The Fault in Our Stars is a faithful, emotionally layered adaptation of the beloved young adult novel by John Green. The excellent novel tackled a topic rarely seen in literature: teenagers coping with cancer. Very few films have aimed to demonstrate how cancer affects children, with last year’s admirable The Broken Circle Breakdown showing a family falling apart in the midst of their daughter going through chemotherapy. It’s an unflattering topic that no one wants to deal with, which is precisely why it makes for a great subject in literature and, by extension, film. The adaptation here is loyal to the book in almost every way: it keeps Hazel’s morbid sense of humor and her sarcasm intact, follows the effects of cancer on both the victims and their families, and doesn’t shy away from the inherent duality of the narrative’s dark humor and tragic outcomes. The novel is a brisk, rapid read that jumps from narrative point to point with ease. The film follows much of the same path and relies on the shock value of moving from moment to moment in the unpredictable, forceful way that cancer does.
The story follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a young girl who has battled cancer for years and cheated death at a younger age. She must walk around with the aid of an oxygen tank to keep her breathing fine, since her lungs are prone to filling up with liquid and make it difficult for her to breathe normally. She is encouraged to visit a cancer group weekly by her mother (Laura Dern) and father (Sam Trammell), where she reluctantly meets Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), a young man who lost a leg to cancer and shares a similar mindset with Hazel. He has his eccentricities, like holding a deadly, cancer-causing cigarette between his teeth but not lighting it (because it’s a metaphor, duh) and befriending Isaac (Nat Wolff), a kid with eye cancer that has a girlfriend he loves but won’t be able to see for much longer. Hazel Grace and Gus start their relationship by bonding over their view of the world, hating conventional things and striving to be unique and make the most of their terminally short lives.
Cancer is a fickle beast. It’s volatile, unflinching, and emotionless. The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t shy away from those characteristics. But more importantly, it treats the characters as unique people, identifiable by their personalities rather than their diseases. That’s a large testament to John Green’s writing and also the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who provide the story with subtly humanistic tones that bring out the independent filmmaking that hopes to emerge within the film. While Josh Boone’s direction isn’t particularly inspired or memorable, there are two masterfully shot scenes that demonstrate the power of the story: both focus on Hazel as she emotionally reels about Gus, with the camera lingering on her for methodically long, unwavering takes. Those are the moments when the film emerges as something greater than a novelization, utilizing the nature of filmic storytelling to let actions speak far louder than words.
The Fault in Our Stars, though, is all about those words. An adaptation to film is difficult due to the vivacity of the written exchanges between Hazel and Gus; on film, they feel a bit forced and bloated due to their wordiness. But the important fact is that the story is still treated as the prized possession, with certain semi-preachy exchanges being juxtaposed with emotionally ravaging actions. The heart of the story lies in Hazel, with Shailene Woodley’s outstanding lead performance carrying the film to an emotionally impressive level. She acts circles around Ansel Elgort, who at times shines as Gus but often feels a bit stuck in the act of the character rather than convincingly portraying him. The soul of the film, however, the anchor that weighs it all down, is Willem Dafoe’s Peter Van Houten, the disturbed writer of Hazel’s favorite book that is emotionally ruined and nothing like Hazel expects. Dafoe is a brilliant actor and fits the role perfectly, with his character embodying one of the central themes the story hopes to communicate.
I read the novel on a plane ride a few months ago, and it was an effortless read. It was a book that weighed heavily on me due to my grandfather’s death by cancer many years ago and the toll it takes not only on the individual themselves, but the surrounding family members. Sam Trammell and Laura Dern handle Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster, respectively, with delicacy and inner turmoil. The emotional destruction they face from their daughter’s bout with cancer is unnerving and something that a parent should never have to face in this world. My mom once said that a parent cannot fathom witnessing the death of their child because that’s not how life works. Yet life isn’t fair if cancer is in the mix. A character notes near the end of the film that they have decided that funerals are for the living, signifying that people’s lives aren’t celebrated or honored for their own sake, but for the closure others need to get through life. The Fault in Our Stars isn’t the darkly depressing film I’m making it out to be; for those familiar with the book, the unapologetic humor and wit remains vibrant and lively. The film’s exploration of cancer, and its uneven approach to tackling the omissions from the novel, amount to a surprisingly thoughtful, intricate romance.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)