Well, of course the book is better. That’s not true for every page-to-screen conversion, but it’s absolutely the case with “The Fault in Our Stars,” despite the symphony of sniffles heard during this week’s preview screening. It’s a good, smart, careful movie, anchored by a lovely performance by Shailene Woodley, but it doesn’t quite take you where the book does; you only get that gut-punch of emotion once. To put it another way: The book did me in; the movie just nicked me, though it did, ultimately, get under my skin.
We are, of course, in serious weepie territory here. “The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green’s best-selling 2012 novel, is about two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group. Sixteen-year-old Hazel (Woodley) is living with terminal cancer and hauls a portable oxygen tank wherever she goes (because “my lungs suck at being lungs,” she explains matter-of-factly). Gus (Ansel Elgort), a year older, is a survivor of osteosarcoma, with an amputated leg. These smart, funny kids are haunted by illness and medical horrors and worried-sick parents, but they quickly connect on another level: first love.
If you haven’t read the book, the movie’s story might well take you by surprise; if you have, you’ll be struck by how meticulously faithful this adaptation (written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) is to the book, with every plot turn, setting and much (most?) of the dialogue surviving intact. This will likely please fans but makes for a slightly sterile movie experience; this “Fault In Our Stars” is less adaptation than duplication. And while the screen version mostly avoids sentimentalizing its story, it does occasionally stumble into teen-movie gooeyness.
So, why head out, rather than stay home to reread the book in an armchair? Because you’d miss Laura Dern’s quietly devastating performance as a mother who walks a nightmare every day. Because the sight of Hazel and Gus in a gently lit Amsterdam restaurant, looking achingly young yet desperately pretending to be grown-up and fearless, would touch any heart. Because Woodley’s scratchy little voice carries inside it a world of pain and a wall of toughness. Because there’s a fleeting scene, not in the book, where Hazel and Gus take a nighttime walk and encounter a group of classical street musicians playing, quite beautifully, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and Hazel’s face lights up as if she’s never heard it before. Maybe she hasn’t. In her expression, you realize anew the tragedy of being young and sick: firsts and lasts merging together, time slipping away.
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