As we came out of the theater into the lobby, the mother turned to her teenage daughter and asked, “Is that what you wanted?” I found it an odd question. Not, “Did you like the movie?” or “Did you think it was as good as the book?” But: “Is that what you wanted?” As if to say, “Did it satisfy your need? Did you get your fix?”
The movie we had just seen was The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of John Green’s best-selling young adult, or “new adult,” novel of the same name. And indeed, since the book’s publication in early 2012, The Fault in Our Stars has served as a kind of heroin for teenage and not-so-teenage girls.
The book has sold more than 10 million copies (and so far in 2014, it’s still the bestselling book in the United Kingdom). On its opening weekend in the United States, the movie shoved aside Tom Cruise’s sci-fi thriller, Edge of Tomorrow, for number 1, and has already grossed over $164 million worldwide.
The Fault in Our Stars is a 21st-century story of star-crossed young lovers, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who meet in a cancer support group for teenagers. She is battling thyroid cancer; he, though currently cancer free, lost a leg to osteosarcoma. It’s a seductive tale, not least because it glorifies illicit teenage sex, but more importantly, because it glorifies the particular kind of authenticity young audiences crave.
Hazel Grace’s first-person narration in the book, in fact, is a kind of homage to Holden Caulfield’s sweetly disaffected irony in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Like Holden, both Hazel Grace and Augustus are desperately seeking authenticity in a world of phoniness. Their parents, doctors, friends, cancer support group – in one way or another, all fail to deliver what they need to make sense of their looming and untimely deaths.
So what they turn to for authenticity is, first, their romance, a romance given a certain mawkish poignancy by their illnesses. Hazel Grace and Augustus fall in love as teenagers do, but they bond in part over the fact that they know, in a way not even their parents and doctors can ever know, what it really means to have to deal with a fatal disease.
Parents play a somewhat bigger role in The Fault in Our Stars than they do in The Catcher in the Rye, but they nonetheless do little more than hover in the background with cheerfully supportive smiles and greeting card advice. In the movie, after Hazel Grace and Augustus enjoy an afternoon of bliss, it is clear that Hazel Grace’s mother suspects them but chooses to remain silent. Teenage sex seems to be regarded by her as play in the Garden of Innocence, and the fact that the young lovers both have cancer makes their interlude that much more agonizingly piquant.
But what makes The Fault in Our Stars more interesting than your garden-variety young adult novel is the second way in which Hazel Grace and Augustus find authenticity, and that is through a philosophical questioning of their predicament as young people with terminal illnesses. They each want to know whether life and suffering have any point.
In the cancer support session where they first meet, Hazel Grace makes her stand on these issues plain:
There will come a time. . .when all of us are dead. . . .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 will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this. . .will have been for naught. . . .And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.
This speech occurs in the first chapter of the novel. You expect the narrative to deliver an arc in which Hazel Grace undergoes a transformation in her thinking. But it doesn’t. Much later, in a conversation with the author of her favorite novel, a favorite because of its authentic portrayal of dealing with cancer, the author, now a cynical alcoholic, suddenly asks Hazel Grace if she’s ever heard of Antonietta Meo, a six-year-old Italian girl from the 1930s who died of osteosarcoma (and has since been declared Venerable by the Church).
Hazel Grace says no. The author continues:
They removed her right leg. The pain was excruciating. As Antonietta Meo lay dying at the ripened age of six from this agonizing cancer, she told her father, “Pain is like fabric: The stronger it is, the more it’s worth.” Is that true, Hazel?
Perhaps she does – but it is only a wish. Hazel Grace and Augustus see themselves as set apart from others by the “good faith” of their authentic questioning. But their questions do not receive anything like adequate answers; for them, authenticity means realizing that the universe does not really care about us, that suffering does not have a point. Both book and novel openly mock the Christian response to suffering. All that endures is the memory of romance – and this only until oblivion comes.
The Fault in Our Stars is quite possibly exerting a greater philosophical influence upon young people in our culture than all the intros to philosophy combined. We have to find better stories to meet the needs of those who, like the girl at the screening I went to, come to this story as part of their own search for authenticity. The fault will be grave if we do not.