If you are an Adult Human Being and you go to the movies this weekend, you will likely be choosing between two big new releases in most markets. In witty counter-programming to Tom Cruise’s so far well-received Groundhog Day-as-videogame riff, Edge of Tomorrow, there is also a film aiming at that ever-elusive teen-girl demographic: The Fault in Our Stars.
The Fault in Our Stars, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a movie adaptation of a mega-bestselling YA book about two teens who have cancer and fall in love. That’s the easy summary. But it’s a book about a lot more than that; it’s about happy endings, and love, and the anger you can feel at the way life can be cut short, and the beautiful moments that we have despite all that pain. It is a book that has had legs, and it’s been on The New York Times bestseller list for 100-plus weeks (which is a crazy amount of time). It is also the latest YA book that adults who don’t read young adult fiction have started to read and even admit to having read, behind closed doors. (The others are The Hunger Games and Twilight. I still can’t explain Divergent, though.)
A big reason why the movie will have legs, however, is this: the man behind the books, John Green, is a bona fide phenomenon. With excitement for the movie cresting, and an appearance at this weekend’s BookCon in NYC that elicited borderline teen-girl hysteria, Green has also achieved the imprimatur of being a legitimate cultural figure that you should know about: there is an excellent profile on him and his work by Margaret Talbot in this week’s New Yorker.
So, how did it happen? And why should you care? Here is our quick guide to understanding John Green and his work, so you can discuss it with the hordes of wet-eyed teenage girls who will be swamping the movie theaters come Friday.
First: John Green has been a young adult author for quite some time — a critically acclaimed one, in fact, who had won some awards prior to publishing The Fault in Our Stars. His first two books, Looking for Alaska (2005) and An Abundance of Katherines (2006), both had boy narrators besotted with mysterious, brilliant girls, and teenage hijinks happened around their pursuits of love. They are lovely books for too-smart kids that won and were honored by the Printz award, respectively, with an abundance of literary references (the protagonist in Alaska collects “famous last words”), and they don’t speak down to their audience. Green has a gift for writing books that make you, the reader, feel smarter just by reading them. The most frequent criticism that he gets is that his female characters are, often, “manic pixie dream girls.” Your mileage may vary regarding that trope.
Green had an audience, however small. Then in 2006, he decided to spend a year using the then-nascent YouTube to “speak to his brother Hank everyday.” This stunt was called the Vlogbrothers, and it was inspired by Ze Frank. The brothers Green were creating slang and secret codes, stuff like DFTA (“don’t forget to be awesome”), and in early 2007, John, stuck at the airport, misread an arcade game’s name as Nerdfighters. He elaborated, imagining a world where nerds fought the jocks and nerds won, etc., etc. He had, in his delirium, created a thing. His online fans took to the term “nerdfighters” as an ethos and as a code word for the community springing up around the Green brothers. As Talbot puts it,
Nerdfighters weren’t against anything; they were simply proud to immerse themselves in interests that others might find geeky or arcane. Indeed, the nerdfighter community is strikingly civil and constructive for an Internet subculture. Through an annual charity event, the Project for Awesome, nerdfighters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for one another’s favorite causes. Their comment sections, on YouTube and elsewhere, are filled with earnest suggestions for further reading and mock complaints that Green has made them care about a distant war that they’d been ignoring. Rosianna Halse Rojas, a pioneering nerdfighter, recalls the moment the concept caught on. “It was like the formation of a nation,” she told me. “Only we weren’t fighting anybody to do it.”
You could be a nerdfighter, right now, if you wanted to be. Basically. But this is the type of thing that nerdy teen girls — the type idealized in Green’s writing — can cling to like a life raft when the world seems lonely and cruel.
So Green had kind of done the impossible, as he created an Internet subculture that benefits his career as an author. His books were getting better, too: 2008’s Paper Towns is a tricky mystery about a girl, the title referencing fictitious entries in references and maps. 2010’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, co-written with David Levithan, was a split-down-the-middle novel about two boys named Will Grayson.
While he did this, he maintained a lively profile online. He vlogs regularly. He’s become friends with the Harry Potter fan community, who first caught wind of the Vlogbrothers when Hank did a song called “Accio Deathly Hallows.” He goes to Harry Potter events like LeakyCon, and he’s active in YouTube conventions, as well. He met and brought attention to his friend, a nerdfighter and teenage girl dealing with thyroid cancer named Esther Earl, whose example, friendship, and spirit helped The Fault in Our Stars come together as a book.
And with 2012’s The Fault in Our Stars, he wrote a really good book: For a change, the narrator, Hazel Grace, is a girl, and she’s fierce and funny and angry, all with an omnipresent canula in her nostrils and an oxygen tank she has to carry around. Her love affair with Augustus Waters is sweet and charged, but it’s not the gloppy focus of the book — rather, she’s obsessed with a book called An Imperial Affliction, and the idea of what happens to the characters after the book.
The setup sounds sappy. It’s easy, too, to say that the story is like if Ellen Page’s Juno fell in love with Boy Juno and they both had cancer. The love story can be a bit of wish fulfillment. Gus tells Hazel she’s beautiful quite a few times, and it could be irresistible transference if you’re a certain type of teenage girl. But the anger and questions at the core of the book are remarkably effective in eliciting strong feelings. Reading The Fault in Our Stars lets you wonder why we are here, what should we do while we are here, and what’s our responsibility to the people that we love. They’re big questions, wrapped up in the very palatable hook of sick kids. (Lurlene McDaniel hasn’t written 70 novels about sick kids for nothing.)
A combination of work — imagine, eight years of video blogging — and books, and timing, and generally being a sweet, nerdy, honest guy have made John Green into a “thing” amongst a demographic (teen girls, the best demographic) that, when they love something, they love it openly and honestly. It is why The Fault in Our Stars movie will do wonderfully this weekend, box office-wise, and it will endure throughout the summer. (I’ve seen it, full review to come, but suffice to say it could be Titanic/Love Story for the millennial generation, to say the least.)
Do you, adult person, need to read John Green’s work? Sure. Try Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars. Find out firsthand why he’s basically the new John Hughes for teenagers, writing stories about smart kids that those same smart kids eat up with a spoon.