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Review by Joshua Gibbs
The memento mori (“remember you will die”) is a significant part of Puritan spirituality as well as the monastic life. The benefits of reminding yourself that you will die is written into numerous ascetic prayers and the “Dialog Between Christ, A Youth and the Devil” which concludes The New England Primer both draw heavily on the idea that life is ephemeral, uncertain, and that there exists no guarantee you will live to see tomorrow, so be good while it is still today. Similarly, many of Christ’s parables encourage piety and virtue now because “the return of the owner of the vineyard” will occur when it is least expected. The young (in particular) have never been known for their keen awareness of the certainty of death, though the reasons for their inability to contemplate mortality are not often discussed. Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars does very fine work investigating this inability, and to a great extent, vindicating it.
Fault begins with heroine Hazel Grace delivering a rather weighty prologue:
You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories. On the one hand, you can sugar coat - the way they do in movies and romance novels. Where villains are vanquished and heroes are born and beautiful people learn beautiful lessons and nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with an apology and a Peter Gabriel song. I like that way as much as the next girl, believe me. It’s just not the truth. This is the truth.
And then the story unfolds, and it is neither more nor less true than the myths she has just thrown under the bus, let alone Say Anything (none of which are sad stories), though I don’t know that Boone is trying to praise his own film through the voice of his narrator. When Hazel Graces vouches for the story’s authenticity, she does so as a person who seems largely unfamiliar with the history of literature about dying. Her standard for “truth” in stories about death is the pain threshold of the author. If the author can’t seem to speak of death without pain, it does not ring true. That said, Hazel Grace’s story is painful at points, though her own broken heart at the conclusion is that of having a lover torn from her arms, not a lover willingly rejecting her. Requiring her to be wise beyond her years seems too demanding.
Hazel Grace is a teenage girl with terminal cancer who, slowly and then all at once, falls in love with Augustus Waters (whose name seems to invoke the story of Danae and Zeus), a nice kid with an unlit cigarette between his teeth, an upturned collar, and pronounced ambitions for leaving his mark on the world. His cancer is apparently in check, though he lost a leg and a potential career in sports battling it a few years back. They meet at a teen cancer support group at an Episcopalian church which is headed by an embarrassingly sincere and quasi-mystical cancer-surviving 30-something who, like many he tries to shepherd, spends much of the day playing video games in his mother’s basement. Christianity is never presented as offering a viable response to the problem of mortality— although it might better be said that Christians rarely make such an offering. The film never delves into why Christians are often incapable of doing so, but it must have something to do with how deeply Christians have drunk from Enlightened consolations for the bereaved. One need not believe in God or Heaven or Hell to say to a widow, “Well, at least your husband lived a good life,” though I’ve heard that line passed around often enough at funerals. Similarly, “Your husband left behind a fine legacy,” or, “Your husband is not suffering now,” or, “We will always have fine memories of him,” are all claims any atheist might make. None of those claims requires hope of any kind. If a Christian does not say, “He will live again. Death is God’s enemy. God loves your husband more than we could. Pray for His mercy,” then he ought to keep quiet and leave the work of genuine consolation to those unembarrassed by the more audacious claims of Christian virtue.
Before they fall in love, Hazel and Gus build a friendship over a mutual appreciation of a novel entitled An Imperial Affliction. In classic Augustinian fashion, new love emerges from shared love. Before meeting Gus, Hazel seems to have few friends, though her isolation prompts her to a few intellectual maturities over which Gus plays catch up; he doesn’t seem much of a reader before meeting Hazel, and what little he has read is garbage. In return, Gus offers Hazel friendship, but also new friends and new places to be. They never pressure one another, nor challenge one another, nor anger one another. The narrative rarely gives them an opportunity for self-denial and self-sacrifice, although a more responsible filmmaker would have passed on having them get into bed together. While it might be argued that their sexual relationship is simply expected and realistic in this day and age, I like to think American audiences have a lingering appreciation of the unique such that they might have forgiven Hazel and Grace for not being so predictable.
In losing a leg, Gus gained an endless supply of patience, though he seems to need none of it, as that first bond he and Hazel share over An Imperial Affliction suffices perfectly for their short time together. As someone who has been married for nearly ten years, it would be easy to maintain some skepticism over whether these two people really love each other, or whether their “loving” relationship is reasonably portrayed, given that most of us have known at least some minor sense of betrayal at the hands of those we love. At the same time, Gus and Hazel have a momentary relationship— perhaps no more than a few months so far as the film is concerned— and so while I’m tempted to be cynical, I’ve little problem believing that a first love between two teenagers might pass without any real transgression for such a time. It might also be that the impending death of Hazel keeps both from fretting over petty things; a grand silence awaits them, and the silence they practice now anticipates it. They have a loving relationship, though not a mature one. It might be better to view their short, but untroubled love a mercy of God. If they will only have a season together, He sees fit it should not be difficult in itself.
On that note, it should be mentioned that the import of the title is lost (or transformed) in the novel’s transition to the screen. In Julius Caesar, Cassius opines, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves,” thus dismissing any power of fate over and against human autonomy. Whatever significance such a debate might have in the novel (I’ll confess I’ve not read it), the only meaningful talk of “stars” in the film comes in the midst of the one weighty conversation Hazel and Gus enjoy. On a trip to Amsterdam to meet Imperial Affliction author Peter van Houten, the lovers share a meal at a fancy restaurant and talk of God and the possibility of a life to come. A waiter offers champagne and tells them the story of Dom Perignon inventing the drink and calling, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars.” By the time the credits roll, these are the only stars mentioned (aside of a flippant “star-crossed” Romeo and Juliet reference), and so the title harkens back to their casual talk of the divine.
HAZEL: No. Well... (beat) Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to say no. I just... I’d like some evidence. (Gus nods) What do you think?
GUS: Oh for sure. I mean, not like a heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps, and live in a mansion made of clouds but, yeah, I believe in something. Something becomes of us. It has to. Otherwise what’s the point?
HAZEL: Maybe there is no point.
GUS: I refuse to accept that. (beat) I won’t accept it.
HAZEL: I hope you’re right.
GUS: I’m in love with you.
GUS: You heard me.
HAZEL: Augustus --
GUS: I’m in love with you. And I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.
When Gus says, “And I know that love is just a shout into the void…” he seems to not speak from his own conviction, which would nullify what he has just said about life having a point, but to assume Hazel’s brief lapse into nihilism. While she might believe in nothing, he believes in something transcendent, and from that belief emerges love. Love stands against death, against nothingness. The titular “stars” of the film seem to invoke this entire conversation, and the “fault” is in Gus and Hazel’s incomplete, unfulfilled yearning for meaning in this life, which is only possible by attachment to something or someone beyond this life. They intuit this, but with the dream-like logic of hope. The film is not called The Fault in the Stars, after all, but The Fault in Our Stars, and the stars of the lovers are too vaporously understood to be a final consolation now.
Because love stands against death, the young have a difficult time grasping their own mortality. But is this because they are naïve?
Like Adam and Eve, very young children have little sense of self and so they are unembarrassed by their own nakedness. Adam does not know he is naked because he does not regard himself, but only God and God’s gifts. When Adam sins, he does not so much become aware that Eve is naked, but that he himself is naked; sin is a turning toward the self, away from God. The innocence and beauty of the infant are still just barely in bloom through adolescence, and a teenager’s inability to comprehend death is an evaporating inheritance of the toddler’s inability to comprehend clothes.
Neither Hazel nor Gus rationalize death as something natural, something inevitable, an event with a sacred significance. They do not view death as having genuine and constructive meaning, as though the universe turns on an eternal exchange between life-giving and life-taking. For the young, death rightly remains a scandal, an unabated evil, an enemy, unnatural, a “menacing stranger…essentially meaningless, ultimately unjust,” as David Bentley Hart argues in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. Seeing death this way “robs us of the desperately needed comfort of a certain kind of spiritual complacency… But we are [after Christ] no longer allowed to look upon death… as an expression of a higher cosmic justice… Rather, we are called to believe that sin and death are a ruinous distortion of creation, and that we can never be reconciled to the destruction upon which nature and history seem so inevitably to depend…” Over the course of a lifetime, many adults forget this and make peace with God’s great enemy, though Hazel and Gus view death with discontent.
Their protestations and repulsion are not answered by the conclusion of the film, and the final image Boone leaves us with is Hazel lying on the grass, gazing up into the heavens, saying Okay. Granted, in the context of the film, the line might be taken as cowardice, a caving to the logic of death. The single word might also be read more obviously, for as she lies in the grass she knows some mystical communication with the departed Gus, who says, “I like my choices. I hope she likes hers. Ok, Hazel Grace?” Or in other words, “Is it well with your soul? Was the joy of love in life worth the pain in death?” When she says Okay, is she abandoning her discontent?
However, her posture in the scene might be interpreted two ways. She lies with her arms across her chest, and we might see her lying down as though in a casket. But she is also in a sacred posture— the physical gesture non-Catholics and Catholic catechumens reproduce when going forward to a Eucharistic chalice they are not allowed to receive, in which case the priest simply blesses them. She is outside the Kingdom, she is eager to learn, desirous of a blessing, submitting not to death but the call to enter the life of a King who calls her beyond the stars.