Recently I was interviewed about the problems associated with a program in which a white Australian comedian portrays a disadvantaged, young islander boy. Sure, the actor had created a character who was offensive in about every way conceivable, but that wasn’t the issue that concerned me most. It was the way a majority culture chose to portray a minority culture and the mocking stereotypes that perpetuated. What Jonah From Tonga does for Pacific islanders, The Fault In Our Stars does for Christians.
This heart-tugging tale about Hazel and Gus, two teenage cancer patients who fall in love, is based on the almost universally acclaimed novel by John Green. His story reigned atop The Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller lists for multiple weeks and was named the best fiction book of 2012 by Time Magazine. In the face of that praise, and because the movie sticks so closely to its parent, it’s going to be very hard to voice any criticism. But here goes…
First, the positives. I’m in favour of any book that helps any age group discuss and consider the realities of death. Last I checked, it was an event 100% of men and women would experience across a wide range of demographics, yet it still remains closest to the last obscenity in the English language. If you don’t believe me, try asking someone what they think of the topic the next time you’re invited to dinner. In particular, I think it’s important for teens to consider death because doing so at that formative time can affect the direction of an entire life:
“It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.”
I know personally that nearly drowning at 17 had a huge affect on my perspective, and I believe adults who consider teens too young to examine this reality will only leave them unprepared for death’s inevitable introduction, courtesy of car crashes, drug overdoses and, saddest of all, youth suicide. However, for that reason, the advice The Fault In Our Stars offers becomes that much more crucial.
The main character, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) suffers from thyroid cancer and is forced to attend a teenage support group by her well-meaning parents. This becomes the venue in which she meets the endearing Augustus Waters, a survivor who lost his leg to cancer. It’s also the motivation for the pair to express their mocking disdain for the Christian running the group. Patrick is made to bear the burden of every religious stereotype conceivable, from sappy guitar singing and religious rug making to insincere and ill-informed encouragement – and quite a few non-Christian ones as well. He’s addicted to video games, lives in his parents’ basement and has had his testicles cut off. There is no way any teenager is going to consider him a role model.
But by contrast Hazel and ‘Gus’ are the perfect couple: attractive, comic, engaging in philosophy on the one hand while refusing to let go of life’s physical joys with the other. Their perspective is thoughtful, occasionally agnostic and often moving. If it’s also occasionally petty and hedonistic then the audience can forgive them – after all, what’s more tragic or more justifying than beautiful lives cut short? And I don’t see any problem with a modern film promoting that. It’s basically the majority’s approach they have a right to maintain it. However dressing your opponent as a fool doesn’t actually strengthen your argument.
Hazel’s perspective is a species of nihilism that’s shined up for the cameras and accepted without criticism – after all, who would know more about death than someone who’s dying? The sad thing, though, is that she hardly engages with death at all beyond labeling it the full stop to life. Her worldview is solipsistic and locked. She’s dismissive of God, angels and any mention of miracles – though she has benefited from the ‘miraculous’ success of a drug – and the afterlife is too uncertain a concept to contemplate. This is why, she tells Angus, they have to find their meaning in everything that comes before:
Gus: “I always I thought Id have a grand story to tell I always thought I’d be special.”
Hazel: “This is your life this is all you get! You get me and your family and this life and you have to be happy with that!”
Gus: “It’s a good life Hazel Grace.”
Hazel: “And it’s not over yet!”
And so her struggle becomes all about wresting the most from her limited existence (while hoping not to hurt those around her) and going bravely into the void with the knowledge of having tasted love. Not surprisingly Gus’ virginity is presented as something tragic and their fading lives the justification for them having sex while they can. But the greatest tragedy in this film is that it only considers death’s symptoms. The Fault In Our Stars is that though it rightly weeps over the Hazel and Gus’ approaching deaths, it does so without considering its cause or the responsibility the couple might bear.
I think that particular ‘r’ word might offend some – how could such a loving pair bear any responsibility for the death they face? I want to be clear that a young life cut short is always a tragedy. This is not how it was meant to be. But the death Hazel and Gus face is no particular mark of wisdom; fools and sages alike have entered the grave. The Bible is crystal clear that our demise is the result of humanity turning away from the author of life. The more we reject God in life, the more we choose the only other option awaiting us. The Fault In Our Stars is a fiction, but it’s based on a sad truth. Death is often painful, frequently heart-breaking and always humiliating. It is an approaching abyss that should sober us. However rejecting the safety God might provide because we wish to define our own solution will not help us safely bridge that void.
Release Date: June 5