There is a way to tell sad stories, narrates Hazel Grace Lancaster, a college student with terminal cancer played by Shailene Woodley, at the start of The Fault in Our Stars. “So don’t sugarcoat it,” she commands. Unfortunately, the long-awaited adaptation of John Green’s exceptionally moving 2012 bestseller, fights between keeping it real and developing that sweet tooth. The result is an engaging, well-acted drama that unfortunately, lacks a backbone, as well as a personality.
Hazel is a bemused teen who lugs around a portable oxygen tank to support her breathing. While not exactly a magnet for other teens her age, she finds a close friend in a support group for young cancer patients. His name is Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cute boy wish a buffoonish smile and almond hair who has recovered from osteosarcoma – although it took his right leg and he wears a prosthetic. Augustus likes Hazel, which disarms the teen as she is not used to flirting with boys her age.
You can learn much about Hazel and Augustus from the books they read. Hazel’s novel of choice, which she has read so many times it is strange to find she has a bookshelf in her room with other texts, is An Imperial Affliction. It is a long, dreary read about a young woman dying of cancer, the evocative prose reflecting Hazel’s experience so much that it turns into the singular work she covets. The end of the novel enchanted her, since it halts in the middle of a sentence, a sign that the sick narrator either died or was too ill to continue. Hazel sees something in her future, boldly staring into it without much feeling for sentimentalizing her condition.
Meanwhile, Augustus’ favorite series of books is a rousing, bloody trilogy of fantasy novels, with characters that are brave, daring and whose theatrical speeches and glorious moments of splendor he hopes to achieve. The teen has a thing for grand gestures, and he acts like a romantic hero to Hazel, hoping he can be her knight in shining armor. He wants to live an extraordinary life and so he relentlessly pursues Hazel to be his girlfriend. “All efforts to keep me from you are going to fail,” he promises her. Hazel has a clear attraction to Augustus and the two hit it off, and Woodley and Elgort share a sublime chemistry. However, Hazel worries of upsetting her suitor, knowing that he would be devastated if she died.
As a professed fan of author John Green, especially this particular bestseller, it pleases me to say that the casting is flawless, with one notable exception. Woodley, an actor with soft face but a hard voice, is perfect as Hazel, drawing us into the character’s wrenching predicament while shrugging off any hints of saccharine affection. She nails the sardonic voice-over, much of which is cribbed from the choice quotations from Green’s novel. Laura Dern shows up here as well and gives a deeply moving turn as Hazel’s mom, a woman trying to keep a permanent smile plastered on her face in order to avoid thinking of the inevitable doom that waits for her daughter. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe is a snarky, cynical delight as the reclusive Peter Van Houten, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who Hazel hopes can give her some answers. Dafoe gives The Fault in Our Stars an edge and macabre sense of humor that Green’s novel contained, but is in short supply in Josh Boone’s adaptation.
The omission, however, is Elgort, who does not do a grave injustice to Augustus Waters, but does feel too clean and adorable for the part. Elgort is a convincing love interest and he has the magnetic, fox-like eyes that should send teenage girls, like the ones in my audience, swooning. However, Elgort’s Augustus is a much blander, softer, sweetened version of Green’s now-iconic character. The model-turned-actor boasts the enthusiasm needed for the hopelessly hopeful romantic, but he lacks the gripping pathos needed for the film’s tragic third act. Green’s character is an original, a flamboyantly cocksure kid with a treasure chest of a heart and a macabre sense of humor. However, Elgort seems too fair and not frivolous or fearsome enough to make an impression, especially when surrounded by a top-tier cast.
Director Josh Boone does a fine job at balancing the levity and gravity of Green’s page-turner, but the filmmaker’s talent comes more from guiding the performances than orienting the audience within the frame of mind of a sick teen. With the exception of the script’s frequent voiceover, there is little visceral presentation of the difficulty the ill characters go through. When Hazel has to be rushed to the hospital, Boone floods the scene with ominous clichés: characters move in slow-motion to a blue-hued aesthetic as somber strings play on the soundtrack.
Meanwhile, in a scene when Hazel agrees to climb up several steep flights of stairs, Boone refrains from filming her plight in a way that lets us walk the treacherous journey with the protagonist. We get a plain frame-and-shoot style of filmmaking, with many reaction shots of the other characters as they watch her struggle. As Hazel says, quoting her favorite book, “The thing about pain – it demands to be felt.” However, Boone is not invigorating enough of a filmmaker to immerse us in the character’s sorrow from an original perspective. During scenes when Hazel and Augustus laugh and stroll through the city streets together, the director plays aching indie rock and power pop that do not sit right with the seriousness of the subject matter.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also penned the authentic young romances (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, are a bit too occupied with Green’s words and fail to add anything much more than what the novel gives. The good news is that there are enough gems, both of the one-liner and big dramatic speech variety, to make the faithfully adapted moments welcome. The novel, however, avoided unwarranted dramatics and instead opted for harsh, dignified honesty in its final act. It spoke about illness and death with insight and spare emotion. By the time the third grandiose, tear-jerking speech comes up by the end of this film adaptation, that earlier statement of refusing to sugarcoat things has already turned on itself.
The Fault in Our Stars begins as a warm, witty and genuinely honest look at teenage relationships, in the vein that the screenwriters know well, but it becomes too overwrought as the grief mounts, suffering a sudden change to sappiness that neither Hazel nor Augustus would tolerate. As Hazel would say, the film’s sickly sweetness would be its hamartia. Regardless, with such a wonderful cast and terrific source material, The Fault in Our Stars is still undeniably poignant. It is a solid but far from spectacular treatment of a modern young adult classic. Or, as Hazel and Augustus would say, it’s just “okay.”
The Fault in Our Stars' biggest problem lies in its bland execution, but not its stars, who bring moving and often unflinching portrayals to this big-screen adaptation.