The following is a full spoiler discussion of The Fault in Our Stars. You have been warned.
mxdwn Movies is proud to feature guest writer Laura Baltzer for this discussion of The Fault in Our Stars, director Josh Boone’s adaptation of the popular novel by John Green.
Tim: Ok, so baselines: I have not read the book. You have. Did you like the book?
Laura: Definitely liked the book, though it doesn’t necessarily go on my top ten list. I read it a while ago and then listened to it on audiobook just last week so it was very fresh in my mind.
Tim: And does the movie measure up?
Laura: For sure. All the emotional moments you’re looking for the movie to hit are there. Of course there are going to be things that the movie doesn’t have time for or has to show differently, you can’t be in Hazel’s head as much as you can be in the books, but I thought this actually made the film more compelling at times. Shailene Woodley’s great acting helped a lot with that.
Tim: So a couple things there I think we can start with. I didn’t really like the movie (and I’m sure we’ll get more into why as we go), but I did think Shailene Woodley was the best part of the film. I liked her in The Descendents but was still looking to be convinced she could carry a movie. Safe to say that I am now. Second, the voiceover. It wasn’t obtrusive ever, but there was a lot more than in your average film.
Laura: I think it’s a trend you see in a lot of the adaptations of books into films. Like I was saying before, there are emotional moments and lines in the books that the audience really wants to see when they go to a film like this and in the book they’re in Hazel’s head so the movie has to do the same. I thought it was compelling because it seemed much more like a conversation than your typical voiceover might. A lot more like this is me (Hazel) telling you how I feel instead of telling you what is happening.
Tim: It’s really funny that you say that, because on the surface it would violate the cardinal rule of filmmaking: show don’t tell. What I think the narrative does do well is hide most of its exposition in scene, but getting back to the idea that Hazel is sort of telling you how to interpret her story, I think that’s part of why this movie felt manipulative to me. It’s got all the ingredients of something people should just eat up in a romance.
Laura: I know the romance is the thing they chose to focus on, but I was actually most moved by the family elements. I think that’s something that made it a lot more personal. Did you feel that the romance overrode the other, perhaps less cliche, elements?
Tim: Hazel’s family did feel very realistic to me, I just didn’t find much significant narrative there. I guess you can dig into the part where Hazel is haunted by the memory of her mother telling her it was ok to die, but that was such a small piece of the story. The romance stuck out a lot more, and it did feel very…let’s say convenient. A lot of it I traced back to Augustus’ character. He’s like the dude version of a manic pixie dream girl.
Laura: Yes, I won’t lie and say that the romance is some unique love story for the ages.
Tim: I also have to ask, does Augustus come off as as much of a douchey creeper in the book as he does when he’s introduced in the movie?
Laura: I don’t think so. I’ve heard other people who haven’t read the books say this, so you’re not alone. For some reason when you’ve read the book, maybe it’s the fact that you know what’s coming, but his actions make a lot more sense.
Tim: He actually won me over at least a little bit by the end (the character, not the actor so much) in that I appreciated the moments where he suddenly wasn’t, I don’t know, perfect? But that’s not even quite the right way to describe it. The character is so much a facade for a lot of the story, that I only started to accept that front after I got a chance to see a few of the cracks in it. But yes, he does come off very odd and wooden at first.
Laura: It’s hard to distinguish whether it is genuine love for the character or my hormones that are forcing me to disagree with you, but I loved every bit of Ansel Elgort’s time on the screen. Back to the fact that this is an adaptation, one of my only gripes was the handling of the character of Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Not that I thought Willem Defoe didn’t do an amazing job, I just thought his character wasn’t given enough time to give us as much of an emotional connection as happens in the book. As a non-book reader what was your reaction to his scenes?
Tim: Oh, I didn’t buy most of the parts with his character. It worked a tiny bit when it’s finally revealed that Augustus’s email is the first he’s responded to, but I kept wondering how he and his assistant could afford to spend so much time and money on a couple of kids they’ve never met when he must get tons of fan mail. A lot of the time it seemed like they were the only ones who had ever written him to tell him they liked his book, and that never made sense to me. I mentioned earlier that the story felt both convenient and manipulative. Stuff like this was why. Even though the story is about two people with cancer who have been handed very tough draws in life, there’s all this stuff that seems to work out just so without much effort on their part. And then the final scene with Van Houten, the one at Augustus’s funeral, could he not have squeezed it in that the letter he was trying to give Hazel was from Augustus? Maybe I’m completely off base, but that felt very Hollywood-y.
Laura: These could be things that as a book reader I fill in automatically and so didn’t have a problem with. There is more time to explain the letters and little things like that that a movie will kind of glaze over. The scene with Van Houten at the funeral was also disappointing for me but more because I felt we didn’t get enough time with him to explain more of what his character was feeling. In the book there is a sense of forgiveness and understanding that comes about in Hazel that I thought was such a beautiful moment and really wrapped up the Van Houten story arc.
That’s what it really comes down to for me with this film. Summer movies are all about the big world-ending traumatic events and the larger than life hero that saves the day, but this movie is just the opposite and I think that’s why it’s gaining so much traction in the box office.
Tim: Sure, this movie is about the small moments, but at least for me, they’re a bunch of moments that ring hollow. They all feel a bit forced, a bit too fortuitous for their own good, like it’s all leading somewhere because of the hand of the writer or the director, and it robbed the movie of it’s significance for me. Which is kind of ironic because the movie doesn’t seem to believe that very many things have a lot significance, but at the same time desperately wants to convince us that some few things do.
Laura: Young adult fiction can sometimes feel like emotional manipulation for people which is, understandably, a big turnoff. I think this has something to do with the first person nature of a lot of YA lit. Since the movie is taking its cues from just such a book, you’re going to get a lot of the same reactions. You get so into the main characters head when it’s in first person so much that it feels like you have blinders on to everything else. If you don’t connect to the main character, it’s going to feel wrong. If you do connect to the main character it’s going to feel like you’re on the journey with the character. Are you young, female, middle class, and don’t have all your shit figured out? You’ll probably connect with Hazel. If you said no to three or more of the above, probably not so much.
Tim: Ok, but I said no to one of those. I think some of what I’m reacting against is the sense that there ought to be more going on and there isn’t. Of course, Hazel and Augustus are dealing with life-heavy stuff. But the narrative that’s presented here is A) love is important, and B) oh look, we fell in love. There’s a depth to the way the subject is addressed that I was missing, even though some of the moment to moment stuff felt “real.” The scene where the have dinner in the fancy restaurant? Sure, I’ve been there before. But what exactly am I supposed to take from that? Where is it leading narratively and why?
Laura: So it felt real, just not original?
Tim: More like it felt self-important, I think. Like it believed in a significance to its own narrative that I never found. You can tell someone about the lunch you had today, for example, and it may sound delicious, but so what? And like we’ve already said (I think?) it’s not always an issue on the small scale. Those little interactions convey something. I just had trouble adding them up.
Laura: For me it worked. Those little interactions that didn’t seem to mean much mean a lot because they’re trying to tell us something that’s right in front of us, right in those little meaningless moments. That love is the point. It’s the reason that those moments matter. That’s what it all added up to at the end.
Tim: Fair enough. And since it’s already made back about six times its production budget, I think it’s fair to assume there are some people who agree with you.