By David Vassos
A lot of my favourite films tend to have surfaces that are quirky and unconventional, but with cores that are grounded and human. For example, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels real. This might seem strange considering that it includes an exotic food loving Nick Offerman, Hugh Jackman’s disembodied voice, and The Punisher as a history teacher. But these are all surface level things. At its core, Me and Earl is a film about a teenager learning to care, both about himself and the people around him. The presentation is stylized, but the characters and the situations they go through are down-to-earth, and that’s what makes it a profound, delightful film. By contrast, the surface of Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars presents a story that seems sensible, but the core is both empty and absurd. It presents itself as being smarter than it actually is, as being different and unique, while remaining true-to-life. Except it isn’t.
First, there are the problems that are specific to The Fault in Our Stars that aren’t specific to the book. And I don’t mean changes made to the story, I mean the film’s use of film form to tell a story. First, there’s the visual aspect of the film. It has an almost made-for-TV movie look to it. The mise-en-scène, cinematography, and editing are all bland, boring, and forgettable. The only interesting use of visuals the film has is the way it shows texting. What will happen is Hazel will be on one side of the screen, reacting to the messages, and word bubbles with the texts will appear on the other. Displaying a text message and a character in the same shot is a smart way of showing action and reaction simultaneously. This technique has been used in other films and shows before. However, what’s unique about the text messages is that they’re displayed in these twee, word bubble doodles. This shows a glimpse of a badly needed aesthetic that the film is lacking. Had the film found ways to better incorporate this “teenage girl’s diary” look, it would have been a lot more visually appealing and unique.
The Fault in Our Stars screenplay was written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, who are best known for writing The Spectacular Now and (500) Days of Summer. Now, I’m not going to blame them for the terrible, broken story – John Green has that privilege. There are even some minor changes that I think are really clever and smart, like how the final line is changed from “I do” to “okay,” which works as a better emotional payoff, because “okay” is a recurring line in the story. However, this doesn’t excuse the fact that there are a lot of problems with the screenplay that are specific to it. There’s an overuse of voiceover that comes off as laziness on the part of the writers. Me and Earl also uses voiceover, but it works better there, because it isn’t used as often and it acts as a framing device rather than just general description or exposition. There’s also a lot of clunky exposition in The Fault in Our Stars. One specific moment that demonstrates this is when Hazel, Augustus, and Frannie are waiting for an airplane to take off, and Augustus is nervous. To help calm himself, he pulls out a cigarette and puts it in his mouth. Now, anyone who’s ever been on a plane before knows that smoking is prohibited. However, Augustus hasn’t, and this little detail is neat because it implies this without explicitly stating it. However, what I forgot to mention is that before this happens, Hazel asks him if he has been on a plane and he shakes his head. What could have been subtle and understated instead is clunky and obvious. And after all that, the film emphasises this even further when the flight attendant approaches Augustus and tells him that he “can’t smoke on this plane. Or any plane.” Augustus and Hazel try to justify it by telling her that it’s a metaphor, an explanation that she doesn’t buy. Actually, this whole scene serves as an example of the film’s biggest problem. Augustus Waters doesn’t work.
The Fault in Our Stars is about a romance between Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, and is told from Hazel’s point of view. Because of this, Augustus’s purpose is to be the emotional centre of the film. In order for this story to work, the audience, like Hazel, has to care about him. And I simply don’t. I’ve heard him described as the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which happens to be a perfect description of him. I hate how he has no flaws. He’s introduced as this charming, dreamy, attractive, perfect guy who has enough confidence to immediately start flirting with Hazel and telling her that she’s beautiful. This representation of Augustus as a perfect guy is constant throughout the film, even when it tries to give him flaws. The first possible flaw that he could have is that he smokes, but he doesn’t. He just buys cigarettes, because it’s a metaphor, and that pretentious explanation somehow makes it okay for him to spend money on a product that he doesn’t even use. Is he good at driving? Not really, but aside from not being a character flaw, it’s also only brought up one other time and never mentioned again. Augustus losing his charm and energy and becoming lethargic after he tells Hazel that his cancer has spread throughout his body? Not a flaw. He’s just reacting to the realization that he is going to die soon like anyone else would. Again, all of the “flaws” I’ve mentioned aren’t flaws. They look like flaws on the surface, but they’re not. The fact that he has no flaws and that the film takes every opportunity to reinforce that he’s perfect is a problem. Not only does his lack of flaws make me not care about him, and I need to care about him because he is the emotional centre of the story, it also introduces this insidious element of indulgence into the film. As I said before, the surface of this film is realistic and down-to-earth, but its core is unrealistic. Perfect people don’t exist, but the film acts like they do, that Augustus is one of them, and that you’re there with him in Amsterdam, doing romantic things with a perfect guy. But Augustus is a fantasy, and the film acting like he isn’t one is a problem. However, Augustus isn’t the only character in the story that doesn’t work. There are also the supporting characters.
The film’s minor characters suffer from one of two problems. They’re either unrealistic or useless. First there’s Isaac, Augustus’s best friend and literally nothing else. He has no impact on the story. The only things he does are throw eggs at his ex-girlfriend’s car and convinces Hazel to read Augustus’s letter, which could have been removed entirely or slightly changed. He also has no characterization beyond being Augustus’s friend and being sad because his girlfriend broke up with him. Basically, he’s useless. Then there are the film’s adult characters, and all of them are implausible. First, there’s Hazel’s parents. They’re hip and with it. They let their daughter go out alone with cute boys. They talk about pot and sarcastically joke around with her. Gosh, aren’t they just so lovable? No, they’re not. Nobody’s parents act like that, and the ones that do come off as weird, not endearing. Then there’s Peter van Houten, who has every right to not tell Hazel and Augustus what happens after the end of his novel, as not knowing what happens afterwards is the entire point of it. Having Hazel and Augustus hate him for being a sad, awful drunk is understandable, but hating him because he didn’t give them an ending is dumb. Also, why did his assistant think that their meeting with Van Houten would be a good thing? There’s no reason for her to ever believe that would be good for either of them. Finally, there’s Isaac’s girlfriend’s mother, who witnesses three teenagers egging her daughter’s car and her house, and does nothing about it because Augustus told her in a “clever” and “hilarious” way that they would continue to do what they were doing and that she should just go inside. However, this isn’t the only scene of adults witnessing teenagers being disrespectful and then rewarding them for it.
By far the worst scene in the film, one that embodies all the problems I have with it, is when Hazel and Augustus share a kiss in Anne Frank’s attic. After conquering three flights of stairs thanks to the power of Anne Frank’s voiceover, Hazel kisses Augustus in the attic of a Jewish girl who died at the hands of Nazis. In response, a stranger turns to his friend, eyes wide in a can-you-believe-this sort-of way, and claps. His friend joins in, as does the rest of the crowd, Hazel and Augustus embrace, and Augustus bows, ever the showman. Now, why does the film think it’s not only romantic, but acceptable for them to make out in Anne Frank’s attic? Am I the only one who thinks that displaying romantic affection in a place inexorably tied to the most infamous genocide of the modern world is a bit disrespectful? The film makes sure that we think this is touching and sweet, because it literally applauds it. I guess it’s okay because if someone pointed out that what they were doing was rude and disrespectful, then the fantasy of going off to Europe with your perfect boyfriend and kissing him wherever you please might have been ruined.
The Fault in Our Stars is a story about finding beauty and happiness in even the direst of circumstances. But it doesn’t do it by being grounded and human. It does through cheap escapism masquerading as real life. And unfortunately that seems to be what audiences want, as this grossed over three hundred million dollars against a budget of thirteen million. But is this what audiences what? Is this what you want? Empty, indulgent, emotion porn? Stories that pretend to be profound and realistic but really just exist to make you feel like you’re getting charmed by and going on romantic trips with some perfect guy? If this isn’t what you want, then great, but if this is what you want, then I’m here to ask you to want more than flashy surfaces. I want you to demand that the films you see have a strong core to them. You wouldn’t want to bite into a shiny apple only to realize that there is nothing inside. Why would you want the art you consume to do the same?