DISCLAIMER: I will be reflecting on the recently released movie The Fault In Our Stars. I have not read the book and so I will not be commenting on that. If you intend to see this film and do not wish to have important plot elements revealed, please do not read this post. Thanks.
The Fault In Our Stars (henceforth TFIOS) is a cancer narrative. The protagonist is Hazel Grace Lancaster, and she had an advanced and terminal cancer diagnosis. She will die, probably in a matter of year, and in the mean-time she edges through life. Her interests are reading ‘The Imperial Affliction’ and waiting to die. She goes to cancer support groups, finds them at turns trying and bathetic, until she happens to (literally) bump in to a young man called Augustus Waters, a young man in remission from his own cancer and possessed of a desire for immortality. Hazel thinks he’s a bit foolish but they get along.
What I would and will argue is TFIOS is primarily about conventional narrative and the importance of convention to human existence, specifically Aristotelean conventions of drama. The movie is not subtle about this: In their first meeting, Hazel invokes hamartia on Gus’s smoking. He doesn’t smoke, it’s a metaphor, but of course Gus (like Hazel) does have a form of hamartia: cancer. In the conventional Aristotelean sense Gus has, like an inverted Achilles, even attempted to overcome his fatal flaw by having his leg amputated. Unfortunately, this is tragedy and the gods and fate will not be denied. Later on, while in Amsterdam and after the two of them have confirmed their status as lovers, Gus reveals that his cancer has recurred.
This would seem to go against the conventional structure. TFIOS does not present a possibility that Gus and Hazel will live happily ever after – Hazel is dying – the expectation is that we will see her decline and die in Gus’s arms. I would argue that the films sets this expectation up only to destroy it within the film. In ‘The Imperial Affliction’ the narrator Anna ends the book halfway through the sentence. This is intended as a signifier that Anna was killed by her cancer without being able to finish her story. Implicitly, the audience’s expectations are set for this to be the narrative arc of the film.
Gus reads the book when Hazel tells him (as part of her story as opposed to her cancer story) and finds this ending unsatisfying. When discussing the book with Hazel, he says that while he acknowledges the stylistic integrity of the choice, the author engages in a contract with the reader to provide closure. The Imperial Affliction does not offer its reader catharsis, so Gus attempts to contact the author of the book, Peter Van Houten, to get the closure denied him and Hazel by the book.
Peter Van Houten becomes a prominent figure in the narrative. Much like his book, he denies Gus and Hazel catharsis. He refuses to give them the closure they seek, and seems to serve the same purpose for the narrative arc of TFIOS at the same time. But this is a misdirection.
Van Houten was devastated by the loss of his daughter to cancer. He wrote The Imperial Affliction to deal with his grief but instead crystallised it. Now he spends his life in Amsterdam, away from Americans (though he is one), drinking scotch and listening to words he doesn’t understand but feels. He is a failed father figure both in this story and in his own; his daughter’s cancer grenade went off and he was destroyed in the blast. He is everything that Hazel fears her parents will become. While tragic, he is the villain of the piece, more than the cancer, because in a story where conventional narrative logic is being rebuilt he exists as a spoiler to that. He refuses to engage with Gus and Hazel’s desire for straightforward closure. He is a riddle-talker, an obfuscator and a denier of life.
As an aside, if I didn’t like the character so much, I think I would probably be quite angry with TFIOS for making such a card-board cut out of libral writer man. He even runs away to Europe rather than be an All American Writer! But I digress.
Van Houten is Hazel’s failed father figure. What about her actual parents? They are, again, quite conventional people trying to walk by their daughter to her death bed. For the first half of the film, they are presented as more than a little pathetic. In Hazel’s own words, she does things not because she wants to, but because she doesn’t want to upset her parents. By the final act of the film they have become lions.
In an emotional scene as she is about to see Gus but her parents want her to eat dinner, Hazel reminds them that she is going to die and her parents need to accept that. There are several threads around Hazel’s parents that are resolved her; Hazel mum will always be her mum even when Hazel is dead, repudiating something said when Hazel was in critical condition at 13 that has haunted her since. Hazel mother also explains that she is not intending to just stop when Hazel dies; she has been taking Social Work classes so that she can try and help people going through what they have. Hazel is delighted. Her life ending won’t end her parents’.
This is a quite clear cut contrast with Van Houten and an endorsement of a cathartic narrative. Van Houten attempted to put his grief into The Imperial Affliction but, because the book lacks an end beyond the pain, he is forced to have no life outside of the pain. Hazel’s parents have learned from their daughter that pain is something that happens to you but that you carry on through it; it changes but does not destroy you.
The resolution of the films narrative is Hegelian. At the beginning, we have the two visions outlined by Gus and by Hazel: glory or oblivion. By the films end, neither is acceptable but elements of both are. Van Houten had glory and in it has found only oblivion. Heather finds that she does not want everyone, and rebukes Gus for his inability to move past his desire for an Achillean legacy, but oblivion is no longer the ultimate for her. The film allows a private closure for the two, as Hazel delivers her eulogy for Gus to him (though she goes on to use a different, less personal one at his funeral). Gus is dead, but Van Houten is sent as an angel of mercy to give his final words to Hazel.