‘I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories.’
Right from the beginning, The Fault in Our Stars makes it clear to you how it is going to tell its sad story: honestly, with a bit of humour. Deftly and delicately, Fault navigates the tricky line between moving and maudlin with sparks of wit in between. Anchored by a strong, charismatic and emotionally centred performance from its young leads, particularly Shailene Woodley in fine form, Fault takes only minor missteps in bringing to life this sharp and resonating teenage tale, which fans and newcomers alike can both weep at and enjoy.
Like the novel on which it was based, Fault follows the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a cynical and apparently depressed 16-year-old whose parents (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) force her to attend a support group for fellow cancer patients. It is here, accompanied by her trusty oxygen tank, that she meets Isaac (Nat Wolff doing well as a bit player) and his friend, ridiculously good looking high school senior and fellow cancer survivor Gus (Ansel Elgort).
As Gus and Hazel’s relationship develops, so too does their fascination with An Imperial Affliction, a book written by reclusive American novelist Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), who now lives in Amsterdam. Determined to track him down, the young couple are persistent in their quest to find answers to the book’s unresolved ending and, perhaps more broadly, a sense of meaning for themselves.
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay is full of heart and feeling, without cheaply or overly drawing emotion from its audience. No strangers to the field of young adult material, the two have recently adapted Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now with much success. Here they up the ante, writing a richer and more profound story that is just as honest, but perhaps more humorous than their previous effort. Director Josh Boone of Stuck in Love fame does an admirable job with the screenplay and, like his writers, stays faithful, if perhaps overly so at times, to his source material.
Ultimately, the film’s brightest points, as is the case with the book, come from Hazel, whose lively, uncompromising and mature attitude towards her life and illness make her an endearing and believable character to watch. Stepping into such a rich role, Woodley has a lot to offer, bringing an incredible and energising depth to Hazel. Coming off the back of Divergent and the aforementioned indie hit The Spectacular Now, she easily and earnestly handles her heroine duty. She carries the movie’s emotional core beautifully, cementing her place as one of Hollywood’s most grounded young actors.
The same however, cannot be said for Ansel Elgort, whose Augustus is sadly not as impressive, though not for lack of trying. Whilst Elgort’s performance certainly breathes life into his character, the movie’s writers do little to move his persona past that of a typical teen movie heartthrob. A little too eager to please, Gus seems more dream than human, with his persistent and avid chasing after Hazel occasionally laid on far too thickly. Outside of some obligatory background, we are given little information about Gus, other than the fact that he clearly has a thing for our protagonist. Likewise, in his supporting role as the reclusive Peter Van Houten, Willem Dafoe is almost wasted in a limited role.
Undeniably, the success of a movie like this hinges on the chemistry between the two leads, which Elgort and Woodley have in spades. Although they played siblings in Divergent, their connection here lights up the screen. It is not hard to believe the pair as soul mates, with their impressive emotional maturity doing well to highlight the effervescence and beauty of a first and true love. Their first kiss is a kind of movie magic and feels both honest and well-earned when it comes, despite its somewhat eerie and unusual background, which seemed much less out of place in the book.
It is perhaps here that the movie falters a little in its transition from the page to the screen. Whilst Neustadter and Weber are ever faithful in their adaptation, there are some aspects of their screenplay that simply do not carry the same gravitas in their translation. Though Green’s witty and razor-sharp banter is given new life when spoken aloud, the snippets of voice used to replace the novel’s first-person narration are clunky and at times distracting. Rather than giving you an insight into Hazel’s thoughts and wisdom, they serve merely as a means to move the story along either forwards or backwards in time. Likewise, the metatextual subplot involving both An Imperial Infliction and the numerous literary nuggets hidden within Green’s work are abandoned in favour of cute, albeit somewhat cheesy montages of the young couple falling in love. Ultimately however, these flaws are a minor concern, and will be easily overlooked by newcomers who haven’t read the book.
What will be harder to overlook however, is the sound of sniffles and then sobs all around you as the movie progresses into its inevitable tearjerker territory. Whilst never perhaps hitting the profound beauty of its written source, Fault packs an undeniable emotional punch. Thanks to some deft writing, a beautifully haunting soundtrack and some inspired performances, Hazel’s togetherness serves only to make the audience fall apart that little bit more. Fault sometimes exploits these aspects, but not to the point of sappiness, much to the movie’s success.
The Fault in Our Stars is a moving film, whether you go in to it intending to be moved or not. There is a certain resonance that comes from its story, a combined effort of its faithful adaptation by writers Neustadter and Weber and the refreshingly honest and emotional performance of Shailene Woodley. Whilst dealing with some undeniably maudlin themes, Fault manages to balance these with a humour and wit that mostly saves it from being a sappy mess. Not just one for the girls or teens, The Fault in Our Stars is a nice reminder to all of us to live each day as if it is our last, because the world is not a wish-granting factory.
THE REEL SCORE 7/10