John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a beautiful love story, really. In this young-adult-novel-turned-film, Green crafts believable characters struggling with a tragic reality in this world: childhood cancer. Despite his grim subject matter, Green never panders to the characters or readers; his portrayal avoids both the maudlin and the callous by emphasizing the human dimension throughout — joy, pain, desire, courage, humor, anger, sadness, confusion, triumph, hope, love, and loss. He depicts his characters’ afflictions without cliché, uncompromising in his descriptions of the ugliness and pain involved in their diagnoses, treatments, and relapses.
Prayer, the story suggests, is for the weak, and pat answers too often suffice to console; those in the know merely pretend to adopt that posture for the sake of their feebler friends and family.
Through it all, Green’s characters remain energetic and engaging. Hazel Grace Lancaster, the narrator-protagonist, is downright feisty — not what one might expect of this adolescent cancer patient. Her no-nonsense, quick-witted approach to her unspeakably terrible illness establishes her character from the opening monologue which rejects easy, sugarcoated renditions of sad stories that offer up Peter Gabriel as remedy for whatever ails you.
Worldly-wise Hazel is joined by 17-year-old Augustus (Gus) Waters — charismatic, confident, offbeat, and also riddled with cancer. In ways, Green uses this relationship to update Romeo and Juliet — the consummate young romance pitted against the universe, yet those Shakespearean star-crossed lovers have nothing on Hazel and Gus. The ill-fated stars of Green’s characters have infiltrated their bodies through disease, leaving precious little time or space for the couple to experience life and love to the fullest.
In Green’s romance, the fault truly is in the characters’ stars and not in themselves — inverting the passage from Julius Caesar to which Green’s title alludes. Any good in Green’s story, in fact, derives solely from the human spirit, despite Cassius’s contrary claims about human fallibility. Green’s characters share experiences that deepen their connection, enhance their appreciation of beauty, and sharpen their delight in each other.
Green himself identifies that message as one of the central purposes of his tale, which found its inspiration in his volunteer work as a chaplain at a children’s hospital: “[W]hen I was writing this novel, one of the things I was thinking a lot about was how much value, how much joy and how much good there can be in a short life.” For Green, life is valuable, no matter how short. No matter how young its possessor, consciousness is a gift. The novel and film exquisitely promote this belief, and rightly so.
If that were the end of the story, its purpose being merely to argue for life’s preciousness with Hazel and Gus’s plight offered up as evidence — nothing else to it, I’d cheer (and cry) right along with Green’s countless fans. Unfortunately, Green’s story extolling the meaning and value found amid life’s threat of death smuggles in some dubious assumptions about the human condition and the nature of this world.
In an early scene Gus tells a cancer-survivor support group that his primary fear is being relegated to oblivion after death; later — in the film version — we learn that primarily because of this fear, Gus maintains belief in some sort of afterlife. Despite her natural introversion, Hazel speaks up to challenge this concern:
There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. [. . .] There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitably of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.
While Gus believes a human life is meaningful only within a transcendent framework, Hazel dismisses such belief as wishful thinking and — early on at least — insists on a materialistic framework that encourages cynicism (a point even more pronounced in the book). Both Gus and Hazel compromise, however, and the couple settles on a transcendence within the finitude that is life — an existential insistence on human value despite its obvious limitations.
In a key scene late in the film, Gus alters Hazel’s earlier cynical response to the inevitability of death, offering human determination and bestowal of value as the only hope available:
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.
Green’s story claims its title and tragic mode from Shakespeare, but it borrows its outlook from Albert Camus. A Sisyphus of romance is Gus; this connection is encouraged through the meta-fictionally embedded hamster whose name derives from the mythological figure doomed ceaselessly to push a boulder uphill, as it repeatedly returns to its source. Camus interprets Sisyphus’ struggle against this absurdity as the source of human value; as with Gus, Sisyphus’ defiance of his fate, his insistence on the importance of his task provides all the meaning he needs.
Green’s chaplaincy exposed him to families struggling with unspeakable tragedy and it tested his religious vocational call to its breaking point. He tells Mark McEvoy that in the face of the suffering of children, he found religious teaching unsatisfactory and, as a result, abandoned his ministerial pursuit: “I found myself really unfulfilled by the answers that are traditionally offered to questions of why some people suffer and why others suffer so little [. . .]. I still go to church sometimes but I would not feel comfortable leading the services.”
In that same spirit, The Fault in Our Stars portrays spirituality, particularly Christianity, as irrelevant to the brute fact of this fast-fading world rife with sorrow. Its token Christian is Patrick, the cancer-survivor support group leader whose own bout with testicular cancer motivated his service to others, but his presence — played in the film by Mike Birbiglia — offers more comic relief than substance. Rather than take seriously Patrick’s faithful commitment to the group and his Christian faith bolstering such commitment, Hazel merely mocks Patrick as “ball-less” with a “depressingly miserable life-story.”
Christ’s redemption of the world, His rescuing us from the fault that is most definitely within ourselves, is undercut by Patrick’s inane repetition that the support group meets “in the literal heart of Jesus,” referring to the garish image of Christ prominently displayed on the carpet he unfurls before each meeting. (In the book, this “heart of Jesus” refers to the intersection of crossbeams in the cross-shaped sanctuary). Problematically, the story sanctions this ridicule, a tacitly jaded response to all things spiritual cutting through the storyline. Prayer, the story suggests, is for the weak, and pat answers too often suffice to console; those in the know merely pretend to adopt that posture for the sake of their feebler friends and family.
Yet those who would dismiss Christianity as insubstantial or disconnected from suffering haven’t looked closely enough, mistaking a superficial substitute for the real thing. Trivializing the “literal heart of Jesus” obscures the truth that the cross reveals: at the center of this world is a God whose love for us requires that He share our pain in order to redeem us.
Pain does demand to be felt, as Green’s story rightly notes, and Christ has endured that pain, not to be overcome by it but in order to overcome. Only through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can we claim the promise of Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
“You gave me forever in the numbered days,” Hazel says to Gus, a beautiful sentiment if there ever was one. Interestingly, however, whereas this is at best wishful thinking, it is at worst empty rhetoric within the stultifying confines of a naturalistic paradigm where dissolution and oblivion are indeed inevitable. In a Christian worldview — in which we can partake in eternal life even now, if only we accept
His prescription for our ailment — it is neither wishful thinking nor an empty hope, but rather the remarkable truth.