Adapting a beloved novel for the big screen is often an enormous challenge, even with books written with cinema in mind. Most stories don’t automatically come with a two hour screenplay attached, and the process of fitting that story into a film can be troublesome for the filmmakers and heartbreaking for fans. Some things will naturally have to be cut in order to fit into the running time, while others will have to be changed or rewritten in order to work on the screen (and heaven forbid the filmmakers add something that was never in the book). Then there’s the struggle to find the right tone and perspective, where humor and pathos have to be transitioned to the screen but also balanced in the right mix to feel true to the author’s intent. If you’re too faithful to the novel you might alienate viewers who are unfamiliar with the source, but if you go too broad then you might risk diluting what made the story so special in the first place. So it’s a pleasant surprise that the film version of The Fault in Our Stars is such a success.
The Fault in Our Stars opens with the film’s protagonist, Hazel Grace Lancaster, telling us via narration that “I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories,” either by sugarcoating things or by telling the truth. And while Hazel might prefer a sugarcoated version, it’s clear from the film’s outset that that’s not what we’re going to get. Hazel is a cancer survivor, who has to lug an oxygen tank around wherever she goes because her lungs refuse to cooperate. She spends most of her time in bed, reading her favorite book over and over and thinking about death, which understandably leads her parents to believe she’s depressed. After much insistence from her parents, she agrees to attend a cancer support group in the “literal heart of Jesus,” which is as unhelpful and uninteresting as she imagined. That is, until she meets Augustus Waters.
You see, The Fault in Our Stars is not really a terminal disease movie, but is instead an epic love story set against the backdrop of cancer (see also: Love Story). However, unlike other films we’ve seen before, this movie does not shy away from the reality of what these teenagers are facing. The romance proceeds the way any other indie romance would, with cute text conversations, lots of mooning gazes shared, and the pair bonding over Hazel’s favorite book. Yet the cloud of cancer looms over the proceedings, never lurking far out of sight. Hazel’s breathing tube is a constant reminder of her status, as is Augustus’s missing leg and their friend Isaac’s impending blindness. Much like the novel the film is based on, the story here is both amusingly cliché and purposefully opposed to anything remotely cliché. We watch as Augustus and Hazel plan a trip to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author of Hazel’s favorite book, but we can never forget the shadow their disease casts on their story, and the acknowledgement by Hazel that this is a “sad story” is never far from our minds.
John Green’s book and its details have been spread so far and wide across the internet that there are probably few who are unfamiliar with it, and the filmmakers made the right choice to stay as faithful as possible to the source material. Much of Green’s dialogue and narration makes its way directly into the film, with only a few notable changes for fans of the book. Characters, subplots and backstory all get truncated, as anyone would expect, but the final result is much closer to the book than I’d imagined possible. Of particular note is how well director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have managed to capture the novel’s tone so well. Despite being a “sad story,” The Fault in Our Stars has plenty of humor to go along with its heavy meditations about death and its side effects.
The film’s greatest strength, however, has to be Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace. This is Hazel’s story and Woodley shines in the role, giving the second truly award-worthy performance of her career after The Descendants. She’s equally vulnerable and strong as Hazel, refusing to submit to the limitations her disease places upon her, yet constantly harboring the numerous fears that go along with her condition. She makes both a convincing teenager and a convincing cancer patient, never letting you forget how hard it is for her to even breathe, and she makes Hazel feel real in a way that puts even the book to shame. The rest of the cast is solid. Ansel Elgort makes a charming and engaging Augustus, Nat Wolff steals every scene he’s in as Isaac, and Laura Dern will absolutely rip your heart out as Hazel’s mother. But it’s Woodley who stands out above the rest.
The film fits much more into the standard tropes of “indie romance,” complete with a soundtrack seemingly crafted to sell albums and cutesy graphics that pop up on the screen during text message conversations between the two leads. In that way it feels like the sort of cliché to which Hazel would object, but on the other hand it reminds us that we’re still watching a teenaged romance. (The text message and email graphics do allow the director to focus on Woodley’s reaction to the conversation, keeping the frame on her as much as possible.) The 2 hour running time does mean some sacrifices from the book, including a particularly moving chunk of backstory for Augustus that helped to humanize him in the novel, meaning he remains a little too perfect in this version. Also, the most shocking scene of, for lack of a better term, “cancer horror” from the book felt somewhat underwhelming in the film. Perhaps it was toned down for the PG-13 rating, but I felt like it was a slight injustice to the book and its desire to not flinch away from the terrible details of the disease. In fact, the final third of the movie feels a bit rushed, with things happening more suddenly than in the book, but to some extent that’s simply unavoidable. On the other hand, some scenes work better on film, giving things a more human and immediate connection.
In all, however, The Fault in Our Stars is a moving and extremely faithful version of John Green’s novel, sure to please fans and tug at the heartstrings of the uninitiated. Where the movie shines is not even in its epic love story, which is still somewhat formulaic despite its intensity, but instead in the small moments like the way Hazel’s mother comes running in almost a panic whenever she’s called, afraid that the worst has happened, and needs a moment to gather herself when everything is ok. It’s the way people in horrible situations find ways to carry on, because it’s better than the other option. It’s how even the shortest life can be one worth living, and how the inevitable pain is worth it if the infinite moments before are filled with love and joy and meaning. Just like how even the saddest of stories can make us feel good for simply having been a part of them.
(This review was entered as part of a contest on The Artistic Christian for reviews comparing books and movies.)