You know someone's doomed from the opening lines of The Fault in Our Stars, via the film's self-referential pledge to neither romanticize nor sugar-coat death: "I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories... This is the truth. Sorry."
You also know, from the start, that you're watching a soapy cancer romance with grand gestures and teen feelings and the concept of "true love" accepted as an empirical truth. No surprises there. So why was I shuddering with grief by the end? How did A Fault in Our Stars get me, when I knew what was coming, a lot of what was coming was silly, and it was presented in the most formulaic possible way? WHY DID I ALLOW IT TO JERK MY TEARS?
Well, it's just a fucking good movie. They did a good job. Also, Shailene Woodley. The Shailene thing — I get it now. She's magic.
TFIOS was good enough to utterly crush the box office over the weekend, taking in over $42 million (the film was made for $12 million, which means that a bunch of people are rich now probably [caveat: I do not work in show business or know how getting money works]). So, to every dildo who's ever parroted the old "movies with female protagonists just don't make money" line, KINDLY GO SNIFF YOURSELF. TFIOS is a woman's story, and it out-earned Tom Cruise without breaking a sweat. Deservedly so.
For those who haven't read the book (0r, like me, only had time for the first few chapters before their blog post had to go up): Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is a 17-year-old smart-ass from Indianapolis who's been battling various forms of cancer since she was 13. Thyroid cancer eventually migrated into her lungs, where, thanks to an experimental treatment, it's just chilling until the day when it won't anymore. And then she'll die. Cancer is an interesting movie villain because it's so senseless, so frustrating, so intractable. The thing that's killing you is you, and you can't stop it. How fucking unfair.
When Hazel's parents force her and her ever-present oxygen tank to go to a cornball Christian support group run by a doofus with nut cancer (all hail Mike Birbiglia), she meets Augustus Waters, a hunky goofball with a penchant for swaggering optimism and overwrought teenage metaphors. Gus lost a leg to osteosarcoma but is now cancer-free. He likes Hazel. She likes him, kind of, but she is wary. He wins her over, slowly. (I could do without the idea that Gus's initial persistence is "romantic" instead of a clear violation of Hazel's stated boundaries—the misconception that every woman who says "no" or "not right now" just needs the right bon mots to be transformed into a girlfriend has done enough damage lately. But other than that, no ideological red flags.) They make out in the Anne Frank House, a scene that I suspect was less awkward in print than on screen. Hazel has sexual agency. Gus thinks she's beautiful, but he also thinks she's funny and smart. They love each other more deeply than anyone has ever loved anyone.
And, somehow, you believe them. The Fault in Our Stars cultivates authenticity in simple ways: making time for Hazel and Gus's friendship, for the day-to-day mechanics of disability, for the bitter injustice of children living with pain (and the naivete in believing in justice).
Despite the film's winky avowal to tell "the truth," The Fault in Our Stars is not "true"— it's meticulously constructed storytelling, because author John Green knows that fictions are not necessarily falsehoods, and artifice can sometimes be truer than "truth." As Green writes in his author's note, obsessive attempts to separate the two "attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species." A photograph isn't "better" than a painting. A fable isn't less "true" than a spreadsheet. And that's why The Fault in Our Stars works so goddamn well. It works because it was built to work. Movies know how to trick you, and good movies use that power to meaningful ends instead of shallow ones.
We tend to code romance as a frivolous, feminine, and indulgent genre, but that's a sexist crock of shit (when romances are written by men, we conveniently refer to them as "tragedies" or "epics"). There's nothing inherently wrong with romance. I don't mind my kids believing in "true love" as long as they know that it's subjective, it's not everything, no one's entitled to it, and it can be taken away at any time (I am available for birthday parties). Love stories have as much potential for truth, and for failure, as any others. The truth that The Fault in Our Stars gets so right, in its tidy little fiction, is how dangerous it is to really love someone.
Personally, I never understood what it meant to be sad until I figured out how to be happy. The better my life gets — and I feel very, very fortunate right now — the more I realize that being in love and building a family is the most terrifying thing I've ever done. Is it worth it to fall in love if you're going to die in a month? Or in 50 years? That terror follows my happiness like a shadow; they grow and swell together. It is worth it (to me, I think, though how can I know?), but it hurts.
When I found myself crying at the end of The Fault in Our Stars, it wasn't for Lars von Trier life-is-empty reasons. I cried because life is so full and loss is so ubiquitous.
Everyone dies at the end of every story.