I once read an author who said that kids need to read more stories about war. Her point was that when you are in a war, what really matters rises to the surface and all the other stuff falls away. It isn’t just war stories that have this effect, however. Any story in which the characters are facing real struggles and are wrestling with issues of life and death will force the characters and consequently the readers / viewers to think beyond to things of depth and substance. The Fault in our Stars is such a story. It’s a movie based on a book about two kids that meet in a cancer support group and fall in love. It’s a story about their love, but also about their lives, seen through the lenses of intense sorrow and suffering and with the imminent reality of death staring them in the face.
As we journey with them through the ups and downs of cancer and falling in love and family and friend dynamics, we get to enter into their world, to see life through their eyes. We have the benefit of being able to see what really matters in life through the eyes of someone who knows how precious it is, without ourselves having to face death in the face. And as you will see, staring death in the face gives us a lot of opportunities for some very meaningful conversations, about life, about God, about the afterlife, etc.
I didn’t agree with all of the characters’ opinions, but I did love the opportunity to see life from their point of view, to read/hear their thoughts, to be challenged to think deeper about things because of their sometimes opposing perspective. The book and the movie are great springboards. I may not land in the same place they did, but they give a great place for jumping off into thought and conversation.
The teenagers are intelligent and strong and independent, but also honest and hurting and very much real in their struggles and desires and hopes. Life has forced them to stare death in the face, it has forced pain and suffering into their lives and that has brought them great depth. Pain and suffering are like the winnowing tools farmers used to use to separate the wheat from the chaff, the valuable product from the useless refuse.
- How do you think suffering from cancer affected the characters in a positive way?
- How did suffering make Hazel, Gus and Isaac different form normal teenagers? How did it change their priorities?
- How would you change your life and priorities if you knew you only had 6 months or a year left to live?
Hazel said, “I believe we have a choice about how we tell stories in this world. You can sugar coat it…like they do in Disney movies… I like that version just as much as the next girl. It’s just not the truth. Sorry.” Hazel prided herself on being a realist and telling the hard truth, pain and all.
- Do you think different generations have valued realism equally? Do you think some generations have a tendency to sugar coat and others have a proclivity towards realism? Why?
- Where is the line between being optimistic, realistic and pessimistic? Which do you tend toward?
- Do you think you can be both realistic and optimistic/hopeful? Or are those mutually exclusive?
- If you knew Jesus was real, would you feel you could be more optimistic?
TFIS is mature. The characters are mature thinkers and they are facing things that are well beyond their years. Not only that, they are very modern and “mature” (in terms of age at least) in their approach to sexuality. It may also be said they are very common…but I hesitate to say that because it wasn’t common to me (and still isn’t) to be so casual about sex outside of marriage, though I fear it is to many. Hazel is shocked to learn that Gus is still a virgin, at 17. Her friends makes a bunch of lewd comments about what she’d do with Gus if she had a chance, despite his one leg, simply because of how “hot” he is. They watch and comment without emotion as a friend makes out with and gropes his girlfriend right in front of them in the parking lot. And they have sex themselves for the first time as if it is no big deal. In fact, sex is so common to these kids that the idea of waiting, of marriage, of the “right one”…none of it is even on the radar. Their only thought is whether or not someone has protection.
When I grew up it was shocking to hear someone had had sex in high school. Now it’s shocking to hear someone hasn’t. So while I am grieved by the casual approach to sex in the story, I also feel that it’s an important eye opener to realize that this is probably the reality these days. And, it provides an opportunity to ask some questions and see what other viewers think, what their experience has been, how they view sexuality.
- Hazel is shocked to find out Gus hasn’t had sex yet (he’s 17). Would that be a shocking thing among your friends?
- Hazel wonders without any great alarm if Gus plans to feel her up while watching a movie. She expects that would be normal. Is/was that the norm in your experience, too? What are your expectations if a guy asks you on a date—what do you feel he expects from you and what do you expect from him? What do you really want from your date?
- How common is the idea of waiting for marriage among your peers? How do you feel about waiting for marriage?
- Do you think the Bible has anything relevant to say to you about sexuality?
Religion is another area in which I didn’t agree with where the characters landed in their thinking, but I did appreciate the things they were thinking about, their jumping off place. I also found it valuable to listen to their perspectives, so different from mine, and to see things from their point of view. I can see why Christians / Christianity seems absurd and ridiculous to them. I didn’t take offense because I didn’t feel there was a “real”, true representation of Jesus that they were poking fun at. Some people that claim to be Christians are ridiculous. I agree. Hazel and Gus were thinking far more in depth and honestly about life than their “Christian” support group leader, Patrick. He was a joke. And when Hazel was at a funeral, I can see how the pastor’s comforting words fell short for her.
First off, I was sad that there wasn’t a good representation of a Christian in the story. I would have loved to have heard Hazel’s response to Jesus, just as I loved hearing her response to phonies. She was too smart and her fraud meter was too sharp for phonies…she could spot them a mile away. But what if she had run into the real deal? What if she had encountered the wisdom and peace and love of the one, true God? I wish I could have seen that scene play out. Second off, the Bible warns us that unless the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, the wisdom of God will be but foolishness to man. So if she doesn’t understand the things of God, if she mocks Christian ideals, why would I be surprised at that? I need not take offense, but rather I ought to take a knee and pray that the Holy Spirit reveals the truth of God. (I mean, not to her, she’s just a character in a fictional story…but to the author and to those who agree with her thinking, etc.)
Finally though, I really enjoyed and benefitted from the insight that Hazel offered me into the mind of non-believers. It was helpful to hear how cliché and ridiculous some of our Christian phrases and ways of thinking sound, especially to someone who is hurting and who doesn’t believe. I won’t change my beliefs, but I may be more aware of how I sound to other people and be more sensitive to how I phrase things. Not to water down truth, but to express it ways that might be more palatable.
- What were Hazel’s beliefs, about God, about life after death, spirituality, etc.?
- Do you agree with Hazel’s spiritual beliefs or not?
- Gus believed in “Something” do you? What do you know about this “Something”? How would you learn more about it?
- Hazel talked about wanting to believe that the universe noticed and that it cared about her life. Do you wish the universe cared about your life? Would you feel better if you knew there was a God who cared about your life and wanted to be involved in your life?
- Do you feel that Patrick (support group leader) was a good/fair representation of Christians/Christianity? Why or why not?
- Did you feel the story was belittling and/or making fun of Christians? Why or why not?
Beauty in the midst of Suffering
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie (which I actually thought played out better in the movie than in the book) was the scene in the home of Anne Frank where they kissed for the first time. Hazel and Gus were walking through the house museum while “Anne” (or someone who was supposed to be Anne) read quotes from her journal. As she is saying, “At such moments, I can’t think about the misery but the beauty that still remains” the two cancer kids who themselves have been facing their own miseries are ignoring the suffering and focusing on the beauty that remains…and so caught up in the beauty that was before them, they kissed. Beauty in the midst of sorrow. Joy despite suffering. Hope in the face of bleakness.
- Do you focus more on the beauty or the sorrow in your life?
- What can you do to see more beauty and less suffering?
- What gives you hope for the beauty that still remains when you are faced with the sorrow, suffering and bleakness of life?
Responsible for her Parents
Hazel knew that her parent’s lives had been consumed with her own. Her mother’s existence was centered around taking Hazel to doctors and support group, etc. And as an only child, there was nothing to distract her parents—she felt all the burden of their focused lives. Hazel was very concerned about what it would do to her parents if she died. What would become of them? They had no other children, no hobbies, no outside interests. Their lives were wholly centered around hers. That’s a lot of responsibility for a child, especially one who knows she won’t live long.
When Hazel found out her mom was taking classes to become a licensed therapist so that she could help other families through what they had been through, Hazel wept for joy. Her parents would be okay without her because they had more in their lives/to their lives than her.
- On a scale of 10, with 1 being you are the center of your parents’ world and 10 being you wish your parents knew you existed, how would you rate your relationship with your parents?
- If you could change that dynamic (where you are on the scale) how would you change it and why?
- What do you think are the harms/dangers/hurts of each extreme end of the scale?
- Do you think Hazel’s parents were ultimately healthy or unhealthy in their relationship with Hazel? Why?
Purpose in /Meaning of Life
One of the main themes throughout the book is the meaning/purpose of life. Gus is desperate to leave a mark on the world. “I always thought I would be a hero, a grand story they would tell in the papers and all. I just thought I would be special.” While Hazel is comfortable with the thought that there may not be a point to life, Gus won’t accept it. His biggest fear is that he wouldn’t be able to live an extra-ordinary life.
His struggles with feeling like his life isn’t big enough, hasn’t impacted enough people, anger Hazel, perhaps because it belittles the meaning of her life. His life mattered to her, so if he felt his life didn’t matter enough, then he is basically telling her that she didn’t matter. That impacting her life wasn’t significant enough, because she wasn’t significant enough.
In the end, Gus thinks Hazel had it right. He writes to a man they knew:
But Van Houten: The marks humans leave are too often scars. …You think, “They’ll remember me now,” but (a) they don’t remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars.
…We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can’t stop pissing on fire hydrants. I know it’s silly and useless—especially useless in my current state—but I am an animal like any other.
Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.
People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remembered her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it’s not sad, Van Houten. It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm.
The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.
Honestly, I have mixed emotions about their conclusions. I agree, we need to do no harm. But is that the highest we can aspire to? I think not. Jesus came to change the world, and He invited us to follow Him. I believe Gus’ desire to change the world was God given, and it’s something that echoes with us all. We were made to impact the world, it was always God’s intent for our lives. Gus need not give up hope of making a difference, but maybe his understanding of what that looks like needed to mature. I believe some people make a deep impact on the world while others make a wide one. Both have their place. I can’t help but feel though, that Gus’ frustrations and feelings of impotency are related to being disconnected from the One who made him and designed him with a purpose. If he had been able to take his need to the Lord, he might have discovered just what it was that God designed him for, and been able to realize the full extent of the impact he was designed to have on the world.
The Bible is clear that our lives are designed with purpose. We were given a divine task at the beginning of our existence on the planet, to cultivate and extend the Garden of Eden. That purpose was frustrated by sin and rebellion, but a purpose still remains. We are reminded of it again and again throughout the Bible. These are just two references: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). And, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
- Do you feel like Gus, that your life was supposed to have a bigger purpose/impact? Or are you more like Hazel, more comfortable with the possibility that there may be no point after all?
- If you could impact the world in any way, what would it be?
- Do you tend more towards having a deep impact, or a broad/wide impact?
- If you knew that God made you for a specific purpose, would you want to know what it was?
- How does it make you feel when you read that you are God’s handiwork and that He created you to do good works that were prepared in advance for you to do? (Ephesians 2:10)