Four tissues for The Fault in Our Stars (movie)
No stars here, just the number of tissues I used when watching it. I actually thought it would be more. I thought the movie would skew sentimental, hit the hard stuff harder. And yet I completely enjoyed it, even despite my reservations about the actor playing Gus. Spoilers below, but you’ve probably at least already read the book.
Here are the tissue packets Penguin gave out at BEA. The book cover is on the flip side. I brought two extra packets of tissues to the theater, but never even finished this one.
I’ll be honest: I’ve been wanting to punch Ansel Elgort’s face for a while, ever since the first time I saw the movie trailer. I carried an unnatural rage with me, one that would flare at the sight of his smarmy, smarmy smile. As much as I looked at Shailene Woodley and thought happily, “It’s Hazel!” (happy through my tears, of course), I loathed Elgort as Gus. Every repetition of the trailer had me convinced that I would absolutely hate an otherwise amazing adaptation, that Elgort would ruin it for me. I’d love to see him in something else, I really would. But Gus? Gus, the kid I saw as being jock-turned-rebel, with none of the signs of rebellion on him? A week before the movie came out, after talking to some of the teens at BEA about why they liked the casting, I realized it was a generational thing. Teenage rebels, to me, look a certain way, because rebels looked a certain way when I was a teenager. Now the lines are blurred. The jocks are the geeks. Alternative is corporate. Elgort’s bland preppiness is the opposite of how I see Gus, but I gave it a pass because I am an old lady. I told myself I would give him a shot. But that smarm!
It wasn’t the first moment I saw him when I fully let go of my Gus expectations and let Elgort do his thing. When Hazel bumps into him on the way to support group, the rage flared. Smarm! And then he sat in group and stared at her. And smiled. And adored her. Smarmily. In the way teenage boys do when they think there’s mutual interest. In the way that some teenage boys do naturally, like they own the world. And this kid, Augustus Waters, got a pass for being smarmy–not just from me but eventually from Hazel’s parents too. Because he’s a kid, and we know he’s a kid. And because he had cancer.
You can’t divorce these kids from the cancer. It’s easier with Gus, because he’s preppy and he’s in remission and because he appears able-bodied at first. Then he limps a bit. Or a look passes over the face of an adult in his presence. These kids are only normal to each other. Isaac’s loss of vision, Gus’s lost leg, Hazel’s breathing apparatus is seen as a part of the whole, but only by them. Everyone else pities them, is afraid for them, is afraid for themselves.
Elgort became Gus for me not when he smarmed at Hazel, but when the smarm became something more. As Hazel returns his glances, as she accepts his flirting. He smarms, and it’s part act. He doesn’t quite smoke. This is also an act, although he calls it a metaphor. Adults know better. When Gus drops the act behind the smarm, and smarms because he’s getting what he wants, he’s just being Gus. And I let go.
Hazel’s appalled at his cigarette, and I wanted to cheer, because I’m sick of the media’s perception that every high schooler “experiments.” It’s absolutely selfish on my part, because I want to see more teens like the one I was: straight-edge, to some degree, and smart, and desperate for change. Hazel, Gus, and Isaac are smart. They don’t smoke–why would they? it’s a quicker death sentence for them, likely–and when they Hazel and Gus have champagne they enjoy it but they don’t binge drink. They’re pretending to be adults, except that they are adults, albeit young ones. The change they’re desperate for isn’t the blinders falling off the eyes of the conformists (oh, teenage me), but life on their own terms. They’re lucky in that they have parents who are, to different degrees, willing to let them have it. There’s a sense that Gus’s parents have given up trying to “handle” him, but Hazel’s are thrilled at any experience their daughter can have. Did you see Laura Dern’s face during the scene where Hazel and Gus try to pretend they didn’t have sex?
Most of my tears were spent on Laura Dern and Sam Trammell as Hazel’s parents. They are the parents I see myself and my husband as; the kind who cheer their child’s milestones, no matter how adult they are. There’s a time where a parent can stick their heads in the sand or they can smirk to each other as they, too, pretend their teens aren’t sexually active, or at least heading in that direction. While one could argue that they are being permissive because they believe Hazel is going to die, I’d like to believe that this is how they’d be anyway, because everyone has to grow up sometime. And Gus is a great guy, cigarette and smarm notwithstanding. My heart broke into a million pieces at Mike Lancaster’s sign at the airport and, again, it was all about me, because my husband would totally do that.
As a parent, especially the parents of a teenager, you can’t separate who you are from reading this book and viewing this movie. The adults cry in a very different way than the teens, I think. They cry for the life lost, because we can imagine it so much better than a teenager can. They cry for the parents. They cry for the death of first love more than the loss of the love himself.
The Fault in Our Stars feels like a movie, not a book adaptation, and it’s strong for it, and maybe a little breezier too. Without as much access to Hazel’s head, we can go along and be charmed rather than devastated, so long as the movie lets us. The movie lets us do so much more than I expected. The words that seem deep and heavy on the page come off childish when spoken by actual children. And this is okay. In fact, this is wonderful. Let them believe they are deep and heavy. Let them believe in change, and hope, and life. Let them be without bills, and health insurance worries, and job hunting.
So the movie won me over after all, even if I wasn’t the sobbing mess I hoped I’d be, or the angry smarm-hater I was sure I’d end up. Maybe because I’d never seen them in anything before, the young actors won me over, and I even stopped thinking “Sam!” every time the True Blood guy was on the screen. A good time was had. And I did keep the BEA poster. Sorry, teens at my old library. I want it. I stood in line for it. If I couldn’t have stood the smarm, you’d have one more book-to-movie poster. Now you’ll have to wait for the inevitable READ posters.
I wonder if author John Green will be able to write teenagers when his children are older. I know there’s something about raising a teenager that makes you pull away from wanting to write teens (because I’m there right now), that makes you think, “I’d be a phony just to try. It’s been so long. Things have changed.” Green’s teenagers, however, have never exactly been real teens. They are teens the way Kevin Smith’s characters in Clerks are real people. Everyone is very smart and usually knows exactly what to say. But I love that and obviously the teens that make up a huge chunk of Green’s readership do too.