Warning: This post contains spoilers for both the film and book version of The Fault In Our Stars.
With 10.7 million copies sold, 78 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Young Adult Best Seller List and 46 translated editions in print, The Fault in Our Stars is a certified phenomenon. Movie ticket seller Fandango announced that the film adaptation, released today, is now the company's top pre-selling romance of all time. This is unsurprising: The film's trailer is the most "liked" video on YouTube with 300,000 upvotes. It has been viewed more than 20 million times.
John Green's YA blockbuster about a brief romance between two cancer-stricken teens has clearly touched the hearts and tear-ducts of millions — and with good reason. TFIOS, as fans call it, is an earnest, funny and heartbreaking tale that leaves you bereft yet hopeful in the way that only the best love stories can.
As with any wildly popular addition to the young adult cannon, TFIOS' messages matter. Comparisons to other teen-geared romances like Twilight have been inevitable (as well as some controversy surrounding Green's incredible star power), but TFIOS has some decidedly more progressive lessons about life, love and family to impart on fans. In honor of the film's release, we've compiled some of the most important ways TFIOS' take on young love defies convention. Get the tissues ready and enjoy, Nerdfighters!
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Sixteen-year-old Hazel is remarkably clever, thoughtful and conscientious. She loves to read and philosophize (not always correctly), but also loves reality television, and can be moody and insecure. (The most glaring example of this is when she Facebook stalks Gus' dead ex-girlfriend).
Green has told readers he wanted to establish Hazel as very much a teenager: "More generally she is still human and developing emotionally at the standard human rate, and not at some wildly increased rate of development that's only available to you if you have incurable cancer or whatever."
This is important not only because it means treating teenager characters with respect, but also because girls deserve to see all different versions of themselves reflected in literature. As a three-dimensional human, rather than a saintly cancer survivor or kick-ass warrior, Hazel follows in the footsteps of characters from the likes of Judy Blume and Laurie Halse Anderson, and is just as important to young adult lit as Katniss or Tris.
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Gus begins the story as something of a manic pixie dream boy, relying on his cocksure charm to win Hazel over and help her see the joy in life. In reality, he is far from the perfect teen heartthrob.
Like Hazel, Gus is first and foremost a teenager, not a "cancer kid." Despite being handsome and outwardly confident, his prosthetic leg makes him insecure. He holds a cigarette between his teeth when he is feeling most vulnerable — like when he is first talking to Hazel. He misuses words like "soliloquy" and fetishizes problematic ideas of heroism. And his grand, capital-R Romantic gestures often backfire, like when he drives to a gas station while ill and ends up in the emergency room.
Gus' journey is one from strength to weakness, and as the story progresses, we see through all of his grandstanding to the frightened, dying teenage boy underneath. This doesn't make him less lovable — it just makes him human.
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TFIOS treats sex with an endearing frankness absent from many romances. Similar to a scene of virginity loss in star Shailene Woodley's previous indie romance The Spectacular Now, the most remarkable thing about the sex in TFIOS is how utterly unremarkable is it. Hazel says in the book, "No headboards were broken" (looking at you, Twilight).
As the first, and only time, Hazel and Gus have sex, the moment is powerful without additional movie-romance pretense. The brief tangling of Hazel's cannula as she tries to take off her shirt and Gus' momentary embarrassment about her seeing his leg without its prosthetic do well to remind us that these are still two very sick kids, but also adds a sort of sweet, awkward realism that makes the scene feel more honest — and moving — than cheesy scores or billowing sheets ever could.
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Hazel's obsession with America's Next Top Model becomes a running gag in the book (and somewhat less obviously throughout the film). No, ANTM is not a particularly feminist show. It is, however, a show adored by many teen girls (... and 25-year-old women).
Because these girls and the things they love are often brutally disdained by pop culture, it's nice to see a female character who can have a penchant for stereotypically girl things without being immediately dismissed as vapid or silly. Hazel is still a clever, precocious teen who simply likes what she likes. What's more, her love for bad reality television doesn't preclude her from reading less teen-centric fare like Emily Dickinson poems, the over-600 page tome An Imperial Affliction nor Gus' video game-based Max Mayhem series.
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At first, it seems that Hazel's mother has completely given up her life to care for (and hover around) her daughter. This pains Hazel — not because she disapproves of the life of a stay-at-home mom, but because she is concerned with how her parents will fare after her death.
Towards the end of the story, however, we learn that Hazel's mom hasn't actually been pouring over medical bills in the car whenever Hazel goes to support group or the mall — she's been doing homework. In one of the most moving moments of both the novel and film, she tells her daughter that she's taking classes towards a masters degree in social work, so that she can counsel families going through experiences similar to their own. Far from being hurt, Hazel is overjoyed that her mom has been doing something for herself.
Image Credit: The Fault In Our Stars
"Sick lit" typically involves a wayward male falling for an quirky, wise-beyond-her-years young woman who is on the brink of (delicate, beautiful) death. As Eliza Berman writes in Slate, "In her graceful dying she teaches him how to truly live."
While TFIOS certainly adheres to some conventions of the genre, it also defies tropes of romantic, cancer-driven tear-jerkers like Love Story and The Notebook through it's most gut-wrenching twist: It's the male lead who is facing (the more immediate, in this case) death — a realistic and painful one, no less. Though Hazel spends much of the book worrying how her death will affect those around her, Gus becomes the "grenade."
Image Credit: Giphy
Beyond gender-swapping, TFIOS further bends its genre in that both the male and female lead help the other live richer lives. This isn't a story about growing into a better person through the tragic beauty of a saintly lover's death; it's about finding meaning through a partner's life.
Gus teaches Hazel not to define herself by her illness, and that dying doesn't mean she doesn't deserve the love both of himself and her family. Hazel shows Gus that world-renowned accomplishments aren't the mark of an extraordinary life, because simply being loved is extraordinary in itself.