When people say a movie is “true to the book,” they usually mean just about everything in the movie comes directly from the source with little added by the screenwriter.
But if that’s the criteria for the expression, then such great movies as “The Godfather,” “Jaws,” “The Wizard of Oz” and a personal obscure favorite, “Chilly Scenes of Winter” (aka “Head Over Heels”), wouldn’t be considered “true to the book.”
I say that to preface my statement that “The Fault in Our Stars” is one of the most loyal, true-to-the-book adaptations I’ve ever seen. It’s as if screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s fingers would catch fire if they so much as typed a word or defined an action that didn’t come directly from John Green’s best-selling novel.
Out of that faithfulness comes both the pleasures and the limitations of the movie. Those fans of the book looking to see their favorite moments acted out on screen are likely to be satisfied. Others late to the John Green party (including me, who read the book after seeing the movie) might find themselves engaged but not smitten with the film.
In case you are among the seven people who haven’t read the book, “The Fault in Our Stars” concerns the budding romance of Hazel and Gus, teens trying to find their way in the world while the ticking clock of cancer looms over them. One of the film’s strongest attributes is that it treats terminal illness in a more direct and honest way than in many movies.
Shailene Woodley wisely underplays as Hazel. As someone who has cocooned herself to prevent collateral damage, she gives Hazel an over-self-awareness that feels true while never losing sight of the fact that she is a teenager. Rather than pack the film with Oscar-bait big scenes, Hazel is built from subtler moments—although she isn’t terribly consistent about her difficulty breathing. Yes, this fluctuates, but as a friend pointed out, should she be able to push a wheelchair uphill at the faux 100 Acres Park with little difficulty?
The biggest fault in “The Fault in Our Stars” is with its leading man. Without the detailed backstory given to him in the book—and without the book’s insight into Hazel’s reactions to him—Gus (Ansel Elgort) comes across as a collection of quirks—the male equivalent of the character type film critic Nathan Rabin astutely labeled “the manic pixie dream girl”—rather than a fully realized, interesting human being.
For a romance to be effective for me, I need to be able to see each of the parties through the eyes of the other. While there’s no trouble seeing why Gus is smitten with Hazel, I needed to read the book to see Gus as Hazel does. (For better teen casting choices, see the film version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”)
While much of Hazel’s attention is on Gus, one of the freshest elements of the movie is the relationship between Hazel and her parents. There are also nice moments with friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) and Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), her favorite novelist—although a side trip to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam turns what should be a cathartic scene into the film’s most cringe-worthy moment.
Even with its faults, the film’s intelligence shines through. And that’s no small achievement for a Hollywood summer film.
Oh, and Pittsburgh, in the role of Indianapolis, does an acceptable job. But I wouldn’t want it to play the part again.
For more on John Green and "The Fault in Our Stars," click here.