**potentially contains spoilers for “The Fault in Our Stars” and other John Green books**
August Waters put a cigarette to his lips and smiled, and the girl next to me cooed in delight, her hands flying to her mouth.
“Yes! Yes, he’s so perfect,” the girl behind me giggled to her friend.
“You are beautiful,” Gus tells a blushing Hazel. “I enjoy looking at beautiful people, and I decided a while ago not to deny myself the simpler pleasures of existence.”
The theatre erupted into squeals and awwwws and a few scattered claps. I turned around and glanced over my shoulder, confused.
This is not what I had expected. In all the times I have read “The Fault In Our Stars,” it never once occurred to me that this is the part that was the crowd pleaser. It never occurred to me that it was a love story. Because for me it never has been.
For the average teenager, finding John Green’s books are a monumental life event. They’re funny and deep and you can really connect to them, because they’re close enough to your life to feel comfortable, but far enough away that it’s still enchanting.
But there’s an entire subsection of readers who find very different connections in his books, because for us they aren’t fiction—they’re real. We’ve lost friends, which is why Alaska’s death hits us so hard. We’ve watched loved ones suffer, and it frustrates us to see Gus deteriorate in front of our eyes.
I have lost several friends in my life—to suicide, an unexpected medical condition, a car accident and yes, cancer. At each juncture, when I was acutely feeling the pain of these losses, I have read a John Green book.
“The Fault In Our Stars” has never been my favorite of Green’s works, mostly because I associate it with the pain of loss. I can see myself in Margo Roth Spiegleman’s big dreams and I find comfort in Pudge’s obsession with the Great Perhaps. But I don’t see myself in Hazel and Gus—I see myself in their family members and friends. I can’t find parallels between myself and the protagonists, because when I close my eyes I can only draw parallels to the friends I’ve lost.
Going into the film, I was prepared to hurt. I was prepared to be upset. I was even prepared to be disappointed. But I was none of these things. It was a beautiful adaptation, done perfectly in keeping with the book. It was the truest novel to film pairing I’ve seen in a very long time, and it was a genuinely wonderful movie.
But it didn’t make me feel the way the book did. On the contrary—it made me wish I had never seen it.
It has never been the overarching, sometimes overwrought symbolism or the quirky love story that makes this book important to me. It has always been the small and shockingly painful moments that are too real, the punch in a gut details that hit too close to home. To me, saying that the book is about cancer or calling it a love story diminishes its importance. It’s a book about moments, and the life that comes with them. Cancer and love are just bystanders in Hazel and Gus’s story.
So you can imagine my confusion as I sat in that theatre, stuck for almost two hours with girls simpering over each romantic phrase or gesture, making high pitched noises when Gus and Hazel’s hands touched. These girls were clearly familiar with the book. They knew what was coming.
I should have seen it coming—even the tagline is “One Sick Love Story.”
But how could you read that book and take away the love story as the most important aspect?
To me, TFIOS is about Hazel’s parents telling her it’s okay to let go. It’s Hazel finding the Facebook page of Gus’s ex-girlfriend, and reading through the dozens of messages written by grieving friends. I’ve seen those Facebook pages. I’ve written on those Facebook pages. And I return to them each year, like clockwork, and feel a bit of that initial pain all over.
It’s the soul crushing reality that you don’t get the big death scenes like in movies—you get the phone call in the night. You don’t get closure for the pain, you just get to live with it. It’s about being really, really angry at the cards you get dealt, and taking them anyway. It’s about realizing that you can live a full life even in a limited number of days. It’s about the ripples that we leave in our wake, and how the choices we make affect those ripples.
In a stark contrast to the blubbering snot monster I turned into while reading, I did not cry once during this movie. The only scene that almost got me was the violent outburst Hazel shares with her parents right before Gus’s fake funeral. The underlying story of how Hazel’s mother seems to do nothing with her life but wait on Hazel was one of the most gut-punching parts of the book. To be fair, the movie did it justice, showing her mom waiting for her after support group, or running in anytime there is a problem. One scene sees her scrambling out of a bath because she heard Hazel yell, and comes in the room mumbling about how she has just wanted a few minutes in the tub—not in a begrudging tone, but in an apologetic one.
The outburst scene holds two revelations to the viewers/readers: To Hazel, it’s a relief as she learns that her parents will have a life after her. Her whole post-cancer life has been spent in fear of what will happen to her parents when she’s gone. But to viewers, it’s crushing as you realize that these parents are not only planning for a life after their daughter’s death, but actively prepared for it.
To me, Hazel and her parents are the true love story of the book, and the one that I walked away with the strongest connection to.
I love Augustus Waters, the cocky bastard who starts out as the manic pixie dream boy and turns out to be an insecure, narcissistic boy with good intentions and grand ideas. I love Hazel, with her quiet and determined strength and unflinching sense of reality. But we never saw movie Gus’s character devolution, where the facade cracks and we see the real boy underneath. Movie Hazel is too grounded, magically made mature and reasonable by the all knowing wisdom of cancer.
These small oversights in the movie portrayals were disappointing, but the movie characters didn’t bother me too much. Because the book isn’t about them for me, not really. It’s about my loved ones, my friends, the family of my friends, the lives they have lived and all the events to come.
I’m glad the girls around me in the theatre felt a connection to this story, that they were moved by the sentiment and wrecked by Gus’ death. But for me it felt flat, somehow less. It felt like a perfectly timed machine, playing directly to the hormones of the teenage girls in the audience, and yanking at heartstrings with the cancer card. It felt less like a beautiful work of art meant to make you think about your life and the ones around you, and rather a production screaming “Look, cancer! You have to cry! It’s cancer!”
And that sucks.
Have I become that dreaded person who shits on everything that everyone else loves simply because it’s “popular?” I sincerely hope not. I’ve never considered John Green to be some underground, unknown author. But somewhere along the path of growing up and entering that theatre last week, I realized that the beauty of these books is that even if I outgrow the characters, I will never outgrow the memories that these books provided. Each one speaks directly the various facets of me—be it 15-year-old me wanting rebellion, 17-year-old me wanting to run away, or 18-year-old me grieving the loss of a friend.
These are memories and moments that a movie can never deliver to me, and I think that in the end, that was the hamartia, the fatal flaw, of “The Fault In Our Stars” movie. John Green warns me that it’s a treacherous thing to believe a person is more than a person. Well it’s also a really stupid thing to believe that a movie will be more than a movie.
And if “Paper Towns” becomes a movie, I’m not going within a hundred feet of it.
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