'The Fault in Our Stars' is a Love Story, But Don't Forget That It's About Death, Too
When the poster for The Fault in Our Stars was released back in December, many fans were outraged over the chosen tagline: "one sick love story." The line, they argued, made it seem like the film was making light of the characters' battles with cancer, when despite the book's focus on romance and Amsterdam, it's also about the realities of two teenagers who have life-threatening diseases. Thanks to support from John Green, the controversy over the tagline died down in a few weeks' time, and now, five months later, even the most angry fans have moved on to analyzing the films' trailers and behind-the-scenes clips. While it's understandable that they've seemingly forgotten all about the poster's word choice — it's far from the most important aspect of the film's release — it's worrisome that they've also forgotten about the message spread by those critical of it: The Fault in Our Stars is about romance and adolescence and first love, yes, but it's also about death.
That's not to say that death, or disease, is the most important aspect of the book, however. John Green will be the first to tell you that this TFIOS isn't a novel about cancer, and Shailene Woodley, who plays Hazel in the upcoming adaptation, will heartedly back him up. Yes, Hazel has thyroid cancer, and yes, she's terminal, but her disease is far from the most defining thing about her; as Woodley will undoubtedly show in the film, Hazel is a vibrant, curious, fiercely intelligent 16-year-old who has long ago grown accustomed to the truths of her condition. The same goes for Augustus (Ansel Elgort), whose pretentiousness and video-game prowess deservedly come earlier in his description than the leg he lost to bone cancer. Neither teen is characterized by their illness, nor should they be. That doesn't mean, however, that their conditions should be ignored.
Over these past few months, so much focus has been made on the chemistry between Woodley and Elgort, or Green's habit of happy-crying on set, that the darkness of The Fault in our Stars seems to have been forgotten. When the movie's trailers were released, all the attention was given to Hazel's haircut and Elgort's delivery of the word "metaphor," not the scenes in which Hazel was seen passed out on a stretcher or the ones in which her parents tried not to scream as they watched doctors fight to keep her alive. This is understandable, of course, as it's far more enjoyable to discuss things like romantic dinners and first kisses than people — kids, no less — suffering from and possibly dying of cancer. Still, the fact is, the characters in this story are sick. And while that may not, and should not, be the first thing we think of when we see them, it is a part of who they are. TFIOS may not be about death, but death, and the constant, frightening threat of it, are still present throughout its pages.
This isn't a bad thing; far from it. TFIOS' darkness is part of what makes it stand out from the throngs of YA lit. Hazel and Gus have come to terms with their conditions, but still deal with the effects cancer has on their lives, both physical and emotional, every day. Scenes in which Hazel remembers how her mother, standing over her then-dying daughter's bed, cried, "I won't be a mom anymore," or in which Gus, covered in his own vomit, trembles in shame and pain, are some of the book's most chilling moments, and hopefully, the movie's, as well. Those scenes may not be as sweet or fan-loved as, say, Hazel and Gus' dinner in Amsterdam, but they are incredibly important. They show the realities of cancer, and how truly terrifying it must be to have the permanent threat of death, whether yours or your loved one's or both, loom over your life.
When we talk about The Fault in Our Stars, we don't talk about the darkness, but it's there, evident on every page. It was the death of Esther Earl, a 16-year old fan, that inspired Green to write the book, in the first place; it's pain, and all its limitations, that color all of Hazel's social experiences; it's loss, whether that of a friend, a lover, a limb, that causes all those tears the book's fans confess to shedding with every re-read. TFIOS is a love story and a coming-of-age tale, but it is a tragedy, too. Judging from the careful preservation of Green's text as seen in the trailers and clips shown so far, it can be assumed that the film will be, as well.
As readers and viewers, it's crucial that we don't forget about the story's pain, and all that it means for TFIOS. Hazel's condition is not her calling card, but it is what gives her her sensitivity, her self-awareness, and her unhealthy love of reality TV. She is terminal; despite her relative health by the novel's end, she's fully aware that she has limited time left. As for Gus, so much of his character's personality stems from the struggles he's overcome, and the ones that he discovers still lie ahead. His shortened timeline is unfair; kids shouldn't get sick and die, especially ones who thought they were free. For the characters of TFIOS, there are no happy endings; life for Hazel, pre- and post-Gus, is a downhill battle.
Of course, that's not to say that watching TFIOS should be an entirely depressing experience, or that there's no reason to talk about the lighter aspects of the story, of which there are many. But it does mean that the seriousness of the movie's subject matter shouldn't be ignored or glossed over, as it seemingly has been throughout its promotion thus far. The Fault in Our Stars, don't forget, is "one sick love story" — emphasis on the sick. It's imperative that we remember that.
Image: 20th Century Fox