Despite having once shared an evening with actor Willem DaFoe, I still think I would find his confounding and curmudgeonly character Peter van Houten, the most fascinating character in The Fault in Our Stars. While I thought author John Green might have been a bit soft on the difficulties of navigating young love—especially in the face of death—I thought that the confounding character of van Houten seemed to carry the weight of anger, disbelief, denial and disgust that these young characters were seemingly disallowed. A closer look may reveal how.
Of all the books turned into movies, this one adheres as close as I’ve ever seen to the book. Perhaps John Green was clever enough to follow the three-act process when creating this masterful tear-jerker.
First – a Quick Movie-Book Comparison
My daughter and I agreed that the book does not include the side-story of Hazel Grace’s look-alike—doeppelganger—Augustus’s previous girlfriend who died of cancer. While I found that side-story provided a potential character conflict other than the inevitable cancer, I didn’t find that the film needed the doeppelganger side story. But, my daughter did. She thought that the movie missed out in not having this conflict.
Likewise, I thought that collapsing the revelation of van Houten’s novel, An Imperial Affliction—based on van Houten’s losing his own daughter to cancer—into Augustus’ funeral scene worked. The book dragged this out too long into too many scenes. While I do like that Hazel has this epiphany on her own in the book, she is granted that same epiphany in processing Augustus’ last attempts to rewrite the ending of van Houten’s book. This discovering and processing of story is a great literary device—allowing readers to organically experience this coming to terms with endings we can’t change in real time with Hazel. Viewers have the opportunity to accept the story the same way Hazel Grace does… with grace. In fact, most of the time–in my opinion–she’s almost too perfect. Good thing readers/viewers have van Houten, who is far from perfect.
Enter van Houten as Death
-image courtesy Google images.
On the movie, a fun aside for me, was getting to tell my daughter that I once had beers—or rather a root beer—with Willem DaFoe—the actor who plays van Houten, when I was just a few years younger than Hazel Grace’s character. As a teenager, I accompanied my father and to New York City for a teachers’ convention and an Off-Broadway show. While Hazel Grace meets up with DaFoe’s grizzled, drunken and belligerent character, Peter van Houten, I got to meet the wiry, intellectual and charming young theater Director DaFoe, when my cousin—Marjorie Hayes acted as his understudy for the Off-Broadway production of Crimes of the Heart.
After reading the book and watching the movie, it occurred to me that van Houten symbolized death itself: ugly, unyielding, mysterious, impenetrable—making his presence known when you’d don’t expect or want him—just as van Houten showed up at Augustus Waters’ funeral. Likewise, just as when the star-crossed, cancer-riddled teens show up at his doorstep in Amsterdam, the curmudgeonly, alcoholic writer refuses to yield answers about his story. He ignores Hazel and Augustus, sidestepping their questions and poses riddles and deflects their anger. Such is death.
When Hazel Grace and Augustus tell him off and depart van Houten’s presence, his assistant Liljigren follows them and suggests the young couple could visit the Anne Frank House. She insists—to the relief of the young couple–that van Houten “…is not invited.”
Sending this fated couple to the Anne Frank House is a brilliant, artistic authorial instinct.
Among other things, Green got this right. Like this young couple, Anne Frank fell prey to a universe beyond her control. The plague of Nazi infested Europe took her young life. While this young couple explores where Anne spent her youth hoping to survive this plague, their own bodies are succumbing to an invasion of out-of-control cell growth. Cancer. Yet, they are able to enjoy a first kiss in that place—a place where despite her own adversities, living a captive life—Anne too experienced joy. It’s interesting to note that symbolically, if van Houten symbolizes death that this young couple has rejected him and left him and his incomprehensible riddles behind to find the joy they can.
In the end, van Houten will show up and haunt Hazel at Augustus’s funeral, but she refuses to give him—to give death—too much power.
She sends him away. Later, she will read Augustus’ letters to van Houten—his own attempt to say it’s okay that he didn’t get closure to the end of van Houten’s book, because in the end, life is for the living.
The scene in the Anne Frank House is likely one of the more artistically rendered popular movie scenes in my recent film-viewing experience. The camera focuses on Hazel as she struggles to breathe—despite her cancer-compromised lungs—and climb each staircase and finally a ladder to Anne’s attic. This climb symbolizes both the cancer struggle and the suggestion of the human struggle toward the divine or wish for after-life. Paralleling the physical exertion Hazel Grace endures is the poignant soundtrack of a young narrator reading from Anne’s diary. With each staircase, the diary unfolds more profoundly, exerting increasing meaning on Hazel’s journey both in the Anne Frank House and in her own life.
-image by chasingcinema.com
That Hazel and Augustus share a first kiss in the heart of attic where Anne’s last days of entrapped freedom played out—shows John Green’s artistic eye for allegory—that in the face of it all that the human potential for hope and love prevail. That also—we cannot forget as humans to recognize the moments we are alive—even when trapped beyond our own circumstance. Which, ultimately, we all are. Just with cancer or other life-threatening situations, some of us get more notice than others.