Look, I’m not heartless, OK? I cry at those seasonal McDonald’s commercials, just like everybody else; and that one episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? I’m not a monster. But Precocious Kids With Cancer . . . er . . . The Fault in Our Stars, while innately, even primally, sad, is deeply flawed. Perhaps even worse than that.
The movie, based on the enormously popular YA novel of the same name by John Green, chronicles the brief, intense love affair of teenagers Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort), both cancer sufferers. They meet in a support group and reinforce their instant chemistry with mutual enthusiasm for a novel, which Hazel shares with Gus. Of the two, Hazel is ostensibly the sicker, and when she takes a sudden turn for the worse, Gus gallantly uses a wish granted him by a charitable organization to take Hazel to Amersterdam to meet the reclusive author of their favorite book.
The purpose of the trip is to pester the writer into revealing the fates of the characters in his work, which, we’re told, ends ambiguously mid-sentence. The author is beyond reluctant and, in fact, is cantankerous, oblique, drunk and abusive. (You might guess that in this role and at this moment, Willem Dafoe is my favorite part of the movie.) He stubbornly refuses to admit any known fate beyond the book’s final ellipse.
It makes some sense that these characters, Hazel and Gus, are preoccupied with the notion of fate: They are young, they are in love and they are dying. It makes sense, too, that their preoccupation is essentially solipsistic. But the movie’s narrow focus on the individual fates of this couple starts to feel shallower with its every attempt to be allusively broad.
Immediately after their unfulfilling visit to the writer, the couple visits the Anne Frank house. It’s a preposterous destination for a young cancer victim so reliant on a portable oxygen tank that the entire trip was only permitted after arranging for constant medical supervision (which is conveniently forgotten and/or invisible). But not only do they visit, they make the trip up the increasingly steep and narrow stairs leading to the Franks’ attic hiding space where, after Hazel regains her strained breath, she and Gus make out—to the applause of the other museumgoers. This is problematic in several ways:
While Hazel’s success in climbing the stairs of the museum may represent some kind of small victory, it pales dramatically in the horrific context of Frank family history. Is cancer a terrible thing? Well, inarguably. In real life, is losing a young loved one to a terminal disease less tragic than to the Holocaust? Arguably not. But in literature, I boldly claim, “Yes, yes, it is less tragic.” This is exactly where the writers get the whole thing wrong. To have this young couple tonguing each other in front of the pictures of the murdered Frank family (the only survivor being the family’s father, unmercifully) to the appreciation of the audience, fictive and actual, shows them to be distastefully self-involved.
From the top of those stairs, this movie plummets into cheapness and after-school, maudlin nonsense. It’s not that the characters become less likable, the acting worse, or the prospect of young love and lives ended too soon less sad. It’s a literary failing.
The movie’s title is a reference to a speech made by Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play about that same Roman emperor: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Caesar, here, is acknowledging something Shakespeare, the playwright, knew very well: In drama, character is fate. But in The Fault of Our Stars that dictum is overturned. The message is that these kids would have been just fine if not for capricious destiny. That it all could have been just fine. That it’s unfair.
And isn’t that the battle cry of the adolescent? “No fair!”
But to have fictional characters cry out in such a way, and then to seemingly let them off the hook with a weird refutation of a literary truism makes for slightness on a very serious subject. The writers’ own hesitation to take responsibility for their own characters’ existences, to imply lazily that bad things happen to good people and to attempt to prop that up with a shabby analogy to a truly heartbreaking historical event seems manipulative. “No, John Green. Fate didn’t give Hazel and Gus cancer, you did!”
Compare another pair of star-crossed lovers: Romeo and Juliet. What makes their story compellingly tragic is that their deaths stem from their own actions. It was Shakespeare’s very brutality—he made those kids kill themselves—that makes their story so tender, poignant and lasting.