Friday, June 6, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Review by Pamela Zoslov

In the interest of providing the best possible review for you, readers — assuming there are any of you out there — I took the time to read The Fault in Our Stars, the best-selling young-adult novel by John Green, on which the new movie of the same title is based. I have recently developed a passing interest in YA literature, as they call it in the publishing trade, because the storytelling is agreeably clear and direct, if you don't mind that the adolescent narrators sound like 40-year-old adults.

TFIOS, as it's known to its young devotees, is a particularly well-written example. The story of two teenagers with terminal cancer who fall in love, it is filled with references literary, philosophical and scientific, and features a sardonic and preternaturally wise narrator in 16-year-old Hazel, whose metastatic thyroid cancer has afflicted her lungs, condemning her to spending her remaining days wearing a nasal cannula and wheeling around an oxygen tank. She is resilient, though. Having earned her GED, she takes college classes and, in the book at least, liberally quotes T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams. Hazel is less concerned about herself than about her doting parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), worrying about what will become of them after she dies. This is a cancer story that scoffs at the clichés of cancer, with wisecracks about support groups, “cancer perks” — gifts and privileges given to kids with cancer — and the Last Good Day, a pain-free oasis just before the cancer sufferer dies. The narrative is filled with knowing, bitterly funny references about the experience of terminal illness.

Books with strong interior narration are hard to adapt for the screen, but writers Scott Neusteadter and Michael H. Weber do it creditably by using a lot of the book's original text. The film, starring Shailene Woodley as Hazel and Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters, the handsome boy with bone cancer who becomes her boyfriend. (For young fans, it's apparently noteworthy that Elgort played Woodley's brother in DIVERGENT, so for some of them, maybe this romance has a creepy vibe).

Hazel catches Augustus' eye at the support group they attend in a church basement in what they jokingly call the “literal heart of Jesus” (a huge, tacky Jesus rug the group leader unfurls for the sessions). Augustus, or Gus, is there to support his friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), who is about to lose a second eye to cancer. Gus is a handsome former high school basketball star with a prosthetic leg and a winning smile. He asks Hazel her “full name” and forevermore calls her, endearingly, by her first and middle names, “Hazel Grace.” Elgort is a little too goofy-looking to evoke the book's gorgeous Gus, and Woodley too cute to suggest its steroid-bloated Hazel, but both are excellent actors.

Hazel and Gus watch a movie together and trade philosophies and favorite books. Hazel is passionate about a novel called An Imperial Affliction, which is about a girl with cancer but isn't “a cancer book.” That book's abrupt ending — mid-sentence, no less — has made her desperate to know the fates of its characters, the girl, her mother, the Dutch Tulip Salesman, and even the hamster named Sisyphus. Hazel has written numerous letters to the book's author, Van Houten, who has become a recluse and moved to Amsterdam, in hopes that he will provide the book's coda.

Gus falls for Hazel, who tries to keep things casual because she believes she's “a grenade,” and she wants to “minimize casualties.” (Spoiler alert: don't read on if you don't know, or want to know, what happens.) As a mark of his devotion, Gus contacts author Van Houten, whose Dutch assistant (Lotte Verbeek) invites the teen couple to visit the author in Amsterdam. After a scary episode that takes Hazel to the ICU, Hazel, her mom and Gus travel to Amsterdam, thanks to the Genies (the fictional version of the Make-a-Wish Foundation). The teens are laid low by their visit to the Low Countries as Van Houten (a villainous Willem Dafoe) turns out to be a bitter, vituperative alcoholic.

Though shaken by this Dutch uncle, the couple savor their overseas idyll in sweetly romantic scenes made more poignant by the knowledge of their foreshortened lives. Perhaps Hazel's desperation to know "what happens" to fictional characters parallels her concern about what will happen to her parents after she departs, mid-sentence as it were.

This kind of story requires special handling to avoid succumbing to schmaltz. Green's book is witty and sad, but not bathetic, a tone not easily converted to the big screen, where sappy pop songs and swoony love scenes take things perilously close to Nicholas Sparks territory. (One wonders what Hazel, who hates “cancer books,” would think of it.)

The details of the illnesses in the film are also a bit troublesome: characters with prosthetic legs, oxygen tanks and no eyes get around with relative ease, and people close to dying look surprisingly hale and hearty. All of that is standard for Hollywood — those of us old enough to remember LOVE STORY recall how much was made of Ali MacGraw's beautiful death. This is unlikely to matter much to the book's fans, many of whom have read TFIOS multiple times and quote from it liberally. Though the movie adaptation lack's some of the book's depth and flavor, it is far better than many adaptations, thanks to its good cast, faithful screenplay, and Josh Boone's thoughtful direction. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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