If you’ve seen the trailer for The Fault in Our Stars or read the eponymous young adult novel by John Green from which it’s adapted, you know it’s the kind of movie you watch with a full box of tissues nearby. The novel, in which a love story unfolds after a meet-cute in a teen cancer support group, sparked a debate about the newly dubbed “sick-lit” genre when it was published in 2012. Some critics find it disturbing that the genre exposes teens to the realities of illness and death (as opposed to pretending those things don’t exist, I guess). But sick-lit is nothing new—nor is its corresponding genre on the silver screen, the sick flick. What is disturbing is the formulaic and maudlin manner in which so many sick flicks tell their tales.
Sick flicks tend to follow a narrative trajectory as predictable as the sniffles they elicit. A man or boy who’s got his values all out of whack—he’s a bad boy, or a womanizer, or a workaholic, or all three—falls for a woman or girl who’s different from his usual type. Quirky, free-spirited, and possessing a wisdom beyond her years, she initially rebuffs his advances but eventually relents. The peak of their love affair coincides with the beginning of her demise, and in her graceful dying she teaches him how to truly live.
Since 1970’s Love Story established the box office potential of such movies, Hollywood has offered a handful of variations on that narrative. The genders were reversed in 1991’s Dying Young, for instance. A Walk to Remember (2002) made the leads teenagers. Autumn in New York (2000) gave its doomed heroine a heart condition instead of cancer. And Sweet November (2001) condensed its love story into one short month. But aside from these minimal mutations, there’s little to differentiate one from the next.
In its opening minute, The Fault in Our Stars promises us it will avoid sugarcoating. Our narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) tells the audience she’s not going to tell a story in which “beautiful people learn beautiful lessons.” Instead, she says, “This is the truth.” And after a beat: “Sorry.” Hazel has stage four thyroid cancer that’s metastasized to her lungs, and she can’t go up a flight of stairs without losing her breath. She lives PET scan to PET scan, one reality TV marathon to the next, and her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) are her best friends. The triumph of being alive at 16, after nearly dying at 13, is tempered by knowing that 17 is far from a foregone conclusion.
When Hazel literally bumps into Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) at a support group her parents force her to attend, their star-crossed love is set in motion. And here is where we may begin to apply the sick flick test, measuring the film’s success in delivering the capital-T truth. Keep in mind the genre’s four tired tropes: 1) The male lead is the one who needs saving, and the female lead is the wise and whimsical one dying to save him; 2) she tries to prevent him from falling in love with her, to shelter him from the blow of her inevitable death; 3) she’s elevated to near-sainthood in death; and 4), her lover’s life is better because he basked in the glow of her enlightenment. Spoilers follow.
On the first count, the film flagrantly defies convention. Augustus is in remission from an osteosarcoma that cost him half a leg, but he and Hazel are both in some stage of illness. And unlike Mandy Moore’s stargazing, overalls-donning Jamie in A Walk to Remember or Charlize Theron’s I-use-my-TV-as-a-planter Sara in Sweet November, the male lead is—at least at first—the primary bearer of life lessons: Where Hazel allows herself to be defined by her illness, Gus demands that she transcend the bleak boundaries of that identity. And ultimately, the bestowing of life lessons is a two-way street. Gus, as evidenced by his gallant displays of video game heroism, is obsessed with martyrdom. Hazel tempers this preoccupation, teaching him not to discount the significance of loving and being loved.
But the film does stick to the genre’s second tired trope: Hazel rebuffs Augustus’ advances, at least for a while. Echoing her cinematic forebears, Hazel explains to Augustus, “I’m a grenade. One day, I’m going to blow up, and I’m going to obliterate everything in my wake.” Hazel’s all about how to “minimize the casualties” she’s bound to leave. In this respect she’s like Jamie in A Walk to Remember, who, stricken with leukemia, makes Shane West’s Landon promise he won’t fall in love with her. Or Sara in Sweet November, who makes Nelson (Keanu Reeves) promise he’ll leave at the end of November, lest he remember her in sickness and not in health. In fairness, though, this convention is perhaps the sick flick’s least mythical: As the American Cancer Society explains, it’s normal for a person in the last stages of illness to pull away from loved ones. (The American Cancer Society does not say that it’s normal for the dying person to be a quirky, lovable heroine, by the way.)
When we get to the third trope, The Fault in Our Stars really starts to pull away from those films that have come before it. (And here we get to the serious spoilers, by the way.) First off, it is not Hazel’s death the film gives us, but Augustus’. This not only subverts the sick flick’s typical gender roles, but also throws a major narrative curveball that lands squarely in the gut. Hazel tells the audience that she wishes she could say Gus maintained his dignity and sense of humor in the face of death. But he doesn’t. This is perhaps the movie’s greatest feat: It does not depict dying as a twinkling, flickering light gently extinguished by the wind.
Anyone who’s been close to a person dying from cancer, who’s watched him wither into half his physical self and perhaps a much altered version of his emotional self, will find that The Fault in Our Stars captures this reality more honestly than its predecessors. Most sick flicks employ an unconvincing dusting of pale makeup. Mandy Moore, for example, ends up looking like a slightly paler Mandy Moore. Of the unnamed affliction that ails Ali MacGraw’s character in Love Story, Roger Ebert wrote that its “only symptom is that the patient grows more beautiful until finally dying.” The Fault in Our Stars, on the other hand, gives us blood and vomit. And it deems the vocabulary of heroism commonly used in such situations as insultingly euphemistic, acknowledging that dying people don’t always feel courageous.
As for the fourth trope—the healthy person becoming better thanks to his loved one’s death—it is unequivocally both leads who live richer lives because of the other. Contrast this with A Walk to Remember, in which Landon transforms after angelic Jamie’s death from resident bad boy to medical student. Or Love Story, in which Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) goes from hockey jock to law scholar and lover of classical music. In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel helps Gus overcome his disappointment that he hasn’t accomplished the sort of things that get noted in an internationally syndicated obituary. She persuades him that providing her with their “little infinity in the numbered days” is worth just as much, or more. And he reminds her to let herself be loved, and to let herself live not just as a “failed side effect” of evolution, but as the multifaceted and fully human Hazel Grace Lancaster.
The movie does omit a few scenes and storylines from the novel that would have bolstered its realism. It doesn’t show us Gus’s open casket, or Hazel leaning over his “plasticized” face and whispering, “I love you present tense.” The film eliminates the character of Caroline Mathers, Gus’s ex-girlfriend, who died from cancer. Caroline’s brain tumor made her mean-spirited, and Gus stuck around because, “I mean, you can’t dump a girl with a brain tumor.” But these omissions aside, The Fault in Our Stars offers hope for the future of a tired genre. Just please, dear lord, do not forget the tissues.