“Cancer Perks”, or, the Fault in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’

This is a story for those who've never experience the effects of a terminal disease, a narrative aimed at the obvious naïveté of its young audience.

I’m no stranger to the tragic effects of cancer. Two years ago, my mother-in-law died of the disease and from 1985 until 1996, my father suffered from the lingering side effects of a massive brain tumor. Both of these aging individuals were strong and vital before their diagnosis. One passed after 11 short days. The other battled with prehistoric medications and equally dated medical care, resulting in strokes, incapacitation, and an incredibly low quality of life.

By the time my dad finally died, he was bed ridden, unable to speak, and such a slender, emaciated shadow of his former self that few recognized the formerly larger than life figure. Both deaths were painful and unapologetic. Neither death had a perky young patient bopping around, loving (what remains of her) life and speaking in self-help witticisms.

No, that is the world of The Fault in Our Stars, a truly fictional look at what a terminal disease is like. Now, I have never read John Green’s book, but I hear that it’s very good. I also appreciate that his story and characters were based on his experiences as a youth pastor in a children’s hospital. Excellent.

I also admit to kind of liking the movie made from this wildly popular tome, especially the performance of Shailene Woodley as sort-of survivor Hazel Grace Lancaster. Granted, her outlook is not “if” she dies, but “when”, but there’s a lot of living and obvious experience, both pro and con, in this character. She’s a fighter, defiant in what the world thinks “cancer kids” should act like while trying to use such a positive, mental attitude to will her way to a miracle.

But I also have a big problem with this film, a very, very big problem. As a shorthand description, I will call it “cancer perks”. For a bit more explanation, I didn’t enjoy the moments where the disease allows the characters to enjoy benefits the rest of us can’t come close to. Before I am berated (and I can already hear adolescent fingers raging against their keyboards in “how dare he” determination), let me make something perfectly clear. I am not heartless. I do indeed have a soul. I am a notorious crier, someone who sees those sad animals during those notorious late night commercials and my eyes well up with the waterworks. My above comments are not meant to discount the pain and suffering those with terminal illness must endure. I should know, I watched as two people very close to me did.

Make no mistake about it, though, The Fault in Our Stars is a fantasy. It’s wish fulfillment with occasional stopovers for chemotherapy. Self-aware to the point of distraction, our main characters here — Hazel Grace, her “Suddenly, Seymour” boyfriend Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), and his nearly blind best buddy Isaac (Nat Wolff) — exist in a world where their cancer appears as a mere inconvenience. She doesn’t mind lugging her oxygen tank around while both boys carry wounds (an artificial leg, a glass eye) from their war with the Big C.

We never see a moment of doubt, nary a sequence where sickness overwhelms their otherwise generic high school circumstances. Imagine John Hughes setting The Breakfast Club in a leukemia ward and I think you understand what I’m talking about.

Put another way, cancer is not the main concern here. It never is (and, I’ll admit, maybe it shouldn’t be). Hazel Grace wants a fake ID, to “take pot” and act like a normal teen, though she’s far from it. Similarly, Gus can no longer ball, but he still relishes the kind of adolescent attention his previous status as an athlete earns him. He loves Hazel Grace (that’s obvious), but their relationship is perfected and polished by never once having to deal with their individual diseases. Any moments of meaningful medical emergency are handled off screen, characters required to sit in Waiting Rooms because they aren’t “family”. As a result, the dream is maintained. Hazel Grace and Gus will have their shining, bosom clutching moment in the sun before death comes calling.

Blame Love Story for setting the contemporary standard. Go back to films like Dark Victory or Brief Encounter for some classic Hollywood examples. During the ’70s, we called them “disease of the month” movies since it seemed like, every time your turned around, another heretofore unknown malady (we didn’t discuss these kinds of things before the post-modern movement, sorry) was being trotted out for another tearjerker. Painted in the kind of easy to digest dynamics of a dime store romance novel, these otherwise complicated situations became the fodder for decades worth of Harlequin level hoaxes. Many of us grew up on the grim realism of John Gunther’s gut-wrenching memoir Death Be Not Proud. The Fault in Our Stars could easily be subtitled “Death Be So Fun”.

For example, Hazel Grace’s parents are beyond understanding. They let their kid do anything because of her status. True, watching a pair of overly concerned and doting individuals smoother their child with worry would be dull, but when (SPOILER ALERT) Hazel Grace and Gus have sex in his hotel room in Amsterdam, one has to wonder, where’s Mom?

Even worse is the moment that comes before said copulation. Our characters have just had a pointless visit with an American expatriate author (Willem Dafoe) and his assistant (Lotte Verbeek) invites the two to the Anne Frank museum. Anne…Frank…Museum. After discovering there is no elevator (awww…) and that she will have to climb several stairs to the famed attic space, Hazel begins her ascent. It’s a painful sequence, just not in the way you think.

As Frank’s pointed “life is still worth living” affirmations play within the space, Hazel Grace slowly makes her way to the top. After arriving, the couple can think of no better way to celebrate than a kiss. Right there. In the place where the Nazis captured the Frank family, condemning them to death as part of Hitler’s Final Solution, our two privileged if still dying teens decide to basically make out.

We are supposed to see this as a triumph, and as a means of beating that idea into our heads, the other visitors to the museum decide to clap. To celebrate this young love. Though they know nothing about these kids (except that one has a hard time climbing stairs and requires an oxygen tank wherever she goes), they are supposedly sensing their victory over disease and are deeming it worthy of an ovation. Seriously?

My point is, someone who is really dying of cancer doesn’t actually get such moments. True, they may get a wish granted by a charity or have their cause considered (and then championed) via the media, but there are no “perks” in being terminal.

Decades ago, this kind of love would have ended on the battlefield, a perfect couple having a wild ride romance only to see sacrifice for his (or her) country cutting such affection short. Go back as far as Romeo and Juliet and the tragedy there stems from familial hatred, not cancerous cells. The Fault in Our Stars is not a story about kids with cancer falling for each other. Rather, it’s a drippy teen romance where disease takes the place of dysfunction to keep our otherwise destined lovers apart.

In Gunther’s book, published in 1949 (so granted, it is a bit dated), dying was seen as noble if only because of the horrific suffering his son had to endure. Here, Hazel Grace gets the man of her dreams and then loses him in an equally dreamy way. It’s a reverse Twilight, where the dowdy mortal girl gets the hot guy whose flaw happens to be his ability to live forever. It’s the typical “other woman” ideal where cancer is the cuckold.

I know, I know, it’s just a book, just a film. Those who enjoy it are entitled to, and if they want to go to the movies and cry their eyes out, what’s the big deal? I’m not sure. All I know is that no terminal disease results in the kind of idealized life we see onscreen, here. The fault in The Fault in Our Stars is the desire to turn dying into the ultimate icebreaker and perennial excuse. From my experiences, it’s neither.