star-crossed Woodley and Elgort play a young couple fighting time in Boone's literary adaptation.
Adults who come to The Fault in Our Stars knowing little about its source material may be expecting an unholy mashup of Love Story and Twilight. After all, John Green's best-selling novel is most easily described as a weepie romance for the teen market. Both book and film are narrated by Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a 16-year-old who totes an oxygen tank, nearly died at 13, and knows her days are still numbered. At her cancer support group, she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a dreamy-looking, garrulous boy who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, and falls for him instantly.
The results of this star-crossed matchup could have been unbearably treacly or twee, but Green prefers to have his characters confront their situations with brutal humor. Take Hazel's early description of getting a Stage IV cancer diagnosis right after her first period: "Like: congratulations! You're a woman. Now die." It's this in-your-face approach to the subjects of illness and death that makes Stars a weepie for people who normally don't weep. (Full disclosure: I am one of those people, and I did.)
Directed by Josh Boone (the indie Stuck in Love), the film adaptation takes the safe road of preserving Green's tone by lifting most of its dialogue straight from the novel. The material could have yielded a starker, darker movie; the whimsy-laden soundtrack gives certain scenes a softer, more sentimental touch than they need. But, buoyed by strong performances from the two stars, Stars is still wrenchingly effective.
Will adults cringe at Green's overarticulate dialogue? Maybe; it's hard to imagine a teen (or an adult, for that matter) who discovers her beloved's flaw and says, "There's always a hamartia." Stuff like this reads better on the page than on the screen, but Woodley makes it work by staying low-key and never self-consciously underlining Hazel's intelligence. She's an isolated near-invalid with a lot of time to read, and we can believe in her precocity, just as we can believe that she's obsessed with her favorite book to the point of demanding a proper ending from its prickly, reclusive author (Willem Dafoe).
Elgort has more trouble with his hefty mouthfuls of dialogue, and he labors under the burden of a character who's a touch too perfect to be real. But when circumstances finally break down Gus' snarky composure, he does justice to the more ragged moments.
To the extent the story has a conventional plot, it's Hazel's quest for a more affirmative ending to her book than its dying heroine's lapse into silence on the last page — which mirrors, of course, her longing for a better ending for herself. This could have gone in a cutesy direction — especially when Hazel and Gus seek out the writer in a picture-perfect Amsterdam. But instead, after a powerful scene with a not-holding-back-the-crazy Dafoe, Hazel discovers that authors are no more likely than other adults — like her relentlessly upbeat mom (Laura Dern) — to have all the answers.
Adults, of course, already know that — and most of us, for our sanity, do our best to ignore the specter of possible oblivion until it stares us in the face. Like teenagers the world over, Hazel and Gus are death- obsessed, but they have reason to be.
Rather than allowing us to enjoy a good cry from a safe remove, The Fault in Our Stars makes us contemplate tough questions about how we would deal with the prospect facing Hazel and her parents. How do you imagine a future with someone who doesn't have one? When is it time to let go? The answers the characters find are far from perfect, but their roughness feels real. Oh, and tissues? Yeah. Bring them.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.