As a 31-year-old cancer survivor with a less than 10 percent chance of living into the next decade, I can relate.
Like Hazel, I tried to shake an adorable boyfriend, despite my smitten-ness. I tried to protect him from the pain of my future death. And I worried that his adoration was a new form of Munchausen by proxy.
He won me over, just as Gus eventually wears away Hazel’s defenses. But unlike the film’s heroine, I didn’t maintain a fantastic figure and luscious hair throughout my treatment. Cancer robbed me of my energy and, at times, of my sex drive. At the beginning of the movie, Hazel promises:
“You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how you tell sad stories … On the one hand, you can sugar coat it – the way they do in movies and romance novels…It’s just not the truth. This is the truth.”
Time and again, the film forgets this promise. It omits many of the painful, messy truths about sex and dying far too soon.
In the movie’s climax, Gus and Hazel fly to Amsterdam for an ill-fated meeting with fictional author Peter Van Houten. Afterward, an exhausted Hazel wheezes her way to the top of the Anne Frank house museum. Gus, Van Houten’s assistant, and the museum patrons are patient, waiting while Hazel pauses mid-staircase.
At the top, Gus and Hazel suck face while the adult museum patrons applaud, celebrating Hazel’s triumph, young love, and—I assume—their relief that the metaphor, overwrought with a voiceover of an excerpt from Anne Frank’s diary, ethereal lighting, and some spinny cinematography, is over.
While some of my cancer-surviving friends found the clapping a little ludicrous, I bought it. Because of spinal inflammation, a permanent condition called radiation myelitis, I look healthy but walk with a cane. I’ve become accustomed to certain perks. Strangers go out of their ways to open doors, carry my groceries, and upgrade my airplane seats, so I recognized the self-congratulatory smiles Hazel gets from strangers, like the one the restaurant hostess and server exchange above Gus and Hazel’s heads.
Helping sick teens and handicapped young adults definitely accrues karma.
Less realistic was the way cancer actually looks and feels to our young lovers.
Even three years after my initial diagnosis, sometimes the most menial tasks, like showering, leave me so exhausted that I’m forced to spend the day napping on the sofa, with the Kardashians playing in the background. How did Hazel and Gus have the energy to lose their virginity with their innards riddled with metastasized cancer?
Maybe I’m nitpicking. I’m not so much older than our horny heroes, and I haven’t forgotten the power of the teenage libido. Their hormones could’ve overcome their fatigue for a (most likely, two-minute) sexual tryst.
I wonder, too: How did Hazel maintain that bodacious body? Her daily prescription drug cocktail would almost definitely have included steroids, meaning Hazel would’ve been a marshmallow waddling on two sticks.
I would know. The many times I took steroids during cancer treatment, my boyfriend could barely look at me without smirking because I looked like I’d had my wisdom teeth removed in chipmunk hell. Even though Hazel’s mom Frannie tells a doctor that Hazel, “eats like a bird,” she’d be all puffy and chubs. The girl can’t even exercise!
And after so many years on an experimental chemo drug, I assume Hazel is effectively menopausal. But nothing kills the mood like bringing up vaginal dryness during foreplay—I know from experience—so I can forgive the omission of hot flashes and any discussions of lubricants.
When the lovebirds finally make it to the bedroom, Gus warns Hazel that his leg “tapers off” at the knee. Hazel tells him, “Get over yourself,” and then whips off her bra. I still rush to pull my clothes back on post-coitus, still uncomfortable in my scars and post-cancer body, so I’m impressed by Hazel’s self-confidence. Although, maybe I wouldn’t be so insecure if I had a slamming, steroid-side-effect-resistant body like hers.
There are a few ‘real’ moments, like when Hazel’s t-shirt gets snagged on the oxygen tubing. A shot that starts at the couple’s three feet and one stump, pans up their entangled torsos, catches the lovers in a much needed, after-nookie nap. The plastic tubing that coils around their embrace is as much a part of Hazel’s anatomy as her faulty lungs.
I appreciate the attempt to subvert the Hollywood movie trope, but considering Woodley’s protruding ribcage, Elgort’s hairless pecs, and the couple’s nearly flawless physiques, lit to perfection, the movie romanticizes sex and impossible standards of beauty in ways that Hazel and Gus would’ve hated.
For a movie that purports to tell “the truth,” the finale depicts very little of Gus’s demise. He would’ve transformed from able-bodied cutie pie into a gray shell. His room would stink of vomit, sweat, and the other unseemly fluids and mysterious musks that waft from the pores of the dying. “The Fault“ proves that real dying is too truthful for even a professional Hollywood film to depict, so it doesn’t even try. While still a total tearjerker and worth watching, the movie totally chickens out. Hazel and Gus would be pissed to see Gus’s death depicted with a wimpy montage focusing almost solely on Hazel’s reaction to the heart-breaking news.