I’m going to set aside all questions (praises, qualms, what have yous) I have about the book. By and large the book is inextricable from the movie, but what I mean is that the core of the story – its themes – are something that I’d rather not touch. Because honestly, I don’t think there’s much room to do wrong in this genre. You take something that has the capacity to resonate and play with peoples’ heartstrings, and you write it well, and that’s a pretty good recipe right there. As an avid reader of fanfiction and a Harry Potter fan, I know you don’t even have to write it exceptionally well. Just acceptable is, for most people, just fine.
I don’t have a problem with John Green’s writing. I think that TFIOS, while not his best work, carries his style well and is recognizably John Green, capital-capital J, capital-capital G. In fact, most of the things that managed to translate onto screen well were of the elements of his writing – parallels, mirrors, symbols, and, of course, the themes that coursed through the movie, propelling all the characters and moving the story along. I ignore the word ‘pretentious’ for the most part in review of this movie (and book, and Green’s writing in general) because I don’t think it’s at all a bad thing in this context. If any parts of the story itself seemed pretentious, well, then there’s a dozen more literary books out there lauded for their 'pretentiousness'. But the pitfalls of the book carries, too, and it’s a simple matter of characterization that I don’t think is entirely avoidable.
Green has been criticized as writing characters that can be flat and caricature-like. This is my opinion, and it’s my opinion on TFIOS, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an absolute. My opinion in this case is a bias and one that I don’t care if people disagree with. So if, say, one considers Hazel and Gus to be fully fleshed out characters in the books, I would say, okay, but you would be severely disappointed in the movie then. Gus in the movie is completely 2 dimensional, only stepping out of the page after he died. Hazel’s Hazel. Whatever you want to say about the actors, there’s this one inescapable truth: there was nothing else they could have done to make the film better. Absolutely nothing. It all boiled down to the script and directing and both of them failed for the most part to constitute a good movie. And as for the script, to whatever extent it has diluted the plot and characters (not an unforgivably large extent at all), again, there wasn’t much that could have been improved. The fault, dear movie-goers, is not in the movie, or the script, or its actors, not even in the book I would say – it’s in the story John Green chose to tell.
To get nitpicky with the specifics of the movie, I was just plain old pissed off at all the non-textual indicators they put in that led the audience to believe Hazel’s only concern was her inability to find a teenaged but epic (and heterosexual) romance. I say non-textual because sure, Hazel says she’s worried about her parents, and she talks to her parents, but mostly, her life was Gus. And, like, okay, that’s the story. It’s just not a very good one and their method subliminally enforcing that was annoying. Like, John, dude, there’s a million things this girl could be going through, but the most important thing of all is… finding a dude! How… well, most people would say relatable. John Green and co. would probably say marketable. So, okay, yes, I am fully aware of all of this. I’ll shut up about it now, as I should have for all these paragraphs.
Simply put, I have left the world of mainstream YA behind. This isn’t a kind of high horse thing, I’m just leading up to something. The last I was exposed to was The Princess Diaries reread I did last year (and to be fair, Princess Diaries already had a special place in my heart). As far as visual media goes, I watched Glee, Pretty Little Liars, Faking It – all of them, while horrible shows objectively, have gay characters. So, yeah, this is going to come out as extremely harsh: I don’t remember reading TFIOS, that’s how little I cared about it when the book came out. Obviously I know the story going into the movie, but it just didn’t prepare me for being forcefully reintroduced to the world of mainstream YA where gay characters actually aren’t the main characters, or in the story at all. It was like being dunked in cold water. Honestly, what kind of lie am I even trying to spout if I say that I don’t get the appeal? Of course I get the appeal, and I understand it, and I understand it more than most people. That's the problem.
To start with, I’ve always been exposed to people who advocate for increased queer media representation on the grounds that it's is important. Visibility is important, and young people need to see themselves reflected in the media they consume. It’s an overall positive approach. I thought, lack of (positive) media rep is harmful. With so little to go on, we always focused on the lack, and tried to fill the space with whatever representation falls into our laps. I never really thought much about the current media landscape as it is, only how it needs to be changed, how diversity is the step in the right direction every piece of fiction should be taking. I didn't really consider how the exclusive catering to only a certain demographic, addressing only a certain dynamic, can be harmful as well. And for me, it was hurtful.
I’m so far removed from the person I was when I read TFIOS. That person put the book down with a sigh and went about her daily life. I think I was still dating my ex-boyfriend at the time. Now, it’s different. I can’t put this into words because I haven’t properly organized my thoughts yet, but it hurt to see Hazel and Gus, it hurt to see their love story play out so succinctly and poetically. In some ways, people can look at that, that type of love and (I guess) intimacy, and yearn for it as an unattainable thing. I look at it somewhat like that, but more of as just an ideal. One girl, one boy, one love, is an unattainable, ungraspable ideal for me. And I know that this ideal isn’t inherent. I wasn’t born needing to seek out a heterosexual relationship. It’s just that all the stories are about them. These two people. Over and over again. And it’s not that it gets tiring. I don’t think love stories have it in them, to get tired of telling themselves, and people don’t get tired of listening and relating. It just hurts, I guess because I know I’ll never get that, and to get that with a girl, I think, is more challenging and complicated that I don’t even dare to dream of it. I don’t even dare to hope.
So it’s with this in mind that I turn to one of the main controversies surrounding TFIOS – the scene at the Anne Frank House. People have said that it would be acceptable if Hazel was Jewish and that’s true, it is. That would have made so much more sense. Even if she had a slight inclination towards Anne Frank worth even a quarter of her obsession with Peter van Houten. Realistically, I think it would be more complicated to talk of making out in the Anne Frank house, both sufferers of disruptive and terminal diseases that prevented them from living full lives, that deprived them of avenues usually open to the healthy. If they were real people, I’d consider thinking about thinking about it. But this is fiction, and it’s just horse fucking shit. Maybe if they got interrupted and gently asked to leave. Maybe if they just hugged. But no. Aside from the making out, people around them clapped. It was disturbing to read but visually, it was revolting.
John Green merely appropriated the struggles of Anne Frank for the sake of poignancy, to make this scene more climactic than he could have done it otherwise (as if the kiss couldn’t have been inserted into any of the other important Amsterdam scenes). Anne Frank’s story was used as a vehicle to further Hazel and Gus’s heterosexual love. Not that it would have made a difference if they were a gay couple, but who would even give us the chance. The problem is that this isn’t a story about cancer, where I guess we could discuss the extent to which you can use Jewish icons and symbols as mirrors to your personal struggles. (Hint: there is still no extent. That would still be unacceptable.) This is a story about ROMANCE that just happens to include characters with cancer.
Suffice to say, I did not come out of the theater particularly entertained. I would have been in a piss poor mood if I wasn’t with my friends who continued to crack jokes and agreed with me that it was a syrupy, corny, overhyped movie which provided more laughs than tears. One thing that stayed with me, though, was that feeling: it’s me, as an 18 year old, looking back at who I was at 13, 14, and even 15 with envy and sadness, because she still had possibilities laid out in front of her, and because she didn’t know just how bad it was going to get once she realized she could no longer relate or get enthused at reading these clichéd love stories. That feeling can adequately be described as: wanting to lock myself up in my room and listen to the TFIOS soundtrack all day long.