The Fault in Our Stars is a hopeful story about someone in an apparently hopeless situation.
The movie is based on—and stays quite faithful to—the young adult novel of the same title by John Green. Seventeen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal thyroid cancer. Her world has become very small, consisting of her parents, treatment, television, and a required cancer support group for teens that she initially detests.
Enter Augustus Waters, a charming and observant 18-year-old cancer survivor who lost a leg to the disease. He is attending the support group as company for his friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and will soon undergo surgery to remove the other. So far everything about this screams “fun Friday night at the movies,” right?
“Fun” might not be the right word, though it is certainly entertaining at times. But more than that, this is a serious, articulate, compelling story about serious, articulate, compelling teenagers who are trying to find the meaning in their limited lives.
Author John Green, who as a young man considered a career as a minister, spent time as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. He learned that there are no simple answers to give to a young person who is struggling with a terminal illness. As the movie emphasizes, “Pain demands to be felt.” The Fault in Our Stars offers no easy answers, and it pokes fun of the way we attempt to give them to people who are suffering. Big questions are at stake here, and this story offers a multitude of ways people try to answer them.
The movie, like the book, sometimes skewers the way we as Christians try to minimize the pain of suffering and loss. The leader of the support group, for example, feels he has a lot of answers to offer, even though he is still trying to find his way out of his parents’ basement. There are jokes about attending meetings in “the literal heart of Jesus,” in a church basement on a rug that pictures Jesus. Yet at the same time, some of the most important moments of the movie occur in that church, in the “heart of Jesus,” so there is a sense of deeper meaning and experience there.
Augustus and Hazel grow close, though Hazel refuses to entertain romantic gestures as she considers herself a live “grenade” that could blow up at any moment and do irreparable damage. Augustus comes equipped with a sense of bravado as he searches for a way to be a grand hero. Over time, they begin to show more vulnerability to each other.
Many parents will take issue with the fact that these teens use strong language, and even more that they do, in fact, have sex. Green, in his effusive and abundant blog posts answering questions about the story, says that he wanted to depict two young people who, rather than being defined by cancer, are defined by their very humanness, which includes the same sexual desire that any other teen would experience. The one scene of this nature gives viewers two people who, in spite of all of the complications that each one brings to the table, love each other and take a delight in each other reminiscent of Song of Songs.
In contrast to that, early on in the movie, Isaac has a cringe-worthy make-out session with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, which elicits nothing but distaste and mortification. The storytellers are not afraid to give viewers the opportunity to compare these relationships on their own merits, giving adolescents credit for enough maturity to comprehend the difference.
At the same time, these teens, who have an added level of seriousness due to their illnesses, are supported and loved by strong, caring parents. As a parent of teens myself, the complex mother-daughter relationship is something I truly appreciated. Hazel’s mother, who is understandably alert to any possible physical or emotional change, still wants to encourage and support her daughter’s growth and independence. Meanwhile, Hazel is stifled by the attention, appreciative of it, and terrified that her mother will not survive the loss when Hazel is gone.
That’s the basic thrust of the movie and of the book behind it. It tells a story that asks questions, portrays different reactions to those questions, and allows readers or viewers to come to their own conclusions. That is unusual in movies targeted at teens, which often portray teens as creatures ruled by their own impulse and desire, with nothing larger at stake. The other side of the coin are films that didactically explain to teens what they should say, think, or do. The Fault in Our Stars does neither.
There are a few moments that allow other voices in to give yet another perspective. At one point they visit, of all things, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Both teens are awed by the experience, but they are even more wrapped up in young love. As they study the exhibits and each other, Anne Frank’s words play over the sound system, and a quote from her is visible on a door they pass through. The effect is to unite them with people suffering in all places and times and to acknowledge the young heart’s desire to live, even in the worst of circumstances.
Later, at a funeral, when anger and grief prevent Hazel from being able to take comfort from the words being spoken, the viewer still hears the words of the pastor as he speaks of God’s presence with us. The comfort of those words is in stark contrast to the words of a cynical man who plays a big part in their story, an author who had inspired them but turns out to be, well, a jerk.
The book is a huge bestseller, chosen as Time magazine’s best book of the year in 2012. The movie broke records for advance purchase tickets. The theater I attended was packed with teenage girls (and some of their male counterparts), and there were times that the sobbing of the audience threatened to interfere with the movie’s dialogue. If you go, pack a good stash of tissues.
Whether or not you are comfortable with some elements of this story, it has struck a chord with many, many teens and adults. If ever there were an opportunity to talk to the young people in your life about the big questions, here it is. The Fault in Our Stars confronts adults with some of the realities of teenage life, confronts teens with the seriousness and joy of their own existence, and confronts Christians with the reality that we need to live into suffering with others, not just offer pat answers. (20th Century Fox)