Cancer films are the new black. That is probably the crudest sentence I have ever typed however it is potentially bizarrely true. A quick Google search brings up a site that lists 242 films (surely the correct number is a lot higher) that feature cancer in some way. In contrast, only a few recent releases have discussed AIDS. Hundreds upon thousands of stories have been created around a person with cancer, or a survivor of cancer, or deceased due to cancer in books, film, television et al. You get the point. It is fast becoming a plot device to inspire drama-heavy storytelling rather than something worthwhile. (2011’s 50/50 is a fine example of how to do something out of the box.)
The novel, upon which the film is based, was renowned for this. Tumblr posts were found aplenty that mentioned reader’s harrowed frustration upon certain life events that occur to major characters. These same posts also vented frustration about death in general, as though it were a new concept for them. Given a lot of them were teenagers, perhaps it was.
This would all make more sense if the film took on a more realist perspective. The Fault In Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, is told completely in a fantasy world: fit, attractive parents that have a lot of money (they can afford a trip to Amsterdam at the click of a finger!) despite the mother being a full time carer; colourful house; attractive cast. This is hardly new in the filmmaking world, obviously. It does serve to make the film slightly disingenuous though.
Hazel is a long-time cancer sufferer. She’s okay now though, following a tumultuous fight years ago where she almost died, but has to carry around an oxygen tank lest her lungs fail to do their job. At a corny meet up that is like an Alcoholics Anonymous but for teenage cancer survivors solely existing for gag lines, she meets Augustus. Bonding over their mutual dislike for sympathy like two pretentious hipsters hating mainstream music the pair quickly become good friends and soon start dating.
If you’ve read John Green’s novel you have already seen the film. It’s mostly followed line for line, probably because Boone didn’t want to upset its massive fan base, but whenever the book made an effort to highlight the upsetting side of cancer – is there a pleasant side? – the film steered clear away. One example: when Gus is at a service station late at night after making a huge mistake, Hazel finds him with a loose g-tube protruding from his stomach and the sight of blood under the bandages. This is the film version. In the book he is puking horribly and in a far worse situation. Why water down such a pivotal moment for the character?
Maybe it’s to reflect the fantasy dialogue, filled with corny nonsense and platitudes that teenagers don’t actually speak in, as though their constant inspiration is the fancy-font quotes that get shared on facebook walls every day. Last time I checked, teenagers barely spoke in complete sentences to their parents, especially ones that are seriously ill. I don’t know if cancer sufferers are suddenly blessed with a verbose and confident dialogue but I doubt it.
If there’s a high point it’s when they do visit Amsterdam to meet with Hazel’s idol, writer Peter Van Houten. Played with hilarious indifference to their illness by Willem Dafoe it’s a scene that’s meant to play as a “wow, how dare he” moment but helps to alleviate the rigidness of everything preceding it.
Fans of the book will lap this up, compulsively so. There’s a few sad moments but they’re punctuated with a flashing neon cue telling you to cry. Still, the final exchange of “okay?” “okay” is bittersweet, regardless of the nonsense associated with it. With the source material being so intent on making these two characters so irrepressibly cool, like a final gift for their last days, it’s a difficult task to create a film that’s otherwise different without alienating the massive fan base. Yet Boone has managed to water down something already watered down. There’s fun to be had here, somewhere.
[rating=2] and a half
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire