Judging by the enormous opening weekend gross of The Fault in Our Stars, there are not a lot of cynics out there among the American teenaged population (or at least, the women). The cancer romance is an unabashed tear-jerker, with nary a drop of irony or detachment to be found among the earnest declarations of love and super-serious discussions of death.
Although the film exceeded the expectations of most box-office pundits, it was always going to do well. TFIOS is tightly-scripted, ably directed, and features a pair of terrific lead performances. Of course, it also hinges on the type of star-crossed lovers dynamic that teens have gone for since, well, Shakespeare. Melodramatic romance is a perfect fit for young adults, who, if my aged memory serves, live and die with every twist in their love life.
But the film, along with other recent young adult adaptations, may also tap into something a little darker. Common among many recent films based on young adult novels is a near-fixation on death. The characters in these films, such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the upcoming If I Stay, are forced to literally confront their own demise, without the protection of their parents or any older figure.
For Hazel (Shailene Woodley), the 17-year-old protagonist of TFIOS, death is a given. Diagnosed with stage-4 cancer as a child, Hazel has beaten back her disease for much of her teenaged life and is living only by the grace of a miracle drug that seems to be decreasing in effectiveness. As a result, she has kept all her friends at a distance, feeling that she must protect those around her from the grief that will inevitably follow her death. But her whole life changes when she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), another survivor whose long-term prognosis is much better. They fall in love (he quickly, she slowly), and in depicting their courtship, the script never bothers with much subtext. Nearly every conversation they have revolves around her inevitable demise.
As much as I can remember, an average teenager does not spend a whole lot of time thinking directly about death, unless it has affected them personally. They may experience it when a grandparent or a pet passes away; both can obviously be emotionally traumatic, but neither is likely to cause a teen to think and talk about death as much as the characters in TFIOS, unless there are other issues at play.
But in a different sense, teenagers today are forced to battle a very large existential question on a regular basis: the end of mankind. Even if they don’t watch or read the news, talk of death on a national or global scale is surely inescapable. They hear that climate change is accelerating at an alarming pace, and that mankind may not survive it. They hear of rising sea levels (a nightmarish image) and another “great extinction”. They hear of the obesity crisis. The unsustainable trajectory of our deficit. Superbugs and the overuse of antibiotics. The unknown dangers of GMOs. Worst of all, they hear that Congress – the body we elected to solve these problems – cannot do anything about it.
The Fault in our Stars does not contain any explicit references to these issues. It doesn’t need to. The way that Hazel is forced to confront death every day, and is unable to lean on her parents or any of the old cultural institutions for answers, speaks directly to the situation millenials find themselves in: They are faced with a terrifying, inevitable future that they are powerless to change.
A personal note: I remember being in my first grade class and listening to a special guest speaker – a scientist – explain to us that one day the sun would explode and everything on Earth would die. He must have sensed some trepidation in the audience because he followed with a joke, “This will be happening in about 5 billion years, so you’d better pack your bags.” He laughed it off, but I was devastated. This was the first time I had been told about the abyss – you know, the unflinching, all-consuming void that lurks behind every shadow and our society works so hard to hide – and it shook me to my core (it was just a few nights later that I woke my mother up in the middle of the night to talk about death). I’m pretty sure this was a common experience because it was reproduced almost verbatim in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are to partially explain his young protagonist’s anxiety.
I imagine that teenagers today have similar feelings when told about the potentially life-altering catastrophes with which their parents’ generation is leaving them. Films like The Hunger Games and Divergent and If I Stay, with their brave, young characters who are forced to stare into the abyss and come up with answers, tap into this existential angst and, to their great credit, mostly refuse to come up with easy answers.
As for The Fault in our Stars, the connections between the film and this existential agony of our younger generation became clear to me during a late scene in which Hazel and Gus visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Although she is weak, she forces herself to climb the increasingly steep sets of stairs to the attic, where Frank lived for two years. As she climbs, we hear Frank in voice-over saying, “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.” Ostensibly, the “problems” that the film is referring to is the disease that Hazel and Gus suffer. But as I watched the scene, I thought of all the young Americans who are being left with a world on the brink of collapse, with no framework for putting it back together. My only hope is that this generation of young Americans does not lose their optimism. I hope they do not become cynical like so many previous generations have.
Hazel and Gus don’t. It is there, in that attic, amidst a testament to both humanity’s horror and its unshakable hope, that they share their first real kiss. The older folks around them applaud their show of optimism. We should, too.