Critics Be Damned: In Defense of “The Fault in Our Stars”
Note: This article contains spoilers for the film The Fault in Our Stars, so read only if you don’t mind and/or have already seen it.
One of the annoying things about writing movie reviews is the tacit requirement that you’re not allowed to give away any spoilers. You’re supposed to either convince people to see it or to avoid it. Spoilers would defeat that purpose. We as the critics are then left to write in vagaries and avoid details, but sometimes you just want to cut loose and analyze the heck out of the thing. You know, treat it like a novel and you’re back in English class writing a paper. Yeah, I guess I’m that kind of nerd.
I used to be in the habit of reading reviews of movies before I wrote my own, but the practice became dangerous. It would be to easy to ape other people’s reactions and lose my own thoughts in the mix. Now, I usually wait until after I’ve hit publish to take a look at what people are saying. Usually, it’s easy to shake off the people that disagree with you. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and lord knows there are a lot of them out there. My threshold for tolerance is pretty high, but I do get riled up when modern cynicism tries to squash traditional romance. This time around I felt compelled to call bullshit on a couple of things when it comes to the harsher critics of The Fault in Our Stars. I’ve become rather protective of TFiOS for some reason. I guess the story just does so many things right. The bulk of those “bad guy” critics seem like cranky old men bashing youthful romance for no reason other than to communicate the idea that they are indeed cranky. And old. And mostly men.
So there are the two specific defenses I would like to make here:
Augustus Waters is not just a Manic Pixie Dream Boy.
It is okay to make out in the Anne Frank house (under the right circumstances).
Apparently I am not the only person who found fault with the character of Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars, with several critics rightfully dubbing him a “manic pixie dream guy” or, in the case of Matt Patches at Vulture.com, “Manic Cancer Metaphor Boy.” Both stake the claim that the character is too perfect and unrealistic. He’s dangerous in the same way that romantic comedies are dangerous for Scarlett Johansson’s character in Don Jon (and the same reason porn is dangerous for the titular Don himself, as a matter of fact, but this isn’t a review of Don Jon. I talked about this romcom danger a bunch in my original TFiOS review by the way).
Augustus Waters’ saccharine penchant for delusional romance pollutes us! How awful! Blergh!
In short, these particular critics believe that Gus never transcends beyond his typical YA constraints of the forcefully charming, perfect, and dominating male suitor. He comes to us with dogged persistence masquerading as devotion and wins the viewer over long before he wins over Hazel. In poor taste, Matt Patches at Vulture goes so far as to call Gus the “biggest douchebag” on a “sunny stalker parade” just because Gus refuses to take no for an answer when Hazel repeatedly rebuffs his romantic advances.
Does she really, though? Was I reading the same book? Did I see the same movie?
Matt Patches O’Houlihan sounds more like a male crusader forcing his way into the feminist cause when he has no real grounds or cause to do so. Sure, we have a strong female lead literally saying “no” to her male counterpart in TFiOS regarding something at least remotely related to sex, and while that vaguely perpetuates the patriarchal nature of our society, it does more harm than good to over-sensationalize what is going on here. Nowhere does Augustus truly cross any lines. As best I can tell, in both novel and film, Augustus is perfectly respectful of the boundaries set by Hazel. Beyond that, both of her annoyingly overbearing parents seem to love the kid. Love him! He’s a kind boy who cares about his friends enough to let them smash his trophies in a fit of childish rage and he is genuinely, madly in love with Hazel. Despite his mania and quirks and bizarre obsession with metaphor, there’s that core of love to him. If there’s any flirtation going on between him and Hazel, it is consensual and it is mutual. Though Hazel verbally denies it, her mother calls it what it is: young love.
Hazel does not push Augustus away because she does not want his affection; she pushes him away to protect him from the devastation of having to lose her. It’s meant to strike us as poetic irony to see Gus as the one who dies instead. This isn’t to say that Hazel was “asking for it” by any means, and what I am trying to convey is far from the all too common male defense of horrid male behavior. It is Patches after all that implies some sort of rape-esque undertones in this remarkably tame Young Adult story. The point is that while for a time in the story, Augustus does embody that archetypal oversimplification of a common trope in stories — namely, the manic pixie whatever he is — his gradual decay and inevitable death not only erode those superficial personality traits, but in a very obvious way, break down that harmful stereotype completely.
Death changes us all, even if you are a Manic Pixie Dream Romance Beast.
Think of it this way: Jay Gatsby dies not because a poor car mechanic, deranged by grief and shoved in the right direction by a jealous husband, pulled a gun on him during an afternoon swim. Those are details. Necessary plot mechanics. Fitzgerald fitting all of the pieces together so that everything coheres into a logical sequence of events. On a greater level, on a deeper level, this is when the entire point of the book crystallizes: Gatsby, who embodies the American Dream so purely in his entrepreneurship and his from-nothing-to-everything life, literally cannot live in our world because the Dream is a lie. The Dream told him he could be anyone and do anything, and when he tries to play God and recreate the past, we come to find out that the Dream is a lie. It was a lie all along. So he has to die.
His life has to end so that Fitzgerald can effectively deconstruct our notions of the American Dream. So it goes.
Like Gatsby, Augustus Waters serves a similar role, and though it is cancer instead of a bullet, the ultimate effect remains the same: that kind of manic, superficial charisma was always just a performance. When you strip it all away, the idea itself that the character represents dies along with him. Cancer takes more than just Gus’ life. It destroys his manic pixie personality gradually, painfully.
Before the very end, Gus has become a different person. In the movie we only get one scene of a very sick Gus blubbering and dying in a gas station parking lot, and then he rebounds for his “last good day” and pre-death funeral before the inevitable happens. In the book, however, his decay is depicted on much clearer terms, and it id even paralleled to that of his dead ex-girlfriend’s descent into rageful madness. He withers into delirium. He dwindles in a hospital bed stuffed into his parent’s living room. We can’t have that in the movie, because it would be too much. Fun fact: in the book A Walk to Remember, cancer-ridden Jamie has to be pushed down the aisle in a wheelchair at her wedding, but in the film version, a stunningly healthy-looking Mandy Moore is able to tough it out and walk herself down the aisle.
Why? Because Movies.
Though he begins as larger than life, Augustus Waters’ death ultimately deconstructs not just one person, but a whole way of living and portraying characters in fiction. If you don’t believe me, take it from John Green himself, who oddly enough explains his methods while playing a soccer video game:
Onto other business.
Other critics really harped on the movie for that one scene in the Anne Frank house in which, after finally reaching the very top, Hazel and Gus share their first kiss. Britt Hayes at my beloved BadassDigest.com took issue with the scene, as did a whole slew of other critics that you can see in a Review Roundup put out by Vulture.com.
The gist of it is that kissing in the Anne Frank house is supposedly irreverent.
Anne Frank was one of far too many victims of the Nazis in World War II, having hid for years in a secret space inside an Amsterdam house only to be captured and ultimately die in a concentration camp. Her diary remains a haunting reminder of the horrors the War wrought on humanity but she has inspired hope for the millions touched by her story. You can read more about her on the official website.
In Anne Frank’s house, now turned into a museum, the elevator is broken, thus Hazel must enter the “no attainment without struggle” trial, a rule in writing any epic. Her struggle will lead her to the revelation she seeks.
Hazel refuses help with her cart, climbing the staircase on her own. When she reaches the second floor, to the secret entrance behind the bookcase, a second set of stairs to an upper room awaits them. Gus offers to help, and so does the assistant, but Hazel refuses. This is her journey — her struggle.
When they reach the upper room, Hazel is now out of breath and dizzy. We believe Hazel’s finished. But now a ladder will lead them to the attic where the Frank family lived. Behind Hazel, a quote from Anne Frank paints the wall: I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young, and know that I’m free.
Hazel accepts the challenge to carry on. As she arrives halfway up the ladder, her vision blurs, her head spins and she almost faints. A chilling, haunting, cracking, 1940s recording of Anne Frank’s words begins echoing over the speakers.
Anne Frank: “We’re much too young to deal with these problems but they keep thrusting themselves on us until, finally, we’re forced to think of solutions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end. God wishes to see people happy.”
Hazel pulls herself up another step.
Anne Frank: “Where there’s hope, there is life.”
Hazel arrives triumphantly to the top, and Gus helps her sit against the attic wall to catch her breath.
Anne Frank: “At such moments, I can’t think about the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. Try to recapture the happiness within yourself.”
When Hazel can stand on her own, Gus escorts her around the room, viewing all the black and white photographs of the Frank family hanging from the walls. When the camera rests on the photo of Anne Frank, we hear her say, “Think on all the beauty all around you and be happy.”
What else could Hazel Grace Lancaster possibly do but kiss the heck out of Augustus Waters in that moment?
The world can be a bleak place for us, especially if we are stricken by cancer or being targeted by cultural genocide. Though the book places great value on the infinite, it is only from our finite perspective that such value is given. Everything ends. Everything Good. Everything Evil. All our Joys, and even all our pain and suffering. When Anne Frank looked to the sky, she saw Hope because beauty is everywhere. Even when misery forces us to think of nothing else outside of our own predicament, Hope is still there, because so is the sky and everything beautiful between it and you. The secret, the antidote, is to accept Beauty and Love into our lives to give us that transient happiness — that “smaller infinity,” as Van Houten might say — that can make everything worthwhile. Even the pain. Even the suffering. Because it’s all part of the way things are.
That’s why Hazel and Gus’ kiss is met with applause from the crowd. Because damnit those kids deserved that moment of happiness. Had Anne Frank been there, she likely would have been clapping along with the rest of them. Hazel needed those few minutes of struggling up the stairs, especially after her hopeful illusions were squashed by Van Houten, if only so she could realize that the key to it all was letting Love into her life. To let herself be happy and to stop denying herself the simple yet extravagant pleasure of being in Love. It isn’t a moment of irreverent snogging. It is a moment of revelation, an epiphany for our main character and the start of a better life for her.
“Think on all the beauty all around you and be happy,” said Anne Frank.
“It’s a good life, Hazel Grace,” Augustus eventually says.
“The critics and naysayers of The Fault in Our Stars just don’t get it,” Corey says right now.