[Warning: This post contains spoilers about the movie “The Fault in Our Stars.”]
When Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, the writers of the burgeoning film hit "The Fault in Our Stars," first began adapting John Green's bestselling novel, they found themselves with a dilemma. How do you take the characters’ eloquence on the page, they wondered, and make it credible in the mouths of flesh-and-blood people?
“John’s dialogue is so naturalistic, but at the same time no one really talks like that,” said Neustadter. “It’s never the thing you would say in the moment — more like the best thing you would say in the moment. And the question was: How do you capture that but still make these people feel alive on the screen?”
And, Weber added dryly, "you have the fact that a lot of it is about cancer.”
Adapting any fan-favorite book isn't easy. Adapting one in which teenagers are confronting their own mortality is that much harder. Yet that was the challenge facing Neustadter, 37, and Weber, 36, the up-and-coming Hollywood screenwriters charged with adapting Green’s book about a sweet and playful romance between Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort), two young people with highly aggressive forms of cancer.
Judging by the reaction to the John Boone film last weekend — strong reviews, an “A” CinemaScore and a weekend-best $48 million at the box office — the screenwriters succeeded. But it was hardly an easy process.
Since hitting bookstores in early 2012, Green’s book has been a major hit, offering to young (and plenty of older) readers a seemingly perfect romance against the backdrop of some morbidly imperfect circumstances.
That latter aspect has given the book a realism lacking in the otherwise werewolf- and futurism-filled canon of YA literature. But it also made for a tricky adaptation challenge. A book, less visual than a movie and not meant to be consumed in one sitting, can get away with a lot more relentless grief and illness.
“Writing this script was very much a matter of how you navigate the ups and downs and the crazy roller coaster that’s going on emotionally,” Neustadter said. “People are falling in love, and then there are crushing trips to the hospital and midnight lung scares. It’s tough to navigate what the audience can handle in a 120-minute interval. How do you make sure it isn’t too much or too little?”
Their approach was to keep many of the book's key scenes — several near-death experiences are portrayed frankly — without lingering on or wallowing in them (an attitude, incidentally, taken by the characters themselves).
The writers also were forced to weigh the language carefully. Gus in particular is prone to metaphor (he perpetually holds a cigarette in his mouth but doesn’t light it — to show, he says, that he can confront danger without giving it the power to harm him). It isn’t exactly typical teenage stuff.
And a scene in which Gus stages his own funeral has friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) offering his own Gus-like linguistic flourishes. It took Neustadter and Weber several drafts and the input of others before they realized they had to make Wolff’s character sound more distinct than their original version did.
The pair deliberated most, they said, on a scene at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where there are at least elliptical connections made between Hazel’s plight and that of the famous Holocaust victim. That a tender kiss between Hazel and Gus takes place there only ups the ante.
“It was definitely a hot-button concept, because it was Anne Frank and the Holocaust, and are we comparing the struggle?” Neustadter said. “We could definitely see how some people would be uneasy with it. But it was such a big deal in the novel and such a huge moment for these characters, we felt we had to go there and make it work as best we can.“
Indeed, the movie turns when the couple take that trip to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author, a man (Willem Dafoe) who had written a cancer novel called “My Imperial Affliction” and who turns out to be not nearly the savior Hazel anticipated. The scene resonates for any of us who’ve had the experience of realizing our heroes are human. Neustadter calls it “very Wizard of Oz — they search for answers from someone who turns out to be a total fraud, but the experience and the journey together is what they realize they need all along.”
The excursion to the Netherlands at first has the trappings of many a romcom trip to Europe, before rounding the corner to a less familiar place. “We set up that expectation of two people isolated on a trip, but it soon becomes less of that and goes against the expectations of the genre,” Weber said.
The screenwriters boast experience in upending romantic subgenres, having most famously penned “(500) Days of Summer,” the anti-romantic comedy inspired by Neustadter's interactions with an emotionally manipulative ex-girlfriend. (He brought his real life to bear here too, losing a parent to cancer.)
In addition to “(500) Days” and the Woodley-starring romance “The Spectacular Now," the pair have been engaged with a number of literary adaptations, including a take on Rebecca Serle’s “Romeo & Juliet” spin “Rosaline” and another Green-authored young-adult romance, “Paper Towns.”
All these books require elisions — fans of "Fault" will notice that some of the book's characters are missing from the movie, including Gus’ ex (“It seemed to get in the way of the first part of their relationship when we knew the obstacle that was truly coming for these two,” Weber said).
But ultimately the pair believe in a minimalist approach to adaptation, particularly in the case of an emotional powder keg like "Fault." “This isn’t true for every adaptation, but we felt the script that would work best here was the one that came closest to the experience of reading the book," Neustadter said.
Besides, he added, a screenwriter can always be bailed out by the people who wind up speaking their words.
“The difference between good Sorkin and bad Sorkin,” Neustadter said, “isn’t necessarily Sorkin. It’s the actors.”