By Jacob Mertens.
A month or so back, Slate posted an article in anticipation of Josh Boone’s film The Fault In Our Stars¹—based on John Green’s popular Young Adult book by the same name—in which author Ruth Graham used the timeliness of this release to shame adults about reading YA fiction. And since this argument would have been met with a resounding shrug concerning the likes of Twilight and Divergent, Graham extended her censure to more universally accepted YA lit like The Fault In Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. To wit, she wrote:
There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.
When taken alone, divorced of the content in question, Graham’s claim seems wholly reasonable. However, in practice her condemnation is too sweeping, and fails to resonate when applied to Green’s novel (nor, for that matter, Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower).
At this point, I should admit that I have read this book and feel little chagrin for it. I will also admit that I burned through it in less than a day and promptly carried on with my life. Naturally, the prose did not pose much of an intellectual challenge, the characters were often terribly naïve about love, and the writing could be a little quick to deflect with humor (although, in fairness, that’s a natural response given its subject matter: a love story between two ‘young adults’ with cancer). And yet, there was something about the story that hit a nerve, perhaps owing to how the author deconstructs its male lead, Augustus Waters, from an unbearably earnest, charming, headstrong eighteen-year-old—who speaks in metaphors and is unconditionally smitten with the book’s protagonist, Hazel Grace—into a sullen and fearful child when faced with his mortality. In Hazel’s words, “According to the conventions of the genre, Augustus Waters kept his sense of humor till the end, did not for a moment waiver in his courage […] But this was the truth, a pitiful boy who desperately wanted not to be pitiful, screaming and crying, poisoned by an infected G-tube that kept him alive, but not alive enough.”² In my mind, this passage may be easy to follow from a reading-level standpoint, but it is not an uncritical perspective that lacks maturity. Instead, Hazel Grace speaks with a succinct clarity and offers insight in her own way. After all, you don’t have to be Shakespeare or a Brontë sister to communicate heartache or grief. Simplicity has its elegance as well.
I write all this to defend a book that attempts to defy its genre and convey a candidness about dying that, at times, rivals its more serious literary counterparts. All the while, Boone’s film, which was co-written by the book’s author himself, strips away much of the novel’s complexity and essentially validates Ruth Graham’s argument. Of course, the fact that another film has failed to live up to its source material should offer no great surprise. Fatally, the screenwriters adopt a copy and paste method in their adaptation, satisfied with an abbreviated version of the book from which cinema can breath in life with flesh-and-blood performances. The end result is a competently made artistic failure, wherein the film’s narrative shortcuts perpetuate the same genre conventions that Hazel derides in the book. In other words, that ugly, messy, prolonged death ending that the book embraces as an unequivocal truth? Well, there’s just not time for it here, not when there is a cutesy mock funeral to be held and a tear-jerking eulogy about some infinities being bigger than other infinities to be read. Given a choice, the film prioritizes mercurial emotion over consistency and nuance, and thus forgets its own sage advice: pain demands to be felt.
In terms of plot, The Fault In Our Stars is essentially a boy meets girl story. Only in this case it’s more boy meets girl in a cancer support group, boy professes undying love to girl, girl worries about hurting boy since she is terminally ill, boy wins girl over, boy then finds out his own cancer has returned, and thus a tragic love story ensues. As cloying as this might sound, the film’s humor (and by extension the book’s humor) balances sentimentality with a sharp wit that often denies a more simplified reading. The problem, then, is that the film does not give enough room for conflict to arise naturally. For instance, consider a scene in which Hazel expresses to her parents that she doesn’t want her death to destroy their lives. In the film, this shouting match seems to come out of nowhere and dissipates just as quickly, and so the emotion feels less sincere because it lacks solid context; the conflict doesn’t really build from anything, it’s just suddenly there. Of course, in the book the reader has access to the protagonist’s train of thought, and so the fight feels both genuine and inevitable. Unfortunately, the screenwriters clearly had little interest in writing something independent of the source material, nor did they seem to understand or care about how the new medium would change the storytelling. The result is a reductive creation, which unsuccessfully rearticulates a story that was meant to be longer.
A more egregious example of the shortcomings of abridgment, as already mentioned, is found in Augustus Waters’ bitter relapse (made to be far less bitter in the film). Admittedly, this failing feels prominent due to how the book refuses to gloss over the ugliness of dying, and there’s no easy way to unpack what the film does wrong with its retelling. However, as a salient point, consider one odd discrepancy between the book and the film. In the book, Hazel’s narration details the “one last good day” cancer trope, in which a patient’s pain is manageable and the world seems bearable—an otherwise normal day distinguished only by being the last of its kind. By this point in the book, Augustus and Hazel have already drifted apart, little by little, as the pain of dying places an immovable wall between Augustus and any other living creature. This last good day, then, is decidedly mundane but is levied by Augustus being lucid and seeming to see Hazel and be present in the moment with her. In effect, it is a beautifully understated interaction that is imparted with great tenderness. The film, on the other hand, parrots this “one last good day” monologue and then superimposes it on a completely different (and much earlier) scene in the book, in which Augustus hosts his own mock funeral. And so, despite what the narration might say, this is not just an otherwise normal day. Instead, it is a defiant show of bravado in the face of death that turns Augustus back into a genre cliché.
To be fair, The Fault In Our Stars has one bright spot that is not lifted verbatim from the pages of a book, and that is Shailene Woodley’s performance as Hazel Grace. In Fault, Hazel carts around an oxygen tank from one scene to the next, because her lungs “suck at being lungs.” With a lesser performer, this burden would be played up for sympathy, a kind of crutch that could carry an actress unscathed through the rougher emotions at hand. Woodley, however, treats the ailment more as an inconvenience that is by now second-nature. Meanwhile, she always feels honest in the moment and is truly captivating to watch. This performance further affirms her natural presence onscreen, following strong outings in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (2013). By comparison, her co-star Ansel Elgort feels a little out of his depth, particularly regarding his character’s mortal downturn. Still, all things considered the performances in Fault are fairly strong throughout, and perhaps that is enough to please the book’s ardent fans—it just shouldn’t be.
If the novel The Fault In Our Stars escapes the claim that it presents “the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way,” its filmic iteration cannot manage the same feat. Indeed, there is little that is challenging about about Boone’s adaptation, and so the story devolves into fluff. Certainly, there is still enough of the book’s spirit left to lift this story above complete drivel, but it is an echo that wanes over a chasm. And beyond Woodley’s performance, there is little the film really brings to the table here. As it stands, this adaptation will satisfy the most uncritical of the novel’s fanbase, and at the end of the day maybe that’s the majority of its fanbase anyway. If so, though, I’d wager that with a few small changes Ruth Graham could have a far more intriguing argument on her hands.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
²Green, John. The Fault In Our Stars. New York: Dutton Books, 2012. Print.