This review was originally published at milowickipedia.wordpress.com
Is there any more difficult task in film than adapting a wildly successful novel? From the necessary creative constraints to the rabid desires and expectations of the book’s fanbase, turning a page-turner into a equally moving film is a monumental undertaking. In adapting John Green’s romance-first, cancer drama-second bestseller, Stuck In Love director Josh Boone does a lot of things right in bringing the moving story of Hazel Lancaster to the big screen.
Sharing the book’s dual presence of humor and tearjerking, The Fault In Our Stars uses editorial choices which highlight the top-notch acting in a film sure to please the most avid fans of Green’s work. Capturing the themes of dealing with loss and the ability of love to trump most worldly concerns, the movie induces just as many well-earned laughs as shed Kleenex (and there were many to be shed, believe me).
As Hazel and Augustus’ budding relationship and bonding over their shared cancer experiences take them from Indianapolis to Amsterdam and back again, their story unfolds in a way which is equal parts authentic and romantic, a duality which is becoming less and less frequent in mainstream Hollywood. This believable nature shines through even though the vast majority of Green’s verbose dialogue is used to full effect (as words like ‘hamartia’ are casually thrown around in longer-than-usual bouts of soliloquy). In most other circumstances, strict adherence to the source material renders is a difficult proposition at best, as what looks good in print often doesn’t translate well on the screen. Chalk the victory of the screenplay up to the young leads, who create personalities so vibrant and unique that the atypical teenage dialogue they swap sounds perfectly fine to us.
The movie belongs to Shailene Woodley, who adds another resounding role to her increasing résumé as the finest young actor in Hollywood. She brings a ringingly true firestorm of sharp wit to nearly every scene, reminding us throughout that a debilitating disease need not destroy a personality along with the body. Woodley’s Hazel brings a fighter’s spirit to all aspects of her life, without being afraid to reveal her more sensitive side in more tender moments. Put simply, Woodley puts on a clinic in emotive acting, with facial expressivity running nearly the full gamut of human emotion with a depth unfathomable for someone so young. She brings everything she has in delivering the most important role of her young career, and makes it impossible for me to view anyone else as Hazel.
Once I got past the uneasy memory that Ansel Elgort played Woodley’s sister in Divergent a few months ago, his portrayal of the lanky and silver-tongued Gus grew on me slowly but steadily. As in the novel, Gus’ dialogue is very wordy, self-confident, and meant to be swoon-inducing. Thanks to some very well-timed half-smiles throughout the film, I can easily say that Elgort succeeds on all three counts in bringing an equally deep role to life. In terms of personality, Hazel and Gus are quite surely at opposite ends of the introvert/extrovert spectrum. However, both characters ring unbelievably true as they struggle (with varying levels of success) to not let the disease ravaging their bodies come to define themselves. Nearly all of the screentime features these two characters, and both actors step up their games to create one of the most memorable romances in recent memory.
The scenes exclusively between Woodley and Elgort crackle with electricity thanks to the very astute editing choices to extend nearly all of these encounters. Lasting for minutes longer than most comparable scenes in teenage romances, these lengthy exchanges serve the showcase the young leads’ superior talent. Each of Boone’s shots last a few more beats than most other directors would dare, but the actors’ engaging eyes and well-timed vocal deliveries make these conversations engaging without causing the story to drag.
A carefully chosen and sparingly used supporting cast work well to underscore the love and struggles which surround the stories of Hazel and Augustus. Laura Dern fills in admirably as Hazel’s mother, a loving figure willing to make many sacrifices to bring any amount of optimism she can to an increasingly bleak situation. Although he wasn’t used nearly as much as I would’ve liked, Willem Dafoe delivers a haunting and subtly-nuanced performance as Peter Van Houten, the author whose book inspires Hazel’s daily life. Up-and-comer Nat Wolff is equally engaging as blind friend Isaac, but his part is clipped down to a select few scenes (albeit the most important ones for his character).
The only lingering issue I had with the adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars was its ever-so-slight deviation from the tonal vibe the book creates. Now don’t get me wrong, the blend of humor and tragedy was abundantly present and well-performed. But Green’s novel has a biting undercurrent of anger and pessimism. Although Hazel is absolutely an inspiring character, she nonetheless is a very real teenager who often reacts with anger and cynicism to her condition and the world around her. When she argues with her friends and her parents, this sense of frustration is very evident, and delivers an even more emotional punch. However, I never fully felt that sense during the film, as most of the confrontations veered into the more tearjerking tropes of familial embraces and instant reconciliation, rather than letting Hazel stew for a while in her understandable teenage whirlwind of emotion.
That being said, The Fault In Our Stars is an unquestioned success of an adaptation. Expectations were understandably high, and Boone did an excellent job in bringing Green’s story to life in a way which is equally romantic and socially meaningful. Thanks to the wonderful performances from Woodley and Elgort, excellent pacing and editing, and a soundtrack with all the sad Bon Iver songs your inner teenage girl desires, the film exists as a very relevant modern love story. I have a hunch that most people will still prefer the book to the movie, but that doesn’t make it any less of a success. Tackling the weighty topic of the havoc cancer wreaks on relationships is difficult, and Boone utilizes Green’s ability to make us smile (and cry) to great effect in putting forth a story which breaks our hearts even as it lifts our spirits.
RYAN’s RATING: 3 Stars out of 4