“The world is not a wish-granting factory.” That line, from “The Fault in Our Stars,” is undoubtedly true, and it is also true that the movie, like the book before it, is an expertly built machine for the mass production of tears. Directed by Josh Boone () with scrupulous respect for John Green’s best-selling young-adult novel, the film sets out to make you weep — not just sniffle or choke up a little, but sob until your nose runs and your face turns blotchy. It succeeds.
But then again, a brief survey of the story and its themes might make you wonder how it could possibly fail. The main character — whose voice-over narration, drawn verbatim from Mr. Green’s pages, frames the story — is Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager who has lived most of her life with the metastatic thyroid cancer she expects will end it very soon. She falls in love with Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), known as Gus, a fellow “ kid” who has lost part of his leg to the disease but who has been healthy since then and is determined to lead “an extraordinary life.”
As played by Shailene Woodley, a gifted actress grabbing hold of her moment with both hands, Hazel is witty, compassionate and as lovely as a day in June. Her plucky rejection of the usual “cancer story” sentiments becomes a potent form of sentimentality in its own right, and her brave refusal of self-pity ensures the audience’s infinite sympathy. “The only thing that bites worse than having cancer is having a kid with cancer,” she says, and her compassion is borne out by the stricken faces of her parents (Sam Trammell and , both excellent in thinly sketched roles).
Ms. Woodley plays nearly every scene with a plastic oxygen tube anchored to her nostrils and splayed across her face (Hazel’s cancer affects her lungs), but her un-self-conscious performance is the perfect mirror of her character’s pragmatic temperament. Because she never asks for our approval, we are entirely in her thrall. Gus, meanwhile, is such a handsome bundle of chivalry, positive energy and impish self-deprecation that we may swoon over him even before Hazel does. With an unlighted cigarette wedged into his crooked, cocky grin, he is a perfect romantic hero, complete with a semigoofy sidekick (Nat Wolff).
But what can you say about a girl who ... ? The question is not meant to be a spoiler, but rather a point of reference. A long time ago, a movie called “Love Story,” also based on a best seller with terminal illness in its plot, swept through the popular culture and landed its female lead on the cover of Time. The film was potent and memorable without being all that good. And yet it is still possible, all these years later, to laugh at the stilted dialogue and awkwardly staged scenes and find yourself wet-eyed and raspy-voiced at the end.
However it might look in 40 years, “The Fault in Our Stars” seems at first glance like a much better picture, thanks to Ms. Woodley’s discipline and to a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber that takes an unhurried, amiable approach to the story. Their earlier screenplays, “500 Days of Summer” and (also starring Ms. Woodley), were offbeat variations on sturdy romantic-comedy themes, and here they smartly emphasize the dry, idiosyncratic notes in Mr. Green’s sometimes pushy prose.Continue reading the main story
Here’s another example of a fiction summary, which can be used as a guide for writing your novel synopsis. (See all my synopsis examples here.) This time it’s Punch-Drunk Love, my second attempt at a “literary fiction” story. The female lead here, Lena, is somewhat bland, so the synopsis rests on showing the strange-yet-likeable nature of Barry, and explaining his arc, because it is a big one.
BARRY EGAN owns a company that markets themed toilet plungers (“fungers”) and other novelty items. He has seven overbearing sisters who ridicule him regularly, and leads a lonely, depressed life punctuated by fits of rage. In the span of one morning, he witnesses a bizarre car accident, picks up an abandoned musical instrument in the street, and encounters LENA, a sweet, somewhat mysterious woman who orchestrated the meeting after hearing about Barry from one of his sisters with whom she works.
Barry calls a phone sex hotline for conversation, and the female operator correctly surmises he’s a weak man with money in the bank. The sex line “supervisor,” DEAN, sends four henchmen from Utah to Southern California, where they quickly threaten and extort Barry, forcing him to take out money from a cash machine. This complicates his budding relationship with Lena, as well as his plan to exploit a loophole in a frequent flier miles promotion where he can amass a million miles by buying large quantities of Healthy Choice pudding and mailing in UPC bar codes. After Lena leaves for Hawaii on a business trip, Barry decides to follow her. Upon meeting her, Barry explains that he is in Hawaii on a business trip by coincidence, but he soon admits that he came to pursue a romantic relationship. She kisses him and the pair retreat to a hotel room for more.
After returning home, the four sex-line henchmen ram their car into Barry’s, mildly injuring Lena. Normally not confrontational, an outraged Barry attacks his attackers in the street, and fights them off despite being outnumbered. He awkwardly leaves Lena at the hospital to try and end the harassment, and drives to Utah. When he arrives, Dean meets a changed and powerful Barry who explains “I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” Dean agrees to leave Barry alone.
Returning home, Barry asks forgiveness from Lena for abandoning her at after the accident. He plays a simple song for her on the instrument he found and pledges to use his frequent-flier miles to accompany her on all future trips to Hawaii or wherever she goes. She forgives him, and they embrace; lastly, Lena says “So, here we go.”
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