Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: "The Fault in Our Stars"

I have been lured a few times by books that claim to be for young adults. I have returned to the Harry Potter series numerous times and I was once fooled by Patrick Ness - who knew that he was going to write a trilogy for teens? But then I completely devoured his Chaos Walking series. Still, I never found the calling to read John Green's cancer-saga The Fault in Our Stars. First published in January 2012, The Fault in Our Stars earned raves from numerous critics, including the New York Times, who called it "a blend of melancholy, sweet, philosophical and funny." Within the first few weeks of publication, Fox 2000 had already optioned the book for a feature film. And by mid-March it was announced that Shailene Woodley, current star of the Divergent trilogy (one YA series I just could not finish reading), would star as Hazel. That was good enough for me. To top it off, Laura Dern - one of my favourite actresses - was cast as Hazel's mother! For months, the film's production went with very little fanfare. It was in December that the film earned its first bit of controversy: the tagline was publicly slammed by Shailene Woodley! Having never read the story, it was hard for me to feel one way or another about the poster. I definitely felt that it offered a different message than the cover of the book. After seeing the film, I find myself leaning towards Woodley's viewpoint, but not because of the tagline. I do not think it was necessary to romanticize cancer in an effort to draw a greater audience. I liked The Fault in Our Stars. It is mostly due to Woodley's mesmerizing performance. She first had me when I saw her in The Descendants, but I was officially hooked after watching The Spectacular Now (a YA romance with a much better poster!). The Fault in Our Stars is directed by Josh Boone - whose only other directorial effort is 2002's Stuck in Love (59% at RT). I think he let the story lead him without gaining a firm hold of the story. I followed along through most of the film, until the characters arrived in Amsterdam. And then I was less forgiving when it came to heavy-handed attempts to be a tear-jerker. The Fault in Our Stars will bring you to tears - whether you want to or not - and despite some interesting (poor?) choices, the film is saved by a great cast, most assuredly Shailene Woodley.

 Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is seventeen years old and living in Indianapolis, Indiana. At thirteen, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which has now spread to her lungs. Through her own narration, we learn that Hazel is intelligent, well-read, stubborn, and lonely. She has very few friends. It cannot be easy making friends when you are forced to lug around an oxygen tank to help you breathe. At the behest of her mother (Dern), Hazel agrees to attend a cancer support group for teenagers. The first attempt does not give her much motivation to return, but her second visit leads to her meeting Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). At first glance, Augustus is the exact opposite of Hazel: he is outgoing. Augustus had his leg amputated due to osteosarcoma, but he is now in remission. The two form a bond after agreeing to read the other's favourite novel. Augustus' strong reaction to the novel An Imperial Affliction (about a young girl's experience with cancer) causes him to try to contact the reclusive writer, now living in Amsterdam. The Genies (an allusion to the Make-a-Wish Foundation), Augustus and Hazel (along with her mother) are granted an opportunity to go to Amsterdam, despite her poor health.

The Fault in Our Stars is as heavy-handed as one would assume. It definitely plays the cancer card with wild abandon. It also plays into the cliche that every teenage cancer patient is annoyingly (?) well-versed in his or her own medical treatment. It is also one of the first cancer-themed films aimed at teeangers - unless you count Mandy Moore's debut as a leading actress in 2001's A Walk to Remember (based on a Nicholas Sparks' novel no less). Cancer has always been an emotional cinematic subject, from Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal in Love Story (1970) to 1983's Terms of Endearment and even The Bucket List (2007). Sometimes, like Terms of Endearment, it is done exceptionally well. And, less often, it is exceptionally insightful and humorous, like 2011's 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I fully believe that The Fault in Our Stars owes the entirety of its success to Shailene Woodley. At twenty-two years old, she is such a phenomenal actress. The story is fundamentally shaky because it seems too-good-to-be true, but Woodley and Elgort anchor the film with superior emotional complexity. I just wish the story - and I am saying this without having read John Green's novel - felt more realistic.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

Here is an interesting article about the reading habits of adults in relation to young adult fiction

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