The Fault In Our Stars is a snappy and resonant teenage weepie, blessed with sparks of wit and buoyed by the talents of a charismatic cast. But for fans of its celebrated source material, will that be enough? John Green’s young-adult bestseller, about the tentative but rapturous romance that develops between a pair of wise-beyond-their-years cancer patients, has won devotees of all ages in the two years it’s been flying off shelves. The book contains insights—into living with the approach of death, into the inner workings of a sharp adolescent mind—that aren’t so easily extracted from its eloquent prose. Narrative nuances are trimmed, their loss a necessary evil of the translation process, while pop songs strain for the feeling Green summoned with words alone. Such are the pitfalls of adaptation: Too often something distinctive becomes something common during the move from page to screen.
But Fault’s glow has only been dimmed, not extinguished. The movie’s writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, are no strangers to the field of brainy YA, having earned their credentials converting Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now into a comparatively endearing film. Just as she did there, Shailene Woodley capably handles heroine duty, but she’s stepped into a much richer role. The starlet plays Hazel Grace, a terminally sick teen who has temporarily staved off the cancer that’s ruined her lungs. She lives on borrowed time, dragging an oxygen tank behind her always and attempting to minimize the emotional despair of her parents (Sam Trammell and Laura Dern). At one of her weekly, torturous support-group meetings, Hazel locks eyes with Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a studly, cocksure survivor now in remission, having lost his leg—but not his sense of humor—to the disease. The attraction is instant and mutual, but Hazel resists, mostly out of fear that she’ll emotionally destroy her strapping suitor when the cancer comes back to claim her.
Deviating only occasionally from Green’s text, Fault handles its grim realities with both honesty and humor, offering a moving romance between two young people forced to confront their mortality at an unfairly early age. Augustus remains more dream than human, the most articulate and gentlemanly teenage boy that never existed. But Elgort breathes authenticity into the character, and the film justifies its existence by putting Green’s whip-sharp banter into the mouths of actors; his stylized dialogue actually sounds more natural, more believably adolescent, when spoken aloud. Less successful is the attempt to transform the novel’s first-person narration into snippets of voiceover, replacing the constant window into Hazel’s thought process with a few easy nuggets of quotable wisdom. And the film pays only lip-service to Green’s metatextual subplot involving a book within a book, its reclusive author (Willem Dafoe, excellent in a motivationally tricky role), and the fate of its fictional characters. That element, to be honest, would have been difficult to translate.
The Fault In Our Stars eventually moves into full-blown tearjerker territory, though not in the precise way the uninitiated may guess. It’s here that Woodley seems to transform, in the film’s grand emotional crucible, into a first-rate actress. If she’s destined to spend the next few years of her career headlining YA adaptations—and given the existence of Divergent, that seems likely—here’s hoping that the parts are all as good as Hazel Grace. The movie, on a whole, achieves a four-hankie catharsis without ever approaching the wounding beauty of Green’s instant teen-lit classic. But good movies are made out of great books all the time, and to fault Fault for not living up to its inspiration isn’t much more fair than dismissing the novel on the grounds that it sounds, superficially, like Love Story for millennials. As with infinities, some successes are just bigger than others.