Tender treatment: Josh Boone adapts John Green’s teen romance ‘The Fault in Our Stars’
Early in May, following a prolonged wait that began for many viewers at dawn in a lengthy outdoor queue, the inaugural New York City fan screening of The Fault in Our Stars finally begins. The logo for 20th Century Fox fills the screen. And a young girl, perhaps 14 or 15, starts to cry. For the next two hours and five minutes, she cries. Hers is a deluge that fluctuates, not unlike the natural phenomenon it mimics. She rallies as the credits begin to roll, but then the cast and director file in for a surprise Q&A, and the author of the novel The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, passes her as he walks down the aisle. At the sight of Green, she gives up, or in. She loses it.
It was a reaction shared by scores of other viewers among the predominantly teenage crowd that night. The young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars has a fan base the adaptation’s director, Josh Boone, calls “rabid. It’s huge. You do worry they’ll throw tomatoes at you and tell you you ruined it”—that is, the story, or their story, as Green himself might emphasize. (“Books belong to their readers. I don’t know if The Fault in Our Stars is any good. It’s not up to me to decide.”) Both bestseller and film recount the romance between 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and 17-year-old Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), two witty and reflective teens. Two teens with cancer.
“What bothers me about a lot of stories about illness is there’s usually a sick person and a healthy person,” says Green, who, among other honors precipitated by the fan and critical success of his book, was recently named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people. “Usually they’re in love, though sometimes they’re not. But the sick person suffers heroically. There’s always something inherently heroic about the suffering. And then usually they die. And the healthy person is very sad, but the healthy person has learned all of these important lessons from the sick person’s suffering and death. Learned lessons about how to be grateful for every day, or learned lessons about the true meaning of life, meaning [like] Never Having to Say You’re Sorry, or whatever it is,” he says, alluding to the “cancer film” of Hazel and Gus’ parents’ generation, Love Story.
Referencing that three-hanky movie from 1970 about a young man and his leukemia-stricken lover, Boone calls his film (his second directorial feature after 2012’s Stuck in Love) “the anti-that. If you watch Love Story, they don’t talk about anything meaningful in that movie. And I do kind of love that movie. I watched it when I was young, and I love Ali MacGraw and I think Ryan O’Neal’s awesome. I love the movie, but it doesn’t have any substance to it. It’s not about anything.”
Continues Green, “To me, that is a horribly dehumanizing way of imagining the meaning of life. To say that this sick person, their life, their suffering and their death are all about me learning a lesson. And so I wanted, in The Fault in Our Stars, no healthy people [being] redeemed as a result of these kids being sick… The meaning of their lives is in their lives. Not in the lives of other people. I wanted to kind of take back the meaning of their lives and give it to them.”
While it appears Green’s intent has been understood by, or in some manner affected, the millions of fans who have helped make the trailer for The Fault in Our Stars the most-liked preview ever on YouTube, as with anything that gains his novel’s level of popularity, Stars has suffered a backlash. In January, U.K. publication The Daily Mail published an editorial lumping TFIOS in with a group of popular young-adult fiction books journalist Tanith Carey deprecatingly calls “sick lit.” Other “sick lit” examples provided by Carey include the admittedly unfortunately titled By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead, about a mentally ill teen who fixates on suicide; Before I Die, whose protagonist is another 16-year-old girl dying of cancer; and Red Tears, which centers on a young woman who cuts herself. Carey opens her essay with the thrust of her critique: “As plots go, it’s mawkish at best, exploitive at worst.”
Boone was not familiar with the phrase “sick lit,” nor had he heard criticisms like Carey’s, which charge these novels use illness in a manner that directly opposes Green’s stated intent: illness as a manipulative plot device. “The blurbs for 'teen sick-lit'—as it's become known—trip over themselves to promise their books will drive readers 'to tears' or leave them 'devastated,’” Carey writes.
“I feel like it’s humanizing people with diseases,” Boone says, after taking a moment to consider the charge of exploitation, “making you look at them in a different way. If you saw someone walking down the street with a cannula [a breathing machine used by Hazel], you’d be like, eh? What’s going on? But hopefully it gets you inside their hearts a little bit more. For me, when I pitched it to Fox, I was like, ‘This is Titanic and cancer is the iceberg. But it’s not going to be about the iceberg, it’s a love story on the boat.’ So for me, it was always about the love story.”
Yet this line of reasoning is not without problems aligned with the sick-lit charge—namely, that cancer is being used to service a romance plot. Boone responds, “Isn’t that the same for any writer writing anything? I mean, what’s Philadelphia about? You know what I mean? It’s like, anything you can say is about sickness, you’re using it to exploit.”
For his part, “I generally don’t find authors’ defenses of their work particularly compelling,” Green says. “People are welcome not to like it. I don’t take it personally. It doesn’t belong to me. I tried very hard not to exploit illness.” (When The Daily Mail first published Carey’s article, Green tweeted a link to a YouTube video mocking the publication’s penchant for controversial, often enterprisingly controversial, topics.)
The day following The Fault in Our Stars’ fan preview, the principals—Boone, Green and cast—reassembled for a press conference. Budding heartthrob Elgort, who had received catcalls with humility and hammy good-naturedness on the preceding night, all smiles and blown kisses to the crowd, described the reaction of the book’s fans. Speaking of these landed if perhaps unknowing occupants of the bank opposite the sick-lit camp, Elgort said, “We walked in the theatre and they all started freaking out and screaming, and were all so happy. They wouldn’t have done that if the movie was bad.”
Boone’s reaction to the fans’ enthusiasm is more tempered. “When I started to hear all the sobs, I thought, ‘Oh, shit, I think this might work. This might be OK.’”
The director, a wiry 30-something whose colloquial speech belies a professionalism that surfaces in references (Cameron Crowe is a hero, the photographer Ryan McGinley an influencer, and both the Brando scene in Apocalypse Now and the opening of Jerry Maguire formally inspired sequences in The Fault in Our Stars), appears to fit in with the thoughtful Green and the likewise mindful characters he has created. At one point, Boone muses on John Green’s widespread popularity and, though he has reasons of his own, asks, “Why do you think all these people love his book so much?”
Woodley’s portrayal of heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster may provide part of the answer. Boone did not initially think the Divergent actress was right for the role. “I resisted her. She’s so athletic and she seemed so strong, and Hazel I imagined as so tiny and so frail,” he explains. Within a few minutes of her audition, however, he knew “without any doubt” she was the girl. Thanks to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script, much of the novel’s wit and sarcastic tone remain in the film, allowing Woodley to inhabit her character’s duality. If not epically heroic, the terminally ill Hazel’s pragmatic outlook and refusal to (for the most part) traffic in false optimism is a form of mental strength that is admirable, even aspirational. On the other hand, her physical frailty and the heightened sense of mortality that surrounds her make her vulnerable, and therefore relatable. Thus, what you have in Hazel Grace Lancaster is a character teens both want to be like and with whom they already feel a kinship.
This is an important distinction to note, as it bears upon an understanding of the phenomenon that is John Green as well. Although Green was not directly involved in its production, the success or failure of The Fault in Our Stars the film will largely depend upon the turnout of his many fans. If this proves to be the case, filmmakers and studio have little cause for concern: The author elicited as many if not more cheers than the teen dream-team of Woodley and Elgort the night of the fan screening.
Many in attendance that evening were Nerdfighters, which is the name Green’s fans call themselves. They’re dedicated to eradicating the amorphous problem of “world suck,” that which is unnecessarily sucky the world over, including issues like bullying. (Green owns a fundraising organization for nonprofits called the “Foundation to Decrease World Suck.”) Like Hazel Grace, Green’s persona is both aspirational and relatable. The writer was a cheerleader on the set of TFIOS. He was the one who wept on behalf of, encouraged, and buoyed the most spirits. “We invited him in the beginning and we just liked having him so much, we just said come back,” says Boone. He has an easy rapport with the cast; he’s a likeable guy. Green is not, however, all sentiment and exuberance. Having once studied to be an Episcopal priest, he continues to struggle with his faith. Contradictions, those eminently relatable things, arise in his speech. In Green, nihilism battles against a beleaguered but uncowed optimism. Statements like “Not only are we going to die, but the species will die. So nothing that the species does will actually matter” are followed, several minutes later, by hopeful musings like the following: “Given this reality of life being defined by its boundaries, and yet us still being able to imagine boundlessness, which is something that I find a lot of hope in, how are we going to find meaning and what meaning are we going to find? That’s the big question for me.”
The big question currently facing Boone is of a more temporal nature. “I have no idea what will happen to it out there and what people will think of it,” he says of his adaptation of Green’s work. “But I know all those fans will love it.”
Before The Fault in Our Stars screened that May night, one of the event’s organizers introduced the film, ending her address with the perfunctory “I hope you like it.” Screamed a girl in the front row, “We will!"