The Fault in our Stars, dir. Josh Boone
If you have a working set of eyes, you’ve probably have noticed the myriad of teen girls (and boys) with their nose stuck in a bright blue book called The Fault in our Stars. The cover doesn’t have posed, dramatic figures on it, or spectacular Gothic typography: just a couple of thought bubbles against a cerulean background. This azure volume is ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from Barnes & Noble to Wal-Mart, defying gender stereotypes and age norms among readers. The young adult novel has sold 9 million copies internationally and has been a New York Times bestseller for 73 weeks now. The author of The Fault in our Stars is John Green, former priest-in-training, turned existential YA author, turned YouTube sensation. (Seriously, check out Crash Course; it’s amazing). While most young adult fiction is dreadful (*cough* Twilight *cough*), Green has helped usher in its resurgence as a literary art (notably with the great Looking for Alaska, which won the “Pulitzer of YA Fiction,” the Michael J. Printz award). While often irreverent and cynical, Green writes in a way that actually feels authentic to teenagers, rather than cliché-ridden poser-schlock. Doing this while at the same time crafting a literary novel (as opposed to the latest bubblegum supernatural teen romance) is certainly a challenging task.
In June, this book became a movie. The Fault in our Stars is a cancer story, getting its title by reversing a quote from Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves…” In the story, Hazel and Augustus are both teenage cancer patients. Rather than being star-crossed by rival families, these lovers’ fate is sealed by terminal illness. Hazel is a sixteen-year-old cynic, stricken with lung cancer at an early age. Augustus Waters, whom she meets at a cancer support group, is a bone cancer survivor with an amputated leg.
So, how does a person live and love with such seemingly pointless and arbitrary suffering, such as cancer? On top of that, how does an author (or filmmaker) explore this in a way that doesn’t exploit the subject matter, pandering for tears and sighs and Kleenex? While Kleenex is certainly still needed, The Fault in our Stars provides an excellent exploration of that topic, showing that despite suffering in life, human relationships provide meaning, hope, and joy to our finite time on this earth.
Hazel and Augustus meet at a “Christian” cancer support group led by comedian Mike Birbiglia located in the “literal heart of Jesus” (a giant, kitschy, carpet-artwork, centered on the “joint” of a cruciform Episcopalian church). The scene skewers ineffective, out of touch youth pastors who believe that a song will make everyone feel better and teenagers can be talked out of their depression through a terminal illness support group.
After noticing one another, Augustus (an ever-confident and metaphorically aware bone cancer survivor) and Hazel (a beautiful, astute, and pessimistic teenage thyroid/lung cancer sufferer) begin dating. Augustus acts smarter than he is and cares about living life to the fullest and leaving his mark on the world (*hint* Caesar Augustus *hint*). Hazel is the opposite; citing herself as a “grenade” ready to explode when she dies, she hesitates to get close to anyone and wants to minimize any footprint she leaves in this world. The two teenagers bond over Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten, in which Anna, the protagonist, dies mid-sentence on the last page (which infuriates Augustus).
Besides falling in love, much of the plot revolves around finding out what happens to the rest of the characters after the end of An Imperial Affliction and the search for van Houten in Amsterdam.
Figuring out the ending to her favorite novel is the essential question that Hazel is dealing with. Why is she so obsessed with finding out the ending to An Imperial Affliction? Because she is the narrator of her own story (her life) and she needs to know what will happen to the “characters” (her family) that she will leave behind when she dies. (This extended metaphor of a novel as a kind of life and an author as a kind of God permeates the story). Hazel’s uncertainty about the future was brought on as a child when Hazel’s cancer took a turn for the worse and she secretly heard her mother weep and say that she wouldn’t be a mother anymore if Hazel died.
After reaching Peter van Houten by email, Augustus and Hazel do end up going to Amsterdam through a version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When they arrive, they are treated to a five-star restaurant, given champagne and a night to remember.
However, the actual meeting with van Houten is a disaster; he is an alcoholic narcissist who sees no ending or resolution for the characters of An Imperial Affliction beyond the text itself (commentary on life from a materialist perspective, perhaps?). Hazel cannot accept this and rails against van Houten. For me, I couldn’t help but view this scene as Hazel confronting God (as van Houten) about the reality of her fate to die “without knowing the ending” of her friends and family.
After this scene, Hazel and Augustus determine to make the most of Amsterdam and end up making out in the Anne Frank house (it works) and eventually spending the night together. They return to Indianapolis, young and in love.
Hazel’s conflict with her mother’s future finds resolution near the end of the film, when her mom tells her that she is secretly studying to be a social worker to help families of children with cancer. Hazel is relieved, knowing that her mother will continue to “have a life” after Hazel’s eventual death.
Unfortunately, Augustus’ cancer comes back. He tells her this in Amsterdam on their last day and his health deteriorates rapidly afterward. He knows he’s terminal and asks Hazel to write and read his eulogy to him, so he can actually hear it.
Eventually, Augustus dies.
The remainder of the film explores the reversal of Hazel’s expected outcome. She has now experienced someone else’s “grenade” of a life and has to live on after them. In the final scene, van Houten brings a letter that Augustus wrote to him which functions as a preemptive eulogy for Hazel. In the letter, Augustus declares that you can’t avoid getting hurt in this world, but you can have some say in who hurts you. He likes his choices. He hopes she likes hers.
The film skillfully navigates its subject matter. Full of humor, reality, and authentic emotion, the movie always seems honest and doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat anything. The cinematography is good, but nothing to get excited about. Amsterdam itself was shot well, with blue-gray colors melting into the city set upon canals. Also, the film is well-organized and linear. However, the acting is especially precise. Both Shailene Woodley (Hazel) and Ansel Elgort (Augustus) portray their characters with sufficient pathos to make them feel like real people. Woodley is great as usual and Willem DaFoe was all-too-convincing as the infamous Peter van Houten. Elgort was a nice surprise though; in a scene where he drives to the gas station to purchase more cigarettes, he has a physical and emotional breakdown which reveals the insecurity behind the mask he puts on for the world.
The translation from beloved literature to film always has its struggles. Harry Potter leaves stuff out and fans get angry; The Hobbit adds useless drivel and fans get angry. However, with The Fault in our Stars, fans of the book will be pleased. It is one of the most faithful book adaptations I have seen. The film itself adds nothing new, but instead provides a different way to see the story and experience the characters. The one speed-bump along the way is the soundtrack. While full of great music, the soundtrack (and any soundtrack of any movie) tells the viewer how to feel at a particular moment. Having read the source material, I have a feeling that Hazel Grace Lancaster would not be down with that sort of sappy emotional manipulation (kudos to The Atlantic for that idea).
Additionally, every work of art explores and reveals a worldview, and The Fault in our Stars is no exception. Mostly, it paints a picture of an indifferent, (seemingly) meaningless universe where humans are forced to create meaning out of their pain and existence. Augustus notes that “the world is not a wish-granting factory” and he’s right; due to the Fall of Man, it hurts and it contains unfathomable suffering. To these characters (who seem agnostic at best), the only real solution to this empty reality is to be thankful for the time you have and to choose who hurts you.
At first, this work seems to be in dire opposition to the Christian worldview (and maybe it is, despite John Green being a professed Episcopalian). However, one certainly need not agree with everything in a work of art to appreciate it or view it as great. To be honest, I’m glad my own students are reading Green’s books over pointless nonsense like Vampire Diaries or Gossip Girl. At least The Fault in our Stars values human relationships and stresses their importance in an broken and unjust world. This is something that Christians should applaud, that while our time on earth finite, how and with whom we spend it, is of utmost importance. As Hazel learns, the unavoidable fact that our hearts are ticking time bombs need not make us fear getting close to others. In fact, in a stunning reversal reminiscent of the death of Augustus, Jesus Christ “took our grenade” to bring us close to the ultimate Other. In Christ, death is not the end, and we can even hope to see our loved ones on the other side of eternity.
Former intern at iNVERSION, Justin Worley lives in Orange County, CA with his wife and teaches high school English. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinWorley_