In her opening voice-over, the heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster—the ever dependable Shailene Woodley—promises that her story isn’t going to play out like a typical movie “where beautiful people learn beautiful lessons.” Instead, she vows, “This is the truth.” That statement of purpose is also somewhat true of the film adaptation of John Green’s tear duct-busting YA hit novel The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012), about two precocious teens, Hazel and Gus (played by Ansel Elgort) with cancer who fall in love with each other—and one of them has a stage-IV diagnosis. The movie honors the spirit of Green’s characters without hitting the audience over the head with sentimentality.
Seventeen-year-old Hazel was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 13. Now, because of excessive fluid in her lungs, she’s attached to an oxygen tank. She spends her days at the doctor’s, community college, and at home watching reality shows; at her well-meaning mother’s urging, she begrudgingly attends a local cancer support group. There, she “meets-cute” Gus, bumping into him on the way to her first session. Gus has been osteosarcoma-free for the last 14 months, and his right leg has been amputated below the knee.
In a moment of group sharing, their two philosophical approaches toward death conflict: he fears disappearing into oblivion, while Hazel, much more pragmatic, believes oblivion is inevitable—even Cleopatra or Muhammad Ali will be forgotten at some point, she says. But that exchange doesn’t stop him from asking her to come over and watch a movie with him, right then and there. With a lopsided and goofy grin, the pouty-lipped Gus is more approachable than the book’s blue-eyed hunk; he really could be the boy next door.
Many of Green’s most quotable quotes are recognizably interspersed throughout: “I’m on a roller-coaster that only goes up” or “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” The dialogue often overlaps and interrupts, and Woodley seems to spontaneously deliver Hazel’s very self-aware and knowing observations. Hazel comes off as more credible on screen than on the page, refraining from quote-dropping Allen Ginsberg or William Carlos Williams. More importantly, Woodley brings out Hazel’s droll sense of humor.
Director Josh Boone can’t be blamed for lavishing his attention on Woodley—but the result is that Gus gets kind of lost. Unlike so many young adult novel–to–film adaptations, the storyline is the perfect length for a feature film, with only a few characters trimmed. Green’s novel doesn’t have to be squeezed and abridged—unlike the movies The Book Thief or Woodley’s last film, Divergent, both based on thick doorstoppers. Yet the last third of Stars feels clipped and rushed compared to the first half. Viewers have just time enough to break out their hankies, and then the film is over. Death, be not so hasty.
Part of the reason why fewer tissues will be needed watching the movie (versus the book) is that the specter of death is forgotten, if not sidelined, for a long stretch of time. It might be appropriate that the film zones out everything else when Hazel and Gus realize that they actually have more in common than not, especially their mutual love for a book she introduces him to. However, there’s no further mention of anyone else from the support group, and August’s best friend, Isaac, who’s going blind, is largely out of sight for the majority of the film. Another obstacle is that the newcomer Ansel Elgort is not as versatile as Woodley or up to the emotional demands of his role, and the filmmakers seem to realize this, cutting back on his screen time, resulting in less attachment toward his character.
These are only a few of the many reasons the film belongs almost exclusively to Woodley. In a delicately balanced performance, she’s both low-key and passionate. Her most moving moments are the quietest and a reminder that it’s more involving for an audience to see someone struggling not to cry rather than all-out sobbing. The director gives her plenty of room to breathe, and her reaction shots almost make the dialogue unnecessary. It’s an understatement to say that she lights up the screen.
Directed by Josh Boone
Rated PG-13 (with typical teen dialogue, with one strategically placed F-bomb)
To read more about John Green, check out these SLJ articles: