The life in our years

The Fault In Our Stars

Gus (Ansel Elgort) and Hazel (Shailene Woodley) in The Fault In Our Stars

MOVIE  l  Fault in our Stars  l  M

‘It’s the life in your years not the years in your life’ could have been an alternative working title for the newly released film The Fault in Our Stars. A film which, if I was a 14-year-old girl, I’m sure I would have loved – like, a lot.

It has all the right elements; cheeky ‘cute guy’ Gus (Ansel Elgort), beautiful, big-hearted and blameless Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and a terrifically terrible love-lost story which explicitly deems the cancer-stricken lovers as ‘star-crossed’.

These ingredients are timeless, really, for a teen love story. The exception is the presence of cancer as the theme which runs within and between characters’ relationships – obviously not as ancient as the problems which beset Romeo and Juliet. Still, it’s a highly relatable subject as cancer continues to impact nearly everyone in the western world in some way.

From the beginning it was obvious there was an army of teenage girls in the cinema ready to lap up every bit of dialogue. Outbursts of enthusiastic giggling at scenes neither humorous nor intended to be, indicated pretty quickly that it was a film adaption of a young adult novel. And as far as young adult fiction goes, both the story and the film adaption are fine, and fit the bill.

Judging this film through the lens of the young adult audience it’s aimed at, there’s no doubt it’s got some winning points. Its relatively honest treatment of life, death and cancer is surprisingly mature, sober and wise – some parts offering an antidote to simplistic platitudes young people might cling to for temporary comfort. Of this aspect, I wholeheartedly approved.

Hazel, in particular, is concerned about how her health affects the lives of those around her – she thinks about life after she’s gone and what that will mean for her family. She is practical in her love for family and friends she will leave behind. Ironically, this caring pragmatism engenders sentimentality in the audience.

After receiving bad news, Gus sits moping on a hill overlooking a playground. He confides in Hazel his yearning to be famous and ‘remembered for something’. Hazel responds tersely – isn’t it enough, she argues, that he has family and close friends who care greatly for him and will remember him no matter what happens? With his attitude flipped on its head, he lifts his cup of champagne to hers and says, ‘It’s a good life, Hazel Grace’. It is an affecting moment.

As are the scenes where characters talk frankly about their own eulogies and crack jokes about what they have physically lost to their cancer. There is a ‘live now and appreciate what you’ve got’ message that leaves an undeniable impression, despite any other failings of the film.

And there are failings, such as the unimaginative scripting and an obnoxious portrayal of Gus. Or the comparison made between a young person’s struggle with cancer with the struggles of Holocaust victim Anne Frank during WWII.

It’s not unusual to liken one’s experiences to someone from a different time or context to derive strength and inspiration. This must be particularly so for a young cancer sufferer.

But the comparison with Anne Frank in this film portrays it distastefully as universal rather than personal and parochial. The genocide of more than seven million people based on ethnicity, which forced a young Jewish girl and her family to spend years terrified in hiding, is not exactly a perfect analogy for privileged white teenagers suffering through cancer. Having said that, we all take comfort where we can – and the cards Hazel and Gus are dealt in life are in no way easy to accept.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the film is the discussion of ‘small infinities’. Without giving too much away, the film focuses on the depth of one’s experiences in life rather than the time one is given. This is a powerful message for teenagers who find themselves in this tragic situation.

But there’s perhaps a message for all of us here – about not taking life for granted and living, and loving, to the full. Because none of us can ever know for sure how much time we have left.

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