Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2159
Author: John Green (b. 1977)
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First published: 2012
Director: Josh Boone (b. 1979)
Screenplay by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe
In 2012, the young adult author John Green published his fifth novel, The Fault in Our Stars, about two teenagers with terminal cancer who fall in love. The book takes its title from a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which Cassius says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves” (act 1, sc. 2). Unfortunately for Green's tragic heroes, the fault really is in their stars, the “cruel fate,” Emma Brockes wrote for the May 2014 issue of Intelligent Life magazine, “which brings them together only to rip them asunder.” The premise of the book might seem saccharine, but Natalie Standiford, in her January 13, 2012, review of the book for the New York Times, praised Green's refusal to sugarcoat descriptions of pain, illness, and death. “These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green's hands, they only make it more moving,” Standiford wrote. “He shows us true love—two teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating physical and emotional ordeals—and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.” The Fault in Our Stars was a best seller before it was even published and became a cultural phenomenon that sparked a surprisingly heated debate about adult enthusiasm for young adult fiction—a debate that continued in 2014, when Fault was adapted for the screen.
As Margaret Talbot reported in a June 2014 New Yorker profile of Green, the enormous success of the book was thanks in part to Green's massive Internet following, a group affectionately self-styled the Nerdfighters. In 2006, Green and his brother Hank began making a series of YouTube videos. The videos were meant to be semiprivate and irreverent, a simple means for two tech-savvy siblings (these were the early days of Internet videos, after all) to stay in touch. But the videos developed a much larger audience than the Green family, and by 2007, their numbers were in the thousands. They called themselves the Nerdfighters, a term Green coined himself in a riff about a misread word. Fault is Green's fifth novel—his first, Looking for Alaska, won the Michael L. Printz Award in 2006—but his built-in fan base gave the book the heft of a highly anticipated debut. Just before the film adaptation was released, the book had spent 124 consecutive weeks on the New York Times best seller list and had been the number one YA book for 43 weeks.
Through the Nerdfighters, Green was introduced to a young girl named Esther Grace Earl, a sixteen-year-old suffering from thyroid cancer. She died in 2010. The character Hazel Grace Lancaster, who is also dependent on an oxygen tank, is loosely based on Esther. The story also draws on Green's own brief experience as a chaplain working with kids with terminal diseases. “The truth is, or at least the argument of the book is, I think, that a short life can also be a good life,” Green told Rebecca J. Rosen for the February 2013 issue of the Atlantic.
The Fault in Our Stars joins a long tradition of romantic films that deal with terminal illness. The subgenre is derisively known as the “sick flick.” The archetypal sick flick is the 1970 film Love Story, based on the Erich Segal novel of the same name. According to Talbot, Green “loved and hated” the book when he read it in high school. When he wrote Fault, he was cautious not to fall into the same sentimental traps. The story, told in flashback, recounts the love between the son of a millionaire named Oliver (Ryan O'Neal) and the blue-collar daughter of an Italian baker named Jenny (Ali MacGraw). Jenny suffers from a rare and unidentified blood disease that ultimately kills her. Twenty-first-century sick flicks include A Walk to Remember (2002), based on the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name, in which a high school bad boy, Landon (Shane West), falls for a quiet girl in the drama club named Jamie (Mandy Moore). Jamie eventually dies of leukemia. In the film Sweet November (2001), based on a 1968 film of the same name, an advertising executive named Nelson (Keanu Reeves) falls for a quirky woman named Sara (Charlize Theron) who has terminal cancer in the form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
According to Eliza Berman's June 5, 2014, Slate article, the sick flick has four distinct tropes. First, the man is the protagonist; though the woman is physically dying, he is spiritually dying and relies on her disease-wrought wisdom to save him. Second, the woman tries to end their relationship, afraid that her death will hurt her partner. Third, in death, the woman is “elevated to near-sainthood,” and lastly, the man's life is improved for having known his dead lover. Of the aforementioned films, Sweet November is the most flagrant offender in terms of the first trope. In the movie, Theron's character Sara seeks out men for the express purpose of entering their lives for one month and imbuing them with her quirky worldview. She is most persistent with Reeves's conceited ad man, but of course, her plans are spoiled when they fall in love. A Walk to Remember, meanwhile, provides a fairly straightforward example of the fourth trope. West's character is an aimless troublemaker, but after his life-changing relationship with Jamie, he is inspired to go to medical school—making Jamie's death merely a plot point (albeit a necessary one) in the larger success story of Landon's life.
The Fault in Our Stars upends the first trope of the sick flick by making the sarcastic sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) the story's protagonist. Her life is little more than reading the same book over and over again and hanging out with her parents. When her mother forces her to go a group therapy session for teenagers with cancer, she meets Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort). Gus is a former basketball star who lost part of his leg to osteosarcoma and pursues with Hazel with zeal, eventually charming her with his sincerity and zest for life. While Gus convinces Hazel to embrace life while she has it (a little like Sara in Sweet November), Hazel helps the superhero-obsessed Gus see that it is equally important to embrace darker feelings; she quotes her favorite book, telling him, “That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” The relationship between Hazel and Gus is a nuanced give-and-take, though it is also one aspect in which the film struggles to capture the breadth of the novel fully. Gus often comes across as one-dimensionally charming, whereas in the book, as Green has stressed, Gus takes a perverse pleasure in his performance of himself. It takes Hazel to help him drop the act and learn to be content with himself as he is.
Despite the gender swapping of the main character, Fault actually follows the second trope of the classic sick flick. As the two begin to fall for one another, Hazel warns Gus that she is a “grenade,” just waiting to “blow up” and “obliterate everything in my wake.” Of course, Gus ignores her plea to end their friendship altogether. They eventually decide to enjoy their time together, however short, though this decision is never presented as a “you-only-live-once” platitude. In fact, both characters abhor platitudes of any kind, enduring them or accepting them only when they must and secretly laughing at their inanity. Hazel and Gus's dark humor and stark observations prevent the film from becoming sentimental, though here too the book is able to portray this duality much more fully, allowing Hazel to smile politely at a framed inspirational quote while thinking that “its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries.”
As Fault's reversal of the first trope might suggest, the death depicted in the film is not Hazel's death but Gus's—and his passing could not be more human. In Love Story, Jenny dies the death of a saint. As New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote (18 Dec. 1970), she is practically iridescent in death, “as if she were suffering from some kind of vaguely unpleasant Elizabeth Arden treatment,” he wrote. “Jenny doesn't die. She just slips away in beauty.” Though Elgort and Woodley—who, at Green's instance, wears an oxygen tube on her face throughout the entire film—are beautiful actors, director Josh Boone does his best to show the characters' humiliating reality, vomit and all. (Though, again, the book gets more graphic.) Hazel even says in a voiceover, that she wishes she could report that Gus died with dignity but that he did not; in capturing the agony of his death, the movie also captures one of the fundamental truths about dying from cancer: it is not inspirational or pretty. As for the fourth trope of the sick flick, Berman argues that Hazel and Gus are both enriched by their relationship. And given Hazel's limited future, she will have little chance to use any “lessons” she learned from Gus. The movie is in part about coming to terms with endings as real endings and not, as they are so often sold to the grieving, new beginnings.
The Fault in Our Stars premiered on June 6, 2014. By the end of the month, it had grossed nearly $200 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable films of the year. It was popular with most critics as well, though many struggled over its distinction as a “young adult” film. A. O. Scott, the film critic for the New York Times gave Fault a positive review, but also called it a “celebration of adolescent narcissism.” His critique was echoed by Ruth Graham of Slate, who, inspired by the release of the film, wrote that adults should be embarrassed to enjoy books for young adults because YA books are “maudlin” and “present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.” Graham's article in particular provoked a heated debate in which no teenager participated, just as, Green has noted in interviews, no teenager has ever commented that Hazel and Gus are “wise beyond their years”—a common adult observation. Laura Miller, a book critic at Salon, responded to Graham and Scott's articles, writing, “Green may offer a more accessible treatment of the same themes [as adult novels that feature teenage characters], but it's not a less honest one. A work of art is only sentimental to the extent that it lies to its audience, and I just don't see lies in Green's novel.”
Though Green did not work on the screenplay for the film, he worked closely with the production team while it was being made. He is working with the writer, actor, and filmmaker Sarah Polley to adapt his first novel, Looking for Alaska (2005), for the screen, while the same crew from The Fault in Our Stars is looking to adapt Green's 2008 novel Paper Towns. No casting or release dates have been announced for either film.
- Berman, Eliza. “How The Fault in Our Stars Dramatically Improves the ‘Sick Flick.’” Slate. Slate, 5 June 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/06/05/the_fault_in_our_stars_review_the_sick_flick_ reinvented_with_shailene_woodley.html>.
- Robinson, Tasha. Rev. of The Fault in Our Stars, dir. by Josh Boone. Dissolve. Pitchfork Media, 5 June 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <https://thedissolve.com/reviews/848-the-fault-in-our-stars>.
- Scott, A.O. “Young Love, Complicated by Cancer.” Rev. of The Fault in Our Stars, dir. by Josh Boone. New York Times. New York Times, 5 June 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/06/movies/the-fault-in-our-stars-sets-out-to-make-you-cry.html>.
- Standiford, Natalie. “The Tenacity of Hope.” Rev. of The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. New York Times. New York Times, 13 Jan. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/books/review/the-tenacity-of-hope.html?pagewanted=all>.
- Brockes, Emma. “John Green: Teenager, Aged 36.” Intelligent Life. Economist, 1 May 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/features/emma-brockes/john-green?page=full>.
- Canby, Vincent. “Perfection and a ‘Love Story’: Erich Segal's Romantic Tale Begins Run.” Rev. of Love Story, dir. by Arthur Hiller. New York Times. New York Times, 18 Dec. 1970. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E07E5DA1E30E337A2575BC1A9649D946190D6CF>.
- Miller, Laura. “‘The Fault in Our Stars’ Has Been Unfairly Bashed by Critics Who Don't Understand It.” Salon. Salon Media, 6 June 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://www.salon.com/2014/06/06/the_fault_in_our_stars_has_been_unfairly_bashed_ by_critics_who_dont_understand_it>.
- Green, John. Interview by Rebecca J. Rosen. Atlantic Feb. 2013: n. pag. Print.
- Talbot, Margaret. “The Teen Whisperer.” New Yorker. Condé Nast, 9 June 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/09/the-teen-whisperer>.
- Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “It's John Green's World Now—and That's a Good Thing.” Salon. Salon Media, 2 June 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://www.salon.com/2014/06/02/its_john_greens_world_now_and_thats_a_good_thing>.