With young adult novels being adapted left and right, it was about time that John Green’s 2012 bestselling novel, The Fault in Our Stars is getting the Hollywood treatment. The film is directed by Josh Boone, whose only other credit is writing and directing the 2012 film, Stuck in Love. The book to screen adaptation is handled by the screenwriting duo, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who are known for writing (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and Pink Panther 2 (one of these things is not like the other). I’ll note that I haven’t read the book and I’m only judging the film on its own merits.
The Fault in Our Stars follows 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), who has been living with stage 4 thyroid cancer with metastasis formed in her lungs, so she uses a portable oxygen tank to breath properly. She is forced to go to a support group where she, one day, meets a guy named Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), he suffered from Osteosarcoma, which he has mostly recovered from, but it’s resulted in a leg amputation. They share an immediate connection and develop a relationship.
The film had an absurd amount of hype from the book’s young fanbase, leading to the film becoming a smash at the box office on opening weekend. So, does the film live up to the acclaim? In short, I don’t think so. I want to stress that the film is not “bad,” but the film has problems that need addressing.
Allow me to digress a bit regarding clichés. The word “cliché” is almost exclusively used as a negative connotation when it comes to talking about films. However, I would argue that just because a film is clichéd, that does not, in and of itself, make a film bad. There are plenty of, not just good, but great films that are guilty of embellishing in the use of clichés. What it usually boils down to is context. Does a cliché work within the context of a given film? If it doesn’t, that is when you have lazy writing. When the cliché just happens to work logically with the narrative, then it’s not lazy writing. Lazy writing is when a cliché is in a film that could have easily been reworked into something different without changing the flow of the narrative. Tone and purpose are also elements that can tell you whether not a cliché is something to worry about. This is where the problems in The Fault in Our Stars start arising.
The film promotes itself as a film that goes against the grain, which defies conventions and keeps true to reality, without all the Hollywood sugarcoating. Unfortunately, the film promises one thing, but delivers something completely different. The film is full of clichés and common disease-drama tropes that come out in every corner of the film. This is a problem since the film, at points, believes that it is telling a cancer/teen romance story in a real and believable way, and it takes me out of the film whenever something happens or someone says something that I’ve seen in trite romance films over the years. Some of the clichés have context to them that make it work, but there are others that are eye-rolling at best and cringe-worthy at worst. The main character is passive and only grows when she meets a manic pixie dream boy who is perfect in almost every way (aside from his illness) and the only attempts at humanizing him involve an initial fear of flight (which is easily the most popular go-to fear for a fictional character in order to make them relatable) and then properly showing a side of him towards the third act of the film that we haven’t seen from him before, but by then, it’s too little, too late. The supporting characters are out of countless films (and not just of this type) that I’ve seen before. The goofy support group leader, the overtly enthusiastic mother, the comedic best friend. There are moments that have also been in plenty of films before; for example, there’s a “I wanna do a fake funeral for myself” scene, there’s a getting-back-at-an-ex-girlfriend scene and many others, but some are spoilers and I don’t want to ruin anything.
If it sounds like I’m being harsh, it’s because this film needs tough love. If it wants to be the realistic look at a teenager going through cancer, why can’t it just present that without all the things that I’ve seen before so many times. Only a few of these tropes and clichés worked in context of the film, but most didn’t and felt very out of place. There’s a scene that involves Hazel and Augustus going through Anne Frank’s house after an unexpected disappointing visit with the author, Peter van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe), who wrote Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction (by the way, a character being disappointed after visiting their hero is also a cliché that’s been used quite a bit, and there wasn’t much of a point to it in this film). So, the scene starts off fairly well, with Hazel struggling to go up the stairs in the house, but determined to get to the top. Although, the Anne Frank quotes that play in the speakers were a bit much. When she finally reaches the attic, she ends up kissing Augustus. Okay, that’s fine. But the scene kept going, and as it kept going, I was hoping that it wasn’t going to do what I thought it was going to do. And then they did just that, the other patrons at the attic begin applauding, and my jaw dropped. I’m simply at awe at how seriously the film wanted me to take a story that felt so phony.
It’s just a shame because I think the film does explore some interesting themes like the isolation of those going through a terminal illness, dealing with the realities of death, the supposed idea that “pain is meant to be felt,” the concept of oblivion and it’s relation to us as people, as well as the idea that fiction matters and can hold significance on a very personal level, etc. There are points where the film really hits the mark, but I just think the love story approach is not the right one. Had the film been more of a character focused story about Hazel, with Augustus playing only a small part in a much bigger picture, then the film could’ve been something brilliant.
The film also suffers from some other less substantial issues, like a lack of proper characterization for some supporting characters (for example, we see Augustus’ mother for the first time at a crucial point in the film, but since we haven’t seen her before, a connection isn’t made, thus I don’t feel anything), there are occasional gaps in logic that only seem to be there for the sake of the story, certain moments feel the need to pull every possible trick in the book to make the audience tear up, characters who are on the brink of death look like they can be taken right into a photo shoot, the perfectness of Augustus can be irritating at times, and a lot of dialogue in the film is the kind of dialogue that reads a lot better than it sounds out loud. That sums up all the things that I felt the film needed more work on. Oh, and if you’re thinking, “well, that’s how it was in the book,” understand that a book and a film are two completely different things, changes are necessary to make a book translate to screen. So, this may (or may not) be a case of a film sticking a bit too close to the source material.
Despite the harsh criticism, I feel that there are plenty of things to like about the film. The acting is great overall, Shailene Woodley, especially is just phenomenal. She has a lot of chemistry with her co-star, Ansel Elgort, and that chemistry made his character more tolerable for me. There is a clear love and respect that the filmmakers have on the source material that is quite evident on how they handle the film, and their sensitive and empathetic approach towards the subject matter feels very genuine and not rooted in feeling pity for the victims of the various illnesses. The cinematography by Ben Richardson is beautiful in an understated kind of way, the occasional bits of humor in the film work fairly well, the soundtrack choices and music by Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott is solid, and Josh Boon’s confident direction and Robb Sullivan’s editing keep the film going at a perfect pace.
The Fault in Our Stars is by no means a rousing success in terms of its storytelling, but it is hard not to admire the film on its ambition, as well as the various things it accomplishes very well. It is deeply flawed, but is a likable enough film that it’s worth recommending. Shailene Woodley gives one of her best performances yet, and carries the film effortlessly. If anything, the success of this film might bring some similar stories to the forefront in a way that 50/50 (a much better film in my opinion) wasn’t able to do back in 2011. Despite its issues, there’s nothing worth getting angry over this film, since the things it gets right, makes the emotional ride that much more admirable in its efforts. And once it’s all said and done, when it comes to young adult romance in films, you could do far, far, far worse.
Side Note: Speaking of adaptations, Josh Boone has been hired recently to direct an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, The Stand. A film adaptation of this particular book has been stuck in developmental hell since the 80’s, with names like George Romero, David Yates, Ben Affleck and Scott Cooper tapped for direction at certain points, and it looks like Warner Brothers has finally gotten a firm grip on what they want and how to deliver. Josh Boone also expressed his desire to adapt the book into a single three-hour long film with an R-rating. Given the success of The Fault in Our Stars, Josh Boone might have enough pull at this point to be able to actually make the film the way he wants to make.