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Fall 2014

Agora Fall 2014 Ames

The Fault in Our Stars’s Authentic Portrayal of a Family Struggling with a Child’s Terminal Illness


The recent film adaptation of John Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars has sparked contentious debates in the blogosphere concerning broader issues only loosely linked to this particular text, such as the cross-over phenomenon (adult readers flocking to young adult literature), and narrower issues specifically connected to the subject matter of Green’s work, such as critiques of “sick-lit” and tear-jerking melodramas more broadly.  Despite being incredibly interested in these impassioned discussions, all of these debates slowly drifted out of my mind when I sat down to watch the film in the theater because all of them seemed to ignore what I felt the film did especially well:  create a narrative that gets close to representing some of the real challenges families face when struggling to support an adolescent through the diagnosis of a potentially terminal illness.   Perhaps I see this so readily because it is an experience my own family went through. 

The Fault in Our Stars focuses on sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), who almost died at age 13 when her thyroid cancer metastasized to her lungs.  Although she recovered miraculously due to an experimental drug treatment, her illness has left her bound to her portable oxygen tank, feeling depressed and unable to experience adolescence as a typical teenage girl should.  The narrative starts when she meets Augustus (Gus) Waters (Ansel Elgort) after being forced by her mother to attend a local support group for teenage cancer patients.   The two physically collide on the way to the group session and soon after they engage in fast-witted verbal banter as the charismatic and confident Gus spouts his optimistic life outlook which contrasts greatly with Hazel’s own more skeptical perceptions.  And, as would be expected of any romance-centered drama (let alone a young adult one), the courtship blooms into an epic love story.

The majority of the criticisms launched at this film focus on how the love story distracts from its ability to realistically portray the illness at the center of the narrative.  However, for me, the love story – although certainly marketed as the central focus of the film – was not the heart of the film.  While the scenes between the star-crossed lovers did make me tear up on occasion, the real waterworks came from the many scenes devoted to Hazel’s family, particularly those focused on her relationship with her mother. 

The history and importance of this relationship is established through emotionally difficult flashback scenes in which an extremely young looking, frail, bald thirteen-year-old Hazel is dying in a hospital bed unable to breathe as her lungs fill up with liquid.  The first time viewers are presented with this scene it ends with Hazel’s mother trying to comfort her, telling her that it’s okay to let go, and then collapsing into her husband’s arms crying.  However, the second time viewers see this scene it continues on a minute longer as they hear the next line of dialogue that has haunted Hazel for years.  Her mother, in between sobs, says to her husband in a pained voice:  “I won’t be a mom anymore.”  This comment is the origin for Hazel’s many concerns about how her inevitable death will affect those who love her.  It’s the concern that accounts, in part, for her fixation with her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, which drive much of the narrative. [Spoiler Alert].  Hazel eventually confronts her mother about overhearing this comment years ago.  As the film nears its close, Hazel shares her fear that her parents will completely unravel when she is gone (especially her mother who has devoted the past few years completely to her care).  Her mother apologizes, saying that, she was wrong to have made that remark and that even after Hazel is gone, she will always be her mother.  Hazel’s mother expresses how difficult it will be to move past losing her when the time comes, but shares that she does, in fact, have a plan for life in the after:  she hopes to be a social worker helping families who are faced with similar situations.

Although these were the more dramatic mother-daughter scenes in the film, there were others that were equally emotional, although more subtly delivered. Green did a terrific job of accurately representing the unspeakably difficult role a parent is placed in when a child is struggling with a potentially terminal illness.  The many scenes in which her mother ran frantically into Hazel’s bedroom expecting a health catastrophe after Hazel called out in excitement (which was misinterpreted as pain) demonstrate that tense feeling faced by parents of sick children – of always fearfully waiting for the other shoe to drop.  The scenes in which Hazel would grow frustrated with her mother’s ceaseless optimism (e.g. when the mother naively suggests that even though they didn’t get to see all the sites in Amsterdam on their big trip that maybe they could all come back one day to finish up their sightseeing), display the emotional tightrope dance that such a parents will go through to try to raise their children’s spirits, to foster (and cling to) hope. 

It was while watching these scenes in the theater that I felt like I had two simultaneous movies running through my mind:  the fictional one on the screen and a real one comprised of memories from my family’s past.  My younger sister was diagnosed with leukemia at the turn of her eighteenth birthday.  Like Hazel, she made a miraculous recovery, despite having only been given a 10 percent chance of survival.  Her battle with cancer, although no less horrific and grueling, was shorter and ended on a happier note than this fictional tale as she will soon celebrate her twelfth year in remission.  She will turn thirty as a married woman with three beautiful kids (something she was also told would likely not be possible after the extensive rounds of chemotherapy she underwent). 

Since the teen characters in The Fault in Our Stars were a bit larger-than-life, I didn’t always see my sister in them even though they were close in age and circumstance.  But, at times, I did.  What rang true the most was the moments when Hazel and Gus (and Isaac) showed that, cancer aside, they were still teenagers focused on teenage things (e.g. like the devastation of break-ups).  It reminded me of how it was my sister’s then boyfriend who was able to convince her to go through with the first blood transfusion she needed when the rest of us could not get her to overcome this fear.  The scenes of the characters hanging out in Gus’s basement playing video games or driving around egging cars reminded me of how in those long days in the hospital it was my sister’s friends who could more readily draw out the easy smiles and laughs as they talked and acted like normal teen friends, hanging out and munching on fast food, ignoring the medical backdrop.  And it was the scenes that showcased Hazel’s longing to just lead a normal teenage life that made me remember how frustrating it was for my sister to abide by the many restrictions placed upon her after first being released from the hospital (e.g. avoiding public places, or wearing face masks when she did venture into them).

But it was not her alone who I saw within this fictional story.  It was also my mother.  The scenes of young Hazel almost dying as her mother watched on were difficult for me on one level because I am now a mother of two young daughters and it is my greatest fear (perhaps because of my sister’s history) that I will outlive either of them.  Like many mothers, I cry easily at any narrative involving a sick or dying child.  But this is not the only reason these scenes were so painful for me to watch.  Becoming a mother has also provided me with that type of clarity we only get in retrospect – that ability later in life to fully empathize with our parents’ experiences only after we have become parents ourselves.  Every scene with Hazel’s mother conjured up thoughts of my own and made me realize just how unaware I was at 22 years of age of what my single mother was going through as she watched her youngest child teeter at the edge of death.  I don’t think I thought for a second that my sister would die.  I don’t think I knew how grim the statistics were and – knowing that my peculiar response to personal tragedies is to go numb, and that even in less dire circumstances I have been known to play the role of the ostrich in the sand – I likely didn’t ask.  But even if I had known every medical fact, I still wouldn’t have understood the sense of fear and the anger that arises when you contemplate the unfair possibility of burying your own child.   That Hazel’s mother would put her life on pause to be there every moment for her daughter rang completely true to me as my own mother spent every day of my sister’s hospital stay alongside of her – only running home for a shower and change of clothes when relieved by another visitor or for a weekend night when I could take her place while she slept, I imagine, fitfully, in her own bed.  When I cried during these scenes I realize that I was crying as much for my mother as I was Hazel’s – and that I was crying for myself as well, and for how incredibly guilty I felt for not being able to see then what I see now:  what an incredibly lonely time in my mother’s life that must have been… what an incredibly lonely time it would be for any parent facing such a situation.

And while the film does present viewers with an ideal of sorts when it comes to Hazel’s family (e.g. they have the financial means to allow for her mother to not work and exist solely as Hazel’s caretaker for years; her parents have a supportive marriage that allows them to be there for each other and their daughter through any and all hardships), at the core of this storyline is an authentic truth about the difficulties that a family faces when a child is seriously ill.  And it is this, rather than all the other hype, that I am choosing to celebrate about this film.