By: Rebekah Fitzsimmons
There are tons of reviews out there on the Internet this week turning a critical eye towards The Fault in our Stars, a film starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, based on the best-selling young adult novel of the same name by John Green. One of the first caveats of each review is an admission by the reviewer if they have or have not read the source text. (I think there might be an interesting comparative project to be done on the slant of reviews, positive or negative, depending on the engagement with the original novel.) There also seems to be an important bias that reviewers are less inclined to admit, and that is their engagement with and affinity for young adult books generally and their familiarity with contemporary popular young adult books.
In the interest of fairness and adherence to genre conventions, here is my own admission: I read and enjoyed the novel the year it came out, thanks largely to the Children’s Literature Book Club that I have been a part of for the past few years. This book club is comprised mostly of graduate students here at the University of Florida whose academic work has brought them into contact with children’s literature in some form or another. It was with members of this book club that I attended a Friday afternoon showing of the film.
When it comes to book versus film comparisons, I think it is no surprise, given my background, that I will conclude the book is a superior product. While the film is a wonderful and faithful adaptation of the original book, certain things about the book, namely the unique, snarky and painfully honest narrative voice of cancer-ridden Hazel, just cannot translate. The film uses a voiceover, which at times feels clunky and out of place, in order to ensure that some of that voice does make it to the big screen. Casey Wilson, one of my fellow book-club moviegoers, joked that the voice over was employed simply to ensure that one of the best lines of the book was included: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
Certain concepts, like the idea of “cancer perks” or the pressures that Hazel feels, especially in regards to her parents, don’t quite shine through in the film the same way they do in the book. When Hazel yells at her mother in the film, the emotion comes across a bit like a sad, stressed teen having a temper tantrum; in the book, the same scene is filled with the weight of Hazel’s fears about how her parents are simply biding their time until she dies and will have nothing left of their lives once she is gone. In the book, we know she feels responsible for limiting her parents’ lives, their options, and their growth because she is in the liminal space between alive and dead. The nuances of that guilt, fear and pain are obviously limited in a more visual medium, though Woodley does an incredible job embodying the complexities of emotion.
However, I am not prepared to conclude that the film was simply a weaker version of the book. There were elements of the film that I felt expanded on and improved the overall experience of the story. For instance, the film excelled in portraying the actual mechanics of illness. The clunk and click of the machines that make the lives of these young people possible and yet make them more painful resonated over and over again. Hazel’s oxygen tank is housed in a rolling backpack which is described in the book, but I found the ever-present “click, click, click” of the backpack’s handle being raised and lowered to be hypnotic. The viewer knows events are urgent or especially difficult when Hazel shoulders the pack on her back, rather than letting the wheels take the weight. The scene of her climbing the steps in the Anne Frank house was made even more powerful for me by watching the physical mechanics of that oxygen tank: Hazel carries it by it’s top handle at first, then allows Lidewij to carry it ahead of her, then finally shoulders the pack to carry it on her back. And once she reaches the top of the stairs, she catches her breath and then “click, click, click” pulls out the handle once again. Woodley makes great use of that rhythm to reflect her character’s state of mind and emotional conflicts as the film progresses as well.
The lives of these young people are infused with technology. When Hazel grows dangerously ill, each scene shows her face covered by scarier and scarier looking breathing-apparatus, until the audience is relieved to see the return of the simple clear cannula. Isaac struggles to adjust to his cane and the actual mechanics of movement when he loses his eyesight entirely. Augustus jokes about being a cyborg and gestures to his prosthetic leg on numerous lighthearted occasions, yet the panic on his face as he and Hazel begin to disrobe is real. Rather than fret about any other part of the rapidly escalating sexual encounter, a first for both him and Hazel, Augustus feels he needs to warn her about what to expect when she comes face to face with the place where his dying body meets the machine.
Isaac’s eulogy for Augustus’s staged funeral centers around the idea that he would initially turn down robot eyes, because “I don’t want to see a world without Augustus Waters.” However, Isaac admits he would eventually take them, because “come on, they’re robot eyes.” And so it goes with the rest of the film. As incredible and groundbreaking as the machines, prosthetics and experimental drug treatments are when it comes to keeping these young people alive, it is the ever-present visuals of these clunky and at times inconvenient objects that strikes the viewer over and over again. The visual medium of film allows for constant and awkward reminders of these mechanical elements that would feel heavy handed in print. We live in an age of medical miracles, but the film seems to be arguing that it is in spite of these mechanical and artificial wonders that Hazel and Augustus are able to live their little infinity.