Hazel Grace Lancaster is a teenager with terminal cancer and an unrelenting sense of hope that sometimes verges on naive. Augustus Waters is a teenager who lost a leg to cancer, is doing okay, fears oblivion, and is clinically borderline-pretentious. This star-crossed pair have fallen inexplicably and inconsolably in love.
And that’s about all The Fault in Our Stars gives us from its main characters. That’s it. That’s all their personas appear to be at the beginning of the movie, and that’s all they appear to be at the end (give or take, maybe, one or two pseudo-profound conclusions about life/death/alcoholic ex-authors). The film offers no sense of depth, history, or even a genuine relationship between the two at all.
So it is important, then, considering the one-dimensional nature of each and every character in the film, that we take a moment to laud Shailene Woodley for giving so much emotion to such a thin script. She continues her streak from last year’s Spectacular Now and this year’s Divergent in giving a standout performance within an otherwise unremarkable film. There’s a certain nuance to every closeup we get of Woodley in TFiOS (of which there are plenty), and she acts as though she truly understands that, in that moment, in that shot, her face fills the entirety of the audience’s vision, and that it is her duty to fill that vision with a certain complexity of emotion. And it’s a duty she fulfils time and time again, at times with a desperate smile that catches her tears on its corners, or in an unsure sideways glance that punctuates an otherwise happy moment.
None of this, I guarantee, was written into the script.
I make this bold claim because the script in question feels like it was birthed when a mismatch of the fan-favourite lines and scenes from the novel were all taped onto a cork-board, on which the scriptwriters then played out some semi-authorial game of Pin The Tail On The Tearjerking Bit. I describe the final result of this game as a mismatch only because some of John Green’s best scenes are excluded (the pedophilic swing) and some are included for seemingly no reason (the egging of Monica’s car). And while I would suggest that the swing scene would be a pointless contribution to the film as a whole, I can say with even more certainty that the egging scene was a pointless contribution to the film as a whole because, well, it somehow made its way into the final product. And it made no sense in being there at all.
One of the people I saw the film with, who was not biased by the original text, because he apparently never learned how to read, asked me afterwards: “What was the point of it?” And I have to say that he’s asking a pretty damn good question. What’s TFiOS actually trying to say? The film spends an awful lot of time focussed on characters talking about a non-existent novel—which is far less relevant subject matter than I imagine it was in the book, considering that this is a film, and the whole ‘meta’ nature of exploring whether or not a novel’s characters exist off the page is somewhat lost on a huge screen in a full theatre.
On another of its many hands, TFiOS is a love story. But it’s a love story about a romance that is built entirely upon the superficial on-screen chemistry of the characters. There’s no real depth to be found here, and the blame for that can be found in not one early scene allowing us to spend any time with the characters and their developing romance. Aside from the mostly-brilliant period spent in the Anne Frank House (which comes far too late), each scene seemingly exists either to advance the melodramatic plot, or to have the characters explore together briefly some philosophical topic without coming to any real conclusion, or having anything that resembles heated argument/discussion which might have served to punctuate their interactions.
And on yet another hand, this is a story about the existential crisis that is adolescence. But the film comes to no real conclusions: the start is the same as the end. The characters remain, for the most part, stubborn and unchanging. Which would be okay, if that meant anything in the film’s context.
But what is the film’s context? The consensus amid the press seems to be that this is a film about hope. So let’s assume that it is a film about hope. But isn’t any statement being made about hope somewhat devalued by the fact that the cancer-ridden protagonist is on an imaginary drug written into the movie as a mere plot device? Towards the end of the film Augustus Waters says, speaking in a way no real human being ever has, that “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” There’s a disconnect here, though, because the script seems pretty damn wishful to me.
And I suppose that’s why I struggle with the film. Because I don’t know what I was meant to take away from it. Because the half-dozen thematic explorations juxtaposed throughout never come together to form any sense of a cohesive whole. Because the editing in the first half feels clunky, and later becomes all-too-reliant on music (though the choice of M83’s Wait is spot-on). It’s for all these reasons that I dislike the film—not because I think it did the book any real injustice. In fact, seeing The Fault in Our Stars on the big screen made me rethink entirely my stance on John Green’s bestselling novel. And not in a good way.