Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey. Their relationship is all the more miraculous given that Hazel's other constant companion is an oxygen tank, Gus jokes about his prosthetic leg, and they met and fell in love at a cancer support group.
*** Don’t read if you haven’t read the book.
But if you haven’t read the book you totally should because HOW COULD YOU NOT HAVE READ THE BOOK? ***
This past Wednesday I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Melbourne Central Hoyts advance screening of The Fault in Our Stars – thanks to those lovelies at Penguin TeenAustralia. This was pretty huge, because TFiOS (as it’s affectionately known) isn’t widely released in Oz until June 5, and the audience was made up of booksellers and bloggers which lent a great feeling of YA-nerdiness and camaraderie … though ‘camaraderie’ might not be quite the right word. Majority of us had obviously read the book – snot-snivel-cried through the book, more like – and were probably all wary of being emotionally wounded by the beautiful tragedy that is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars bought to life on the big screen.
Perfection. That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of the casting for this film – absolute perfection.
I already knew Shailene Woodley could hold her own with contemporary YA movies, since she shone as Aimee in the adaptation of Tim Tharp’s book The Spectacular Now. But as Hazel Grace Lancaster, Woodley really outdoes herself – she’s refreshing and real, bringing strength to the character that was so vital and tender. What I love most about Woodley though is that I can’t quite put my finger on what makes her so damn compelling … she’s just very real, it doesn’t feel like she’s acting at all because she lives the character so much. Hazel looks sickly – the oxygen tank she carries everywhere, her measured walk and pale complexion – but Woodley has made sure that Hazel’s witty humour rings true, and the occasional voiceover reveals how thoughtful she is, and brave, constantly thinking about her imminent death and the destruction she’ll inadvertently cause to those she loves so dearly.
Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters wasn’t as sure-footed in the beginning for me, and no wonder. Elgort has the hard task of playing the boy of many fan’s dreams – Augustus ‘Gus’ is too good to be true, and I imagine that’s hard to cast let alone play. At first Ansel Elgort sounded too much like John Green for my liking - Augustus Waters’s dialogue could have been interspersed with any of Green’s VlogBrothers videos. Particularly the “it’s a metaphor” scene (which I didn’t love in the book either) – the whole time I just kept thinking how much Green’s voice was coming through a little too loud and clear for my liking. But then John Green fell away and only Augustus was left – Elgort eventually shrugged the character on and he fit as well as that lovely, worn brown leather jacket he sported throughout the movie. He’s baby-faced and charming, with a smile to rival Heath Ledger’s in his hey-day. Elgort also plays the character with a natural easiness that riffed beautifully off of Shailene Woodley’s Hazel Grace. And of course the highest compliment for Elgort’s performance was that he’d made the audience love him so much as Augustus that the end hurts all the more.
Nat Wolff as Augustus’s best friend Isaac. I don’t really have a lot to say about him, actually. He was good, and funny – I laughed at lots of his scenes. But I think he got overshadowed by all the other talent in the movie. I think he’ll have more opportunities when he headlines the adaptation of Green’s Paper Towns.
The other stand-outs for me in this movie were the adults – Willem Dafoe as cantankerous author Peter Van Houten, the incomparable Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother and True Blood’s Sam Trammell as her father. These three were also perfectly cast, and in roles that are all about complimenting the teen stars, they did a marvellous job. Laura Dern got the first tears out of me in her role as a perpetually positive mother of a dying child. Sam Trammell was so good and nuanced, and as my friend Adele (aka Persnickety Snark) pointed out, his most moving scene was all conveyed in a single look (he was so good, in fact, it made me realise how poorly utilised he is on True Blood). And Willem Dafoe knocked it out of the park as Van Houten – he’s vile, but brings a tenderness to the role better than was written in the book even.
Ed Sheeran, Birdy, The Radio Dept., Ray LaMontagne … the music fit perfectly, and was also perfectly understated. The songs were never the focal point, but rather nice window dressings to important scenes. I’m definitely buying this movie soundtrack.
In some ways this is the closest book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen, and that was both a good and not-so-great thing. I will say that the screenplay writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, clearly wanted to hit all the fan’s favourites and they did just that. Every line you love is in this movie, rest assured. The biggest cut I can think of is the stuff about Augustus’s dead ex-girlfriend (probably for the best) but otherwise it feels like all 318-pages were pretty much put into the movie. Some choices were really smart for how they chose to convey them – like Augustus and Hazel texting each other, and writing emails – it was communicated visually and very well indeed. But there weren’t many surprises in the film, I will say. It was so true to the source material (right down to using the book cover typeface in the credits) that you could pretty much follow scenes by the chapters in the book. I’m not saying that’s a tragedy (heck, in a book-to-movie adaptation that’s a good mark to hit) but I feel like they treated the book a little too preciously. The real enjoyment came from watching the actors breathe life into those characters, rather than the fact that the movie was such a straight-up, page-by-page tribute to Green’s book.
The trip to Amsterdam is filmed beautifully. I particularly liked that director Josh Boone (who’s next going to direct a Stephen King adaptation for the big screen) paid attention to the little details of the city – sometimes the camera is trained on rooftops rather than the picturesque canals. And even though the city becomes a character in itself, and a mighty pretty one at that, Boone still kept close-ups of Woodley and Elgort even when he had a gorgeous backdrop he could have got lost in. The filming inside Anne Frank’s house is particularly marvellous (though I still think that’s a funny place for a first kiss).
I cried. I sat next to the lovely Kimberley Santos (aka Pop Couture) who really cried. During certain scenes I cast my eye around the darkened cinema and saw people blowing into tissues, wiping tears away with their sleeves and doing under-eye swipes. Of course I cried. But I wasn’t sad by the end of the film, the same way I wasn’t deeply depressed by book’s end. Because Shailene Woodley’s Hazel and Ansel Elgort’s Augustus Waters were so vivid and gorgeously realised, because their love story was so beautifully re-told … and because their story isn’t about cursing and hating your fate, but being thankful for what you are given, no matter how little or too late.
Fans will be thrilled. The book will find a whole new audience. Every John Green novel will probably be seeing the big screen in due course (Paper Towns is already being slated for 2015 release). I thoroughly enjoyed it, and embraced the feels.