There’s a critic’s quote on the back of my copy of “The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green, which I really felt captured the book’s essence and how it felt to read it. “This is a book that will break your heart – not by wearing it down, but by making it bigger and bigger until it bursts.” This is true. But, don’t be mistaken. This is an emotionally exhausting story. All a movie of a beloved book can hope to accomplish is to do justice to the book’s essence, and to give the viewer the same feeling they had when reading it as a novel. “The Fault in Our Stars” does this, and then some.
“Stars” follows Hazel (Shailene Woodley), who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of thirteen. A clinical trial gave her a few good years, but she has never been really anything but terminal. Her behavior leads her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammel) to believe she’s depressed, and force her to attend an insufferable cancer support group, where she meets who turns out to be the love of her life, Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort).
So first, I’ll calm the book readers down a bit. Woodley, who proved in 2011’s “The Descendants,” that she is a dynamic actress, and could helm YA-novel adaptations without being compared to Kristen Stewart, makes for a dynamic Hazel, giving a sublime and beautiful performance that could (and should) earn her some Academy attention this winter. Elgort is brooding, romantic and infectiously charismatic – a pitch perfect Augustus. And best yet, these two young actors have a chemistry that is electric, and should hit non-fans just as hard as it does those familiar with the source material.
Amy Jellicoe, I mean, Laura Dern is lovely as Hazel’s martyr mother. Dern played Amy Jellicoe in one of my favorite television series of all time, HBO’s cancelled-too-soon “Enlightened,” and she plays exactly the character from the book, and doesn’t change much. Sam Trammel (HBO’s “True Blood”) does nice work too. In the novel, Hazel’s father broke out crying almost every time she was in his presence, which Trammel doesn’t do. I guess that’s a good thing.
When the end-of-second-act plot twist hits, you will likely be in tears the entire third act of the movie, like I was. The book’s tone reminded me of Showtime’s series “The Big C.” It’s about a morbid subject – cancer, but treats its subject with lightness and finds a way to convey the humor in a terrible situation. “The Fault in Our Stars” is like the book in that way – it is at times grim and morbid in its detail about disease. But the characters manage to crack jokes about their awful predicament, which makes the third-act punch hurt a little less.
The film only makes a few slight changes in story from the book. Hazel’s friend Kaitlyn is written out completely, which actually works. Hazel is better portrayed as someone who was lonely and friendless until the great love of her life came around. Kaitlyn was an afterthought in the book anyway. The backstory of Augustus’s previous girlfriend Caroline is also written out, which is not such a good choice. But a book fan is always going to find things to nitpick.
In the end, Josh Boone made a superb adaptation of a beloved novel, which captured what it felt like to read the book. Not only that, but it captures the unmistakable feeling of being in love for the first time. The film itself is heartbreaking (you will cry…no way around it,) hopeful, wise, and acerbic in its wit. It will remind you not to live every day like it’s your last – but to just live.