Movie: The Fault In Our Stars
Director: Josh Boone
Writers: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Release date: June 6, 2014
U.S. box office: $124.9 million
Worldwide box office: $307.2 million
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 126
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 81
Metacritic score: 69
Letterboxd average grade: 3.5/5
“While The Fault In Our Stars is more pastel watercolor than hard-edged drama, it’s still hugely warm and winning, thanks in large part to Boone’s unfussy, wistful direction. Apart from the conceit of having Gus and Hazel’s text conversations appear onscreen in adorable, freehand-style word balloons that depart with a visible and audible pop, Boone doesn’t inject much unique visual snap into the film, but the low-key camerawork and leisurely editing keep out of the leads’ way. Just as Hazel and Gus’ parents seem to make a conscious decision to suppress their desire to be involved, and give their kids room for their quiet, affirming, crucial relationship, Boone seems to be concentrating on creating a soft-edged garden where Woodley and Elgort can play their roles as delicately and confidently as the script demands.” —Tasha Robinson
“The Fault in Our Stars wins points for being more complex and stylish than most similar films feel they need to be. Most movies with this target audience are maudlin and manipulative, but Boone’s film never feels like it’s trying too hard to win our tears—or our laughter. It’s most comparable to Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 in this way; it will leave you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut, but it acknowledges that there can be humor even in the worst situations. There are also some nice stylistic flourishes, particularly around Hazel and Gus’s texts that make the film feel of the moment, while not being tied to any particular year (or operating system). It’s an above-average entry into the genre, broadening its appeal beyond just teenagers, fans of the original novel and those who love a good cry.” —Kimber Myers, The Playlist
“Woodley and Elgort play the hand they’re dealt well, balancing the sentiment with a good deal of teenage moxie. Make no mistake, Fault is a certifiable weepie, but it comes by most of its emotions honestly. Boone uses plausible situations to stir up feelings, without the heart-tugging calculation that brings so many tear-jerkers down. For our doomed young lovers, cancer is just another teenage problem to deal with, no excuse for schmaltz.” —Betsy Sharkey, The L.A. Times
“There’s plenty in The Fault in Our Stars that’s hard to buy, though that’s not by itself a problem. Woodley is an appealing actress who gives her character some moderately believable shape, though she needs to be reeled back in her big, dramatic moments, when her voice hits the high, nut-busting notes of a hectoring chipmunk. Elgort, set to be the teen heartthrob of the moment (he has already appeared in Carrie and Divergent), presents a bigger complication. His character is given to loquacious soliloquies that need to be looser, funnier, and Elgort can’t navigate them without sounding annoying and pompous. We know why Hazel likes him, but he’s the kind of first boyfriend you need to enjoy for a while and then get away from, not take deep into your heart as the truest love ever. And that, unfortunately, is where the story locks him.” —Stephanie Zacharek, The Village Voice
The popularity The Fault In Our Stars achieved—it handily won the box office the week of its release, besting the next-biggest earner, Maleficent, by nearly $15 million—may have surprised those who don’t have YA literature on their personal pop-cultural radars. On the surface, it looks like a losing proposition: a weepy, low-key, action-free drama about kids with cancer, headlined by an actress, Shailene Woodley, with a couple of critically loved but underseen indies (The Spectacular Now and The Descendants) and one disappointing Hunger Games knockoff (Divergent) under her belt—and going up against a big-budget science-fiction/action flick starring Tom Cruise, no less. But the popularity of John Green’s book, and to a lesser extent Green himself, can’t be understated when considering why The Fault In Our Stars hit big with audiences. Those familiar with the author’s devoted following were expecting a big hit along the lines of previous YA-adaptation juggernauts Twilight and The Hunger Games.
Compared to the authors of those franchises (Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins, respectively), the Internet-famous Green was much more present in the lead-up hype—both online and off—surrounding the adaptation of his fifth and most popular novel. Even though he wasn’t directly involved in the film’s screenplay—which was handled by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, themselves a known quantity thanks to (500) Days Of Summer and The Spectacular Now—Green was extremely active in the film’s promotion, including the “Demand Our Stars” tour where he joined the film’s cast in an event geared toward “#FaultFanatics” where “Feels are a guarantee :).” With more than 4 million Twitter followers—more than the two stars and director of the movie have combined—and equally popular presences on YouTube and Tumblr, Green was, in some ways, Fault’s biggest star. And his following—engaged, passionate, and online-savvy—is exactly the sort of following that will see a movie the day it comes out, and do everything they can to make sure others do the same.
There was also the matter of #extrafeels, a promotional hashtag that says more about Fault’s appeal than a full 140 characters could, or even 140 words. While fairly ridiculous as a standalone phrase, the hashtag 20th Century Fox used to promote the film tapped into the thrumming vein of sincerity and emotionality that helped The Fault In Our Stars connect with a post-irony generation. Green’s characters might think and interact the way a generation raised on the Internet is expected to—often sarcastic, reference-prone, and occasionally glib—but they engage with and talk about their feelings openly and thoughtfully, engendering plenty of what young folks these days call “the feels.” By promoting itself as a feels-delivery device, The Fault In Our Stars positioned itself as something different within the spectacle-first-humans-second summer-movie landscape—and something potentially refreshing.
Appropriately enough, the feels. Because tragedy is hard-wired into The Fault In Our Stars’ premise—the phrase “terminal cancer” doesn’t leave a whole lot of hope for a happy ending—there’s no real question of where its characters are going to end up. Both Hazel (Woodley) and her first—and presumably last—boyfriend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) know there’s a hard expiration date on their romance, when one of them will succumb to the inevitability of their dormant-for-now cancer and leave the other alive to mourn. The definitiveness of that premise leaves Stars the room to explore more specific, unexpected emotional nuances of death and its attendant emotion, love. It also means the film’s emotions hold up well to repeat viewings, since they’re not predicated on surprise or tension. That undercurrent of tragedy electrifies the film’s smaller moments—even the ostensibly happy ones—and amplifies their emotional impact dramatically.
In that regard, Woodley is the film’s greatest asset, ably shouldering the burden of both the film’s occasionally oppressive narration and its most difficult emotional monologues. (The speech Hazel gives her parents about her fear they “won’t have a life” after she dies, and the “eulogy” she delivers for the still-alive Gus are among the film’s most heart-wrenching moments.) Hazel is defined by both her grim acceptance of her condition and her fear of what comes after death—not for her, but for those she leaves behind—and Woodley captures both those qualities without being overly maudlin or vehement about it. As tragic figures go, she’s remarkably chill, which paradoxically makes her pain cut even deeper.
On the page, Elgort’s character is a little more of a mixed bag—several reviewers referred to Gus as a “Manic Pixie Dream Boy” when the film came out, a not-unfair characterization—but his chemistry with Woodley saves the film’s central relationship from the pitfalls of puppy-love treacle. Elgort’s presence is just far enough outside the standard-Hollywood-heartthrob box to make Gus read as a regular teenage boy, albeit an exceptionally precocious, even pretentious one. Sure, Gus dangles an unlit cigarette from his lips and calls it a “metaphor,” but he also quotes The Simpsons and reads novelizations of videogames, and Elgort taps into that innate dorkiness in a way only someone named “Ansel Elgort” can. Put simply, both he and Woodley don’t lose sight of the fact that their characters are kids. Kids faced with extraordinary circumstances that have forced them to mature emotionally, sure, but kids all the same.
Without the grounding force of its central duo, Stars could have easily spun off into the realm of cheesy melodrama, even with the roadmap of Green’s source material to guide it. The fact that it doesn’t is testament to Woodley and Elgort’s unforced, unusual chemistry, as well as Josh Boone’s wise instinct to keep the focus on them, rather than getting overly fussy or grand with his direction. Even Boone’s decision to display Hazel and Gus’ text conversation on the screen—which, by this point, viewers are just going to have to accept as a convention of modern screen stories—supports the characterization and story, rather than detracting from them. Hazel and Augustus’ text-message flirtations are both accurate to the era in which they live and the type of people they are: clever and quick-witted, but still guarded enough to hide behind the veil of technology in the early stage of their relationship.
Like an abnormal cell cluster in an otherwise-healthy lung, the Anne Frank House sequence remains Stars’ major fault. Everything that surrounds it is such an understated delight—Hazel and Gus’ romantic sojourn in Amsterdam, their meeting and subsequent telling-off of reclusive, drunk writer Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe)—that the realization of the Anne Frank House scene sounds even more of a bum note. This is the sole instance in the film where Stars’ fidelity to its source text is a liability rather than an asset. It’s difficult to imagine a way to make what mostly works on the page—the correlation of two different types of human suffering, as well as two different small victories in the face of such suffering—not come across as heavy-handed and squicky. Boone almost manages the feat, juxtaposing Hazel’s struggle to climb the House’s many stairs, oxygen tank in tow, with Frank quotes about finding beauty among misery, and capturing the happiness within. This approach doesn’t quite absolve the film of more or less equating the two girls’ struggles, but it does work as a reflection of what’s going through Hazel’s mind at the moment.
And then Gus kisses her. And even that might have been okay, if the filmmakers hadn’t made the astoundingly poor decision to follow a PDA some might call a tad distasteful with a slow clap from everyone else in the room. (None of the other visitors to the House know it’s Hazel and Gus’ first kiss, nor their histories, beyond whatever they may infer from Hazel’s oxygen tank. Why are they so thrilled to see two punk American teenagers making out where a 14-year-old girl hid from the Nazis?) It’s a record-scratch moment in an otherwise harmonious film, where what could have been a pointed but subtly realized juxtaposition between two young girls separated by decades, but connected through personal tragedy, becomes something much more distasteful. The Fault In Our Stars is so otherwise successful at walking the line between sentimentality and cynicism, this moment stands out as a disastrous tumble into some horrible mutation of both.
Knowing where the Anne Frank House sequence falls in the film, and thus being able to fast-forward past it, makes revisiting The Fault In Our Stars an appealing proposition—assuming viewers are prepared to spend a solid two hours hanging out on the verge of tears. But viewed in the context of its box-office success, it’s also useful to view as a vanguard of a potentially cresting wave in the YA-adaptation trend. Stars is one of the first films in recent memory—and easily the most successful—to tell a different kind of teen story, one that doesn’t take place in a fantasy or post-apocalyptic world, where the struggle isn’t against an evil regime or supernatural threat, but rather something internal and relatable. (It’s worth noting that both Woodley and screenwriters Neustadter and Weber pulled off this same feat a year earlier with The Spectacular Now, which bested Stars in terms of critical acclaim, if not box-office dominance.)
Green is the main driver of this coming wave: Two of his other novels, Paper Towns and Looking For Alaska, are currently on the fast track to the big screen, and all his books have been optioned for potential film treatments at some point or another. But there are other clear Stars successors already hitting theaters (Me And Earl And The Dying Girl), and more in the works (the suicide-themed My Heart And Other Black Holes). These sorts of films have not been entirely absent from theaters in the past, nor is it likely supernatural/post-apocalyptic YA adaptations will disappear from theaters in the near future. But Stars suggests a tipping point in the balance between the two approaches. The combined artistic and monetary success of The Fault In Our Stars shows that both audiences and filmmakers are ready for more teen-centric stories that play out in the real world, in addition to the allegorical ones.
Next time: Lucy