It is rare that I read a book before I see the movie, I will admit. Well, it's rare that I read a full book anyway, but I digress. I read "The Fault in Our Stars," the #1 Bestseller by John Green, very recently, so I could know what to expect when a movie came out. And while the book was moving, real, funny and tragic, I had to wonder if this unique and beautiful story would translate to the screen successfully.
I can officially say I'm star-struck.
Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey. Their relationship is all the more miraculous given that Hazel's other constant companion is an oxygen tank, Gus jokes about his prosthetic leg, and they met and fell in love at a cancer support group.
Literary adaptations never come this faithful (except for the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit). The Fault in Our Stars stands not only as a brilliant representation of the book on which it is based, but also a great movie in its own right. The two main characters, played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, are realized with complete fidelity, the film plays out like the book, scene-for-scene with little variation.
The film's first smart move is incorporating a substantial amount of narration from the book's main character. This builds Hazel Lancaster from the very beginning and establishes many of her initially cynical viewpoints. But the impact of narration can be diluted if there's, well... too much narration. The narration here exists in perfect amounts; abundantly at first, providing exposition when necessary, but eventually reaches a point where it's only occasional and used to express Hazel's inner thoughts. Balance must exist in narration v. action and that balance is achieved here.
But it's the characters, the rich, vibrant characters that make this film what it is. I said from the moment of her casting that Shailene Woodley would be perfect as Hazel, and when I read the book, that opinion didn't change. And I can say gladly that it still hasn't. Woodley plays Hazel to a tee, delivering a dynamic, cynical, funny, beautiful, and vulnerable character, a perfect reflection of John Green's literary heroine. If this doesn't cement her as an A-list star, I don't know what will.
But it's Elgort that surprises the most. A relative unknown, he proves perfect in his portrayal of Augustus Waters, the young man who plays for Hazel's heart. Handsome, intelligent, caring, and increasingly complex, his Augustus is a man full of life, his eyes bright with the light of the future. He dreams big and loves deeply, regardless of how much it hurts. When Hazel tells him that she is a grenade and someday will "explode and obliterate everyone" around her, his response is deceivingly simple: "I would love to get my heart broken by you, Hazel Grace." This is the kind of kid who chooses to give up his Make-A-Wish so that the woman he loves can travel halfway around the world for some closure with an author she loves. And when the going gets rough, Elgort proves he's much more than a winning smile, powering through moments of suffering and fear without skipping a beat. This hero is real, and one to watch.
The chemistry between these two characters is real, palpable. You can feel the sparks when they first meet, the butterflies in Hazel's stomach when Augustus tells her he loves her. The heartbreak that comes with painful realizations. And of course the film really sets the stakes high in telling a story of two young people who come into each others' lives at the most inconvenient time, but simply cannot afford to lose one another. Woodley and Elgort carry this chemistry and this movie without fail.
Now, it is worth mentioning that all the supporting players do their parts to contribute to this powerful story. Nat Wolff looks like something right out of a John Hughes movie in the part of Gus' best friend who has to navigate the minefield of cancer in a relationship. And Laura Dern and Sam Trammell play basically the best parents you could imagine as Hazel's mom and dad. And Willem Dafoe, while not my first choice for reclusive author Peter Van Houten, gets the job done as a bitter, angry, cynical shell of a man who's seen his fair share of heartache.
Director Josh Boone, as well as writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (of (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now fame), treat the material with sensitivity and grace. Like I have said many times already, they are painstaking in their attention to detail. While small changes were made to the story, events moved around slightly and one particular character removed entirely, this film is true to the essence and handles weighty topics like illness, death and oblivion with uncommon grace and gentle humor. This movie tackles the book's big themes while fulfilling all of the major plot points. I will fight purists who try to say this doesn't do the book justice.
What's more interesting though, is the inclusion of elements that weren't in the book. My personal favorite is when Hazel and Gus visit Anne Frank Haus, and Hazel, having cancer and "lungs that suck at being lungs," is counseled against trying to climb up the stairs. But, with her tank on her back, she persists, climbing the stairs with her lungs on fire, rousing music and quotes from Anne Frank playing in the background, showing perseverance in times of suffering past and presence. It's also a brilliantly subtle representation of Hazel's journey. This girl who, at the beginning of the film, said that oblivion is inevitable and that wanting to be remembered is a fool's errand, has let someone into her life and found something to fight for.
The film is shot elegantly and given a glossy contemporary look. The images are smooth and visually pleasing, and at their best when the characters are outdoors in some spectacular setting, like the canal in Amsterdam or Hazel laying in her backyard looking up at the stars. Those images are backed up with a soundtrack that is perfectly fitting to the tone of the film, composed of indie pieces and interludes with sweet guitar melodies and soft, atmospheric piano.
I do wish that the filmmakers would have used the song "Angels on the Moon," by Thriving Ivory, only because it's so perfectly fitting to the story and is a perfect representation of Augustus Waters as a character. I do also wish they could have found some way to include John Green's author's note at the beginning of the book, illustrated below.
Because the fact of the matter is this: made up stories matter. This story matters. And it would have been nice to see that point made at the very beginning of the film.
Or maybe that's the point of leaving it out. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to affirm that they didn't need to say that the story mattered in order for it to matter. Regardless of whether or not it's true, the story is still moving, funny and heartbreaking in all the right ways, with an ending that is more perfect than even fans of the book could have hoped for.
This is a movie to be celebrated. It's joyous without being cliche, tragic without being sappy, and endearing without being dishonest. It's a movie that confronts the indefinite nature of our existence, but helps us to remember that we need to appreciate what we are given, and let people into our lives. Because that's what makes this life so grand and so sweet. This is the movie that will have you saying "Okay."