There’s no chance of not crying, actually. Movies about teenagers with cancer will do that to you. And, if the dozens of weeks that John Green’s novel has stayed on the bestseller charts is any indication, teenagers, their parents, and tons of other readers can’t get enough. There’s the emotional honesty of the book, sure; Green based his main character, Hazel Grace Lancaster, on a 16-year-old girl he knew while working as a student chaplain. The girl, Esther Grace Earl, died, but the experience of knowing her certainly inspired Green’s creation of Hazel, who always feels like a believable teenager equally resentful of her sickness and concerned about how her family will cope with her impending death. And of course there’s the appeal of the perfect boyfriend, Augustus Waters, whose conversations with Hazel about leaving an impact on the world counteract her nihilism.
But it’s the push-pull between the two—the appeal of giving up but the desire to keep fighting, the possibility of love in a hopeless situation, the uncompromising unfairness of being sick at age 16 but the understanding that others might have it worse—that is the balance of the book. It’s not melodramatic, but you’ll cry. It’s not overwhelmingly joyful, but you’ll laugh. The book has a cult following, but it’s easy to understand why.
So the pressure on director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (all of whom worked previously with Woodley on the similarly well done “The Spectacular Now”) to recreate that span of feeling was immense—but for the most part, they capture it effectively. What they choose to utterly cut out of their adaptation hurts the depth of the characters, but doesn’t render them totally lifeless; the film feels more streamlined, but not drained. It helps that Woodley and Elgort are fantastic, though. In the hands of lesser actors, how these characters speak—heavy on the feelings—might have seemed pretentious, but with Woodley especially, they never do. She is summarily excellent.
“The Fault In Our Stars” focuses on 16-year-old Hazel (Woodley, of “The Spectacular Now”), who was 13 when doctors found cancer in her thyroid, which eventually spread to her lungs. At some point, they think, the cancer will come back, and although an experimental drug treatment has been working, Hazel still can’t breathe on her own, needing to tote an oxygen tank around everywhere she goes. At her mother’s (a wonderfully overeager, overanxious Laura Dern) urging, Hazel starts attending a cancer support group for teenagers, where she literally bumps into Augustus Waters (Elgort, of “Divergent”), an 18-year-old who lost his leg below the knee to cancer. Hazel keeps her distance—aware that if her cancer returns, she’ll hurt Augustus—but he’s immediately smitten. “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you,” he tells her, and everywhere, teenage girls swooned.
So Hazel and Augustus begin a friendship—even though he doesn’t hide his feelings from her—and find common ground when Hazel convinces him to read her favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction,” by the author Peter Van Houten (Willem Defoe, of “John Carter”). The book, about a girl dying of cancer, ends mid-sentence, suggesting that the character has died—but what about her mother? Her friends? Her family? What happened to them? The question plagues the teens and is particularly a meta preoccupation for Hazel, who worries how her death will impact those around her. She compares herself with a grenade—any minute now, she could explode. What’s the purpose of companionship in a situation like that?
But then there’s a whirlwind trip to Amsterdam to find Van Houten, and a twisting of fates, and a final act that confirms the random awfulness of cancer but suggests the random eternity of love. This isn’t a love-conquers-all story, necessarily, but an every-life-means-something story, and that kind of message cuts deep. There’s a lot of grandness here—big moments, gestures that are meant to sweep you up, proclamations of infinite affection, promises made for forever. But it’s not the pity for these dying children that will clinch it for you—at least, not just that. The magic is in Woodley’s physicality throughout the film, how she angles herself first away from Elgort, and then gazes at him when he’s not paying attention, and then finally folds herself around his body like she’s always belonged there. It’s in Elgort’s smile, which conveys at first confidence and playfulness but then a mix of resigned acceptance and desperate defiance. These characters transform in Green’s novel and they do here, too, positioning themselves toward each other a step at a time until they’re nearly inseparable. It’s an emotional dance, and Woodley and Elgort do it well.
The downside, though, is in what you don’t get about these characters: how else they define themselves outside of their relationship, outside of cancer, and outside of their interest in “An Imperial Affliction.” Those elements were covered in Green’s novel, but many of them don’t get transferred here—perhaps the most glaring being an ex-girlfriend of Augustus’s, a plot point that adds more to his relationship with Hazel—and so although the affection between the main pair is believable, it feels too straightforward. “The Fault In Our Stars” benefits from a mix of earnestness, wonder, and self-aware humor, but there could have been more to inform Hazel and Augustus, more to their interactions with other characters. That’s a small quibble, though—even without those things, “The Fault In Our Stars” will still find its way to your heart (and your tear ducts).
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