Film Review – The Fault in Our Stars

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Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can say that “The Fault in Our Stars” is truly a great adaptation of its source material, as well as a great film in its own right. I went to see the film with my sceptical mother, who became even more sceptical once she realised the demographic was comprised (other than us) of 13 year-old girls. I’m sadistically happy to report that she ended the film crying her eyes out in the bathroom.

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What makes this film so good, and consequently so upsetting, is how authentic and familiar the teenage characters feel – especially the manner in which they face their predicaments. The protagonist, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), states in her introductory narration that this isn’t a film about beautiful people learning beautiful life lessons. Her unfortunate life circumstances and her tragic story aren’t treated as precursors to a moment of epiphany. People in Hazel’s world don’t die because God needs another angel. Her diagnosis, and the diagnoses of her friends, are unfair and random mistakes with no greater philosophical meaning. The absence of a silver lining or a life lesson is what makes the film so hard to swallow, but ultimately so refreshing.

fblog97Woodley is just perfect as Hazel, combining her cynical wit with vulnerability. Her relationship with her parents is, if it’s possible, even more heartbreaking in the film than in the book. The flashbacks to Hazel receiving treatment as a child deepen the later moments with her parents. Her mum (Laura Dern) expresses so much without words; the look on her face when she tells Hazel she can’t afford to take her to Amsterdam, the panic every time Hazel calls her name, and the cheery grin failing to mask so much anxiety, are all tough to watch.fblog93

As in the book, the male lead Augustus (Ansel Elgort) starts off as something of a wish-fulfillment figure or a male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl prototype, the initial courtship between Hazel and Augustus a little forced. Yet he soon evolves into a fully-developed character in his own right. His role as the confident, charismatic hero helping the more sombre heroine to live a little makes his own story arc all the more affecting, his evolution all the more shocking.

Like the book it remains so faithful to, the film upends the so-called ‘cancer genre’ cliches. “The Fault in Our Stars” replaces sentimentality with realism and ironically produces something that’s even more emotionally moving as a result. Tissues advised.

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For my  full review of the book have a gander at https://madwomaninanattic.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/book-review-the-fault-in-our-stars/

Film Review – Divergent (spoiler light-ish)

blogd1 blogd2“Divergent” made an impressive $56 million during its opening weekend, easily leaving recent YA adaptation box office flops “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” trailing forlornly in the dust. Adapted from Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy, the film has been hotly anticipated as the potential successor to the colossal “The Hunger Games” trilogy. There are indeed certain cursory similarities. “Divergent” is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago in which society is divided by personality type into five distinct factions. “The Hunger Games” is set in a similarly post-apocalyptic United States, in which an autocratic ‘Capitol’ presidblogd11es over twelve sharply divided districts. Yet while “The Hunger Games” revolves around a teenaged heroine, it never feels like it can merely be enjoyed and appreciated by the very age group it portrays. The idea of a reality program in which children fight to the death as a punishment for their parents’ insurrection is both clever and disturbing; its uncanny parallels with our reality-obsessed society can be appreciated by people of all ages. The premise of “Divergent” is much less inventive. The surviving population of Chicago is separated into factions: Dauntless (the brave), Erudite (the smart), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest) and Abnegation (the selfless). This form of cataloging taps into our obsession with self-categorization and self-analysis, attested to by the sheer volume of ‘Which (insert anything here) are you?’ quizzes on Buzzfeed. To this day I have friends discussing which Hogwarts house they’d be sorted into, or even whether they’d be a House Stark or a House Lannister if they lived in Westeros. Indeed there’s now even a Buzzfeed quiz for “Divergent” fans – see http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariellecalderon/which-divergent-faction-do-you-actually-belong-in (I was Abnegation: apparently if I was Tris I’d have stayed safely in my faction and there’d be no story to tell).

blogd8 blogd10But (spoiler) some people don’t fit neatly into one category. These people are ‘divergent’. So the film has a very simply premise with a very simple message: people are complicated and conformity is bad. Criticisms of the plot’s basis aside, my reaction to watching much of “Divergent” can be summarized by this gif…

blogd13The film was entertaining and easy to watch. Despite its 139 minute running time, it didn’t feel particularly bloated or inclusive of superfluous material. The extended time meant the film was able to develop the central relationship and flesh out the protagonists’ characters realistically. The hamminess and simplicity of the plot itself was countered by the fun of self-insertion into the narrative. (What faction would I be in? What would my fear landscape look like?) The charisma of, and chemistry between, the two leads really anchored the film and more than made up for the unremarkable story and the vaguely tedious climax. Shailene Woodley proved her acting chops in “The Descendants” a couple of years ago and she proves them again here as the Abnegation-turned-Dauntless sixteen year old Tris Prior. She manages to deliver some fairly cheesy lines with a straight face (which is more than can be said for the cast of “Twilight”) and, like Jennifer Lawrence, is able to convey conflicting emotions and thoughts, described in detail using the first person narrative in the source material, with just a facial expression. I wasn’t sure about Theo James as the semi-Byronic Four when I first heard the casting news but he turned out to be more than a match for Woodley. Just look at the angst and intensity!

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“Divergent” is definitely flawed and, superficial comparisons aside (strong female lead, dystopian setting), it’s definitely no “The Hunger Games”. It is, however, a highly gratifying experience if you try not to compare it to anything that’s come before it. Masquerading as an action piece, it’s effectively a straightforward and slightly hokey romance and coming-of-age story centered around a futuristic sorting hat. And I’m looking forward to the next helping in March 2015.

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Book Review – The Fault in Our Stars

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I know I’m late to the party on this one, and John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” is now so ubiquitous that this review will serve as little more than a mere shout of praise into the void. For all Green’s novel does to upend clichés, I’m going to use one of my own: I couldn’t put this book down. Narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen year old diagnosed with Stage 4 Thyroid cancer with metastatis, it’s not one for the emotionally fragile. Be warned, here’s a typical tumblr response after having read the book…

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Fans are now eagerly awaiting the release of the film adaptation on June 6. There was recently a fair amount of controversy surrounding the film, specifically its tagline – ‘one sick love story’ – from those who felt this play on words was a glib and crass marketing strategy. On first reading about this online I agreed with critics that such a tagline seemed insensitive due to its source material’s serious subject matter. Yet, after having read “The Fault in Our Stars” myself, I’m not sure that this tagline doesn’t actually wholly encapsulate the tone and message of the novel: sick teens are still just teblogfaultens, experiencing those same thoughts, desires and anxieties experienced by their physically healthy peers. They’re certainly confronted with their own mortality a whole lot earlier, but that doesn’t mean they want to be treated by strangers as though they’ve already got one foot in the grave. The literary paradigm of the kid with cancer as the heroic and ethereal martyr who teaches a life lesson to those left living is challenged and disproved repeatedly throughout “The Fault in Our Stars”. Instead Green writes about a cancer patient egging his ex-girlfriend’s car and smashing up a basement. He writes about cancer patients mocking their support counselors and sneaking bottles of champagne and worrying about losing their virginity. The characters are teenagers, eye-rolling, video game-playing teenagers, desperately angry about the injustice of their diagnoses and alternating rapidly from sentence to sentence between treating their medical situations with ironic humour and with utter despair. They’re not saints, nobly touching the lives of those around them. Nicholas Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember” this is not.blogfault4

Nicholas Sparks writes in “A Walk to Remember”: ‘Without suffering, there’d be no compassion.’ I’m pretty sure Hazel and Augustus would take Sparks’ novel and shove it up his ass. Green writes:

‘”Without pain, how could we know joy?” This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.’

blogfault6blogfault7“The Fault in Our Stars” shares similarities with Jenny Downham’s “Before I Die”, (adapted to film as “Now Is Good”) which follows Tessa, a teenage leukemia patient, as she attempts to complete her bucket list. Tessa, like Hazel, doesn’t want to be defined by her diagnosis. Adam, like Augustus, helps her to live a little. Yet I found the central romance in “The Fault in Our Stars” more touching, perhaps due to the pains Green goes to in order to develop his protagonists’ individual personalities. I initially feared the romantic lead, Augustus Waters, a seventeen year old in remission from osteosarcoma, would be a thinly drawn character, too idealised to illicit any sort of real response from the reader. He  initially seemed  a character who existed only within the confines of a narrow literary purpose: to express attraction towards Hazel. He seemed a boy written conveniently to bring her back to life (a male Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if you will). Despite my initial misgivings, Augustus evolved into a fully-fledged character in his own right.

“The Fault in Our Stars”, according to the Daily Mail, belongs to a genre of YA “sick-lit”. Apparently disease, and other real issues faced by countless young people, are topics unsuitable for the very children and teenagers who may be affected by them.  Like Jenny Downham’s “Before I Die”, “The Fault in Our Stars” refuses to patronise its young readers. The book tackles universal themes through its cancer-afflicted protagonists: the desire to feel like you’ve impacted the world in some way, the desire to live an extraordinary life. Augustus wants to be loved widely as well as deeply. His greatest fear is oblivion. Hazel wants to kiss Augustus but worries that she’s a grenade, ready to explode and hurt those closest to her. If dealing with life, death and all the stuff in between is “sick”, then all good literature should belong to this genre. Green should wear this categorisation as a badge of honour.

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In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, Cassius says to Brutus: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’
The title of Green’s novel says it all. Sometimes life is truly unfair and random and cruel. The respective fates of Hazel and Augustus and Isaac are not within their control. The fault is in their stars. Their situations are expressed by Green with compassion, sympathy and understanding, but never with moralising or condescension. Green blends the comic and the tragic and consequently creates a story which reflects the reality of everyday life.

But don’t take my word for it. Just go and read it. Okay? Okay.

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