“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
The weekend of 21st June 2014 was the UK opening weekend of The Fault in our Stars, an independent, low-budget film based on the best selling YA novel by YouTuber John Green. Since John is a super successful internet celebrity (technical term) you could barely move online for the buzz surrounding the film. I’ve read one John Green novel before, the co-authored Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but I’ve only read the first chapter of TFIOS, so this review will focus on the movie only, won’t discuss how the film compares to the book.
TFIOS is a teenage cancer love story (new genre alert), narrated by Hazel, who is suffering from lung cancer. In all other ways she is a typical teen; she texts, watches movies and reality TV shows, reads and is sarcastic and smart about life. In a cancer support group she meets Gus, a confident cancer survivor, who is romantically interested in her straight away, and the two soon develop a mutual attraction- a love story, with interludes of trips to the hospital and doctor’s appointments. The plot is primarily a coming-of-age story, focussing on Hazel mentally growing up and gaining knowledge of life through her experiences, including tropes such as the wise old man, which Hazel is desperate to see in her favourite author, a stereotype which is nicely, if not turned on its head then sidestepped at the end of the film (although this is told slightly different in the book). My favourite moments in the film were the scenes with the argument at the author’s house (watch Gus closely during this, rather than Hazel- his reaction is telling), the scene where the teenagers egg the car (surprisingly hilarious), and Hazel and Gus’ final conversation on the Funky Bones sculpture.
Where the film soars is in its ability to imagine terminally ill teenagers complexly. Hazel is cynical, quick witted, funny, yet not too much of these personality types to make her movie-star perfect, and unbelievable. Gus, comparatively, despite his cancer, does come off as too perfect, and this is one failing of the movie adaption. Until the end, and barely even then, we don’t see the insecure, vulnerable side to Gus, which every teenager, and indeed every person, has. The TFIOS film portrays him as a perfect, handsome, physically good looking, confident older teen. As a viewer in their mid twenties I found it difficult to understand why Hazel would fall for Gus’ obvious posturing (the cigarette metaphor? A real teen would have rolled their eyes) and longed for her to call him out on his desperate attempts to cover himself with meaning and make his memory last, above and beyond all other peoples- which she only does, moderately, at the end of the film.
My least favourite part in the movie was a scene that has been criticised by many, from the mainstream press to booktubers. The two teenagers share a kiss in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam (where Justin Bieber was famously criticised for inappropriate behaviour), which goes on for far too long, and is applauded by members of the public. At this point I think the director forgot that they were making an independent movie, and one which Hazel clearly states in the opening scene, is not going to be a Hollywood fairytale, and is in fact going to be ‘real life’.
A further criticism of the story is that in the film Hazel has no female friends, which, unfortunately, is part of a wider problem in YA lit. She is seen as different, special, and not like other girls (as Gus tells us). This is a trap that many other YA novels with Strong Female Characters ™ fall into- the clique, and untruth, that a female character can only be independent minded IF she is different to and does not have close relationships with, other women, particularly of her own age. This is a pretty bad message to be sending young women as at worst it creates isolation and disregard for others opinions, and at best, arrogance and a superiority complex.
Despite this, TFIOS is a valuable addition to the YA canon. Its humanising of terminally ill teenagers is an important step in bringing into the mainstream recognition of the prejudices many people with disabilities face around attitudes towards their disability. Hazel and Gus are brought together due to their respective illnesses but they love each other with the intensity of anyone who fell in love as a teenager.
The cashier at the desk at the cinema warned us- with a smile- to bring tissues, and she was not wrong. If you’re not a teenager anymore, throw away your
cynicism realism before you go and see this movie. If you are a teenager, put your ironic detachment to one side. Hazel and Gus are just like you. If you go in with an open mind, this movie will hit you where it hurts.