Every year there is a film which, if the category existed, would win the award for the most over-hyped, over-rated film. In 2012, it was Rust and Bone, in 2013, it was Pacific Rim (or possibly This is the End), and in 2014, it looks like the award has already gone to The Fault in Our Stars.
Josh Boone has taken seat as the director for the adaptation of John Green’s courageous novel about two teens battling cancer—and he directs in the most awe-strikingly bland, average and clichéd manner one could imagine. The novel, although being far from the works of other contemporary authors like David Mitchell, at least has the ‘intellectual’ merit automatically awarded to literature which challenges the emotions of its readers (in this case those readers are teens). This film, however, is just your typically predictable teenage rom-com ‘movie’.
The plot, as aforementioned, centres on two teenagers, both of whom have had/are having their lives slowly sapped away from them by cancer. Boone feels the need to dredge this fact up every couple of minutes or so—of course, cancer naturally can’t be avoided, but after a while of seeing the suffering on such a great scale (bearing in mind the film has a 12A rating), it manages to develop into some kind of manipulative tool. The reminders of the teenagers’ plights end up becoming almost artificial due to the way that the scenes detailing their hardships are callously interspersed with the film’s more uplifting moments, and it all feels as if Boone is testing the emotional capacity of the audience to see how far he can push them.
Had Boone been a slightly more capable director and had the screenplay not been so raggedly dashed out, the two characters would probably have been a bit more endearing. It’s not necessarily the two characters that are irritating, it’s the way in which they are presented: their persistent jumps between happiness and sadness, existentialist thought and smoochy “I-don’t-want-to-lose-you-to-oblivion” moments shout ‘immaturity’, when in reality, they are two very brave individuals. Yes, as is frequently reinforced throughout, there is no stability in life; yet jolting tear-jerking exposition dialogue with happy action scenes just disturbs the narrative, not the reader. The falsity through which ‘metaphors’ are established and referred to is painstaking too… It’s the kind of film one would watch in Year 8 English as part of a teacher’s efforts to make the concept of symbolism comprehensible in the pre-adolescent mind.
But perhaps I miss the point of the novel and film—besides, it is intended for a younger audience. It admirably makes cancer conversational and I am sure that it has had a profound effect on many people, especially the young who may struggle to accept the idea of loss and grief. And it is perfectly tailored to that audience: it’s all scribbled text messages on screen and montages to contemporary folky-indie-pop music. The protagonist, Hazel, is relatable, realist and humourous, and most importantly, she is a strong female lead who, unlike the film, doesn’t bend to convention. She is played remarkably well by Shailene Woodley, who manages to mentally encapsulate the ideal of youth—that being the spirit of adventure and curiosity—and physically convey the entrapment that her character’s disease imposes upon her. If I were to give way to a sob at any stage, I probably would have dedicated it to the maturity with which Hazel faces her illness, an attitude which one can do no more than admire.
It is just a shame that Gus, played by Ansel Elgort, is so extraordinarily creepy. I believe that creepiness to be no fault of Elgort, for if anyone could pull off a suggestive eyebrow wiggle with childlike glee, it’d be him. I believe the problem lies with the fact that he is a clone of the novel’s author, John Green. I have sat through many of his “Crash Course” videos on YouTube during my studies, and although you eventually warm to his chirpy Yankee ways, that endearment is only the cause of having to sit through several hours of him talking. The difference with Gus is that all of John Green’s mannerisms— his inability to keep still, his general eyebrow raising/wiggling and awkward jokes—have been transplanted into him with hardly any scripting. Instead, Boone relied upon Elgort’s eyebrows to do the characterisation for us, perhaps thinking that his encounter with cancer would automatically squeeze enough pity from the audience so as to blind them from noticing just how badly characterised he is.
In fact, that seems to be the pattern for most of the film: Boone reckons that the audience won’t actually notice how bad the film is by masking it under a story so tragic that no one could bring themselves to criticise it. However, he sure knows how to play upon this story to reduce a packed cinema to blithering tears. Yet these tears are no more than surface emotion, for the film, despite its excruciatingly obvious efforts, does not carry as strong a message as it thinks it does. There is no fortified “carpe diem”-type message at the end, as one would expect from such a film. Instead, it just kind of tapers off with a close-up of Hazel’s lone face as she looks up at the stars. Wow, so much pertinence! Wow, so much metaphor! Wow, what an unsatisfying, manipulative, wannabe-thought-provoking, under-scripted film!