I wanted to give my "before" impressions of the story before the movie has a chance to change it. I'd like to write a followup on my thoughts after the movie as well, to see if the movie supported my thoughts, gives me new impressions, or dashes my perceptions (a nasty habit of Hollywood).
Mostly Spoiler-Free Zone
A handful of people, apparently.
To each their own, right? Everyone is entitled to their opinions, even when they are wrong. Haha, just kidding! Seriously, I don't think any less of you if you didn't like a book I enjoyed.
One problem people have noted is that the dialogue seems a little grown up for teenagers. Personally, I excuse this because the two main characters are young, but have worn and old souls. They are in a reflective stage of life because of the trials that had been thrust upon them. I actually enjoyed the dialogue and the banter.
Another criticism was the maturity level of the book since it's geared toward teenagers. Bad language? Check, but nothing that would prevent a movie from slipping into the R-rated category. Compared to children in high school, this is actually quite mild. Mature (sexual) content? Check, but it was far from graphic. I don't think it was needed, really, but that was for the author to decide. Again, nothing that would prevent a PG-13 rating. In fact, the movie is PG-13 and I'm assuming they kept the scene from getting to explicit.
If this were a middle-grade book, then this would be way too far, but as a YA book this--at most--pushes the envelop. Am I thrilled by the content? Nah, adult content doesn't excite me and I think he could have scaled back considerably without taking away from the story. However, if you are sensitive to adult content, I'd probably avoid this book.
And then there is the cancer. I've heard this referred to as a cancer book, but I've never thought this was a cancer book, I thought the book's theme had to do with something else entirely: identity, living life, and the difference our lives make to others.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT ZONE
Not a Cancer Book
To me, a cancer book would be a book where cancer is a main character, however, this is more about kids who have cancer. Cancer is there, and because it is a major factor in their lives, it is brought up constantly, especially when it comes from the perceptions of other people. For the most part, when Gus and Hazel are together, they talk about other things. Movies. Friends. People. Their love for each other. Cancer is not the prevalent part of the conversation except in two conversations. I don't even think it would make it as a supporting character. Hazel spends a lot of time obsessing how she is going to dress, but I haven't heard anybody suggest that this is a book about clothes.
The cancer becomes more prevalent when it comes to other's perceptions of it. Hazel's parents seem to deal with it more often than Hazel does, to the point where it seems that is all Hazel's mom does with all her time. It's pointed out when a child approaches Hazel and asks about her oxygen machine. It seems like everybody else doesn't see Hazel as a person, they only see a kid with cancer. Sadly, it seems that Hazel internalizes a lot of this to the point that she thinks she is a grenade who will go off and ruin everybody's lives who are nearby, hence her hesitation in forming a relationship. What this book says is, "Hazel is not a cancer kid. Hazel is a person." In the literary sense.
Theme 1: Identity
Throughout their relationship, Gus actually treated Hazel like a real person and not cancer or a grenade. Because Gus is cancer-free when they meet, Gus is already viewed as a normal person who just happens to be missing a leg. The cancer is a thing of the past, so he is planning on a future. He still goes to school.
Even still, he doesn't want to just be known as cancer. When Gus disappears before they board the airplane, he later explains he hates it when people stare at him. I can't remember why exactly (I don't have the book in front of me), but if I remember correctly it was because he was tired of being looked at as the sick kid. Sick or not, he's still a person, dang it!
Same thing with other characters in the book. Hazel's mom, what do we know about her? She has taken upon herself one job: Hazel's nanny. Everything she does is only to help Hazel. Or, is it? Sadly, it isn't until the end of the book that we learn that she is more than just Hazel's caretaker.
Aren't we all? After all, when people ask for our story we usually start with what we do.
Stranger 1: So, tell me about yourself.
Stranger 2: Well, I'm a candle-stick maker. My mom always told me I was born with a wick already lit in my hands. I started making candles before I could walk. In fact, I could make a candle before I could even say the word. You?
Stranger 1: Accountant. No, I won't do your taxes.
Okay, a candle-stick maker. That isn't who you are, it's what you do. In the book, Hazel refers to her fighting cancer as her full-time job, so when Hazel is asked about her story, she does like all of us does and launches into her getting-over-cancer job. How refreshing would it be to have a conversation like this:
Stranger 1: So, tell me about yourself.
Stranger 2: Well, I'm a hopeless romantic. When I met my wife, I sang to her publicly to ask her out. I didn't stop singing until she relented. Speaking of, I really love to sing, even though I'm not that great at it, but luckily my wife is deaf in one ear so it works out well as long as I'm standing to her left. Also, I like cheese. You?
Stranger 1: Oh, I absolutely love and adore cheese!
I'd like to try this the next time I'm asked who I am, and not tell them what I do until they explicitly ask what my occupation is. WE ARE ALL MORE THAN WHAT WE DO TO PAY THE BILLS.
Theme 2: Living Life
That sounds well meaning, but in the end you are only depriving other people when you decide to withhold yourself. I liked the grenade analogy and what happened with the rest of the book. First, she did go off like a grenade right after this part. She went to the hospital for a few days, and Gus stayed in there the entire time. Even after witnessing the metaphorical explosion, he stuck around.
Then the grenade actually turned out to be Gus, and I loved seeing the paradigm shift that Hazel experienced. Instead of fearing that she'll hurt people because of her upcoming death, she only loves Gus more when she ends up being on the receiving end of a grenade going off. Yes, Gus getting sick hurt her, but having Gus as a person in her life was seen as a blessing. Most likely the best thing that ever happened to her. Maybe the best thing that ever will happen to her.
He taught her to have a life and live it to its fullest.
Then there's the other side of the spectrum: Peter Van Houten. This is a guy who could freely live his life. He's got health (well, more than the main characters), he's got wealth, and the only thing holding him back is a pessimistic worldview and an addiction to alcohol. Sadly, it's the potential that Van Houten could have and is missing out on. Van Houten has everything he needs to have the most extraordinary life, but instead he has turned into a person who's only real skill is to turn people away with his bitterness.
Aren't we all grenades? One day we will die and we will leave people behind to mourn over us. Should we let this fact (oh, spoiler alert, you too will some day die) make us "live" a life of fear or should we make a life worth living? One thing this book teaches is to choose the latter decision. You only get one life, make the most of it and don't settle for less!
Theme 3: Difference Our Lives Make Toward Others
Again, there is the grenade metaphor. Hazel's fear is that she will do no good for the world, only blowing it up in the wake of her illness. Sadly, this thought is shared by many people in the world. That horrible thought of, "What good am I? The world would be a better place without me."
Nonsense! Everybody is a blessing toward somebody. We all have value, more than I think we will ever realize. We all make a positive difference for other people, even if we don't realize it. When you have the above thoughts and pull yourself out of the world, you are only withholding your potential to be a beacon of light to the world.
Gus has the opposite fear, that he won't leave a large enough impression on the world. When Gus is asked what his biggest fear is, he answers, "Oblivion." He feared that when he left, nobody would remember him.
Hazel then responded that he shouldn't fear oblivion, because it is coming whether he liked it or not. Some day, our sun will explode or the galaxy will implode, and nothing we do now--no matter how amazing--will ever change that.
Gus wanted to do something big. He made grand gestures while playing a video game to save everybody, usually at the ultimate cost of his teammates and himself. He had a fear of dying just of cancer, which he didn't consider to be noble. He wanted to exchange his life for something. I think he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory.
To which Hazel took offense, because this line of thinking sounded dangerously close to, "If you don't go out nobly, you might as well not even live at all."
She's right. I think it is more important to live a noble life than to die a noble death. Even if oblivion is coming (as a religious person, I have a deep-rooted belief in an afterlife and a forever, but even still...), what will people remember about you a hundred years from now, a thousand years from now, a billion years from now? Sooner or later, we will all be forgotten. What matters are the people you can bless right now. Today. Who you've blessed in your yesterdays and days before that, and those you can bless in the future. In the end, people are rarely remembered for how they die, but only for how they live.
So, what can you do now to help others? I love looking at the characters in this book:
First, there is Hazel, the point of view character who was afraid of hurting others. Because she feared causing harm, she also feared doing good, not realizing that the two often go hand-in-hand. She even chose to become a vegetarian to lesson the number of lives hurt by her. However, she was still a friend to Kaitlyn and later to Isaac. She was still there to help Gus in his time of need and return the love he so freely offered. Gus' father said he thanked God every day for her being part of Gus' life.
Then there is Gus, that character that has reduced readers across the world to tears. Why did they cry? After all, if Gus had bit it in the first chapter, we probably wouldn't have cared. Heck, didn't one person from the support group end up dying? What was that person's name? That person's gender? Yeah, I don't remember either. However, the tears were shed because of the life he lived, not the death he had. Gus, without question, uplifted Hazel's life to a height I don't think she'd ever think it could. She had the adventure of a lifetime and the love of her life, but only because Gus had been there for her. Because of his love, hearts were touched and uplifted, and not just in the book.
Okay, now for Peter Van Houten. If anybody wept over him, it was only because of the lost potential. The book opens with Hazel telling us bout her three best friends, her two parents and Peter. He had written a book that inspired her and made her find meaning in life. When she finally gets the opportunity to meet him, he turns out to be a total jerk-face. No, no... that's too nice. I think compete jerk-faces read his scene and thought, "Wow, I'm glad I'm nothing like this guy." At one point, he did good. It wasn't just Hazel and Gus who he had touched, he apparently had piles of unread fan mail. This is why Lidewij wanted Hazel and Gus to come, so he could finally see for himself that there was good that came from the book. Instead, he got liquored up and claimed he loathed his book. He tried to make amends, but in the end Hazel just told him to stop drinking and write something. Who knows, maybe there is still hope for him. I'd like to think so. I wonder if John Green, the author, thought that too.
Mrs. Lancaster is no exception. I actually love how she turns out, because the story portrays her as just being a helicopter parent. Obviously, she means well, and without her (and her husband's) love for Hazel, Hazel would have had a horrible life and a much earlier death. Instead, she cares for Hazel, which appears to be all she did. Or was it? I love the fact that Mrs. Lancaster devoted so much more of her time preparing herself to help others. Even Hazel was excited to know that she was going to become a Patrick... and Hazel didn't even like Patrick. I'm with her, I'm excited that Mrs. Lancaster will be a Patrick too; the world needs more Patricks.
I guess there is also Patrick, who is actually mocked in the movie, but you know he wouldn't be there if he wasn't doing good for somebody. So, he didn't help Hazel or Gus... or did he? If not for his support group, these two people would have never met. We don't see much of his story outside of Hazel's disdain, but in my mind I imagine him being a help to a lot of other people.
One more person, a minor character. The most true character: Anne Frank, the teenage diary writer. The faith, hope, and love she shared through her words have touched MILLIONS!! Sadly, she died at the age of 15, and I'm sure had no idea what an influence she would become for the generations that have and will continue to follow. No doubt, she has blessed the lives of so many others, including myself.
In the end, it is our choice. We choose what kind of influence we will have on others. I hope I make the right choices in this regard.