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Death and the Maiden

There’s a flaw at the heart of this unpretentious tearjerker

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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The key to understanding the publishing sensation called The Fault in Our Stars—John Green’s young-adult novel that has dominated bestseller lists for more than two years and has already sold more than nine million copies worldwide—is first to imagine Holden Caulfield in the 21st century. Then imagine that, rather than being anxious and upset and in a funk for no good reason, Holden Caulfield actually has a very good reason, which is that he has terminal cancer. Then imagine that he falls in love. Then imagine that Holden Caulfield is actually a teenage girl rather than a teenage boy.

The Fault in Our Stars Directed by Josh Boone

The Fault in Our Stars Directed by Josh Boone

Teenagers have forever loved The Catcher in the Rye in part because it gives them permission to be moody and self-centered. It understands them. It flatters them. It holds their hand. Holden is just like them; his deficiencies of character go unexplained and need no explanation. 

What John Green does in The Fault in Our Stars is to turn this on its head in every possible way. Hazel Grace Lancaster’s mordant perspective is entirely earned. She’s 16 when the novel begins. She’s been dying since the age of 13. She has had one miraculous recovery, but she has stage-four metastatic cancer. It’s hard for her to breathe, and the only thing that keeps her going through the motions of life is her sense that her parents need her to do so lest they fall to pieces.

Holden Caulfield is alienated from other people. Hazel, in effect, is alienated from life itself. Holden doesn’t know what’s bothering him. Hazel knows all too well. Holden thinks he deserves better. Hazel has given up thinking she deserves anything. She’s been dealt a cruel, losing hand.

At a support group she attends only to please her parents, she comes across a charming and charismatic boy named Gus, who lost his leg to cancer but seems to have beaten the disease. He begins to court her, but while she enjoys his company, she doesn’t take him very seriously. She has no future. What’s more, she’s a live grenade: When she goes off, she tells him, she’s going to obliterate everything around her.

Of course she does fall for him, and that is the genius of The Fault in Our Stars: It takes the most banal and clichéd of tropes, first love, and gives it real and honest urgency. In a just universe, Hazel would not be denied life’s most precious experiences because her life is going to be cut short.

The Fault in Our Stars has now been made into a very good movie that captures the everyday matter-of-factness of the novel. The director, Josh Boone, does nothing fancy. The screenwriters know these characters are unworldly teenagers and do not give them flashy dialogue or wisdom beyond their years.

Hazel and her parents are unpretentious and resolutely middle-class people. Gus is a videogame-playing ex-jock. The two leading performers, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, are charming and charismatic without seeming like glamorous Hollywood fly-ins. When the sobbing begins—and you would have to have a heart of stone not to cry during the movie’s final half-hour—it does not seem cheap or exploitative.

But there is a gaping flaw. (The flaw is in the book, and the movie is determinedly faithful to the book.) Hazel and Gus, for complicated reasons, find themselves at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. She is determined to make it to the attic where Anne Frank and her family were hidden.

It is an incredibly difficult trek up three flights of stairs and a ladder—she is carrying an oxygen tank the entire way—but she makes it. And there, in the attic, she and Gus share their first kiss, to the applause of the other tourists. The analogy is explicit: Hazel is Anne Frank, and just as Anne Frank’s diary is a triumph of the human spirit, so, too, is Hazel’s journey into the attic.

But the story of Anne Frank isn’t a story of a triumph of the human spirit. It is the story, in miniature, of the slaughter of six million people. Anne Frank is the Jewish people writ small; she was, at once, a brilliantly creative person and an entirely ordinary person. She might have done great things, but she was not permitted to do anything.

The story of what happened to the Franks and the other Jews hiding in the attic is the story of Europe’s moral self-destruction writ small as well: how the self-sacrificing kindness of Miep Gies in helping to hide the Franks was undone by the betrayal to the authorities of those trapped in the attic, followed by the deportation to Bergen-Belsen, and the death of all but Anne’s father, Otto. The diary is a crucial document in human history not in spite of what happens after it ends but because of what happens after it ends. 

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