This was a genuine surprise. The new teen drama looks for all the world like a knock-off of The Fault In Our Stars–so why is IT a complete counterpoint to the themes and messages of the John Green hit?
First, three disclaimers:
1 – Yes, there will be full-on spoilers for both stories.
2 – To be clear, I’m talking about the original form of both stories, which means I’m comparing the movie Five Feet Apart to the novel The Fault In Our Stars. (FFA was also novelized and TFIOS was adapted for screen.) This is a bit of an apples/oranges problem, but I’m writing here about big-picture stuff–the meanings and goals of the works–not craft, so I think the comparison is fair.
3 – Yes, meaning is subjective, but (1) this is the job of readers, reviewers, and critics and (2) we’ve got solid sources for explanations of these works. For TFIOS, we have numerous interviews/videos/podcasts where John Green describes what he hopes the novel says. For FFA, we have an opening and closing voiceover that literally tells the audience the point. I feel that I’m on pretty solid ground here.
I could write an entirely different piece on the way both stories are drawing from the same well–the star-crossed lovers, the very YA-ish depictions of disease, the tear-jerking, the boy with the crooked smile. But you can tell just from the trailer/book jacket how very similar these works are.
That’s why the differences are so striking.
Let’s start with TFIOS:
I know others have taken issue with the chronic illness rep in the book, but here’s what Green said he was going for:
In multiple interviews and videos, Green described the book as an effort to reframe the literary model of a “hero” around Hazel (or, perhaps, reframe the common image of a person with cancer within the context of a hero protagonist. He constantly returns to the importance of Hazel’s and Gus’ lives existing in their own right, with intrinsic value–not as lessons for healthy people or gifts to their parents or gifts to the world, or even to each other. As people, whose lives, though short, are no less vivid and interesting and valid. He wrote the book using the structure of an epic romance, not a more traditional “cancer book,” because he felt strongly that cancer, in all its ugliness, was the stuff of epics.
He also often pointed out that it was important to him that Hazel’s life, while profoundly affected by her disease, was not only about her disease.
A lot of times I think that, from the outside, maybe we imagine sick people as being defined by their illness or as being simply, merely sick. Particularly people who are dying. My experience has always been, that the people who are chronically ill are also many other things… Their lives are every bit as rich and complex and important and meaningful as any others.John Green, qtd. Kirsten Acuna in Business Insider
In some podcast (I have literally no idea the show/episode, very sorry) Green described cringing when a fan told him that TFIOS reminded her to be thankful for how good her life was. He didn’t correct her because he’s big on death-of-the-author, but later pointed out that he hated when ill or disabled people were used as tools to make healthy/abled people feel grateful and inspired. That’s not the story he wanted to tell.
It is the story that Five Feet Apart wanted to tell.
That book Green said he didn’t want to write? The lessons he hoped readers didn’t draw?
That’s FFA. Yes, it’s romantic and harrowing and sweet, but it’s also very, very gross.
The opening voiceover (which you can also hear in the trailer below) tells the audience that “we need that touch from the one we love almost as much as we need air to breathe.” (Breath, of course, is what the characters are short on–both have Cystic Fibrosis.)
From the first moments of the movie, we have a pretty dire setup: that loving touch is almost fatally necessary. Begging the question… what happens when you can’t have it?
The answer the movie gives: Try desperately to have the closest thing. It’s not enough. Do something dumb. Cry. Your story is over and your life is meaningless.
The movie seems to present two options: (1) You touch and hug and kiss the one you love. You’re healthy and happy. (2) You can’t get that touch, and your life is a monstrous tragedy… the end.
I hoped the movie would show these characters finding a Door Number Three. So, maybe they can’t touch. Maybe they can’t even see each other anymore or have a relationship of any kind. Maybe they can, but it’ll always be a little excruciating. So… okay. That’s devastating and horrible, but… what then? What do they choose, and how does that change them? How do they find other sources of joy and meaning? What happens if they can’t?
None of that is grappled with. The movie is only interested in how sad the situation is. As soon as the decision is finalized that Stella and Will can’t be together, the movie ends. I’m not exaggerating. He says goodbye, we get a recap of the opening voiceover, then the credits.
The closing monologue repeats the opening description of the importance of human touch, but doesn’t end with an explanation of what a life without it would mean. It just repeats how bad that would be.
The movie ends, I kid you not, with an admonition to go experience that touch with your loved ones if you’re lucky enough to be able to. In the voice of the sick girl.
In that line, the movie tips its hand. Stella and Will are not being put on that screen because their story is valid and valuable in its own right. They’re up there so that we, the (presumably) non-CF-stricken audience, can have a humbling reminder of how lucky we are and how much we should value the things that they can’t have.
I’m not extrapolating wildly from that one line–this lesson is wired into the whole movie. Will and Stella barely have hobbies. He makes cartoons about having CF. She builds an app to help manage her CF. They both apparently have other friends and parents, but we barely see them. I have no idea if they’re in school or anything. They’re just sick.
The movie has no interest in what happens after Will says goodbye. Do they die the following month? Does Stella get another five years with her new lungs? What does she do with it? A total of 60 seconds–even just watching the characters as they leave the hospital–would have shown the story was about them, that their stories continue. But with Will gone, it seems Stella doesn’t have a purpose as a character (or a person).
Say what you will about TFIOS, but The Fault In Our Stars is about Hazel and Gus. Five Feet Apart is about you: the presumably young, presumably healthy, presumably allo-sexual viewer. And that will work for a swoon and a cry, but it can only impede empathy, centering the healthy at every turn.