"Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book."
That happened to Hazel Grace, played by Shailene Woodley in the film The Fault in our Stars. Herself diagnosed as a teenager with terminal cancer, she relates to a book by an Amsterdam based recluse Peter Van Houten, which explores issues of life and death, and ends in mid-sentence.
"That's part of what I like about the book in some ways" she says. "It portrays death truthfully. You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence"
Hazel lives with her parents, who are very sympathetically portrayed as strong, loving and supportive. To please them, she goes to a support group and meets Gus, who has lost a leg to cancer but is now in remission. They become close, but Hazel is reluctant to allow the friendship to become more.
"I'm a grenade and at some point I'm going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?"
Gus recognises that he will get hurt but says, "You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world...but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices."
Gus wants what is left of his life to have significance, and to leave a legacy. Hazel is more hard-headed about such thoughts.
There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that's what everyone else does."
Peter Van Houten actually answers an email from Gus and tells them that he is prepared to talk about his book, but only face to face. They go to Amsterdam, and Van Houten turns out to be a curmudgeonly alcoholic who seems to talk in riddles about there being different kinds of infinities before throwing them out of his house.
Yet the visit to Amsterdam has its moments of magic. The city almost becomes a character in the film as its timeless beauty contrasts with Gus and Hazel's mortality. A visit to Anne Frank's house underlines the shortness and pain of life and the need to live "in the now". Gus and Hazel acknowledge and celebrate their love.
"I'm in love with you" says Gus "and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you."
This is not a Pollyanna movie with painlessly achieved resolutions. It is about love and loss and death.
Facing the love and death of herself and Gus, Hazel says, "Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to getů.. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful."
Hazel and Gus lie on the ground, looking up at the stars. Thoughts, they think, are like stars, wonderful but ultimately unfathomable. The champagne they drink in Amsterdam is like bottled stars.
For some, The Fault in Our Stars will be a manipulative re-working of Romeo and Juliet and Love Story in the awareness that star-crossed lovers for centuries have spelled box-office success.
I think it's much better than that. Thanks to a beautifully worded script and very fine acting by all involved, the film, without being preachy, helps us to feel the wonder and the pain of love and of mortality, and to celebrate what joy can be found in living, while recognising that 'the world is not a wish-granting factory.'