White Cover Magazine
I saw The Fault in Our Stars last summer, like many. Unlike them, I hadn’t read the book – this is a considerable disadvantage when you go to a movie and you’re forcing yourself to enjoy it. You lack the connection many have before they even order their tickets; the story is just a story to you, and the characters better grab you in the first five minutes, or else you’re so very aware of how little they matter to you.
A book can take its time. A movie for better or worse, often worse, can’t. Rather, it can’t afford to.
Certainly, because this one’s about cancer and teens in love with cancer, you feel a need to love it. You feel a need to like it. You’re guilty when you don’t – and it tries very, very hard, which can push the un-converted further away.
The film centres on Hazel Grace Lancaster. She has cancer. She doesn’t let you forget it, and fair enough. She falls in love with a guy named Augustus Waters. He’s charming in the way you’d expect someone who’s 16 would want a boy to be charming – he drives like shit but is honest about it, he’s into metaphors (even more, he’s proud of himself that he understands what a metaphor is), and he always calls Hazel Grace by her full name – it’s Hazel Grace, Hazel Grace.
And the movie is, to its credit, charming even to a cynic. It’s bright and colourful and easy.
But that might be just where the problem is, because the story isn’t supposed to be easy. Or charming. And that’s not me saying that – it’s Hazel Grace saying that, Hazel Grace.
“I believe we have a choice in this world, about how to tell sad stories. On the one hand, you can sugar coat it. The way they do in movies and romance novels, where beautiful people learn beautiful lessons. Where nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with an apology and a Peter Gabriel song. I like that version as much as the next girl does, believe me. It’s just not the truth. This is the truth…”
Lofty goals. Good on ya, Hazel Grace. But, in case you’re unaware, I’ll expect to hear the truth now.
And really, when a script has to qualify what’s about to come with a warning like that, don’t you know what’s coming?
Like when someone starts a point with, “Well, if I’m being honest,” you just know they’re about to say something that’s complete bullshit. And when a movie promises it’s not going to be like every other film in its genre – when it’s so determined to be alternative – that’s when I sit back and prepare for a long 90 minutes.
Hazel Grace promises she’s about being real, not about being naively optimistic, starting off the movie’s first real scene with this rather poignant line – “The booklets and the websites always list depression as a side-effect of cancer. Depression’s not a side-effect of cancer – it’s a side-effect of dying. Which is what was happening to me.”
But despite that, she never actually lives up to her own billing. Whenever she’s confronted with an idea or a person she doesn’t quite like, she recoils and walls herself in. The one true exception is Augustus, who is happy to admit he’s not nearly as intelligent as she is, and is happier because of it. (If ignorance is bliss, simpleness is paradise, perhaps.)
The movie sets itself up to impress itself. The two main characters are annoyingly perfect – not really perfect, but Instagram perfect. And John Green’s a very good novelist with excellent filters.
If the moon is made of cheese, these stars are made of 90 per cent Hallmark cheddar.
And the 10 per cent that’s really exceptional is the only part of the film Hazel Grace rejects, Hazel Grace. It’s when her and Augustus go to Amsterdam, when they have a decent dinner at a very modernly European restaurant, when they wax on about food and drink they love but have nothing to compare it to, and then meet Hazel Grace’s hero – the novelist Peter Van Houten, who wrote the only book she ever reads, An Imperial Affliction.
The novel is supposedly the only thing she’s ever read that really connects with her, as a cancer victim, survivor, and prisoner. Above her absurdly positive mother and the cliche-spewing doctors and basically everyone in her Indiana hometown, she has this book.
The audience knows little about the book, other than that it ends in the middle of a sentence and offers no explanation for that – the perfect way to leave little closure for a reader, Hazel Grace thinks, because cancer victims don’t get closure, either.
If you can’t deal with that, too bad. It’s not your book, it’s Hazel Grace’s, Hazel Grace. And I like that idea.
But then they meet Van Houten, and you know he’s going to be an asshole. Because not enough has gone wrong for Hazel Graze and Augustus to this point, and because he’s a writer. (And because he’s acted by Willem Defoe, who will never play someone who’s not conflicted and internally tormented.)
And Van Houten doesn’t have any nice things to say, nothing to offer them – he has some depressingly real things to say, actually:
“I am not interested in talking about that book… Nothing happens. They’re fiction. They cease to exist the moment a novel ends. I will not indulge your childish whims. I refuse to pity you in the manner in which you are accustomed. Like all sick kids, your existence depends on (pity). You are fated to live out your days as the child you were when you were diagnosed. A child who believes there is a life after a novel ends. And we, as adults, we pity this. So we pay for your treatments, your oxygen machines. You are a side-effect to an evolutionary process that cares little for individual lives. You are a failed experiment in mutation.”
Well, this is just too much for Hazel Grace and Augustus to handle. It’s too uncomfortable, too personal. Despite telling themselves for their entire relationship they were both strong enough to handle anything, they’re not. Because they’re just kids.
And Hazel Grace betrayed the only line she circled in his novel, “Pain demands to be felt.”
Is he cruel? Absolutely. Is he a jerk? Duh. Did you read what he told her, to her face?
But it’s actually exactly what Hazel Grace wanted, Hazel Grace. She wanted him to tell her the book’s real ending, despite the fact the lack of an ending was what captivated her about the book in the first place, and he gave her exactly what she’d hoped for – a jaded old man who’s drinking and failing to deal with the tragedies in his own life.
How could she not relate to that? Because she’s a kid, of course. And because she’s not as brave as she thinks she is.
But then, the next day, her Mother tells her, “You’ll just have to come back here (Amsterdam) again.”
And Hazel Grace lays into her. Because Hazel Grace is dying, Hazel Grace. She won’t get back to Amsterdam. When her mother tells her she’s just being positive, the answer rolls Hazel Grace’s eyes.
She leaves with Augustus, and they go for a walk around the beautiful Dutch city and the movie gets sadder. Because Augustus is dying, too. And he deteriorates rapidly, taking his world-beating idealism with him.
(There’s one other decent bit of dialogue in the movie, however, when Hazel Grace reads him his eulogy. That was solid. Good on John Green and his metaphors and his application of the word infinity.)
Van Houten returns, of course. He wants to apologize to her. He wants to talk to her about Augustus and about how he continued to correspond with him, and how he brought her a present – something she has to read. He also confides in her that he lost his own, young daughter to cancer – she was the inspiration for Imperial Affliction, the main character in the book. This is why he’s so terrible, so often.
Wow. What a guy. He came to say he’s sorry, and it’s clear he’s suffering like the rest of us are – certainly like every victim of cancer, and that includes their family, is.
But she kicks him out of her car. She tells him she never wants to see him again. She’s sad, duh. And she’s also a little bit of a coward.
I suppose that’s understandable. She finally let the real world wash ashore, instead of just talking about it, and she didn’t like how cold the water was.
Now, I’m aware that because I’m clearly speaking of the characters as if they’re real people and not just actors on parade, I’m actually involved in the plot. I’m hooked, in my own way. So no matter how much I criticize, the film’s producers have won my service as a customer.
(I compare it to another movie I’ve hate-watched several times, Eat, Pray, Love. That film is so moronically self-concerned and fake – really, my admission has to buy more than an eye into your divorce – and it’s so intentionally a vehicle set to re-establish Julia Roberts… but boy, did it make pasta look good!)
I accept that, and it would be fine if this was just a movie. But it’s trying to be so much more than that – it’s trying to be its own statement. It’s trying to crush cynicism while only just stoking it.
When movies or their creators turn into advocates or activists, they run the risk of dying a critical death – they’re not graded on the quality of the film, they’re graded on the quality of the film’s message.
If you disagree with the thesis, you’ll hate the movie. If you agree, you’ll swear to everyone else they have to see it.
Not to mention, the movie beats you over the head with its cancer hook for the final 30 minutes. It’s a 90-minute titty twister, squeezing harder and harder saying, ‘Are you crying yet? Are you crying yet?’
The Fault in Our Stars has 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. A fairly typical rating for a movie like this.
And I say that because I’m sure that’s the last thing Hazel Grace would think of herself – typical.