Review: “The Fault In Our Stars”

Fault in our stars.jpg“Pain demands to be felt.”

From a distance, The Fault in Our Stars looks like more ballyhoo for the fans of Twilight and Nicholas Sparks romances – naïve young adult novels that spark the interest of every girl between the 7th grade and junior year of college. Luckily, those overly familiar with John Green’s New York Times best selling novel know quite well that Fault is miles above Stephanie Meyers’ wannabe Harry Potter melodramas and Sparks’ desperate saps; they know that it’s a genuinely investing novel that’s as heavy on the heart as it is brisk a read. With Josh Boone’s much anticipated film adaptation hitting theaters, starring the awe-inspiringly talented Shailene Woodley and her Divergent co-star, Ansel Elgort, I have to make sure that I’m separating the screen product from the source material. To make sure I’m never crossing one over the other, I’m going to offer up my thoughts on Boone’s novel as a preface, which became a hurried read on my end after my girlfriend let me borrow her copy.

The novel is told from the point of view of the terminally ill Hazel Grace Lancaster, who up and through the beginning of the novel has been fighting off a bad case of thyroid cancer and who encounters the charming and beautiful seventeen-year-old Augustus Waters at a Support Group meeting. Augustus is more or less the guy Hazel has always dreamt of finding but never believed she deserved. However, much to her surprise, the illuminating, smooth, and charismatic young man is drawn to Hazel for reasons that are beyond her comprehension, and they begin an intimate friendship that blossoms into a story of love during what Hazel refers to as, “our little infinity.” Augustus is a survivor like Hazel, having lost a leg after combating a touch of osteosarcoma, and even after Hazel assures him that she is a ‘grenade,’ a side effect of genetic mutation gone awry that will surely have its way with Hazel’s tough life and spread her pain into those that are closest to her, Augustus falls for her anyway and teaches her that it’s possible for anyone, regardless of how cynical or cut off or sick they might be, to love and care for another human being. They learn to be special through the time they spend with one another, and through the flurry of emotions that trickle in (at first) and then the hailstorm that comes bombarding in (later on), we witness what is ultimately the basis for Generation Y’s version of Love Story.

And in celluloid version, The Fault in Our Stars capitalizes on the success of Green’s prose and is as affecting an experience as one could imagine and that any loving book reader could hope for. Green’s novel is written for young adults, but the themes loom heavy and ascend to generations much older (cancer isn’t easy for anybody, young or old) so the impact that Green’s story has on both the page and on the screen is understandable. However, what I loved about Green’s writing was that he never steeped into manipulative territory looking to extract sympathy from defenseless readers. It never feels like his goal is to rip your heart from your chest. For some, that may be the end result, but he always keeps a sarcastic glow about his writing, poking at something humorous just aside the thing that will make your tears ducts erupt like Old Faithful. This tactic is one that I respect, it makes the emotion feel authentic and, more importantly, earned and it makes the predictable emotional arc – setting us up to tear us down – much more forgivable and all the more poignant.

Having these beats and tonal seasaws transfer to the screen is the film’s biggest task, and with screenwriting team Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber imparting their indispensible skills onto Green’s prose, it’s no surprise that Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars is so wholesomely investing by respecting the original writing and keeping the meat of what made it so wonderful to begin with while sawing off the fat and keeping the pace brisk; the genre clichés wither and refreshing sensations of warmth and devastation ripple from start to finish. I had read that Green had a massive hand in production and it shows that he was on call for every change the writing duo made to his work, no matter how slight.

Director Josh Boone, a relative novice in the field of directing, does a worthy job with Neustadter and Weber’s script, showing that he has a clear grasp on Green’s novelistic direction. He maintains the literal flow and tween magic that Green balanced so maturely, and even seems to use much of the smart writing as apparent screen direction and camera actions. There are sequences that feel so literary you’ve got to hand it to Boone for being so honorable. When working from a script by these writing partners (this is their fourth feature script together), the results have all been positively varied. Marc Webb’s beautiful stylization made (500) Days of Summer an assertively trendy piece of joy and melancholy while James Ponsoldt’s consistently bold and upright directorial choices turned The Spectacular Now into the most raw portrait of young love ever intended for the big screen. Boone might not have the capacity to make decisions like Ponsoldt, but with Webb incapacitated by his drafting to Sony for the horrendous new Amazing Spiderman films, you can be sure that Boone will be first on set for new films of the Fault vein, unless his plans for a massively star-studded, three hour adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand come to form. Neustadter and Weber, meanwhile, are staying in their heartfelt wheelhouse by adapting another John Green novel, Paper Towns.

Surprisingly, Boone has only helmed the little seen and mostly forgotten Stuck in Love before tackling Fault, and while critics were harsh to Boone’s debut, they pointed out his ability to pull strong performances from a talented cast. That might not seem like a hard feat in general, but when taking a look at The Fault in Our Stars the material requires true deliverance to make it at all digestible. Enter Woodley and Elgort to make Boone into a superstar. Truth be told, it seems that if you pair up a reasonably talented and good looking male actor with Shailene Woodley it turns that actor into an icon. Her breakout performance in The Descendants rejuvenated George Clooney and Miles Teller became desired all over after The Spectacular Now. Ansel Elgort is only turning in his third ever screen performance and while he has the benefit of looking exactly as Green described Augustus in the novel, Elgort proves that he is Augustus through and through. He’s got serious good looks and isn’t afraid to take complete control of the screen, ready to chest pass it back to the adorable Shailene. He’s also quite funny, the humor itself is quippy and cute, but each line is said without falter, sticking the landing just as Green always intended.

Shailene, meanwhile, is an absolute revelation. It’s hard to say which of her three major performances I like the most because they are all so triumphant, but all so different. Hazel is very individual, quite unlike Aimee Finicky and Alex King, smirkingly pessimistic, relentless witty, but ultimately quite tender. She’s the vulnerable heart that beats and skips about throughout The Fault in Our Stars and while the female populace will surely fall for Elgort’s Augustus (“first slowly and then all at once”), it’s just as easy to gravitate to Woodley’s Hazel. She’s a strong character and Woodley gives her so many shades, bringing her to life better than she was envisioned in writing. Woodley has the potential to evolve into one of the finest actors of our generation, and even with her limited oeuvre at present, she’s doubtlessly dependable. The Fault in Our Stars has so much good going on in it (really…just so much unsympathetic, truthful greatness) and while I’m still unsure if that’s because I was coming directly off an affectionate read of the novel, I can assure everybody that Shailene is the unequivocal master act of this film. She’s lusciously vibrant in every moment, but Hazel isn’t without key, key scenes and when the movie finally makes its way to those moments, she isn’t afraid to crush your soul softly.

The Fault in Our Stars will, more likely than not, make you cry. That’s not it’s direct intention, but like as Hazel describes herself, it’s a side effect. My girlfriend was misty-eyed from frame one (literally, the title card appeared and I started hearing sniffling to my direct right) and I was close to drowning in the tears splashing about the floor of Theater 16 at the AMC Loews Boston Common. It’s frill-lessly made and immaculately acted; Laura Dern and True Blood’s Sam Trammell are also deserving of a round of applause. The maternal fragility imparted by Dern is particularly lovely, the Enlightened actress gets plenty to play to her strengths. Meanwhile, a narrative beat that involves a scrubbish author is the only book carryover that proves disappointing (even with the appearance of Willem Dafoe, the character is strangely mistreated and thus less effective in the big picture), and some surrounding instances might ring clichéd, but the liveliness erases any reservations or trite feelings. All of what transpires works to make audiences feel something, and I was as attached and caring as I was when going through the book.

If there’s something to really make a complaining point about it’s that the film fails to make sense of its title’s meaning. One of the book’s best bits is when it takes a moment to assess itself and put some of the tones and sensations into the Shakespearean context from which the title derives. Hazel denounces in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when Cassius persuades Brutus that fault lies within the person itself, rather than the stars that sway about the sky. Caesar is a problematic man equal in stature to both Cassius and Brutus. Hazel counters that while faults are prevalent in us, part of the human condition, it is most certainly the business of stars to cross; the romance between Hazel and Augustus would evidence such cosmic crossings.

Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars is a moving adaptation of an involving young adult novel scripted with etiquette by a talented duo of writers and acted by an ensemble of present performers, toplined by the exceptional Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley. It won’t reset the benchmarks for romantic features, but in the realm of romantic adaptations in the wide-release YA pantheon, this is some of the best and most emotionally sturdy we’re going to get. It will definitely hurt at times, but it’s a pain that will be felt to the tune of many millions of dollars and countless empty Kleenex boxes.

8/10

Review by Mike Murphy

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