“I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories,” Hazel says at the beginning of the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars. “On the one hand, you can sugarcoat it. Nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song. I like that version as much as the next girl does. It’s just not the truth.”
It’s not a line that’s in John Green’s wise, tragicomic novel, which starts off with Hazel describing her cancer-fueled depression. Or not exactly — later in the book, much later, Hazel and the love of her life, Augustus Waters, joke about an upsetting and disappointing meeting they had with one of their idols. He was abrupt and cruel to them in person, but in the retelling, they make fun of him, and Hazel observes, “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories. And we made the funny choice.”
It’s a small tweak in what’s overall a very faithful adaptation of the book — director Josh Boone (Stuck in Love) and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber would be insane to make sizable changes to source material that’s so beloved. But I feel like it’s the divide between the novel, which I loved, and the movie, which left me a little cold, despite the reliable charms of Shailene Woodley as the terminally ill Hazel and relative newcomer Ansel Elgort as Gus, who’s in remission when they meet. The first confronts kids-with-cancer tropes, while the second, despite how it tries to position itself in the beginning, gives into them. One feels like a story about two teenagers living with a serious illness, and the other like the story of how one of those teenagers dies of one.
In the book, the line about sad stories is an example of what Hazel and Ansel do all the time, which is defy expectations of them as stalwart martyrs to the generally terrible hand in life they’ve been dealt. They’re cynical, they crack jokes, and they sometimes get frustrated or depressed, but they’ve decided not to let their lives be the tale of their disease. It’s why the novel, which indeed tells a sad story, feels so tender and funny and enduring, rather than just some kind of literary tear stick, a calculated mechanism to provoke sobs in the long tradition of “sick-lit” novels (many of them written by the genre’s cursive font-loving grande dame Lurlene McDaniel).
Despite Hazel’s words at the start of the film (and that dig at poor Peter Gabriel!), the big screen version of The Fault in Our Stars really isn’t the same kind of departure from tradition that the book is. It’s got more sass, certainly, but it also has a melodrama’s tendency toward manipulation underneath the gestures toward keeping it real. And in that way, it does feel like a thoroughbred version of Love Story or A Walk to Remember or one of the other films about how sad it is when someone dies young, rather than Green’s more fervent, earnest take on learning to embrace whatever time you have, with all its pain and wonder.
The Fault in Our Stars the movie has been duly Hollywoodized despite its own claims to the contrary, and in doing so and truncating Hazel and Gus’ tale into two hours, leaves out a lot of the tougher cancer stuff that shapes its characters’ lives. The machine Hazel has to get strapped into just to breathe at night, the girlfriend Gus had before Hazel (who died of a brain tumor that altered her personality), the unpretty late-stage decline of one of the characters that’s given much more space in the novel — all of those are gone. The film also eliminates all the foreshadowing the book gives to its central plot twist, leaving it to be a big surprise, which doesn’t do much justice to its treatment of living with and dying of the disease.
I don’t doubt that there are plenty of fans of the book who’ll be thrilled to see Hazel and Gus on screen in whatever form, and Woodley and Elgort are very likable leads. But they, too, are unavoidably prettied up — instead of Hazel’s “puffy steroid face,” you have Woodley going without makeup, and shorn of some important later moments, Gus comes across as more of a Manic Pixie Dream Guy rather than a complex character unto himself. Yes, this is what happens when you make a movie, but the sense of loss is more acute here because the more studio sheen these characters are given, the more their difficult moments are sanded away, the more the focus shifts from being about how two precocious, cancer-ridden teenagers live to the fact that they’re going to die.
There’s plenty to be said for the emotional catharsis of reaching for the tissues as you watch a lovable character perish, for fiction allowing us to visit the realm of tragedy without actually having to stay there. And the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars has been formulated with laser precision to extract tears, from the music to the warm glow of Ben Richardson cinematography. But that feels, sometimes uncomfortably, like its point, and as faithful an adaptation as it is in so many ways, this fact misses something essential that made the novel such a hit for both young and fully grown adults. It’s a familiar refrain to claim a book is better than the movie, but in this case it’s very true — these characters, especially wry, clever, vulnerable Hazel, are just better on the page.