Fully rendered ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ characters capture tone of book

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort) are two extraordinary teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them -- and us - on an unforgettable journey in The Fault In Our Stars. (James Bridges/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars is beloved for good reason. It is a strong, touching piece of work, a testament to love in a time of cancer, a promise that even a short life can be one with joy. The movie adaptation accordingly faces a near-impossible task of matching the emotional effectiveness of the book, and finding actors who can measure up to the readers’ imagination. Hazel and Gus onscreen will be as thoroughly pondered by a young generation of readers as Rhett and Scarlett were 75 years ago.

Still, the Fault in Our Stars movie — written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and directed by Josh Boone — works admirably well for the most part. It gets the tone of Green’s book, especially the humor. Shailene Woodley is perfectly cast as Hazel. And where some moments worked better on the page than the screen, there are other times — as even Green has acknowledged — when the movie improves on the printed word.

The Fault in Our Stars at its most basic is a story of love between Hazel and Gus (Ansel Elgort), young people who have had their respective battles with cancer. Gus has lost a leg but otherwise seems to be in remission. Hazel’s future is less optimistic, and an oxygen tank is her constant companion. They meet at a support group (whose members include real-life cancer survivors Alexis Hodges of Norton, and C.J. Evans of Canton). Gus is immediately drawn to Hazel, but Hazel is warier; she fears being a “grenade,” whose likely death will damage anyone who gets too close to her emotionally. Still, they connect, especially as Gus becomes part of Hazel’s fixation on the writer Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), whose novel about cancer has an incomplete ending which Hazel insists on having resolved.

But even as their connection grows, the specter of illness remains. After all, their circle of friends also includes another cancer patient, Isaac (Nat Wolff), and Hazel’s and Gus’ families are constantly aware of what their children have to deal with. It should be no surprise, then, that before the film is over, cancer will have overtaken a character to a fatal degree.

Yet at that moment, and after, The Fault in Our Stars avoids an excess of weepiness through its fully rendered, complex characters, and their unblinking view of what life can hold. Elgort’s Gus is the embodiment of optimism. Woodley catches Hazel’s braininess, her caution — and her longing. And Wolff makes Isaac far more than the occasional comic relief (although Isaac can be quite funny, especially in the wake of a breakup).

Fault can be painful to watch, deliberately so. When Gus and Hazel go to Amsterdam in pursuit of Van Houten, a visit to the Anne Frank house includes Hazel’s struggling climb up steep stairs, each batch more daunting than the one before. At the same time, there are points late in the film when it is less explicit about physical change than Green’s book was — although the emotional terror conveyed mostly compensates for the physical reticence.

I liked the movie overall, and thought it captured what was most important about Green’s book. And it works for young people because its main characters are so much like the real thing, without the melodramatics and fantasy so many productions insist on making a part of adolescence.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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