One of the great things about John Green's novel, The Fault In Our Stars, is that it isn't a typical cancer story. It isn't a typical anything, really, and even loosely considering it a "cancer story" seems like a momentary injustice. Nor does it quite conform to our traditional notions of sappy, angst-ridden teen romances. There's something quite extraordinary about the novel; its realized characters and full-hearted story of exceptional love, both of the romantic variety and the unbreakable love a parent has for their child. And because of all the things the book gets so right, the fact of Josh Boone's big screen adaptation nailing them so perfectly makes the film all the more special.
Right away the lead character, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) lets you know this isn't going to your average everyday story, either. Hazel is a brilliant, witty, well-read young woman who also happens to have thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. Because of it she carries an oxygen tank around with her and has little tubes connected to her nose. But her outlook on the situation is more acerbic than grim, with her clever and funny observations on "cancer perks" drawing the attention of Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort), a handsome, 18-year-old she meets at a cancer support group. Not exactly the ideal meet-cute, but then again nothing about their situation is truly ideal, which makes them finding one another such a thing of pure magic.
See, Augustus is currently in remission from osteosarcoma, ending his basketball career when the disease took his leg. Like Hazel, he has a somewhat offbeat perspective on life, and where she's a bit bleak he's of a sunnier disposition. They complete one another and learn from one another in just about every way imaginable. A voracious reader, Hazel introduces Gus to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, an extensive tome from a reclusive author now holed up in Amsterdam. Gus loves Hazel almost immediately, ingratiating himself into her life and charming her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), even though Hazel remains distant in an effort to hurt as few people as possible.
Green's novel, written with incredible care and emotional heft, does much of the heavy lifting for screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now); both old hands at penning romances that are a little off the beaten path. They also know how to work with Woodley, who is content presenting Hazel and all of her flaws and quirks. Despite this being a story with a somewhat inevitably heart-wrenching conclusion, none of the characters are treated with kid gloves. Hazel has her issues; she's as stubborn and moody as she is funny and passionate. And while Woodley is careful not to make Hazel too precious, Elgort has the difficult job of making the all-too-perfect Gus seem like a real person. A boy with a fondness for grand symbolic gestures, Gus will give you flashbacks of Say Anything's Lloyd Dobbler, and Elgort's performance on par with John Cusack's. Elgort, who played Woodley's brother in Divergent just a couple of months ago, exudes confidence without being brash. Both he and Woodley capture the frailty and strength in these wonderful, unforgettable characters. Beyond the terrific pop culture references there are so many quotable lines that you'll want to try them out on your significant other.
There are a few small changes from the novel that don't completely work, mainly in the streamlining of the relationship between Hazel and Gus. It's almost too planned, too preordained the journey they are on. As wonderful and heartbreaking as the performances by Dern and Trammell, there needed to be more of Hazel's relationship with her parents, who are on just as much of an emotional roller coaster. But these are small quibbles, and to include more would detract from every cherished moment with Gus and Hazel, and we simply can't have that. The Fault In Our Stars isn't a story about two people dying from cancer, but of two people who lived and loved to the fullest extent despite it. Everything that made John Green's book so great is here, so maybe just this once the world really is "a wish-granting factory."