In today’s world of multimedia, it can be difficult to have a clear view of anything that popular culture takes from its original source and catapults into the realm of super-stardom. We are suspicious, and often rightly so, of anything that causes such a buzz that we hear about it and see evidence of it all around us before we have a chance to scrutinize it for ourselves. Think blockbuster movies like Titanic or The English Patient. Half the viewing public goes to see it with no real knowledge but because everyone says it is a “must see,” the other half refuses to see it on principle, and the tiny fraction of viewers that remain, if any, truly appreciate the power and beauty of the work, and would have seen it and loved it even if it played only in one art-house theater and no one talked about it beyond the after-show coffee house debrief.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is facing this test now, as the movie version was released earlier this month to much public anticipation but mixed critical reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a positive review (80%) while RogerEbert.com reviewer Christy Lemire gave it only two stars. The book by John Green was published in 2012, progressing from popular teen read to big-screen summer flick rapidly, joining the ranks of teen lit book-to-movie successes such as Twilight, The Hunger Games trilogy, and Divergent. In fact, the lead actress in The Fault in Our Stars, Shailene Woodley, also played the lead role in the movie version of Divergent, just released in March. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ansel Elgort, the actor playing her love interest Augustus in Fault, was among the main actors in Divergent as well.
The story brings together star-crossed lovers of the modern kind, gives them witty, acerbic, and authentic sounding teen dialogue, and subjects them to the double-edge sword of young love and terminal illness. Despite this potentially cliche exterior, the novelist finds a way to develop the characters into interesting and thoughtful people who come alive on the page. References to real poets and writers such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and T.S. Eliot lend credibility to the intelligence of the characters, while Green makes up fictional authors and books through which the characters relate and which serve as metaphors for their own stories. A teen reader who wants to gloss over the literary references won’t lose much, but for those who immerse themselves in the lives of these characters, Green’s nudges toward classic poetry and philosophy may inspire investigation. A young reader of this novel might easily become a reader of Dickinson or Eliot. Even adult readers will want to look up the meaning of hamartia for themselves, a word that becomes central to the characters’ discussions of love and life. Young Hazel lays out a description of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that even highly-educated readers will appreciate. And discussions such as the “ghetto-ization” of scrambled eggs when restricted to being a breakfast food elevate these kids to minor philosophers themselves. Settings as rich in history and cultural currency as The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or a sculpture called Funky Bones in an Indianapolis park make the events feel real, and open a window for young readers into a larger world. If these (albeit fictional) adolescents, with their oxygen tank and prosthetic leg, can adventure to such interesting locales, what flesh-and-blood teen wouldn’t want to follow? In short, the classic tragic young love story (think Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliff and Catherine, Tony and Maria) is updated here, with broad strokes of not only emotion but also intelligence. It is told through the eyes of Hazel, an inherently human teenage girl, flawed through no fault of her own, facing a tragic fate. Her thoughtful consideration of the people she loves, and of the universe and her purpose in it, renews a reader’s faith that there are still stories worth reading.
The transformation of story from page to screen is always problematic for loyal literature lovers, a problem that is not unlike the fate of the characters in John Green’s novel. There is an inevitability in both: in translating book to screen, something will be lost; for the terminally ill characters, all will be lost. For the purist, the only solution is to read the book first, and perhaps only. For Hazel and Augustus, resolution lies in not denying the inevitable but in embracing life, and each other, despite their “numbered days,” and redefining infinity as a relative measurement.
Non-readers of the book may enjoy the movie, and some readers of the book may find their attention to the film rewarded. But maybe, as for Hazel and Augustus, for whom having more isn’t an option, perhaps the story as written on the page is enough.
Inspired to read the book? Find it at these libraries and bookstores:
San Diego County Libraries
Oceanside Public Library
Carlsbad City Libraries
Warwick’s Books, La Jolla
Barnes & Noble, Encinitas, Oceanside, Escondido