Book To Movie: Fault In Our Stars


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.

Four Reasons I Prefer the “Divergent” Movie to the Book


^^ See what I did there? FOUR? Get it? 😀
So, wait. What? Rachel liked a movie better than a book? Since when is that even a possibility in this universe?
It’s really rare to find a movie that exceeds the book in my eyes. Even my very favorite movies, like Lord of the Rings and To Kill A Mockingbird, don’t impress me as much as their novel counterparts. Then there are some movies, like the first Hunger Games film, that outright disappoint me when compared to the book. (Then there are things like Masterpiece Theater’s Dracula (2007), where I’m not sure the screenwriters even read the source material.)
Divergent is a big exception to this rule. After seeing the movie, I appreciated the intelligent concepts and creativity of the story much more. In fact, I’m grateful to the movie for helping me like this neat story better. It made the good parts of the story shine and buffed away some of the rough edges that put me off in the book.
Many readers may disagree with me on this (happily, I value divergence, so none of you will be getting a visit from the Erudite authorities). But here, in no particular order, are the basic reasons I found myself sitting straighter, laughing louder, and clutching the seat-arms harder than I thought I would as I viewed this film.
Every paragraph is infested with spoilers, bee tee dubs. 
Pivotal Moments Come Across With Strength
This is a big complaint I often have with book-to-movies; some of the most important moments in the novel get watered-down onscreen and lack the emotional punch they should have. I was so disappointed with Rue’s flower funeral scene in Hunger Games. I literally raged at the incompetent handling of the “I’m Not A Coward” scene between Harry and Snape in The Half-Blood Prince.
With Divergent, however, the effect is the opposite. Seeing it onscreen breathed life into some of the moments that felt listless to me while turning pages.
Take, for example, an early scene when Tris (Beatrice) is running with her new faction, the Dauntless, to catch the Dauntless trains for the first time. In the book, you got the idea that this was an unruly group of teens having fun, while the new initiates scrambled to keep up. In the movie, though, we got a heart-pounding drumbeat as Tris runs with them. They swarm the train platform and crawl upwards. Tris is the last to climb; will she make it before the train gets there? Then there’s that beautiful few seconds when Tris is the only one who doesn’t realize they have to run to catch the train. Everyone else starts off ahead of her, and for a breathless moment, the audience worries she won’t notice. Talk about effective cinema.

I also loved the flying-from-roof scene, when the Dauntless-born initiates hitch Tris to the sling and send her sailing from the top of a building. This was one of my favorite concepts from the book, and I was delighted with how the director handled it. We see Tris’ joy as she begins—her uncertainty as the cable leads through the middle of a dilapidated building—her terror as it looks like the cable leads to a dead-end on a roof—and finally her muster of last-minute wits as she pulls the break to keep from splattering against the wall at the end. It’s a breathtaking little microcosm of her inner journey from joyfully escaping Abnegation, to finding a world she doesn’t expect, and learning how to handle it.
Additionally, action scenes usually play out better onscreen than on the page, and this story is packed with action. The training fights, the simulations, and the ending battles seemed more real in the theater than they did when I read them.
Greater Focus on the Interesting Parts
One of my main gripes about the book was how much time we spent watching Tris and the other initiates get to know each other and struggle through endless training sessions. Author Veronica Roth threw an awful lot of characters at us—Eric, Peter, Al, Drew, Molly, Christina, Four, Tori, Will—and then spent the majority of the book bouncing those character from fights to capture-the-flag to dinner to drunken revelries to family visiting day. The string of semi-related events didn’t feel cohesive. All the while, more interesting concepts lurked in the background—like society’s attempt to isolate the different human characteristics that make us go bad; or the question of where bravery and selflessness intersect; or the mystery about why Erudite is stirring up things against Abnegation. I was fascinated by the final battle scenario, where Tris and Four are the only “awake” Dauntless members because they’re Divergent. But the book spent more than half its energy on the high school dynamics of Tris’ initiation group, and waited too long to begin the final battle sequence.
The movie tightened its focus and paced itself better. It gave us only the main characters to worry about. Al, Peter, Will, Molly and Drew were in the background, allowing us to focus on Tris, Christina, Four, and Eric. Training scenes moved quickly, and the point behind each exercise was better explained, helping to clarify the overall trajectory of the Dauntless program. Overall, the training stuff took up less space than in the novel.
Thanks to all these things, we were allowed to focus on what was most important: Tris’ growing Dauntless bravery; her quest to discover what Divergence means; the hint of government overthrow; and her growing feelings for Four. That’s it. No mini revenge plots with Peter’s gang. No worries about Al’s mental stability, or how to politely turn down his advances. No obsession with rankings at every single turn. Just boom, boom, boom, one plot point leading inevitably to the next. This allows for a greater percentage of screen time devoted to all the exciting stuff at the end.

The Clunky Writing and Dialogue Are Gone
Okay. I’m just going to say it. With all respect to the author, some of the writing felt clunky and stiff.
I know. I know. (Hiding behind my desk chair). Please stop throwing things. I’m sorry. Well, no, I’m not sorry, because I meant it. But can I come out from behind my desk chair without all of you killing me?
I hesitate to nitpick over writing style because, as a writer, I can’t imagine a more hurtful thing than for someone to say that my prose doesn’t flow. So I wouldn’t be saying this unless I was really sure I meant it. Although the concepts were great and this author obviously loves her story, the writing felt amateurish.
First, clichés abound, both in the narration and dialogue. Do people really gulp in the middle of uncomfortable sentences? Do girls really feel physical sensations every time they interact with their crush? Does everyone say over-used phrases like “How on earth” in conversation?
I also sensed an over-focus on active voice. Now, this is something I can sympathize with. In my early days of novel writing (okay, let’s be honest…up until two or three years ago) I had the importance of active voice drilled into me by writing groups. The problem is, if you get too zealous about this, it’s easy to see active voice as a rule rather than a tool. It can actually start to limit the flow of what you want to write, forcing each sentence into a little box that looks suspiciously like all the other sentence-boxes you’ve created for the last three chapters. I’m not sure if this is what happened to Veronica Roth, but it sure seems like it.
In the movie, however, all of this is gone, replaced by excellent directing and stronger written dialogue. Problem solved.
Tris and Four Are More Likeable
Fortunately, the disappearance of clunky narration also freed me up to understand the characters better.
Tris was easier to interpret on the screen. Her book narration, while in first person, ironically didn’t help me understand her. It seemed that her motivations and feelings were always going three directions at once, often contradicting themselves, leaving me confused about who she really was and what was at stake for her. Granted, she’s supposed to be complex (Divergent, after all) but it just came across as unfocused.

In the movie, however, we have three external things to help us interpret Tris: her dialogue, the events occurring around her, and Shailene Woodly’s portrayal of Tris’ actions. We’ve already covered how the dialogue improved. Woodly kept Tris consistent by maintaining some timid mannerisms alongside growing determination and confidence. Beyond that, we see clearly what’s at stake in every scene, but don’t have Tris’ inner thoughts constantly jumping to other things to confuse us. All in all, the movement of her character development feels clean and smooth.

Likewise, Four came off better. The movie let him be mysterious, which worked. Yet it didn’t play up the misleading appearance of him picking on Tris, or the ambiguity of whether he’s a jerk like Eric. I found these changes refreshing and much less condescending to the audience, since we’ve seen enough teen fantasy stories to know that mysterious guys are usually tender-hearted love interests in disguise. We got to enjoy simply discovering his character piece by piece.
Final Thoughts
Did the movie get everything perfect? No. It missed the mark on some important things. Tris’ mother was never revealed to be Divergent, and her death scene was not the intentional self-sacrifice we saw in the book. The exploration of what bravery really is was mentioned all of once. And the ending gag of sticking Jeannine with her own serum was strained at best.

But overall, this was a great movie. The writing was good. The visuals were nice. The music was right on track. And we got some great performances by actors Theo James and Shailene Woodly. On a side note, Woodly will also be playing the lead in another teen book-to-movie, Fault in Our Stars, due out in June.

Hazel Grace Lancaster

Hey, wait a second. It looks like there’s another main actor in both Divergent and Fault In Our Stars.
Ansel Elgort as Caleb Prior/Augustus Waters

Uh…hold on…
Tris and Caleb
Hazel and Gus
Siblings……
Lovers!
…I am so disturbed right now…