What happens when you bring a talented, experienced cast and crew together with a well-written, multi-layered story, and everyone believes in the film's message? A movie, if we watch twice, helps us discover numerous lessons we may have missed the first time.
The story follows Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a 16-year-old girl battling lung cancer, who drags an oxygen tank on a steel cart, with tubes extending to her nose and wrapping around her ears.
Cynical, Hazel has given up hope and has isolated herself from her peers. Hazel's favorite saying is, "I'm like a grenade," because she's afraid she'll obliterate the lives of everyone who cares about her.
When Hazel meets Gus (Ansel Elgort) at a cancer support group, he rocks her world. Handsome, athletic, intelligent, witty, he has defeated cancer, but lost his leg in the process.
Despite all that's happened, Gus chooses to dwell on the beauties of life. He's a loyal friend to his blind pal, Isaac (Nat Wolff), and a source of encouragement to the suffering of others.
Gus' favorite sayings: "We were made for the world, the world was not made for us," and "The world is not a wish granting factory," and "I believe we live in a universe that demands to be noticed."
Gus and Hazel set out on adventures, and though she's developed feelings for him, she keeps her distance. "I'm a grenade," she says. Along the way, he opens a world of possibilities to her, where she doesn't have to dwell on cynicism and bitterness, but rather embrace an uncertain future and dwell on its beauties.
Gus reads Hazel's favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, by Peter Van Houten. The book is a fictitious journal by a cynical cancer patient named Anna. But Anna's words resonate with Hazel, helping ease the sting of loneliness in Hazel's life.
An Imperial Affliction ends abruptly, not allowing readers to find closure. So, Hazel dreams of meeting Van Houten to hear what he believes happened to the characters.
When Gus learns Hazel has already used her "wish" from a worldwide cancer organization, Gus writes Van Houten in Amsterdam and is granted a personal visit with Van Houten in his home. Gus uses his Wish to whisk him, Hazel, and a chaperone (Hazel's mom) to Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, Mom (Laura Dern) allows Hazel and Gus to have a quiet dinner alone at a five star restaurant where Van Houten has already paid for their hotel and dinner.
There, Gus and Hazel are honored by their Dutch hosts, dine together with adults dressed in formal wear, and the two teens savor the gourmet food, deserts, and champagne. Gus and Hazel are allowed a glimpse into their future if they could live to be adults. The evening is magical. The Amsterdam sequences were my favorite parts of the film, thanks to director Josh Boone.
When Gus suggests with a grin that they're on a date, Hazel warns him with a wry smile not to push it. They talk about the possibility of the "Something" after this life. Hazel isn't sure about an afterlife, but Gus asks, "If there's nothing else, then what's the point?" Hazel reflects and answers, "Maybe this is it."
"I won't accept that -- that it's all for nothing," Gus replies. He then pledges his love to her and doesn't care about the outcome of his words. He says what he means and means what he says. In his mind, his life is too short for him to be anything other than himself. And he's right.
And here we see a theme fully emerge. "How will I respond to a universe that demands to be noticed?" Because our answer is the rudder which steers our lives.
The next day, Gus asks Hazel, "You ready to get some answers?!" Ecstatic, Hazel shouts yes and joins Gus to Van Houten's home. There, they come face to face with a bitter, depressed, cynical, recluse, who's pushed everyone away. Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) is miserable. Even his gracious, patient, assistant can barely stomach to sit in the same room with him.
Through his shouts at her, we learn he never invited Gus and Hazel to Amsterdam or covered their hotel and dinner. That was his assistant's shenanigans because she believed Van Houten needed to see the difference his book was making.
Van Houten, sipping on whiskey, shreds Gus and Hazel apart through messages filled with cruelty and venom. And though Gus and Hazel later admit his words were true, they loathe him for the delivery. We learn later that Van Houten's book is based on his daughter, Anna, who died of cancer.
After Van Houten refuses to answer Hazel's questions, saying the characters cease to exist when the book ends, Hazel slaps his whiskey out of his hand, and storms out. Van Houten trails the two and attempts to stump them with a final question. "Have you ever stopped to consider why you care so much about your silly questions?"
John Green wrote this question in the novel and the screenwriters, Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, included it in the film. So it's a very, very important question, which contributes to the theme of the story. You seek and seek and seek the answers to your questions. But why? What if the answers to your questions aren't some abstract responses from an all-knowing philosopher who you may or may not have an opportunity to meet one day? Hazel had believed Van Houten to be a sage. But she discovers Van Houten is just a guy who wrote a book.
Van Houten's assistant chases after Gus and Hazel and apologizes. She leads them to Anne Frank's house for a tour, which in the book, has been a highly anticipated event.
In Anne Frank's house, now turned into a museum, the elevator is broken, thus Hazel must enter the "no attainment without struggle" trial, a rule in writing any epic. Her struggle will lead her to the revelation she seeks.
Hazel refuses help with her cart, climbing the staircase on her own. When she reaches the second floor, to the secret entrance behind the bookcase, a second set of stairs to an upper room awaits them. Gus offers to help, and so does the assistant, but Hazel refuses. This is her journey -- her struggle.
When they reach the upper room, Hazel is now out of breath and dizzy. We believe Hazel's finished. But now a ladder will lead them to the attic where the Frank family lived. Behind Hazel, a quote from Anne Frank paints the wall: I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young, and know that I'm free.
Hazel accepts the challenge to carry on. As she arrives halfway up the ladder, her vision blurs, her head spins and she almost faints. A chilling, haunting, cracking, 1940s recording of Anne Frank's words begins echoing over the speakers.
Anne Frank: "We're much too young to deal with these problems but they keep thrusting themselves on us until, finally, we're forced to think of solutions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end. God wishes to see people happy."
Hazel pulls herself up another step.
Anne Frank: "Where there's hope, there is life."
Hazel arrives triumphantly to the top, and Gus helps her sit against the attic wall to catch her breath.
Anne Frank: "At such moments, I can't think about the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. Try to recapture the happiness within yourself."
When Hazel can stand on her own, Gus escorts her around the room, viewing all the black and white photographs of the Frank family hanging from the walls. When the camera rests on the photo of Anne Frank, we hear her say, "Think on all the beauty all around you and be happy."
Hazel had seen in Van Houten what could become of her if she continues wallowing in cynicism, social isolation, and self-pity (a form of pride). And she now has her experiences with Gus and the words and example of Anne Frank as a sharp contrast.
The answer, Hazel realizes, is not found in books or from some recluse writer in Amsterdam. The answer lies within each of us. "How will I respond to the universe that demands to be noticed?"
In that moment, we see the epiphany wash over Hazel's face. Hazel turns, faces Gus, and she plants the longest, most passionate kiss on him, throwing all her fears, insecurities, her "grenade" lines aside, and giving into reckless abandon to embrace a life of love and the dwelling on life's beauties.
Those who are concerned this scene is disrespectful to Anne Frank is missing the point of not just the scene, but the entire film. Anne Frank is championing Hazel on, as well as all of humanity. "Let go of the bitterness and cynicism. Choose to dwell on the beautiful in every moment!" This scene is not meant to make light of Anne Frank, but rather, the opposite. The scene honors her.
The wisdom Hazel seeks didn't come from Van Houten, but rather a fourteen-year-old girl hiding from the Nazis. This is Hazel's "mountain top" experience where she finds enlightenment.
As Gus and Hazel finish kissing, all those around her, the tour guides, the personal assistant, the tourists, they all break out into applause. That's not a little addition the filmmakers thought would be cute to throw in. There's a purpose for it. The adults stand by, affirming Hazel. "Glad to see you get it, kid. You get it!"
When Gus and Hazel arrive back to his hotel room, she professes her love to him, and we hear her voice over, "I fell in love with him like falling asleep. Slowly, then, all at once." Gus' outlook on life, his love and fearless pursuit of Hazel, helped change her.
They make love, his first time, allowing some final moments together without interruption from the outside world. But the third act begins with a jolt. Gus reveals to Hazel that his cancer has returned. Gus has proven to her that loving another person, no matter how short or how long their their time together, is always worth it.
Some of Gus' final words to Hazel through a letter are, "You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you."
During Gus' eulogy, Hazel says she's grateful for receiving his love, loving him in return, investing into each others lives, and the difference Gus made in her life. Gus showed her how to find the beautiful and how that living with hope, loving others, and having dreams, makes life worth living.
"There are an infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 1," she says. "There's 0.1 and 0.12 and 0.112 and an infinite collection of others. I'm grateful that you gave me forever in just a few days."
We grow attached to the characters, get caught up in the emotional turns in the film, the romanticism of Europe, and watching Hazel find her new path in the world. That's why we love films. They take us to other worlds where we can share glimpses into the experiences and realities of others. But let me challenge you to watch the film again, with Hazel's journey at the forefront of your mind, when she interacts with Van Houten and her enlightenment at the Anne Frank house.
Novelist John Green said in an interview that he wanted to tell a story where the world could have a glimpse into the lives of kids with cancer. I believe he accomplished that, but he accomplished much more, too.
I'd like to congratulate the screenwriters, director Josh Boone, the cast and crew, Ed Sheeran for the fine lyrics and melody during the credits, and Wyck Godfrey for producing another beautiful story. You know a film is great when you leave the cinema and you miss the characters. That's what happened to me.
The Fault in Our Stars, if seen only once, deserves to be watched twice.
Make sure to check out The Mason Jar, a coming of age love story told from the male perspective by James Russell Lingerfelt. The novel helps readers find healing after severed relationships.
The Mason Jar movie is scheduled for pre-production in 2015, and will be directed in the same dramatic and romantic tones as The Notebook (2004) and Pride & Prejudice (2005). Follow him on Facebook or Twitter or subscribe to his email list for updates.