The Fault in our Stars
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st June 2014
Because I watch too many movies, it’s not often I’ve read the book of an eagerly awaited cinematic adaptation. By chance, I did in fact read this latest addition to the queasily-termed genre of “sick-lit” earlier this year and, like its legions of young adult fans, I had imagined a Hazel and an Augustus in my mind’s eye long before I clapped eyes on the movie poster.
The Fault in our Stars is a terrific teen novel despite, or perhaps because of, its desperately sad topic – the frank rendering of young people experiencing and succumbing to cancer- and John Green’s book rapidly won hearts and became a bestseller across the Western world. Following the plucky protagonist path well-trodden long before Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior came along, our heroine is Hazel Grace Lancaster who, oxygen tank in tow, falls for the smartly quirky Augustus Waters at a support group meeting for children with cancer. Bonding via youthful cynicism and a witty way with words, Hazel and Augustus venture tentatively into a love affair which is guaranteed to touch a reader of any age. The book could have been subtitled “Adventures in the Art of Dying”, as the youngsters talk frankly about the reality of living with death, before they embark on a journey to have a Last Wish fulfilled.
As with any beloved book, if you’re going to shine it onto a big screen, you’d better get it right. Luckily, filmmakers Scott Neustadter and Josh Boone (who adapted the novel and directed the film, respectively) have done so. Shailene Woodley (hair shorn from Divergent, and memories of The Descendants now distant) was not my imagined Hazel, but she brings her to life entirely plausibly – just the right amount of pretty, an appropriate dosage of frail, a dash of sardonic wit to give her some steel.
Similarly, Ansel Elgort acquits himself charmingly in the tricky role of Augustus (who I’d imagined more like a young Adam Driver even though he would of course have been too old for the part). Woodley and Elgort engage us from the moment their eyes meet across a church hall, and from then on we’re swept up, just like Hazel, onto a rollercoaster of wellness and illness, joy and tragedy. (Erm, at this point it pays to gloss over the fact that the pair played brother and sister in Divergent – but perhaps this previous work accounts for their immediate ease with each other.)
With sensitive support from a surprisingly touching Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (True Blood) as Hazel’s parents, pleasingly portrayed just as they were written, moments of inevitable pathos translate effortlessly from the page to the screen, causing my audience and me to weep silently more than once. Even the difficult character of Peter Van Houten, one of the few dud notes in the book but nonetheless one you have to persevere through for the narrative’s sake, is saved by Willem Dafoe who manages to bring him to life as plausibly as is possible for a character so unlikeable.
Fault isn’t just for the kids, though they might naturally be more forgiving of any criticisms of Green’s plotting. But on its own merits the film is well-written, well-paced and crucially its performances are universally delightful, with Hazel and Gus inviting us to share their beautiful heartbreak and leaving us feeling honoured that they did.