My former roommate and I had a tradition where we’d drink a few or many beers, pop in a Nicholas Sparks movie, and try to guess which kind of cancer would kill the heroine (we still refer to “Here on Earth” as “the knee cancer movie”). Yes, we look forward to our table in hell with its view of the Lake of Fire.
Often in movies, people who get cancer — especially young women — are defined solely by their disease. (I cannot remember another thing about Knee Cancer Girl except her knee cancer.) Hazel (Shailene Woodley), the teenage protagonist in “The Fault in Our Stars” (opening Friday) has terminal cancer, and its place in her life is more than just her inevitable cause of death. She wears cannulas in her nose and lugs her oxygen tank with her wherever she goes. She can’t quite walk as fast as everyone else, and Woodley delivers her lines just slowly enough that it dawns on you that Hazel can be so short of breath that conversation is difficult. Her cancer is more than deadly — it’s inconvenient, it’s ugly and it’s painful. In “The Fault in Our Stars,” cancer isn’t a lesson to be learned. It’s cancer, and it’s here to kill Hazel.
It’s easy to live in a world where the only version of cancer is Hollywood’s, where we wear ribbons and buy pink KitchenAid mixers to raise “awareness,” but that’s not cancer. That’s marketing. Once, I was talking to a friend I’ve known since middle school who recently didn’t so much beat cancer as dig her heels in and stand there, middle fingers extended, until her bizarre and rare form of the disease realized it had picked the wrong person and went limping away (though not before causing her some pretty severe mental and physical harm). I asked her if, had she died, she would have wanted her family and friends to organize a 5K race in her name or something else you’re supposed to do when your friend/wife/mother dies too young, something with a commemorative T-shirt at the end. “No,” she said. “I hate that s—.” Try getting that line into a Nicholas Sparks movie.
There’s nothing inherently ennobling or purifying about cancer; it doesn’t turn people into saints; there is no upside. 2011’s “50/50” understood that, and “The Fault in Our Stars” takes it even further by linking the word “terminal” to a 17-year-old girl and forcing its audience to come to terms with what that is actually like. Hollywood cancer is sad, yes, but that’s all it is. A kid dropping her ice cream cone is sad. A kid with cancer is an abhorrent injustice that just shouldn’t be.
When a character dies of Hollywood cancer, it’s often the most important thing she does. In “The Fault in Our Stars,” it’s not Hazel’s job to die, or to cheerfully live every moment to its fullest, or to leave a legacy about the true meaning of love or whatever. Hazel’s job is to go to sleep unsure if she’ll wake up, to drag her oxygen tank around, to be happy, to be sad, to get pissed off, to be a little annoying, to roll her eyes at her mother, to live every day knowing exactly what will kill her. It’s not pretty, not by a long shot. Then again, neither is cancer.