Young-adult novel adaptations are hardly anything new in recent years, but unlike the vast majority of installations in the genre, the one sitting atop the box office as of the publication of this review is neither fantasy nor dystopian. “The Fault In Our Stars” is a romance centering around a pair of teens with varying degrees of cancer and a shared passion for snark, the pursuit of a fulfilling life and a frustratingly engaging book. The movie is based on a novel written by John Green and published in 2012, and it quickly gained a huge and enamored following.
The plot is consistent between the two versions: 17-year-old Hazel, who needs a portable air tank with her at all times, goes to cancer support group one day and meets Augustus, who lost his leg because of his cancer. The two wind up hitting it off, bonding largely over their intellectual bantering and Hazel’s favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction,” which is about a girl with cancer who dies mid-sentence, ending the story. The two start a correspondence with the author, the reclusive Peter Van Houten, and arrange a meeting with him in Amsterdam to ask him about what happens to the other characters at the end of the book. They fly out and visit with him, only to find that he is a drunken jerk who has no social skills whatsoever. Gus and Hazel still have a romantic trip, which ends in sorrow when Gus announces that his cancer has come back from remission. The two return to America and help each other through the pain, sharing some last laughs and loving moments before Gus dies.
From a purely plot-based perspective, there isn’t a whole lot wrong with the movie version. All of the biggest moments in the story are present, as well as a lot of subtle, minor touches that fans will be excited to see. There’s talk of Sisyphus the Hamster, Gus shows up in a Rik Smits jersey and offers Hazel everything Dutch, everything in Amsterdam is pretty much pulled straight from the pages, and there is a genuine affection and chemistry between Hazel’s and Gus’ actors, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.
But there is something missing from the movie that the book wouldn’t be complete without. Green gives great, explicit detail to the level of suffering and pain both Hazel and Gus go through during their respective battles with cancer. Readers really feel what it’s like to suffer through a disease like cancer. It’s not pretty, it’s not glammed up, it’s not painted with the brush of heroism for the survivors of cancer. It is treated like an ugly disease, and the characters react to it accordingly. When Hazel has her episode in which she can’t breathe and needs to be rushed to the hospital, readers don’t just see it happen; they can feel it through Green’s description and language. During Gus’ recurrence, readers are taken through a series of horrible incidents that show it’s sometimes impossible to be courageous when you’re up against something as debilitating as disease.
The movie softens the blow significantly. From the opening shots, it’s obvious that the movie is focusing on the romance story with cancer in the background. And that’s fine; one of the themes of the book is that cancer does not define a cancer patient. But because of the emotional lows the realities of the book take readers through, the movie fails to hit the same kind of emotional highs. The characters don’t feel as charming, the situations don’t feel as real, and the romance, as a result, suffers. The movie doesn’t make it seem like cancer is as big a deal as it truly is, and so the drama that follows the characters doesn’t, either.
The movie is a perfectly fine date movie, but the book offers a much more meaningful, intellectual view at young life and love. It’s worth a read no matter your demographic.