There’s no place like home, and science explains that this is because home – your environment – plays an active part in developing your personality. According to this theory (known as active gene-environment correlation), “home” very literally is a part of you. For a former teenage introvert like The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, who at 15 demanded to be sent to an Alabama boarding school to escape the teen-tormented atmosphere in Orlando schools, our city seems almost like a verbally abusive third parent. While he exorcises his contempt by taking jabs at the city frequently in his writing, Green admits in interviews to a certain indebtedness – because growing up here inadvertently shaped his perspective, compelling his current success as a creator of poignant, cuttingly authentic teen stories.
Green was born in Indianapolis, but his family relocated to Orlando within a month of his birth. His familiarity with our city is clearly evidenced by his third novel, 2008’s Paper Towns, which is primarily set in Orlando, with a nerdy male lead pining after a mysterious, thoughtful beauty who shares Green’s fidgety need for escape. As a native outcast, Green has an impeccable talent for observation, which makes the settings in his novels sing as familiar as nursery rhymes to those intimate with his penned places, from Alabama (Looking for Alaska) to Amsterdam (The Fault in Our Stars). For 2012’s The Fault in Our Stars – which has been adapted to film and saw a wide release on June 6 – Green spent two months in Amsterdam to produce rich scenes in which his teen leads meet a hero, admit to love and punch their V cards.
Beyond his celebrated place in young adult fiction – winning the 2006 Printz Award with his debut novel and topping The New York Times Best Seller list with his last – Green’s influence stretches much further with the viral popularity of his Twitter feed (@realjohngreen) and YouTube channel, VlogBrothers (shared with his brother Hank), which spawned a legion of Nerdfighters. Nerdfighters battle to uphold the mission of the VlogBrothers’ Project for Awesome: ridding the world of suck. They accomplish this by raising awareness through online videos and taking donations for worldwide charities, gathering $869,171 in funding for supported causes in 2013. This placed John Green among Time’s 100 most influential people in 2014, rubbing shoulders with varied powers: superstars like Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus, controversial heroes like Edward Snowden, world leaders like Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. With such contemporaries, it’s a good guess that Green’s days of being bullied are long gone.
And still, he writes for teens. Formative years are exactly that, and it seems Green’s inexhaustible insights will continue to be beamed directly at young bookworms who rely on his quirky characters to alleviate self-scrutiny. Whether he’s recruiting an army of future Nerdfighters with his sensitive indoctrinations – like some sort of male Daenerys Targaryen for Unsullied teens tormented by popular-kid Masters – is uncertain. But with a broadening readership (and now viewership), his most enduring cause seems to be combating teen stereotypes – the deceptively damaging idea that being abnormal is not a virtue.
The Fault in Our Stars, the movie, has been hyped as a brutally honest depiction of cancer kids. For those who read the book, the hype is substantiated, but what’s depicted on the screen is a mere flicker of the novel’s painful sincerity. Hazel Grace Lancaster, the book’s heroine (played on screen by Shailene Woodley), suffers from thyroid cancer that severely limits her lungs. On the page, Hazel’s story has much more room to breathe – Green consulted with doctors to invent cancer treatments – and she frequently stuns the reader with epistemic abruptness that the film distorts for Hollywood storytelling reasons. A line like “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once” suffers on film by its fairy-tale placement during a sex scene, rather than the novel’s more prosaic romantic timing, alighting this thought in a dull moment when Hazel is watching her future lover read aloud.
The film necessarily lacks some of the novel’s details – some unimportant, like Hazel’s vegetarianism and the existence of her best friend Kaitlyn, but others more pivotally important, like Hazel’s panicked self-comparison to the now-dead girlfriend of Augustus Waters (her romantic interest, played in the film by Ansel Elgort). The film touches on the novel’s dominant question – how important is it to be remembered when you die? – but neglects the novel’s intriguing examination of the insult of passive mourning, a major element of Hazel’s disdain (and identity) at the book’s conclusion.
Theatergoers will be sobbing all summer over The Fault in Our Stars, but if, as the novel asserts, “some infinities are bigger than others” and cancer victims experience “a forever within numbered days,” the movie represents the infinity between zero and one, while the book gives you more of what Hazel decries her body for denying her: the perpetuity that exists between one and infinity.