“To become wise without efforts- by listening to a voice, by reading a book- it is at once the most exciting and the most soothing of dreams.” – Robert Lynd
Life they say is a puzzle, a puzzle apparently more twisted than the Gordian knot. It would appear that there is no getting around some of the knotty questions of life in one universal theory, as directly as the Alexandrian solution. And so, if the Alexandrian solution of “one straight decisive unbundling” were to be put in perspective, it might be as dire as suicide or a sharp descent to insanity for us. For to think is human, to abdicate that function is death. After all, if anything was true, Descartes epistemological wisdom Cogito, ergo sum, (Latin: “I think, therefore I am) is inviolable and putting every questions of man to rest in one long spell is just as good as putting out man. It is a well acknowledged fact that in spite of man’s technological advancement, religious expositions and scientific findings, there are arguably far many questions that have risen from this new order compared to the primal survival questions that early men have had to deal with.
It is a giant labyrinth, this life!
However, as much as life is not Alice in wonderland, it also isn’t all a gritty dystopia of Hercules’ labour. In the immortal words of Carlos Castenada “the aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive”.
One of the wonders of being alive for me is literature. This is because in the verdant richness of words I find the root questions that need to be asked and in this shallow superficial generation of ours, this is a minefield of great treasure that I can call my own. My passion is a fangled specimen of curiosities that meanders deep into the orifice of truth and is nourished by the adventure of seeking.
And so every now and then I come across a subject, a tale, a picture that asks a cardinal (maybe even personal) question or maybe at least attempts to ask or address it. When such moments come along, it feels like I’m connected to a higher power and it’s all I can do not to leap from my introspective hobbit and scream from the rooftop in euphoric eureka.
There’s a lot to be learnt from the colossal dynasty of death and its many underlings that there simply is no getting off for me. I cannot take a long break from pondering it. John Green offers a fresh and incisive perspective to the intricate question of life, death, love, family, friendship and (wait for it) books (how awesome is that?!) alongside other sundry matters in his book The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS). The book also addresses the truth that straddles the fictional world of literature in so much as to blur the dichotomy in the fiction-reality concept of stories and make-believes. Following the success of the book published in January 2012, it was adapted successfully into a critically and commercially successful feature film directed by Josh Boone featuring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort and Nat Wolff amongst others. So humane, so riveting, so encompassing is the theme that I could write a thesis on it (and I probably would).
My fascination for this movie came from the brilliant portrayal of the original story and the witty fluidity of the lines. As firstly a reader, I make it a point of order to always ensure that I read a book before seeing the movie adaptation if I can. Too many times I have sat through an adapted movie with a bilious phlegm in my throat wishing I could douse the movie director with my dissatisfaction in one clean spit. TFIOS was different.
It was one of those rarefied moments in film adaptations. The camera shots were aesthetic. I didn’t sense a frame skew out of focus or any of those technical hitches for the entire 126 minutes that I was riveted to my PC screen. Beyond the technical aspect of the movie, the story itself which is the major focus of this article was spot-on, and that is why I shall be talking of the movie rather than the original book just so I can contain my excitement within a two hour stretch of sound and sight and not the kaleidoscope of imaginations that books evoke.
It is often said that mystery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. TFIOS is a wonderland of nerve-jabbing anomalies of human conditions and incongruities; not just physical but ideological. It is a clonal offshoot of genetic degenerates who stoically wear their pain and suffering much like a birthmark – hopelessly and helplessly and hideously strut that sovereign land of cancermania with their bald heads, their emaciated faces, their asymmetric eye, their cyborg-like appendages and so on. The title THE FAULT IN OUR STARS explains the hopelessness of their circumstances, their fated destinies, and their departure from decorum, from normal. Contrary to Shakespeare’s Cassius’ assertion, these are not underlings; they are minions who can hardly rise above their fates – a failed experiment in mutation as Van Houten calls it. If Caesar was the enemy, they couldn’t even rouse Brutus talk less of have him take the stab.
Such is the story of Hazel- Grace Lancaster, the protagonist and her compatriots in their doomed fight for survival against the debilitating overlord called Cancer. Every now and then they would gather in the “literal heart of Jesus” – a church basement to hold a support session and just generally buoy themselves with words of encouragement. From acute myeloid leukemia to acute lymphoblastic leukemia to neuroblastoma to retinoblastoma to testicular cancer to invasive thyroid cancer, to osteosarcoma, the heart of Jesus sizzled with the flapping wings of these intractable maladies around a central aorta like a hydra head.
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death? Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters apparently.
Hazel and Gus are two lovebirds with a chemistry so strong, they lure you in by the sheer force of their attraction as a witness to something so commonplace as love yet so distinctly captivating that you soon start to chant ok ok in a zealous call-and-response to the beautiful scenario playing before your eyes in unison.
Sickness indeed enlarges a man’s dimension to himself; he becomes his own exclusive object. Beyond the sharply-edged insight from dying that these two exhibited, their broader outlook of life, their sophistication, their confidence and their intellectual maturity was greatly buoyed by their love of books. This movie cuts the age tape in the questions it raised and the answers it suggests beyond the young adult categorization of the movie. If you doubt this, here is a shake-off from the sagacious Hazel Grace.
On being asked to share his fear at the support group, Gus replied “Oblivion. You see I intend to live an extraordinary life; to be remembered so I’d say if I was to have any fear, it would be not to be able to do that”.
[At this juncture the first time I saw this movie, I just paused it right there. It hit me like a bolt from the blue that if I was to die now or be dying, that would be my greatest fear too. But when I eventually hit the PLAY button, it was the cerebral sixteen-year old Hazel who unexpectedly responded to this fear in a dead-pan voice that threw me off. ]
“I just want to say that you know there’s gonna come a time when all of us are dead. There’s a time before humans, there’s gonna be a time after and it could be tomorrow, it could be a million years from now and when it does there’ll be no one left to remember Cleopatra or Mohammed Ali or Mozart or any of us. Oblivion is inevitable and if that scares you then I seek just you ignore it, for God knows it’s what everyone else does.”
Just the stoical delivery of that line, not the correctness of it, gave me goose bumps and it wasn’t the only moment in the movie that I felt a pang of emotion. I was just saying to myself: the hell she must have gone through to be so hardwired and inured to these human weaknesses
But far from being a pity party of sulking, sobbing characters lamenting their fates, the story is actually about the human courage to resist bemoaning our stars. It is about living by that venerated prayer of serenity: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There are such classic lines that tell of the resilience of the human spirit such as “I’m on a rollercoaster that only goes up my friend” and the insanely smitten tone of Isaac, Gus’ one-eyed friend suffering from retinoblastoma who had a eye removed when he was young and would be totally blind after the one eye left is removed by surgery, but who is so in love that he gushed to the group that “…but I am so lucky cos I have this beautiful, smokingly hot girlfriend. She’s way out of my league, Monica and I have great friend like Augustus Waters too…”
It is these matter-of-fact candor of these interactions that stands it out for me from all the mushy, over-wrought, poignant love stories or teenage movies of its type. Not being a fan of teenage lovey dovies either, I wouldn’t have gone near this one with a long pole, but something is different here, and for the many aspects of this movie I’ll watch it over and over again.
Needless to say that TFIOS was a story that tried to disembowel me by exposing many long-harbored but un-articulated questions in my heart. By watching this movie (and foremost, reading the book) I gained many inches and pounds in stature enough to experience and psycho-analyze myself and my fears in some of the existential issues the story touched on, as narcissistic as that may sound.
I shall be discussing some of these issues and why this story feels personal for me in subsequent posts. TFIOS is a movie, like all classics that never really finishes saying what it has to say. And that is why it would have to be pealed layer by layer as time goes on.
But before I lay this post to rest, here is a grand entrance by Hazel Grace from the movie.
“I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories. On the one hand you can sugarcoat it the way they do in movies and romance novels; how beautiful people learn beautiful lessons and nothing is too messed up that cannot be fixed with an apology and a Peter Gabriel song. I like that version as much as the next girl does believe me but it’s just not the truth. This is the truth. Sorry!”.