Rich Heldenfels

Among many people who read something besides comic books, the most anticipated movie of the summer arrives this week.

The Fault in Our Stars, based on the best-selling novel by John Green, tells the story of love between two young people with cancer, Hazel Grace Lancaster (played by Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). Like the book, the movie offers a mix of comedy and drama, sorrow and joy, and death — as well as a trip to Amsterdam, an abrasive author, well-intentioned but not entirely sure-handed adults, a best friend (Nat Wolff) for whom a broken romance seems more painful than cancer.

Because of the success of the book, the movie — directed by Josh Boone — faces big expectations. As Hazel says in Green’s novel, “Cancer books suck,” and there’s no doubt some people feel the same way about many cancer movies.

But this is still a film that, sight unseen, drew 3,000 fans to Cleveland to hear from Green, Woodley, Elgort and Wolff.

“This movie is going to change a lot of lives,” said Woodley.

During their Cleveland visit, the four principals sat down for interviews — Green and Wolff in one room, Woodley and Elgort in the other. The conversation could be free-wheeling. When Green learned that Wolff had never seen Easy A, he said, “OMFG! Now I know what we’re doing tonight.” But we kept coming back to Green’s book, and the film. Highlights from the conversations follow.

Details of illness

One of the admirable things about Green’s book is that it does not whitewash the details of the characters’ illness, from Hazel’s constant connection to an oxygen tank and the cannula in her nose to the ever harsher impact of cancer on a body. But the film is less graphic.

“In movies you don’t have people sit all the time,” Green said. “You just don’t. And there’s a lot of moments where Hazel is obviously sitting [in the book] where she’s standing” in the movie. He also agreed with Boone’s decision that “if this movie were done with lots and lots of makeup, that even though it might look, quote unquote, more authentic, it would look less authentic because on some level it would look made up.”

Green felt there was an “emotional reality” to the film that balanced the more muted physicality — that the power comes from the characters’ struggle to hold onto their personal dignity even as cancer is taking it away. Climbing a steep flight of stairs, or going out to buy something, turns into a horrible struggle; and Wolff’s character, Isaac, has a form of cancer that leads to his losing his eyesight.

“Every other heroic journey is the journey from weakness to strength,” Green said. “You’re a little boy and then you get strong, and you learn to slay the great evil person.” But in the movie, as one character in particular is forced to go from strength to weakness, to Green it’s still a heroic effort.

Getting roles right

“Obviously I wanted to play Hazel,” said Woodley. “But I’m a firm believer that you’re right for a role or you’re not right for a role. And if you’re not right for a role, celebrate who gets it because she’s going to bring what the character needs to the table. And I was fortunate enough to be right for this role.”

Still, there is fan pressure.

“I’d like to say I don’t feel any pressure,” said Elgort. “While I was making the movie, I wasn’t like, ‘I hope fans like this scene.’ … But before I ever started, I thought this guy is really important. I should not mess him up. Because he’s perfect in the book and if you’re going to bring him to life, he has to be perfectly brought to life, out of respect to the book.

“You have freedom” as an actor, he said. “But you have a strict blueprint to follow.”

Gus has lost a leg as the film begins, and Elgort consulted with a young man who had lost one.

“He has so much confidence,” Elgort said. “He wears shorts all the time to show off his prosthetic leg. Even though, yes, I have to walk with a certain kind of limp … it affects the guy [Gus] emotionally, too. Having a prosthetic leg, at times he acts over-confident to compensate, but in the love scene he is self-conscious about it.”

As for Woodley, she said that “with the breathing thing, you can only take it so far in a movie because visually it takes you out of it. It was about charting the scenes I wanted to incorporate it. … And emotionally, it’s kind of all on the page and all in the book.”

Wolff’s character, Isaac, loses his eyesight because of his cancer.

“Technically and emotionally I wanted to get the blind thing right,” he said. He got help from a cancer patient for some of the details, and on set wore blinding contact lenses. He even studied how his body language would be affected — as well as finding the emotional through line. “I started the movie thinking it would be the easiest part I ever played, and it was the hardest part I ever played.” Something as seemingly simple as opening and closing his cane took on the edge of anger that Isaac was feeling.

Taking on teen roles

Woodley is 22, Elgort 20. Both believe they carried off playing 16 and 18, respectively. Woodley, in fact, has been the screen adolescent in recent years, in TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager and the movies The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, Divergent (the first of a planned series of films), and The Fault in Our Stars. But that can’t go on forever.

Fault “is the last movie I will ever do in my life where I will ever play a teenager,” she said. “Which is interesting because that’s all I’ve known for the last eight, nine years of not only life but as an actor. I feel I’ve transitioned into this next chapter of my life, which is beautiful and exciting and new and nerve-wracking. … I can no longer empathize with an adolescent’s mind process like I could a year ago, or even six months ago. And it’s interesting and exciting, but it’s also a little bit sad in a way. … I empathize with a different paradigm, I guess. I don’t know how to say it. That sounds pretentious, and it’s not at all. … I feel like I made that transition from young adult to a woman. … Now, if I played a teenager, I wouldn’t do justice to that role.”

And that, too, is about getting things right. Elgort recalled “when I was 14, and I’d be watching movies and TV shows where people in their 20s were playing teenagers, and it always made me upset. I’d be like, I want to be on that show. …High school kids don’t look like that.”

Casting Dafoe

“Great,” Green said of actor Willem Dafoe playing Peter Van Houten, an elusive author who sparks an overseas quest by Gus and Hazel.

“I was so excited that he wanted to play the character. I grew up half a block away, in Orlando, Florida, from Willem Dafoe’s parents. … It was a very strange thing for me and my family to have this actor who was so famous playing this character.

“In the book Van Houten is kind of portly and balding,” Green said. “But what matters is … the truth of the character. Willem Dafoe felt very strongly about inserting some of Van Houten’s lines from the book back into the script. I think he made that character both angrier and more sad than I could’ve.”

Director and co-star

Wolff was instrumental in getting Boone as the director. The two had worked together on Boone’s first film, Stuck in Love. “I loved him. I think he’s an amazing director,” Wolff said. “He loved The Fault in Our Stars already, and he had a friend who died of cancer, and I said, ‘You’ve gotta direct this movie. You’d be perfect for it.’ He said, ‘Well. I’ll never get it but I can try.’ … He got the job, and then I think he owed me one and that’s why he had to give me the part.”

Life imitating art?

A key plot in the film and novel involves Hazel’s seeking an explanation from Van Houten of the deliberately unresolved ending of his novel An Imperial Affliction. While that imagined tale ends in mid-sentence, Green’s novel completes the sentence while leaving one question unanswered. After half of the central couple has died, I wondered, what became of the other one? Could there be a sequel novel?

“Peter Van Houten and I disagree on a lot of things,” Green said. “He is one of those people who conflates honesty and cruelty, which is one of my least favorite character traits in people. But we do agree about one thing, which is that books belong to their readers. Once a novel is finished, an author should not speak to matters outside the text. I genuinely don’t know what happens [after the book ends]. … This shows my lack of understanding about my books, but I never imagined people would ask me that question. I didn’t think of it as an ambiguous ending, but of course it is.” Almost all book endings are ambiguous, he said, because to avoid that a novel would have to conclude with “the end of the human species.”

No sequel, Green said. Although, with all the attention to this movie, he’s sure that the movie studio would like him to write one.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.