After two sets of rearranged plans and many adventures getting to the theater, I finally completed my summer goal and saw the movie version of A Fault In Our Stars,which was easily my favorite read of the past year.
And yes, it was awesome. Shailene Woodley is an amazing actress and really nailed the character of Hazel, right down to the haircut. Ansel Elgort did a better job as Gus than I pictured him doing after seeing his character in Divergent, so I was well pleased. Many of the best lines from the book were spoken verbatim, they hit the important plot points, and everything down to the personalities of Hazel’s parents was just about pitch perfect (I adored Laura Dern’s performance as Mom Lancaster!).
So what are my main thoughts about this book-to-movie translation? Taking into account that these are two different genres struggling to tell the same story, what were the differences, and how do they affect the audience—from a storyteller’s perspective?
The main difference I felt was that the movie emphasized hopeful themes more strongly—or rather, less ambiguously—than the novel did. Some may disagree with me on this, which is fine; FIOS is anything but a simplistic story, and I’m sure there are many ways to read it. But I felt a clearer focus on hope sitting in the theater than I did reading the book. That doesn’t mean one or the other is better; they’re just different.
It’s common for movies to have a slightly more positive ring than their book counterparts (for an example, read and then watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Partly it’s because movies must appeal to the popcorn munching masses. But in FIOS, it’s also due to the movie being told outside Hazel’s narration rather than inside it.
Hazel does get more voice-over time than most movie protagonists, but compare that to the book, where 100% of non-dialogue text is Hazel’s direct thought. Movies can’t maintain that kind of intense focus through a narrator’s personal “lens,” because we’re watching the events from outside the narrator’s head. Observing Hazel’s life, rather than listening to her tell it, allows for some actor, director, and audience interpretation, too.
For my part as an interpreting audience member, Hazel’s life felt happier in the movie and darker in the novel. Throughout the book, her narration keeps us focused on the frustration and meaninglessness of her situation. Even as funny and everyday things go on outside of her, we’re constantly pulled back to reminders that her illness is senseless and that people’s positivity is grating to her. In the movie, however, it’s easier to “see” the good fortune she has. Her home is populated by two loving parents. She has nice things and a nice bedroom. Her body is still mobile, she’s surrounded by people her age (albeit Support Group people), she smiles a lot. The sky is sunny and the trees in bloom. These things may feel like small details, but they cast a different light on her situation than her narration often does.
Plus, because the story must move fast to reach the main conflict, her circumstances seem to just “fall into place” for the first third of the film. A boy she likes finds the e-mail of her favorite author, arranges a meeting with said author, offers her a no-strings-attached European vacation to meet him. In fact, all of this happens so fast that I feared moviegoers who hadn’t read the book would think it was a sappy love story without enough conflict.
Another main contributor to the film’s lighter feel was the sanitized portrayal of hospital scenes—particularly the flashbacks to the night 13-year-old Hazel almost died. In the novel, that night is described as a scene of horror; Hazel’s lungs fill with fluid and her parents watch her start to drown. In the movie, the actress playing 13-year-old Hazel appears to be wearing makeup and lies calm in bed for the most part, without a bodily fluid in sight. In fact, the only time anything in the movie feels graphic or scary or gross is the scene at the gas station with Gus’ infected G-tube.
I know why they did it this way; bodies fighting cancer do some gnarly things, and that’s not what teens and parents want to see when they sit down at a romance movie. Still, it can’t help but affect the tone.
Aside from all that, there were also obvious choices on the part of script writers to make the buoyant lessons more prominent and minimize the negative slant. Take, for instance, the scene where Hazel chews Gus out for wanting to be famous before he dies. The novel shows it this way:
I was so frustrated with him. “I just want to be enough for you, but I never can be. This can never be enough for you. But this is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. This is your life. I’m sorry if it sucks. But you’re not going to be the first man on Mars, and you’re not going to be an NBA star, and you’re not going to hunt Nazis. I mean, look at yourself, Gus.”
The scene ends with both of them feeling sour.
He didn’t respond. “I don’t mean—” I started.
“Oh, you meant it,” he interrupted. I started to apologize and he said, “No, I’m sorry. You’re right. Let’s just play.”
So we just played.
You get the feeling Gus still doesn’t agree with Hazel. It’s ambiguous whether she’s telling him a truth he needs to hear, or is just angry at him for being less stoic and more idealistic than she is.
However, when this same conversation happens in the film, Gus immediately apologizes and affirms, “It’s a good life” to her. We’re given a more pleasant slant; not only does Gus feel better, but Hazel’s view is portrayed as a positive one, capable of giving a dying boy positive perspective.
The script writers also changed the story’s effect on the audience by what they left out. I remember being weighed down as a reader by the scene where Hazel is brushing her teeth after Gus’ funeral:
Appraising myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, I kept thinking there were two kinds of adults: There were Peter Van Houtens—miserable creatures who scoured the earth in search of something to hurt. And then there were people like my parents, who walked around zombically, doing whatever they had to do to keep walking around.
Neither of these futures struck me as particularly desirable. It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and good in the world, and I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote. Nothing gold can stay.
The emotional catharsis of letting Gus go has led Hazel back to her usual conclusion: oblivion is coming for all good things. We have to keep looking through that lens with Hazel except for a couple of moments, when she sees kids playing at the park and thinks, “Who am I to say that these things might not be forever? Who is Peter Van Houten to assert as fact the conjecture that our labor is temporary?” and at the end when she reads the eulogy Gus wrote her.
By contrast, in the film, Gus’ funeral is a tipping point after which things change. Aside from her obvious grief, we don’t see more moments of Hazel slipping back to her somewhat nihilistic lens; her emotional journey skips right to the shift, when she reads the eulogy Gus wrote her and affirms the goodness of what they shared.
Even the visuals at the end of the film add to the positive implications, by showing Hazel in a white dress looking at the stars, smiling. The pretty music helps, too.
I want to stress again that I’m not trying to promote one version of the story as being better than the other. Actually, I’m pretty split. The book had, as my sister-in-law said, “more soul.” I enjoyed it more, and there were so many more funny lines and rich moments of insight, even whole scenes and characters that gave the book depth. At the same time, I have always struggled with Hazel’s bend toward gloom (even though, yes, I have watched people die from cancer, and yes, Hazel is right that it’s no one’s Cancer Patient Fairytale). In that way, the movie was easier for me to take.
One thing remains consistent between the two, however, the most important messages of the story: You have a choice in how you react to death.
Whether you see life in a positive way, a negative way, a meaningful way, a nihilistic way, whatever, you must pick a response when someone you love slips out of your grasp.
You can forever focus on the loss. You can let that person become defined by the fact that you no longer have them.
Or, you can realize how lucky you were to experience them in your life.
Hazel puts it this way:
“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1, and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinites are bigger than other infinities….There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”
We’ve all lost a loved one—or many loved ones—about whom we could say this. All of us. You know who yours is. I’m thinking about mine right now. We wish their infinities had been bigger, but the point is not that this person went away; the point is that this person was there, and you were privileged to know them well enough for their absence to hurt.
I think that message is at the heart of both the book and the movie, and that’s why I can happily recommend each. But please, take tissues to the theater.
Take all the tissues.