread too carefully and betray the tale’s new medium. Although certain backstories are scrapped, including one involving Hazel’s resemblance to Gus’s deceased ex-girlfriend (call me sacrilegious but I always found that subplot clunky), the film sticks closely to its source material. To its occasional detriment. It’s terrific that none of the book’s big brains are sacrificed – its long speeches and myriad quips are preserved whenever possible – but a scene entailing a first kiss in the Anne Frank Museum should have been reworked. Such dour portent (cancer and the Holocaust! What ho!) is easier to ingest when we don’t have to see it. And though Boone mostly walks the right side of the line between manipulative and moving, it’s hard not to yank too hard on ye olde heart strings when dealing with cancer-riddled teenagers in love. A eulogy scene is devastatingly effective; another scene highlighting the ravages of the disease is merely devastating.
But such beefs are really small potatoes. So rarely is this kind of love captured on screen – or anywhere, really – that we must be grateful when it is. By “this kind of love,” I am not referring to doomed romance so much as pure acceptance between any two people, be they family members, friends, or lovers. (TFIOS honors all these bonds.) The world could do with more Hazels: people who care more for their loved ones than for their legacies, and who uphold kindness and truth as rewards unto themselves.
In a recent interview, Woodley said Hazel was “the least narcissistic person I’ve ever met. Which is probably why she doesn’t exist.” Given the already-established great power of TFIOS, I would add only one word to that last sentence: “Yet.”