I am very protective of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars. I have a deep connection to it—borderline unhealthy, perhaps—and when I discovered they were turning my beloved book into a movie, I was understandably anxious. “There is no way they can capture the magic in those pages,” I thought. “No way they can make me laugh and cry and swoon and suffer as I did when I read those wonderful words.” Thankfully, as I discovered at an advance screening, I was wrong. I found the movie adaptation charming and beautiful and poignant and heartbreaking in all the ways I hoped for. It also surprised and delighted me in ways I did not expect. For example…
Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters
So we all knew that Shailene Woodley, arguably one of the most talented young actresses to grace the screen in decades, was the perfect choice to play Hazel, and indeed, she did not disappoint. Augustus Waters, though? Who could possibly play him? In the wrong hands, Augustus’ charm would seem forced, his confidence arrogant. I had seen Elgort in another book to film adaptation, Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” (in which he played, weirdly, Shailene Woodley’s brother) and I wasn’t sold on the idea of him bringing my much adored Augustus to life. Not even a little. What a thrill it was to see him handle the character so deftly. Elgort sold Augustus’ challenging dialogue, which was no small feat, accompanying it with the soulful eyes and delighted grin of a boy who is totally smitten with a girl and determined to win her. He was cocky when he needed to be, pushing the boundaries of pretention without apology, and in the next scene conveying Augustus’ devotion with a quiet and lovely charisma that really showed me why Woodley’s no nonsense Hazel Grace would ultimately be unable to resist him. I am so grateful to Elgort for not ruining what I pictured when I imagined Augustus. He made me fall in love with Gus all over again.
The Text Animations
Part of Hazel and Gus’ friendship and eventual courtship is shown, in the book, via text message (an organically appropriate format for how teens really talk to one another.) In the film, Hazel and Gus read messages from one another on their iPhone screens, and that satisfies the plot. But even better are the times that the texts flying between them were shown in hand lettered speech bubbles over Hazel’s shoulder. Because she did not have to read them aloud and the camera did not have to cut away from her, Woodley was able to allow her face to show us how Hazel really felt receiving Augustus’ witty words, smiling deeply, chuckling softly or shaking her head in disbelief as she experienced her first romance. They were cute without being distracting, and I found them utterly adorable.
Willem Dafoe as Peter Van Houten
If Augustus Waters would be a challenge to play, Peter Van Houten seemed to be nigh impossible. Van Houten is an artistic genius but a loathsome disappointment in the book—clearly brilliant but offensive and even disgusting at points—and for him to be effective as an antagonist the actor portraying him couldn’t hold back. Dafoe didn’t. He made me angry and uncomfortable, and I wanted Hazel to kick him in the junk, just as I should have, and at the same time I believed he was capable of writing the moving piece of literature that Hazel loved so much. Peter Van Houten is nothing if not intense, and I was grateful that the character wasn’t diluted. Dafoe had the finesse to take him where he needed to go.
The Humor Amidst the Pain
Make no mistake, this movie will break your heart. But the touching thing about this material is that there is so much laughter there as well. Hazel and Gus are falling in love, and though they are far wiser than their ages (and both smart enough to be sarcastic and eloquent in their truths) they are also silly, fumbling teenagers who make us chuckle at their earnest efforts at sophistication as they navigate their relationship. The comic relief is sprinkled throughout the film (albeit much less so in the second half) and it is necessary. Not only to provide us with a much needed break from the harsh reality of cancer and its impact on a family, but also to remind us of how wonderful and sometimes hilarious life can be, even in the midst of despair. Green’s book handled this flawlessly. The movie did it justice.
Laura Dern as Hazel’s Mother
I am a mother and believe me, it was hard to read the book and, especially, to see this film and not feel devastated at the thought that this is all too often some mom’s reality and, but for the grace of God, could be mine too. How do you realistically portray the horror of watching your child suffer, knowing her inevitable fate, and yet still trying to make the little life she has left joyous without falsity? John Green managed to write Mrs. Lancaster dimensionally. Laura Dern made her even more relatable in the film. Her face changes moment to moment, from enthusiastic in encouraging Hazel to try new things, to despair at her daughter’s often debilitating pain, to delight at seeing Hazel experience the very normal feelings of a teenaged girl’s first love, to crushing disappointment at not being able to give her daughter everything in the world because of something as stupid as limited finances. This isn’t her story, and yet it is, because she represents us and our jumble of emotions as we watch this beautiful tale unfold. I felt for Mrs. Lancaster and the unfairness of her impending loss, as well as experiencing the joy of her mothering, even for far less time than she deserves, such a special child. This was one of the smaller parts, but Laura Dern gave it huge impact without making it overwrought, and I sincerely applaud her for it.
I’m no fool. I know this movie won’t satisfy everyone, and that some other readers of that magical little novel will be disappointed. But me? I feel satisfied, both with how it handled the source material and how it stood up as a piece of art on its own merits. It may be cliché to say that I laughed, I cried, and it became a part of me. But it’s also the truth.