[This piece contains spoilers about the film. Not the ending or anything, but still. Read at your own risk.]
So I joined the review aggregator that is Rotten Tomatoes. (Thanks, Rotten Tomatoes!) I don’t love the idea of reducing a hundred pieces of criticism into a single number, but I get the appeal. I also value the community: all those quotes from the critics on a film’s review page are something like a conversation, or at least the start of one.
Being a newbie in any group naturally brings with it some measure of anxiety, which isn’t helped by the fact that the very first thing you see on my page is how often I agree with the Tomatometer’s critical consensus. Right now, I’m at 60%. Not terrible. Not great. Not that I want it to be either one — it’s not my job to agree with other critics any more than it is my job to agree with the audience or the fanboys. But it’s still presented as the salient, primary fact about my efforts.
The Fault in Our Stars is currently tracking at 82%. This would be one of those times when I don’t agree with Ye Olde Tomatometer. Which makes the following bit interesting: the critical backlash against the one scene I out-and-out praised. It seems most folks didn’t like it that Hazel and Augustus have their first kiss in Anne Frank’s attic.
I sympathize. I really didn’t like it when X-Men: First Class tried to draw parallels — and more than that, to manufacture dramatic equivalencies — between a man’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis and a bunch of teenagers’ struggles with their social differences. This is sort of like that, I’ll grant. As Time’s Richard Corliss notes, “a Jewish girl’s descent into the Holocaust is straight-facedly compared to a teen’s cancer. No, we have to say; they’re different. To paraphrase Hazel’s maxim on infinities: some atrocities are bigger than other atrocities.” True enough. But I’ll defend the scene.
The riskiest bit is the kiss itself, because Hazel and Augustus are not alone in the room. There are other visitors, visitors for whom the attic is a sacred, solemn, and tragic space. A monument to the struggle against an atrocity. The joyful expression of romantic love in such a context is frankly inappropriate. If anything, it’s something to forgive, not celebrate. And yet, the other visitors in the film applaud the kiss. Why?
Because the girl is young. And because she is carrying an oxygen tank. It is, or should be, easier to forgive the young, and easier still to forgive the unwell. Applauding that kiss is an affirmation of life over death. However inappropriate or immature the particular expression, it’s an affirmation espoused by Anne Frank herself. The scene makes us uncomfortable, but it has its reasons. It may be the only really brave storytelling move in the whole film. (That it didn’t work for everyone is perhaps evidence of its bravery.)
It helps, I think, to consider what led up to that moment in the attic. Hazel has cancer. We’ve seen throughout that any exertion leaves her breathless. To reach Anne Frank’s attic, she must ascend flight after flight of steep, narrow stairs, culminating in a nearly vertical ladder. And all the way, she’s lugging her oxygen tank. It’s her very own Via Dolorosa.
Why does she press on, despite the suffering? Because she wants to see the place where this other young woman suffered and waited in fear. Yes, some atrocities are bigger than other atrocities. But this much is the same: both girls face an early death. Hazel Grace’s world will end just as Anne Frank’s did.
And what does Hazel hear as she climbs? Recordings from Anne Frank’s diary, telling her to “think of all the beauty in the world and be happy...all is as it should be...God wishes people to be happy.” In the midst of horror and suffering, urges Frank, seek beauty and be happy. When Hazel reaches the attic, she does just that.