No Fault in These Stars: Successfully Adapting a Beloved Book to Film

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You know how this story goes: You show up to a movie theater and watch in horror as your favorite characters become unrecognizable strangers, your favorite lines are mangled, your favorite scenes eliminated from the narrative entirely. When the credits start to roll, that feeling you had when you closed your book isn’t just absent, it’s been replaced by the feeling that you’ve paid to witness a fundamental misunderstanding of a story you loved. Imagine showing up to a date and discovering your significant other has been turned into a zombie, except instead of brains it wants $10 for popcorn.

At its core, here’s what a movie adaptation actually is: It’s letting someone other than the author re-tell you the story you loved. A lot of someones, in fact. Producers, a director, editors, camera operators, actors, costume designers, music composers and supervisors, lighting designers, location scouts, set designers. These people are going to tell you your story with new tools: with their bodies and their voices, with cameras and with bits of the world, performed and captured and spliced together into something you go into a dark room to watch with a bunch of people you don’t know. You’re going to be told your story with minutes, not pages, with recorded sounds and images, instead of the voices and pictures in your head. And the way these people have been able to tell you the story — the amount of money it costs to tell a story this way and the number of people they have to answer to in order to tell it — is drastically different from the way the author was able to tell you your story. Publishing is a profit-driven industry, sure, but it pales in comparison to the American film industry, and the need to make movies that make money is staggering. Given all of that, I understand why the stories I love change when they’re adapted from the page to the screen.

A crowd of thousands of teenagers in line at the Demand Our Stars preview event at War Memorial Auditorium. Thousands of teenagers lined up for a chance to meet an author. #teenagersaresomuchmoreawesomethantheygetcreditfor
A crowd of thousands of teenagers in line to see John Green and the stars of  The Fault in Our Stars at the Demand Our Stars preview event, which took place at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium last month.

So perhaps you can understand why, when I was offered the opportunity to go see an advance screening of 20th Century Fox’s adaptation of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars, a book I loved so deeply I almost can’t put it into words, I almost said no.

I won’t lie. Having a VIP badge made me feel REALLY cool. Thank you, 20th Century Fox.
I won’t lie. Having a VIP badge made me feel REALLY cool. Thank you, 20th Century Fox and Allied Integrated Marketing.

But I am so glad I said yes, because the thing about letting other people re-tell you a story you loved is, every now and then, they tell you something new, something that changes or deepens your understanding of the story itself, something that reveals a hidden part of the story that you couldn’t have discovered on your own with just the words on the page.

Listen: The Fault in Our Stars is not just a faithful adaptation (“faithful” being the word of choice used by movie studios who hope book fans show up to the movie theater). The actors don’t just say the lines written for their characters in the book. The set dressers didn’t just, for example, carefully place Indiana license plates on all the cars in the film, even though the film was shot in Pittsburgh, because the book takes place in Indiana.

There’s a scene in both the book and the film in which the two protagonists, Hazel, a girl with thyroid cancer that has metastasized in her lungs (“my lungs suck at being lungs,” she explains) which forces her to carry an oxygen tank everywhere, and Gus, a boy whose osteosarcoma resulted in the amputation of one of his legs below the knee, go to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It’s not really important for the point I’m about to make why or how they go, just that they do. The Anne Frank House has a lot of stairs, and here’s how Hazel describes climbing the first set of them in the novel:

“It was fourteen steps. I kept thinking about the people behind me — they were mostly adults speaking a variety of languages — and feeling embarrassed or whatever, feeling like a ghost that both comforts and haunts, but finally I made it up, and then I was in an eerily empty room, leaning against the wall, my brain telling my lungs  it’s okay it’s okay calm down it’s okay and my lungs telling my brain oh, God, we’re dying here.”

Hazel’s description of climbing all the stairs continues for about another page after that. She says things like, “I looked up and figured I could not do it, but also knew the only way through was up,” and “blackness encroached around my field of vision as I pulled myself up, eighteen steps, steep as hell.”

It is one thing to read those words on the page and imagine what Hazel describes. It is another thing entirely to watch the scene unfold as all of the people who are telling you this story use every tool available to them to bring it to life. Actress Shailene Woodley visibly struggles to breathe as she slowly climbs each step. Director John Boone and the production crew’s compositional choices reveal just how steep and narrow the staircases are, conveying a kind of claustrophobia, a sense that the walls are closing in on Hazel just as the cancer in her body threatens to close in on her life. The sound editors captured and incorporated the audio experience of the house into the scene, so that as you watch Hazel climb, you hear voices reading from Anne’s diary, like ghosts who “both comfort and haunt” Hazel herself. The scene is performed and constructed in such a way that you forget you are watching actors pretend to be characters from a novel you once read. Instead you are watching a new and fully realized vision of the heart of the story you love, a vision that breathes its own breath, rather than the stale, recycled exhalations of so many literary adaptations gone awry.

And The Fault in Our Stars is full of moments like that.

John Green himself has commented that one of the greatest revelations of watching the movie was seeing his story through new eyes:

“When I was writing the book, I saw the world through Hazel’s eyes. I didn’t imagine the world through Gus’s eyes or the world through Hazel’s parents’ eyes as much … I was trying to stay narrowly in Hazel’s mind and seeing the world as Hazel would see it. And so, seeing the movie, I thought very differently about Augustus and about Hazel’s parents … Each of those actors brings to their performance a realness, a sense that they are the center of their own story, just as anyone is.”

Green’s novel was a story that was in many ways about stories — about the ways we choose to tell our stories, about how important stories can be to us in our lives, about why telling the stories of the people we love can keep them alive for us even after they’re no longer with us. Somehow the filmmakers understood this. Watching them succeed at telling it to us anew feels a little bit like a miracle.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Stephanie Appell is our assistant director of events and marketing and a non-practicing librarian who believes books change lives. She holds a BFA from Emerson College, an MA in Media Studies and a Master of Information Science from the University of Texas at Austin.

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Want to see the movie 3 days before it officially hits the big screen? We have 5 more pairs of tickets to give away to the Nashville preview that takes place TONIGHT, June 3. Just visit our tumblr, Lucky Stars, now. First-come, first-served!

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More from #TFIOS preview… Mary Grey James, our manager of books for young readers, attended a press conference prior to the screening as a guest of the Penguin Group. (Thank you, Penguin!) Here’s her report:

The crowd cheers author John Green, before stars Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Nat Wolff emerge from behind the starry curtain.
The crowd cheers author John Green, before stars Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Nat Wolff emerge from behind the starry curtain.

• The first question was “What do you hope parents and their kids will get from the film?” John said that quite often he hears that kids got their parents to read the book which opens the discussion about “teen love” and how it’s real and every bit as valid as any kind of adult love. He hopes that the conversation can also evolve into parents’ love for their children and vice versa.

• John emphatically noted how he liked the movie’s ending better than the book’s. He feels it’s more “streamlined.” (And that’s all I’ll say about that. No spoilers!)

• I prefaced my question with appreciation to John for signing the 200 copies for us. He responded, “Of course, I love Parnassus!” (Up went an audience cheer.) I asked about the fact that “story” is a basic theme of the book and the film and whether he had to prompt the screenwriters to put that emphasis on “story,” or did they get it on their own. John said they totally got it without him having to interject it — in fact, he made very few suggestions. The screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, were quite savvy about the tone of the story, which was John’s main concern in having the film made.

• I commented that I felt huge relief after seeing how faithful the adaptation was. John agreed. He said he had much trepidation until spending time on the set and seeing the edited version for the first time — then he “cried huge happy tears of relief.”

Yashwina Canter (the youngest bookseller on our staff, having just graduated from high school) took a "John Green selfie" at the event and said, "Pundits may grumble that 'young people don't read anymore' or 'the book is dead' but clearly, none of those pundits have ever witnessed the TFiOS phenomenon."
Yashwina Canter (the youngest bookseller on our staff, having just graduated from high school) took a “John Green selfie” at the event and said, “Pundits may grumble that ‘young people don’t read anymore’ or ‘the book is dead’ but clearly, none of those pundits have ever witnessed the TFiOS phenomenon.”

• Ansel was asked how he nailed Gus so perfectly — a cocky “pretty boy” who wasn’t a jerk. He admitted that he struggled for a long time with how to do that, and that it wasn’t until he met John that he figured it out: John talks the way he writes and the way he wrote the character of Gus. So Ansel just patterned himself on John.

• The final question was a personal one: “Is there a theme or thought that keeps you going through challenging times?” Ansel said that as long as he has something new to look forward to, he’s good. The others answered:

Shailene — “Everything works out and then you die, so don’t sweat bad haircuts, traffic lights, etc.”
John — “The only way out is through.”
Nat — “Creative passion.”

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It goes without saying that you’d read the book before seeing the movie, right?

ISBN-13: 9780147513731
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Speak, 4/2014