Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of the film The Fault in Our Stars, based on the novel of the same name by John Green. I had thoroughly enjoyed the book (as much as one can enjoy a book about kids dying from cancer), and although I had a few reservations about the film’s cast (having recently watched Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, TFIOS’ star-crossed lovers, play siblings in Divergent), they were mostly dispelled when I attended the Demand Our Stars event in Nashville last month.
Naturally, I went into the movie pretty excited. I knew the film had the resounding support of author John Green, the cast was made up of enthusiastic fans of the book, and the few people I’d talked to who had already seen it unanimously agreed that it was an excellent adaptation. So armed with a TFIOS-themed packet of tissues, I settled into my seat for what I guessed would be a solid two hours of sobbing.
The early reviews were right. This movie is well cast, beautifully acted, expertly scored, and faithfully adapted. Book fans should be extremely pleased, and those who haven’t read the book will walk away with tear-streaked faces and a solid understanding of what all the fuss is about.
From the opening scenes of the film, it’s evident that everyone involved in this production was trying to be true to the spirit of the book. Everything from the script to the costumes to the set design seemed lifted straight from the pages. That dedication carries through the entire film, and nearly all of the tentpole lines and scenes are present and accounted for (one notable exception being the lack of the Shakespearean reference from which the story draws its title, but considering the indifference to the source material that often happens when translating a book into a film, such small omissions are forgivable). The tone also carried through, which was no small task. This is a story about kids with cancer, and in some cases kids dying of cancer, but never becomes maudlin. It’s interspersed with levity and humor and the kind of irreverent joking — from both the teens and the adults — that make it more a story about family and friendship and first love and growing up than a story about cancer.
Although I had my doubts about the chemistry between the two leads, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort won me over with genuine performances. The dialogue in the book was often flowery and a bit pretentious, and I’ve often heard critics bash it with the claim that “no one talks like that, especially not teens.” (The fact that I knew teens who talked and thought very much like this just proves how much of a story’s believably relies on the consumer’s personal experience, which is an element totally outside of the writer’s control — but that’s a topic for another time.)
My point is that the two young actors, and Ansel Elgort in particular, did an excellent job of portraying exactly the sort of person who would talk like this. He would probably think of himself as loquacious, not necessarily pretentious; at one point, he asks Shailene Woodley’s character, Hazel, not to interrupt him in the midst of his “grand soliloquy,” which is a perfect example of just how much his character, Gus, likes to hear himself talk. He played it in such a way that I could feel the character’s need to matter, to say something worthwhile, in an effort to thwart “oblivion,” which is Gus’ worst fear. It made me wonder if Gus would be prone to such epic monologues if cancer never found him. Maybe. But it was questions like this, along with little touches like his insecurity about his amputated leg, or his initial fear and then subsequent childlike wonder at his first time on a plane, that kept him from becoming a caricature.
Shailene Woodley is a bit of an anomaly for me. I can never picture her as the characters she gets cast as, but then when I see her performance, she wins me over. She’s one of those actors that never seems like she’s acting, which may be why I always have a hard time imagining her outside her most recent role. Hazel was no exception. Her portrayal of a teen living with cancer is compelling and authentic, and she’s able to infuse lightness and humor into the role while never downplaying the gravity of the situation (the oxygen tank she has to cart around for the entire movie is a constant visual reminder of her struggle, but even if the tank wasn’t there, the tightrope Hazel has to walk between “normal teen” and “cancer kid” is always present).
Then Nat Wolff fills out the teen cast as Isaac, who starts the film with one working eye and ends it with zero. His role is reduced from what it is in the book, but he is able to make the most of the screen time he’s given, stealing every scene he’s in. While also a kid suffering from cancer, Isaac’s biggest struggle in the movie isn’t the loss of his sight, but the loss of his girlfriend, which adds both levity (as Isaac works through his frustration by smashing Gus’ basketball trophies — with Gus’ blessing, of course — and by egging his ex’s car, in full view of her mother), and perspective: These are kids livingwith cancer, emphasis on living. They have cares and hopes and struggles and heartbreaks that have nothing to do with their illness, even when it takes their eyesight, or their leg, or their ability to breathe.
As in the book, the parts that got to me the most weren’t the parts with the teens — though several scenes, particularly the fake-funeral, predictably tugged on the tear ducts — but the ones with the parents. This is probably because I’m an adult, and a parent, myself, but even teens or adults with no kids should be able to empathize with the powerful adult performances in the movie. The one with the most screen time is Laura Dern, playing Hazel’s mother, but pretty much every scene where we get a glimpse into Hazel’s and Gus’ parents struggle as they watch their children fight their diseases was heart-wrenching. There were very few parent scenes that I made it through with dry eyes, and the fact that Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (playing Hazel’s father) could convey so much with a quiver of their chin or a sideways glance made their strength and their grief beautifully palpable.
Much like the book, The Fault in Our Stars is sad, but not melancholy; romantic, but not sappy; heartwarming, but not saccharine. It sensitively addresses hard questions, like is it possible to live fully while you’re dying, or can a parent still be a parent once their child is gone, without providing easy answers. The performances are sincere, the film making is straightforward, and the lessons are layered. It’s a film about kids with cancer without being a cancer film, where even the sickest characters are defined by so much more than their disease.
Augustus has a line early on in the film when he asks Hazel, “What’s your story?”
She starts in, “Well, I was diagnosed when I was thirteen…”
And he interrupts her, “Not your cancer story. Your real story.”
I think that line is one of the main themes of the movie, and the book. There’s the cancer story, and then there’s the real story. I thought the film did an excellent job of focusing on the real story.
Last night, I had the pleasure and privilege of watching hundreds of teenage (and adult) fans go absolutely bonkers over the stars and author of the the latest upcoming teen movie. Except that this time, the movie isn’t about sparkling vampires or teen wizards or futuristic freedom-fighters. It’s about a girl dying of cancer, a boy with one leg, and how they fall in love as they make a trek to meet the author of their favorite book.
Nashville was fortunate enough to win a stop on the Demand Our Stars tour, where John Green would meet fans, answer questions, and show exclusive clips from the movie, accompanied by young stars Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, and (the almost equally ubiquitous) Shailene Woodley.
Due to some serendipitous string-pulling by some well-placed friends, I was able to snag a Media pass to the event, which meant:
1) I didn’t have to stand in line all day. (Tickets to the event were free, but entry was on a first-come-first-serve basis, which meant some fans lined up before dawn that morning to ensure their spot.)
2) I was this close to the stars as they walked the red carpet. (How close? Well, you’ll see in a minute.)
By the time I arrived at War Memorial Plaza around 5:45 (the stars were set to arrive at 6:30), the crowds were INSANE. The general admission line stretched the entire length of the courtyard and looped back around itself. The fans were mostly teenage girls, many in groups, many with a parent or two in tow. Lots of them clutched copies of The Fault In Our Stars, and some held other copies of John Green’s other books as well, hoping for signatures. Mix 92.9 had a tent set up where they’d been doing giveaways of wristbands and other YA books all afternoon. Despite the fact that some fans had been standing all day (and possibly awake all of the previous night), it was an overwhelmingly festive atmosphere.
After I checked in, I was put in the media pen by the red carpet. Teenage girls pressed all around the edges. Some in the pen had seen the movie that morning and said it was fantastic. The girls on the perimeter couldn’t wait to see it, telling stories of how much they loved the book. One girl relayed enthusiastically how she finished it during social studies class and cried so hard she had to be sent to the guidance counselor.
The stars were supposed to come down the red carpet at 6:30, but unbeknownst to us outside, Nat Wolff (who will also be playing the lead in the upcoming movie adaptation of John Green’s PAPER TOWNS) and his brother Alex surprised the crowd waiting inside with an impromptu live musical performance. Sadly, I didn’t get to see this, but I hear they were amazing.
At around 7:00, a roar went up from the crowd closest to the street. The stars had arrived. In a way, it was good I wore my tall and highly uncomfortable shoes, because there was no way I would have been able to see through the field of waving hands as fans strained for signatures. I just had to hold my camera over my head and hope for the best.
John Green came down the line first, and the crowd reaction was spectacular — which would be expected if he were, say, Chris Hemsworth or Jennifer Lawrence or a member of One Direction. But this was an author. A 30-something guy in glasses and a checkered shirt who types words into a computer and makes videos on YouTube. Yet when he arrived, many of the young fans burst into tears, and I heard several gasp excitedly, “It’s him, it’s really him!” It was kind of a magical thing to watch these kids get just as excited about the author of a book as they would a movie or rock star.
John was very gracious and tried to sign as many things as possible, but he couldn’t get to everything because there were just so many. He joked with a fan about how crazy it was to have events like this since he suffers from anxiety, and talked to reporters about how much he loves this movie and the cast.
Ansel Elgort followed next, far more dapper and charming than I would’ve ever expected him to be after seeing him as Caleb in DIVERGENT. Watching him in person, I suddenly understood exactly why he was cast as Augustus Waters. He radiated charisma, speaking kindly to the fans while smiling and signing and waving. When he spoke, he was charming and intelligent. I didn’t get to ask him a question, but I heard him mention to a reporter that he loves being in movies that have been adapted from books, because he understands so much more about the character. With a script, all he has is what’s in the movie, but with a book adaptation, he has so much more to draw from. It was clear that he had a great fondness for Gus, and I’m excited to see what he’s done with the character.
Shailene Woodley came next, soft-spoken and beautiful as she sincerely thanked the multitudes of fans who were excited to see her as Hazel and praised her performance as Tris. She too talked about how much she loved working on this movie and with this cast, and it was very evident that the three leads of the film and John Green had all grown very fond of one another.
Nat Wolff (who reminded me a bit of a seventh-year Neville Longbottom) came last, full of smiles and laughs. He mentioned later that the show he’d performed inside with his brother was his favorite show he’d ever done. He echoed Shailene and Ansel’s sentiments about loving his experience on TFIOS, and talked about how excited he was to be starring in PAPER TOWNS.
After the stars finished working the red carpet, they were ushered inside. I went up to the balcony and collapsed into my seat, my feet throbbing. The floor was the general admission area, and it was PACKED. The chairs had been taken out in order to accommodate more people, but the screaming audience didn’t seem to mind, even though they’d already been standing all day. Ten minutes of the film and behind-the-scenes footage was shown, highlighting text from the book interspersed with scenes from the movie. The sound was cranked up to ear-splitting levels, which was the only way the dialogue could be heard since crowd went crazy every time they saw one of their favorite scenes brought to life.
Without giving away much in the way of spoilers for those who haven’t read the book, the scenes we were shown included:
Isaac egging a car
“It’s a metaphor.”
“I’m in love with you, Hazel Grace.”
Hazel’s wasted Wish
I’ll let you guess which one got the biggest reaction from the crowd.
After the preview finished playing, John and the stars came onto the stage for a Q&A, and the crowd went wild again. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the audience is functioning without a voice today. I haven’t heard a crowd scream like that since the New Kids on the Block concert I attended last summer.
The questioners in the crowd brimmed with enthusiasm (some with tears), and the topics ranged all over the place, from the movie to the book to interesting tidbits about the folks on stage. Probably most people’s favorite response was when Ansel was asked if he had any hidden talents, and he did this:
One person asked what their favorite part of filming was. Ansel answered that his was the days they spent in Amsterdam. He and Shailene would walk around the city together, getting to know each other as friends. Shailene’s was the egging scene, which was also Nat’s first day on set. John loved them all, but he skipped the day they filmed the love scene. Because there is getting-your-book-made-into-a-movie weird, and then there is…that. (That was the only day he skipped — he was fortunate to have the opportunity to be invited to the set for the entirety of filming.)
The cast was asked their feelings on John, and they promptly had A Moment on stage. “John is probably my favorite person in the world to talk to,” Ansel said. Shailene agreed. “You really are unprecedented,” she said in obvious awe. “There’s no one in the world like you.”
None of the cast were Nerdfighters, or knew about vlogbrothers, before they started working on the movie. However, now they all would consider themselves part of Nerdfighteria. Ansel even threw up a Nerdfighter gang sign, which promptly endeared him to everyone who hadn’t already been wooed by his killer dance moves.
John was asked who his “John Green” was as a teen. The one author who spoke to and inspired him more than anyone else. He answered Kurt Vonnegut. “He reminded me I was real.”
They answered questions until 8:00, then left after giving the audience their heartfelt thanks.
It was an amazing night, and not just because that’s the closest I’ve ever stood to a movie star. It was inspiring to see the impact that books — and not just TFIOS, but all books — had on these young people. While we waited outside for the event to start, the girls near us chattered about the other books they’d read and loved. At one point, a girl behind me yelled to someone across the courtyard, “Talk nerdy to me!” in reference to the sticker she was wearing promoting The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare. It was moving to hear the crowd go bananas over their favorite scenes from a book. It was lovely to watch the young stars on stage express their wonder and admiration for an author.
I’ve heard from a few who have already seen the movie that it’s wonderful, and I’m excited to see it. But I’m more excited about the spirit that prevailed in War Memorial Plaza last night, and the unquenchable excitement of a generation of readers.