Teenage, or ‘Young Adult’, fiction is a phenomenon that has swept the globe in recent years, obliterating all opposition in its wake. Dawning with the Twilight craze, popular YA literature has always been a surefire moneymaking hit – and therefore a popular teen book has essentially become gold dust for major studios. The Fault In Our Stars is a novel by former hospital chaplain John Green, who also has a sizeable following on Youtube. It’s extraordinarily popular and carries an obsessive, slightly terrifying fan base that rivals that of Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus. Indeed, I made a grave mistake by attending a “fan screening” of the film – I was hardly able to hear the dialogue over the screaming of teenage girls. I could’ve sworn I felt the cinema shake when Augustus “Gus” Waters took his shirt off.
It’s hard to deny that as a non-devotee, I felt quite pessimistic going into the film (please, if you’re a
worshipper fan, don’t hurt me). My only hope was the screenwriting team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who penned the brilliantly original and charming  Days of Summer. And to an extent, my expectations were met – the plot of The Fault In Our Stars is a path incredibly well trod, for the most part. It deals with powerful and upsetting themes, but yet somehow doesn’t seem to fully tap into their potential. A languid, unadventurous atmosphere inhabits the film from the tanned, attractive actors to its rather boring, flat visuals. However, perhaps it’s unfair to hope for something as complex and layered as 500 Days of Summer – and complexity doth not always yield a better story. The Fault In Our Stars is mostly simple, narrative-wise, and that’s no bad thing. But Josh Boone’s tender direction lazily slides along from scene to scene, and it leaves a sense of something missing to elevate it to the next level.
However, The Fault In Our Stars is in no way a terrible movie. Shailene Woodley gives a frankly brilliant performance as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a young girl who’s diagnosed with cancer at 13 and has to wear and carry a portable breathing machine everywhere she goes. She’s cynical, funny, and able to draw pathos with her brilliantly portrayed parents, Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell), in some of the film’s best scenes. After being forced to attend an initially useless cancer support group, she meets Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an attractive 18 year old in remission, there at the request of his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). The acting is almost always top quality, including Willem Dafoe’s cameo as a creepy writer who fits snugly in. And in a film like this, where the slightest mistake could lead to an avalanche of cheesiness as the music swells, that’s essential.
The film isn’t totally free of vomit-worthy moments, don’t get me wrong. Due to the nature of the plot, it relies far too much on the likeability of its leads. While I don’t think anyone could fault the character of Hazel or the performance of Woodley, the risk the film (and book, I suppose) takes on portraying Gus as an initially arrogant, perfectly built man is a dangerous one. Later, when this façade breaks down and we see some properly good scenes from Elgort, it pays off. We distinguish the contrast between the Gus before and now, and even understand why he was that way in the first place. However, earlier on Gus seems to be far too flawless to like. His seemingly endless desire to bend over backwards for Hazel is annoying and can be unfavourably compared with the much more complicated, realistic love between Hazel and her mother. Hence, early on you may regard some of the two star-crossed lovers’ interchanges as rather cheesy.
Although I’m not an initiate, I’ve been assured by many fans of the book that this is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the original novel – indeed, John Green was on board for every step of the project. Green’s language is prominent throughout the film, to its great credit. His prose (or what’s selected of it) is very powerful and moving at points, helping once again to avoid the cheese-factor. Lines like “I fell in love with him as easily as falling asleep. Slowly, then all at once” almost make up for all the film’s flaws. And it’s with these lines that the film is at its most potent. Suddenly, it becomes an intriguing exploration of the ways we love someone, the reasons we live, and what we do when both of those things disappear. Despite my earlier comments about the bog-standard plot, I’d even go so far as to call aspects of The Fault In Our Stars unique. It’s fascinating how it manages to delve into the haunting effects of terminal illness and simultaneously use those aspects to show us something quite profound about the human condition.
Ultimately, if you actually want to respect The Fault In Our Stars as a serious piece of narrative, try avoiding the cinema with hordes of screaming, quivering cult followers. Just watch it at home, curl up with a box of tissues at hand. You will need them.