This article by nature contains spoilers. Okay? Okay.
Because money is not everything, I am not going to dwell excessively on how Josh Boone’s film version of The Fault in Our Stars, made on a $12 million budget, raced past two productions that cost $180 million each to become the number one movie in the United States of America (Well, I’ll dwell on it for a second: HOLY CRAP!) and focus on a question that really matters. This question stems from something we know all too well: many beloved stories get completely messed up in the translation from page to screen, and nobody wanted this to happen with Fault. This is a novel that has the Addison Recorder seal of approval (patent pending). Over half of us read it, loved it, and cried over it, and we’re not alone, for few books have inspired such a rapturous fan base who were waiting for this film with the same intensity as others wait for Fallout 3. A fan base that hoped this anticipation would be justified. So those who have laughed and wept over Hazel and Augustus need to know: was the movie good? Or great? Or at least not a disaster?
We begin by accepting the premise that one cannot simply do a page-for-page transference of everything in a novel, even a novel as relatively short as Fault, and still have a two-hour movie, so although the vast majority of the story is kept intact, there are some omissions, some shortened plot threads, and some trimmed dialogue. The choices Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber make in these fields shape the finished product into something not significantly different from the novel, but different enough to be noticed. On the one hand, Kaitlyn being cut from the film is not a major loss. On the other, they leave out the spirit of Caroline Mathers, almost all of Hazel’s arguments with her parents, and most of Augustus’s decline after they return from Amsterdam. In other words, almost all the scenes showing cancer patients as angry, contentious, depressed, unkind, and all too human, and since the image of the noble, inspirational sick person is one Green actively works against in the novel, these cuts were to me a strange and almost dishonest choice.
The necessary alterations to the dialogue are also slightly problematic. The e-mail from Peter Van Houten that gives the story its title is never mentioned, and most of Van Houten’s words are cut and rearranged in a way that makes him more sentimental and empathetic. (I particularly disliked him spelling out to Hazel what happened to his daughter as opposed to her figuring it out.) Similarly, Patrick is rewritten as an ultra-Christian figure purely to be mocked (although Mike Birbiglia wrings as many laughs as he can possibly wring from the small part). Neustadter and Weber, who also wrote (500) Days of Summer among other films, create a sometimes irritating device by having Hazel and Augustus’s text messages show up on screen in cartoony, overly cute word balloons. And they rewrite both the beginning and the ending in ways that seem unnecessary (the former) and almost horrendously cashing in on the story’s cultural cache in an attempt to please audiences (the latter).
So that’s what either doesn’t work or took me out of the movie to think “Why did they do that?” Here’s what works: everything else. Literally-as-the-Heart-of-Jesus everything else. If you had asked me to imagine what the best film version of The Fault in Our Stars would be like, this would come very, very close to my imaginings.
Ansel Elgort, who is too darned handsome and charismatic for words, conveys Augustus’s grandiosity with a twinkle in his eye that makes his big speeches seem sincere and believable—but excels even more at the scenes where Augustus is vulnerable, wrenching emotional reactions from an audience without being mawkish. Nat Wolff nails all the sides of Isaac, the pain, the smart, wry humor, and the joy in his moments of triumph. Although Willem Dafoe is not overweight and balding, his crackling voice and intense stare were designed to one day enact Peter Van Houten, especially when we see his “dance” to his beloved Swedish hip-hop. And there are three characters who are meant to combine wit, a determined firmness, and a lot of love, and all three of them are played by actors so right for the parts it’s almost terrifying: a positively radiant Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother, Sam Trammell as Hazel’s father, and the lovely Dutch actress Lotte Verbeek as Lidewij, whose scenes made me wish that if Green ever wrote a sequel (which I don’t want him to) he would look at the sisterly bond that emerges between Lidewij and Hazel.
On that note, I saved the best acting for last. Shailene Woodley was denied an Oscar nomination for The Descendants and this egregious error must be corrected.
She becomes Hazel Grace Lancaster, acerbic one minute, depressed another, euphoric the next, philosophically understanding her condition and her future but ultimately ready to fall into a star-crossed love. Her voice is perfect for the narration, and her eyes and body language overcome the supreme obstacle of having an oxygen tank and cannula accompany her in every scene. I accepted the changes to the beginning and ending simply because Woodley spoke and acted so well. However, her shining moment is when she gives the “our little infinity” eulogy with a heart both broken and soaring. That passage did not make me cry when I read it, but watching it I cried like a baby. I’m crying right now just remembering it. (Incidentally, Woodley cries on camera better than almost any actress I can think of.)
In addition, Boone directs with the same technical assurance and sense for intimacy of Lumet, Schaffner, and the others who came out of the Golden Age of Television. His best work (as well as Neustadter and Weber’s) comes during the Amsterdam sequence, when their changes and emphases are all for the better. Now, Augustus tells Hazel he loves her at Oranjj after the “Somewhere” conversation, which thematically is a great fit, and instead of the hotel they sit by a canal, water and life passing by them, when he reveals his sickness to her. In between, the best directed sequence of the picture, one which I’d glossed over a little in the book, is when Hazel climbs to the top of the Anne Frank House. Boone’s careful framing of Hazel’s slow but steady climb and Augustus and Lidewij watching in small amazement speaks as loud as Green’s words: Hazel has been knocked down by her sickness and by her hero, but now she climbs to the top. (On a related note, the egging of Monica’s car is staged just as well for pure laughs as well as triumph.)
The soundtrack mixing a score by Bright Eyes (MINUS Conor Oberst, God be praised) and new pop-rock songs gets a bit annoying for the Amsterdam scenes when the lyrics of songs get too on the nose, but is otherwise as low-key and lovely as gentle underscoring should be. (Particularly Lykke Li’s “No One Ever Loved.”)
Finally, there is an effect of The Fault in Our Stars that the film could not produce on its own. As the closing credits began to roll, I could feel and hear the sadness in the cinema. This was a room full of people who had cried in solitude over the story while reading it in our homes and in cafes during lunch hours and on trains and airplanes, and now we were all crying together in a shared space, solitary no more, brought together by the message John Green and the filmmakers had for us. It was the reaction any good artist dreams of achieving.
So I answer the question: it was pretty much impossible to make a perfect film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, and this certainly has its faults, but its stars shine so brightly as to be far more memorable.
It was a film definitely worth waiting for.