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/

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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From Page to Screen: YA Book-to-Movie Adaptations

blog39blog41With “Divergent” due for release on March 21 and “The Fault in Our Stars” coming up on June 6, it seems an apt moment to look at the successes and failures of other prominent YA book-to-film adaptations. I’m going to look at this hazardous transition and what we can expect from the upcoming releases.

THE BEST

It goes without saying that “The Hunger Games” falls in the ‘best’ category. Both a commercial and critical success, the first two films have respective lifetime grosses of  $408,010,692 and $423,969,843 and ratings on rottentomatoes.com of 84% and 89% fresh. The filmmakers had some difficult hurdles to overcome in adapting this trilogy. They had to make a film about kids killing each other and yet somehow get a certificate which meant kids (their target audience) could go to the cinema, fork out the money for a ticket and actually watch the film. They also had to take a book written in the first person present tense, in which we are able to know the protagonist’s every passing thought, and somehow see those thoughts translate on the screen.

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To counteract the first problem, the director of the first film, Gary Ross, employed a shaky hand-held camera technique when filming the vicious fight scenes. Gifting the scenes with a frenetic and tense energy, this astute maneuver also meant details of the violence were blurred and, most importantly in terms of certification, bloodless.  Casting Jennifer Lawrence, whose talent has since been recognised with a Best Actress Academy Award (for her role as Tiffany Maxwell in “Silver Linings Playbook” last year), was a masterstroke. Lawrence is able to convey so much with very little dialogue, making the need for a corny and intrusive overlaying narration (I’m looking at you, “Twilight”), obsolete. Ross has also discussed the potential benefit and greater artistic freedom in moving away from first person narration:

‘In the book, Katniss speculates about the game-makers manipulations… in the film, we can’t get inside Katniss’ head, but we do have the ability to cut away and actually show the machinations of the Capitol behind the scenes.’

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In some ways, “The Hunger Games” was always bound to make a seamless transition from page to screen. Suzanne Collins has an M.F.A. in dramatic writing and thus self-admittedly paced and structured her novels like a play. While she adapted the books herself, she also noted the necessity of creative subjectivity, leaving superfluous material on the cutting room floor and out of the subsequently sharper screenplay. These films serve as powerful companion pieces to their respective novels and highlight the trilogy’s pervasive themes. Similarities between the Capitols’ vicious voyeurism and their obsession with the cult of celebrity, and our own society’s fixation on reality TV are all the more perceptible when visible on screen, the visual parallels between the games with shows like “The X Factor” and “Big Brother” all the more evident. With Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland adding weight to the cast, a strong female protagonist and some really dark material explored,  these films show that youths aren’t just interested in watching films about sparkling vampires.

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The 2012 adaptation of the 1999 novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” received an 85% rating on rottentomatoes.com and has been embraced by a new generation of teens, despite its inability to please its original fans. I didn’t read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” when I was a teenager and thus never had the strong emotional connection with the book that so many others my age experienced. Some of my friends refused to watch the film on the basis of supposed incorrect casting choices. Indeed, for a book about and embraced by outsiders, it’s difficult to reconcile the misfit literary characters you identified with as an awkward teen with the attractive actors and movie stars portraying them. Logan Lerman, however, I believe succeeds in his portrayal of the introverted and thoughtful eponymous wallflower. Emma Watson, despite a questionable American accent, manages not to be too annoying, which is all we can really ask fblog34or. Ezra Miller really shines as a charismatic dissident who doesn’t express his discontent by offing a load of classmates this time around (see “We Need To Talk About Kevin” – but probs not on Mother’s Day). “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is an epistolary novel and retaining this important sense of communication between narrator and reader subsequently offered a challenge to the filmmakers. This is an occasion in which a voice over feels both necessary and well-utilized. Stephen Chbosky, like Collins, adapted his own novel and noted the importance of remaining unconstrained by the source material. He stated:

‘I think that the process of turning ‘Perks’ into a movie was the most gratifying and challenging work I’ve ever done professionally,’ he said. ‘I had to do a real adaptation — I couldn’t just film the book. It was a real balancing act to simultaneously be emotionally very inside the piece and at the same time always be outside of it to keep it on the train tracks.’

blog33I’m sure fundamentalist fans of the original book have found plenty to complain about. Yet as Chbosky, and Collins, recognise, films and novels are different species of fiction. Sometimes, fans of a book will embrace its film counterpart. In this case, fans of the film have instead been introduced to the book. It’s difficult to bring a book as unabashedly sincere and saccharine as this to life without making its viewers want to vomit and, for succeeding in that mission, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” deserves commendation.

Honourable mentions: “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging” – coming-of-age films which manage to retain the warmth and wit of their source material.

THE WORST

I’m not one of those people who rubbishes a book or film without having read or seen it. I’ve read all four books in the “Twilight” series, and I’ve seen all five films. I can, therefore, say in all confidence that they are all truly atrocious. “The Twilight Saga” had an uphill struggle from the very beginning. How does one even begin to start adapting lines like: blog45

‘You are exactly my brand of heroin.’

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‘And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.’

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‘You are my life. You’re the only thing it would hurt me to lose.’

The only way Melissa Rosenberg (who wrote the screenplays) could have made this film series not laughably bad would have been to completely change the dialogue found in the books. Yet this would in all likelihood have upset the rabid “Twilight” fan base and, consequently, Rosenberg lifts verbal exchanges verbatim from Stephenie Meyer’s abysmal text. The plots in the books are terribly thin, a fact made painfully obvious by their film adaptations, which serve doggedly as an almost literal page-to-screen transcript. There are moments of the first film which are almost enjoyable –  such as the use of Pattinson’s original music during a surprisingly effective and atmospheric montage of Edward’s relationship with Bella near the film’s conclusion.

The acting is extremely wooden, but I don’t actually believe either Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart are terrible actors. Go watch Stewart in “Speak” or “Into the Wild”, and Pattinson in “Cosmopolis” if you don’t believe me. I don’t think anyone could have made those words work and, in the end, the actors just gave up. Pattinson himself has mocked “Twilight”, saying it ‘seemed like a book that wasn’t supposed to be published.’ He observed:

‘I was convinced that Stephanie was convinced she was Bella…It’s like, this woman is mad’ and added ‘the more I read the script, the more I hated this guy, so that’s how I played him, as a manic-depressive who hates himself.’ Check out Pattinson’s response to Jimmy Fallon’s comments about the series ending and fans getting sad:

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There’s even a whole tumblr page dedicated to Pattinson’s personal hatred and derision of the series. See http://rpattzhateshislife.tumblr.com if you fancy a LOL. In fact, for a LOL in general, watch “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” right now. If it had been marketed as a comedy or a satire I’m positive it would have been critically lauded as a pinnacle of the genre.

Of course, “The Twilight Series” was a huge hit financially and it has as many supporters as detractors. In theory I’m a fan of any book series that encourages teenagers to read. Yet “Twilight” is disturbing to me for its central validation of an essentially co-dependent couple, and for its casual inclusion of a female protagonist who utterly falls apart when her boyfriend leaves her and who has no interests or real discernible character traits outside of her romantic relationship. This isn’t romantic, and I find the series’ popularity troubling. “The Twilight Series” illustrates that a film adaptation is only as strong as its source. The studio is the one laughing though: no matter how bad these films were, they raked in the money.

Honourable mentions: “Beastly” – lack of chemistry between leads, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” – lack of chemistry between leads, “The Princess Diaries” – completely removed the charm and individuality of the series, Disney-ified the book and changed almost everything, something Meg Cabot mocked in later books.

THE MIXED BAG

It pains me to say anything critical about my beloved “Harry Potter” series . Yet consisting of eight films, the series was directed by a total of four directors, each leaving their individual stamp and subsequently gifting the series with an inconsistent tone and uneven style. While “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” changed from director Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, the transition was smooth and the directorial style remained remarkably similar, creating a sense of continuation from the world Ross had crafted in the first film. The first two “Harry Potter” films, directed by Christopher Columbus, constituted faithful adaptations of the books.

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There was much to admire about them: they were family-friendly, wholesome and managed to astonishingly capture the magic and originality of the books. I still remember the way I felt when I first saw Diagon Alley, Hedwig, the cupboard under the stairs, and a Quidditch match, or when I first heard John Williams’ score. These first two films are probably a little bloated and the child actors are no Anna Paquin in “The Piano”, but they are still incredibly watchable. The third film saw Alfonso Cuaron take the helm. Often cited as the best film across the whole series, Cuaron took a completely different approach. His approach was much more stylized, and he cut anything he deemed inessential to the plot. The result was a great film, yet missing a few of the smaller details meant some of the humour, charm and characterisation of the novel was lost. Mike Newell, who directed the fourth film, described his task as ‘compressing a huge book into the compass of a movie.’ This was achieved by ‘putting aside’ all those parts of the novel which did not directly relate to Harry and his journey. Unfortunately, Harry and his journey are not the most interesting parts of “Harry Potter”.

I think the “Harry Potter” books are so enduringly popular because the characters and the world they inhabit feel so real. The beauty of the books was in the small details – knowing each of the main characters’ letter-writing styles, or what they bought each other for Christmas, or what they ate for dinner. There is also a vast array of supporting and minor characters, and spells, and fantastic creatures. Yet such extraneous details are almost impossible to capture on film. Some of the most charming parts of the fourth book – the house-elf Winky, Hermione’s S.P.E.W, the Wizarding World Cup game, and Dudley eating the Weasley twins’ ton-tongue toffees, to name a few – had to be eliminated.blog51

The final four films were all directed by David Yates, which meant a greater coherence in style as the series trundled over the years to its conclusion. Filmed over a decade and with an almost completely undisturbed cast, the series is a phenomenon if only for the fact that we got to witness the child actors grow up over film, and the fact that we were able to see some of our favourite literary moments and imaginary locations brought to life. The series is far from perfect (the hideous epilogue being the main culprit), and it’s certainly a legitimate case of the old ‘the books were better’ argument. After all, the magic we imagine inside our own minds can never be matched, even by a stellar special effects team.

We’ll soon know where “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” will fall in terms of critical and commercial success. Both are based on bestselling novels with armies of stringent fans on their sides. Both books have also managed to attract adult readers in addition to young adults – a hugely important factor in gaining revenue. Both films coincidentally star Shailene Woodley, who was praised for her performance in “The Descendants”. The trailers were promising and they’ve already both garnered more significant buzz than “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and “Beautiful Creatures”, recent YA adaptations which performed  disappointingly at the box office. Hopefully both of these adaptations will be able to discard the unnecessary and to recognise the difference between books and films, while retaining those characteristics and quirks which gave the novels their individual flair and made them popular in the first place. I hope this is the case, as there’s something so special about rediscovering your favourite book all over again in another form.