Sickening 'Fault in Our Stars' Turns Youthful Death Into Romance

The sophistication with which this movie crafts its romantic fantasy is one reason why watching it made me so uncomfortable, writes Uri Klein.

The Fault in Our Stars Directed by Josh Boone; written by Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by John Green; with Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek

She’s lovely: young, good-looking, smart. He’s lovely: young, good-looking, smart. She has lovely parents; he has lovely parents. What’s missing to make this formula perfect? A terminal illness. She’s 16, was diagnosed with incurable cancer when she was 13, and has to carry around an oxygen tank wherever she goes. He’s 19, had cancer, and apparently beat it after his leg was amputated. They meet at a support group for young cancer patients, which he’s attending because of a friend who is losing his eyesight to the disease. The group of girls sitting in the same row as me during Josh Boone’s “The Fault in Our Stars” began to cry shortly after the movie started, and did not stop even after its 125 minutes were over and the lights came back on. They must have had a great time.

Back in 1970, Erich Segal discovered that the key to success was to connect romance and death; his screenplay for “Love Story” became both an international best-selling novel and a hit movie (with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal). His characters were somewhat older (“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” asks the novel’s opening line); most of the verbal wit was given to the dying woman; and the movie and book both tried to touch, however superficially, on the question of class in American society.

Young Adult novelist John Green’s 2012 book “The Fault in Our Stars” was an instant hit that leaped to the top of the New York Times best-sellers’ list and whose film rights were swiftly snapped up by the producers of the “Twilight” movies. Green made his hero and heroine younger, to suit his intended audience, but the result is largely the same, even if the book and movie – a small-budget production that is already performing very well at the box office – don’t end with the silly claim that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

On the contrary, even; the sophistication with which “The Fault in Our Stars” crafts its romantic fantasy is one reason why watching it made me so uncomfortable. The movie tones its own sentimentality down to a minimum, but this only emphasizes the essentially sentimental nature of Boone’s film, which is able to sweep us into its emotional manipulation.

I never for a moment found the characters believable – could any teenagers really be so strong in the face of cancer? Maybe, but they surely also react in other ways, which Boone’s movie is careful to leave all but unmentioned. However, I also could not resist the characters’ charm, because they truly are charming – perhaps only the mechanical kind of charm found in teen movies and books, but charming nonetheless.

They are played by two talented and extremely winning young actors: Shailene Woodley, who is especially adorable as Hazel, and Ansel Elgort as Augustus (the two of them played brother and sister earlier this year in “Divergent,” another adaptation of a Young Adult novel; perhaps they were cast in a deliberate effort to create a young actor couple identified with this genre).

A constantly smiling Laura Dern is no less charming as Hazel’s mother (in contrast to the colorless father, played by Sam Trammell), as are all the other characters, including Isaac (Nat Wolff), the friend who is losing his sight but not his high spirits.

Let me say it bluntly: I have run out of patience and sympathy for movies that turn youthful death into a romantic ideal. I find it kind of sickening (and that’s without mentioning how common this myth is in Israeli society and culture, which makes me feel even greater distaste for it). The only curmudgeon in the movie is Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), an American writer who lives in Amsterdam. Van Houten wrote a novel about cancer that Hazel worships, an opinion she passes on to Augustus. She writes to the novelist, but Van Houten doesn’t answer. However, with the help of the Make A Wish foundation, Augustus is able to arrange a short trip to Amsterdam for Hazel, her mother and himself.

Van Houten, who for some reason agrees to meet them, turns out to be a rude drunk. To make up for it, his wife or lover (whichever she is, she’s played by Lotte Verbeek), who apparently set up the meeting behind his back, takes them out on the town (by the way – spoiler alert – the movie is so manipulative and cowardly that even Van Houten gets an implausible last-minute redemption).

And where does the woman take the two intelligent, art-loving teens? To see works by Rembrandt or Van Gogh, perhaps? No. Instead, in the movie’s most awful scene, she takes them to Anne Frank’s house. Not only is this a stupid move in practical terms – Hazel needs to climb not just stairs but a ladder with her oxygen tank, an effort that the movie follows admiringly – but “The Fault in Our Stars” creates some kind of bizarre analogy between the two girls: the one murdered, the other dying of cancer.

The comparison cheapens them both (there are even quotes from Anne Frank’s diary, which are supposed to comfort Hazel and express what she’s going through). The worst moment of this terrible scene is – spoiler alert – when Hazel and Augustus finally make it to the room where Anne Frank hid. They kiss there, causing everyone around them to burst into applause.

Part of the pleasure the film offers its intended audience is that what happens within it is not happening to them. At the same time, however, the young viewers are swept into the myth thanks to the beauty and charm of the characters, whose illness makes them objects of love and admiration. This is a bad myth, disrespectful to cancer patients of all ages. Getting sick and dying are not romantic, and any attempt to say otherwise is something we must reject.

The girls who sat next to me remained seated when the lights came up, still clutching their Kleenex. I fled as fast as humanly possible.