Not just kid stuff

June 19, 2014

Dana Blanchard, a public school teacher in Berkeley, Calif., explains why you need to see--and read--The Fault in Our Stars, no matter how old or young you are.

You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.
--Hazel Grace, The Fault in Our Stars

THOSE OF you who don't have frequent contact with young readers or who aren't fans of young adult fiction may never have heard of John Green. He is the author of a series of young adult novels that tell the stories of teenagers who are dealing with any number of traumatic (or sometimes typical) life events, in the first person and from their own perspectives.

The Fault in Our Stars, a novel that deals specifically with teen cancer, is the first one of his books to be adapted into a major motion picture. In my humble opinion, and according to the young people I know who have seen the movie multiple times, there will be many more films to come, since experiencing the magic of a John Green story on screen will certainly leave you wanting more.

To summarize the book and film: The plot follows a developing love story between two teenagers who are both dealing with cancer, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters. Over the arc of their story, many lessons are learned: that pain demands to be felt, and that we worry not only about our own pain, but how that pain can permanently scar those we cherish. The intense honesty and dogged determination with which the characters manage each of these challenges gives a consistent emotional depth to the storyline.

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars
Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars

With the basics of the story out of the way, let me answer a few questions that come to mind.


IF JOHN Green is such a great storyteller then why is The Fault in Our Stars the first of his books to be made into a film?

GREEN HAS written several other prize-winning and popular novels, but in some ways, cancer is the most socially acceptable and least complicated issue that his young characters face.

Hollywood has demonstrated over the last decade that films about disease are guaranteed tear-jerkers, Oscar-winners and crowd pleasers--films that will bring out young and old alike, who are looking for a story about something harder than their own lives, because it makes them feel better somehow.

As a cancer survivor, I can relate personally to the topic of facing death, and the numbers show that there are a great many of us who have been touched by this disease and others. The topic of dying thus becomes, on the one hand, immediately relatable, and, on the other, a means to access some of our most deeply held but hidden fears and anxieties.

Review: Movies

The Fault in Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort and Nat Wolff, and based on the novel by John Green.

It is also the case that Hazel Grace Lancaster, the narrator and main character in The Fault in Our Stars, is one of the most straightforward of Green's literary characters. She has her flaws, but overall, the story is about how she transcends her disease and is not defined by it. Her love of reading, frank conversational style and annoyance with cheesy support group sessions make her immediately sympathetic, disease or not.

Hazel also seems more likely to appeal to a first-time audience than some of Green's other strong, but messy, female characters: the cussing, self-medicating and misguided Alaska from Looking for Alaska, or the troubled, self-centered runaway, Margo Roth Spiegelman, who cannot decide whether to face down or run from her demons in Paper Towns. This isn't to lessen The Fault in Our Stars but rather to entice readers (and Hollywood) to not be afraid to explore his other works as well.

WHY IS a novel written for young people so appealing to somewhat cynical adults like us?

THE FAULT in Our Stars is satisfying because of the graceful way John Green tackles such a potentially sappy plotline: young people falling in love and dealing with cancer and all the ickiness that comes with it. To reference the quote above, Green makes the choice to tell this sad story with humor, along with generous doses of authenticity and warmth.

If this seems off-putting to you fellow cynics, trust me: the final product is anything but trite. Green masterfully balances the gravity of heartache and pain with the kind of magical irreverence and wit that anyone who spends time with real teenagers sees constantly. There is in teen life sometimes a knife's edge between melancholy and joy that perhaps comes from being young in such an unpredictable world, a world that feels at times rich with promise, and then, in the next moment, heavy with disappointment.

In his new book Brainstorm, Dr. Dan Siegel, a noted neuroscientist who studies the adolescent brain, writes that adults can learn some lessons from teenagers about how to live day to day with true emotional intensity. Green's book captures this emotional force, while at the same time making you laugh and smile lightheartedly, which somehow only heightens the experience.

An example of this in the film is the interactions between Augustus and his best friend Isaac, who has lost his sight as a result of ocular cancer. In one memorable scene, Isaac breaks down after his girlfriend dumps him, and Augustus has him break all of his basketball trophies in order to experience some catharsis. All the while, Augustus cracks jokes about how this will help to break it to his dad that he doesn't want to play basketball anymore. The irony is that Augustus lost a leg to cancer several years before and hasn't played since. The humor of dealing with such a painful reality captures the dual nature of the story: it is sad and funny, often at the same time.

As adults, capitalism often tells us to deny our real emotions, to "suck it up," to be sure not to laugh at inappropriate times. The high standards placed on adult to manage ourselves is referenced in the story in the way in which Hazel's parents deal with her illness by trying to hold it together and be strong for her all the time.

Over the course of the film and book, they are freed from their emotional fetters, able to be honest with each other and with Hazel about how they really feeling. It is refreshing to witness messy, passionate expressions of raw emotions done authentically, because so often, our society denies us the chance to really connect with these parts of ourselves.

HOW DOES John Green's brilliant novel translate to film?

THE FILM, like all films of really good books, cannot live up completely to the written page, but does a very noble job. The parts that are missing from the film are not critical, and the major themes of the story translate well. The arc of the story comes back again and again to the idea of how our pain affects others and how the pain of dying of cancer is exacerbated by how dying affects those you love.

Cancer and other terminal diseases produce death that can be predicted, and the film focuses on how the characters choose to live in the period of time leading up to their deaths. It captures beautifully the time when the dying and those around them await the inevitable moment of profound loss and how this moment is both unbelievably draining and also incredibly precious.

Hazel Grace calls herself a grenade and worries that allowing people to love her deeply will cause them destructive pain. What she comes to recognize through her relationship with her parents and her love affair with Augustus is that, even in numbered days, there can be an infinite number of wonderful moments. These moments are worth the pain that must come later.

This message is a thread throughout many of the small, authentic moments in the film and the book. One of the best of these scenes in the film is between Hazel and her parents, and it ends with recognition on her part that they will be able to survive and live without her. It is impossible to capture the essence of this film in print or through retelling each morsel bit by bit. Hopefully this review will inspire reluctant filmgoers to see it, no matter what your age.

HOW DOES John Green's treatment of death by cancer showcase both the expectations of capitalist society and the possibilities of slipping free of them?

DEATH, ESPECIALLY if it involves young people, can be hard to capture candidly on film or in print. The conversations Hazel and Augustus share about their pending demise feel like a small peek at a taboo subject that capitalism tells us not to discuss.

The scenes where Augustus and Hazel share a laugh over the fact that he is wearing his "death suit" (the one he will be buried in) on their first date and where characters share eulogies with someone who is not yet dead might make some people uncomfortable. How is it acceptable to discuss death in such a direct way?

Capitalism teaches us that though death is inevitable, it is somehow wrong to have honest, open conversation about it, and it is most definitely wrong to try to manage how you leave this world. Leave it up to the fates and the medical professionals to make the hard choices about how long to stay alive, and don't try to control the way in which you die.

In one particularly poignant scene, Augustus realizes that he has lost the ability to govern his own life and can no longer do even the simple things he once did for himself. It is a moment many who are terminally ill must face: the time when you lose a say in how you live your own life. This story shows how talking about death and dying, and being frank about the challenges of depending on others to do what is right, can actually help a person face the end with some shred of dignity.

WHY SHOULD anyone not in the throes of adolescence or battling cancer see this film or read the book?

IN A recent editorial on Slate.com, Ruth Graham rails against adults who read novels written for younger audiences. I'm sure she would also look down her cultured nose at adults who see films made for young people.

She falsely treats teens like they are some other-worldly species and the adults who can relate to them as at best misguided or at worst somehow emotionally stunted. Most of the responses to Graham, including some great zingers in The New Republic, have rightly pointed out that people have the right to read what they want, and not feel badly about it.

I would go a step further and say that books like The Fault in Our Stars somehow get at the emotional truth of what it means to struggle with something like a life-threatening disease better than most adult books that sit atop the best seller lists. Perhaps it's in the freedom of boiling down a topic to its very essence, being straightforward and honest, even if it seems too basic, which gives authors like John Green such amazing voice.

Some would argue that in order to have a well-written adult book, your message must be hard to find, obscured in multiple literary devices. Books written for younger audiences often employ more straightforward language, more dialogue--and this is part of their strength not a weakness.

In closing, young and old and everyone in between should take the time to see the film, read the book and hopefully become fans of John Green along the way.

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