17 June 2014


There are few things that a young adult fantasy novel can say in two films that it can't say in one. Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent have all added an extra carriage to their respective gravy trains by splitting books into two movies and the young adult adaptation engine continues chugging away. It's nice then, when films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Fault in Our Stars come along and remind us that it's not all franchisable.

Still, you can bet that author John Green will now be referenced in trailers for films "from the author of The Fault in Our Stars" from next year til around 2020. This one comes from his best-selling tearjerker that examines the life of a teenage cancer patient without dehumanising or patronising her. Hazel was diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer when she was 13 and has pretty much given up on a regular teenage social life. At a support group, her eyes are opened by a recovering amputee called Augustus, and the two begin a tentative relationship in which neither of them wants to get hurt.

Every now and then, the casting of a romance will be just right. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are a recent example, even if the script for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 didn't do as much for them as they did for it. Sure enough, the pairing of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Engort would be the main draw for this one. They will both have the security to keep doing stuff like this in between playing siblings in Divergent sequels for the next few years- the fact that these two are gonna be better known as lovers in this one throughout that series is someone else's problem.

Woodley really shines in this one, bringing empathy and believability to Hazel without going full Grumpy Cat. You may have seen and liked Engort in that Carrie remake you've already forgotten, but this is a star-making turn for him too. I'll struggle to coin a better term for his character than "manic pixie dreamboat" (from The Telegraph's Robbie Collin) but the two of them are a joy to watch for many parts of the movie, and they each bring greater depth and chemistry to the characters than they possess on the page.

It's not that the adapted script, from (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is bad. In fact, it mostly maintains a very good balance of pathos and gallows humour, even if it tends to spread out the weight of the subject matter to the two hour mark. They have a flair for pretentious cynicism (i.e. the world sucks, but ya know, as long as you don't think about it too much, it's not so bad) and slightly snarky romantic dialogue that makes some people blanch, but there's no problem with the script or the story that doesn't come from the acclaimed novel itself.

By all accounts, director Josh Boone and his writers have made a pretty faithful adaptation of Green's book, but it might have the same problem that we've seen before with more idiosyncratic novels, like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Namely, that a piece of writing can hang together better than when it's also performed, directed, edited and scored. When spoken aloud and backed with an aching soundtrack, a line of dialogue that sounds good in your head or reads well on the page, might translate into the kind of Tumblr-matic guff that Hazel and Augustus openly deplore and that's sometimes the case with this one.

But as far as I can tell, the passage of the film in which it's at its weakest is lifted straight from the book- a ritzy trip to Amsterdam, with the principal goal of visiting a reclusive author played by Willem Dafoe. That character stretches credulity all on his own, but it culminates in a credulity-stretching scene where our young lovers visit the Anne Frank house. Aside from the extremely wobbly line that is drawn between cancer and the Holocaust, (surely each of those things are already bad enough on their own?) the scene single-handedly shatters the otherwise sturdy emotional reality of the film with the cheesiest bit of cloying historical appropriation since the ending of Remember Me.

Still, there are highlights throughout. Surprisingly, the most valuable player is a never-better Laura Dern as Hazel's mother Frannie, who is a tower of brave-faced grief. From her very first scene, it's apparent that she's not merely going to be an embarrassing parent stereotype. As much as you can exude repression, she constantly gives the impression that she's staying strong for Hazel's sake and that she really might break down in floods of tears at her daughter's plight every time she leaves a room. Somehow, all of this manages to be understated and it's a sign that many of us may have been underestimating Dern as an actress.

The Fault in Our Stars has gut-wrenching moments, but its affected wisdom and more mawkish impulses means that it averages out to just tugging at your sleeve and trying to prod a sad response. Even after the Anne Frank bit has been and gone, that scene makes it a tough film to like and once you've been emotionally ejected from the film so abruptly, it's tougher to get back into it in time for the ending. However, the performances are relentlessly great and it's interesting as a mini-major production all on its own- a $12 million film with a tender central relationship and no eyes on a franchise to follow.

The Fault in Our Stars is showing in cinemas nationwide from Thursday.
If you've seen The Fault in Our Stars, why not leave a comment below? Yeah, I know they're also doing the sibling/couple thing with Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen in Avengers 2, but I'll totally have forgotten they were in Godzilla by then.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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