There is a tendency, of late, for big YA adaptations to serve the existing fanbase. Whether it’s Twilight or The Hunger Games, there’s a distinct lack of visual energy, hitting all the much-loved notes in a manner that says, “See? We did it.” The things you love are right there, with journeyman directors making basic choices. It makes a gem like last year’s wonderful The Spectacular Now — which shares The Fault in Our Stars‘ screenwriters and another incandescent Shailene Woodley performance — seem downright radical in comparison, in the way that it built a world out of the story and seemed not specifically beholden to egregious voice-over or mugging actors just happy to be there. The Fault in Our Stars, as an incredibly faithful adaptation of John Green’s original book about two teens with cancer who fall in love, falls somewhere in the middle.
We start with voice-over and a statement of purpose: “I believe we have a choice in the world about how we tell sad stories. On the one hand, you could sugarcoat it… It’s just not the truth. This is the truth.” The girl talking to us is 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, beatifically embodied by the talented Shailene Woodley, who has to wear a canula and lugs around an oxygen tank because her long battle with thyroid cancer means that her lungs “suck at being lungs.” Hazel’s days are monotonous — she’s too sick to be in school, and besides, she got her GED. She loves reading a book called An Imperial Affliction by Dutch author Peter van Houten about a young woman with cancer that ends mid-sentence, leaving her caught in the middle of the story. Her parents, played by Laura Dern and True Blood‘s Sam Trammell, are sweet and overprotective, worrying about Hazel’s moods and feelings.
Things change once Hazel joins a church group for cancer kids, where she meets hunky Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a young man who is perfectly poised to be her true love since he is just as gabby and pop-culturally fluent as Hazel. They fall in love in a series of adoring close-ups; Hazel makes Gus read An Imperial Affliction; Hazel pulls away since she is “a grenade” and she doesn’t want to hurt him when she dies; Gus, who had his leg removed but is currently cancer-free, gives Hazel the greatest gift of all — a chance to discuss the ending of the book with the reclusive author (Willem Dafoe, all demented energy, totally great) in a trip to Amsterdam, through a cancer charity.
The tone of Green’s book — which is excellent, and very deserving of its bestseller status — is tricky to bring to the screen. What gives Green’s work depth beyond Lurlene McDaniel’s sick-kid tragedy romances is the book’s anger, its embrace of feelings about the unfairness and roughness of life and health, complicated emotional material that feels beyond the tyro director, Josh Boone — whose previous effort, the Netflix staple Stuck in Love, was such a soggy film about writers and wannabees that it was a shock that Boone wasn’t really a nom de plume for Zach Braff or Josh Radnor.
There is a lot of voice-over on the screen, faithfully bringing Green’s words to life where the pedestrian visuals or good acting could’ve been, and often are, doing the work. Woodley is wonderful as Hazel; very different from other teen roles she’s played, she’s strong and tough and smart, and she can make the WB/CW-ish too-smart, fast-talking teen dialogue work. Elgort, on the other hand, is dreamy (I guess), but the dialogue is a little beyond him, like he can’t keep up with the Gilmore Girls.
But the film feels hampered by its source, and stuck in being a rather tedious adaptation. The visuals look like a TV movie: bland interiors, with no sense of the characters’ inner lives. Emotional moments fall flat because there’s no real sense of impending loss or doom, save Laura Dern’s luminous performance as Hazel’s mom, which basically made me tear up at every moment. (And it made me miss Enlightened.) Music cues and songs come right out of the CW playbook of bland “indie” music that means nothing. Gus and Hazel’s trip to Amsterdam is alternately sweet and cloying, with a side trip to the Anne Frank Museum that crosses over into embarrassingly bad taste. Must Anne Frank’s life and words play over the soundtrack as Hazel struggles to reach the attic? Is that really the comparison that should be made there?
I liked the book The Fault in Our Stars. I was not expecting to be bored by the film adaptation, and to have my mind wander to what it was that made something like The Spectacular Now work better on the screen. The difference, in all honestly, felt like direction. The Spectacular Now felt lived in, real; The Fault in Our Stars feels clumsy, even boring at points, a blunt instrument disguised as a show on the CW. By adapting the book so faithfully, so true to the dialogue written by Green, the result is somewhat joyless.
Will you still cry? Probably. Will this movie be a hit? Yes. Is Shailene Woodley a national treasure? Definitely. It just seemed that in the right hands, The Fault in Our Stars really could’ve been a teenage tearjerker for the ages, but in Josh Boone’s hands, it’s merely serviceable. It’s sympathetic, when it could’ve been rich with feeling, something deeper: empathetic. And that’s not a metaphor.