‘The Fault in Our Stars’ adds new power to films’ ‘tear-jerker’ label

(Renee Nault / For The Times)

She didn’t want to cry. It was her mom’s birthday, and she didn’t want to distract from the party.

But Sarai Cruz couldn’t stop thinking about the book she’d just finished reading, “The Fault in Our Stars,” a young-adult novel about love-struck teenagers Hazel and Gus, who are battling cancer. Unable to maintain a stiff upper lip, she told her mom what was wrong.

“Oh, my God,” her mother replied, “they’re just fictional characters.”


“But mom,” Cruz said, “If you think about it, there are Hazels and Guses all over the world right now. Their parents are dealing with loss. And it’s all because of cancer.”

As it turned out, Cruz, now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Florida, was one among a legion of readers to find themselves profoundly moved by John Green’s novel. Along with three other “Fault in Our Stars” fans in Austria, Switzerland and Massachusetts, she went on to found a fan site ( for the book and its eventual film adaptation, which hits theaters June 6.

Unaffiliated with 20th Century Fox — the studio releasing the “Fault” movie starring rising young actors Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort — the site attracts around 10,000 visitors per day, says Cruz, while its Twitter handle (@TFIOS_Movie) boasts nearly 72,000 followers.

Over the past decade, young adults have displayed the most fervor for far more fantastical stories — the vampire-human-werewolf love triangle at the center of the “Twilight” series or the teenager forced to kill in the dystopian “The Hunger Games” tales. But “The Fault in Our Stars” is the rare tale to capture the attention of the under-25 set with a narrative driven more by raw emotion than action. The film has also earned largely positive reviews, an anomaly for a movie described most often as a tear-jerker, a genre typically looked down upon by critics and elitist types.

“The word ‘tear-jerker’ is pejorative, like you’re trying to literally jerk the tears out of someone,” said Robert Harling, who wrote 1989’s “Steel Magnolias,” a memorably moving film. “But that term is a misnomer. I can’t even tell you how many letters and cards I get from people who’ve found hope through the movie. It’s been translated into 17 or 18 languages.”

Tear-jerker, melodrama, weepie — the kind of movie that provokes a highly charged emotional reaction has produced some of cinema’s most beloved classics since the earliest days of silent movies. When the hot new rental isn’t yet available to stream on Netflix, many turn to “Casablanca,” “Terms of Endearment” or “The Notebook” for the kind of cinematic comfort food that makes us feel better even as we wipe away our tears.

That’s the appeal of “The Fault in Our Stars,” which Fox hopes will have the kind of big box-office opening normally reserved for a hit R-rated comedy. At a recent industry conference, James Murdoch, Fox’s co-chief operating officer, singled out the $12-million production from the company’s slate, saying he felt it had the “potential to break out.” (After a recent screening, his father, Rupert, tweeted that it was “beautiful story, amazing tear jerker.”)

If the film lives up to expectations it may not only shift the way Hollywood caters to young adult moviegoers but the way the movie business feels about tear-jerkers too. Typically only a couple of movies with emotional, romantic overtones are released every year; they usually open around Valentine’s Day and are often based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, the king of the genre.

The adaptations of Sparks’ saccharine tales — think “The Notebook” or “Dear John” — are typically critically maligned, but they’re also reliable box-office draws.

“He has one element that never gets old,” said Denise Di Novi, who has produced five Sparks movies, “The power of love can sustain you even after loss.”

In other words: His movies may include tragedy, but they always have some sort of inspirational value as well. Often times, Di Novi says, movies that end on a purely sad note don’t earn positive test scores from early preview audiences — a red flag for a movie studio.

“There’s an assumption,” she said, “that people don’t want to see a movie that makes them depressed. Life is already hard enough.”

The weepie’s rise

In the 1950s, tear-jerkers were often referred to as “matinee weepies,” aimed at audiences, primarily housewives, looking to get away from their troubles for a few hours. Though films in the genre nearly always involve loss, the death of a child or beloved spouse, they were still viewed as uplifting.

“People who are going to these kind of movies are looking for relief from their own everyday problems,” said film historian Cari Beauchamp. “There was nothing like a good tear-jerker to put your own life in perspective.”

Decades later, in the 1980s — a period that saw the release of such classic weepies as “Terms of Endearment,” “Beaches” and “Steel Magnolias” — attitudes shifted. As escapist popcorn fare became more popular, studios became fearful about producing movies that were too gloomy. Before Garry Marshall set out to direct “Beaches,” for instance, the filmmaker said then-Disney production Chief Jeffrey Katzenberg expressed concern over the picture’s one-note screenplay.

“He said, ‘It’s a very sad story — see if you can lighten it up,’” Marshall recalled of the film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. “So I added some comedy bits for Bette. But ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ still became the ultimate funeral song.”

That the sweeping, moody ballad sung by Midler went on to score two Grammy Awards and become a chart-topper is proof, many psychologists might argue, of the human desire to feel a range of emotions.

“If people could pick any emotional state to be in, you might think they’d choose happiness. But I think we have an affinity for all of our emotions,” said professor Levenson, who runs the Institute of Personality and Social Research at UC Berkeley. “With sadness, we have the capacity to have a complicated and wonderful emotion — and we like to exercise that muscle, because there’s something about it that makes us feel more alive.”

In part, this may help explain why teenagers amid immense brain development have been so drawn to “The Fault in Our Stars.” Adolescents, according to Levenson, often do things to provoke strong emotion as a way of learning how to develop eventual control over their emotional lives.

It’s a state of being that Green, the story’s 36-year-old author, finds refreshing.

“What I like about teenagers,” the writer said, “is that they’re asking questions about the meaning of life without any irony or apology. As you get older, you ask those questions in a somewhat different context. You’ve been through the daily grind of life. As a teenager, you don’t have a lot of context, and that makes them great to write for and about.”

Still, Green has mixed feelings about the movie being labeled a tear-jerker. When fans tell him how much his story made them cry, he becomes uncomfortable, replying with an awkward “Um, thanks?” Even Fox has tried to play up the film’s lighter elements, in December adorning a poster with the tag line “One sick love story.” But the marketing choice upset many fans on social media, who found the phrase offensive, while star Woodley told Entertainment Weekly that she wouldn’t “have chosen [it] by any means.”

“I don’t know that they hit quite what they were going for,” admitted Green, who’s been a big supporter of the film, tweeting from the set and joining the media tour among other actions. “But this movie does have a quirky tone. It’s not gauzy, and it doesn’t have that sentimental light that dramas about illness or disability can have.”

While adapting Green’s book, screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber also sought to balance the tear-jerker moments with comedy so the emotional moments “landed more powerfully,” said Weber.

“When we write,” added Neustadter, “we try to make sure that the reader feels what we intend them to feel. And in some ways, that is a version of manipulation.”

The pair, who also wrote "(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now,” say being told their work made someone cry is the highest compliment they can receive. But Harling, the “Steel Magnolias” screenwriter, said he doesn’t gauge his success through tissue sales.

“Nobody set out to write anything to make or force you to cry. That was not the goal,” he said. “The goal was to show a slice of life. And everything is not always funny or always sad.”

Still, the “Fault” creators aren’t taking any chances: They want fans to be prepared just in case the tears do start flowing.

At the movie’s premiere in New York on June 1, staffers from Penguin — which published Green’s popular book — gave screaming fans free miniature packs of tissues featuring the novel’s cover. Erin Berger, the company’s executive director of trade marketing, said her team came up with the promotion after attending an early screening of the film where the number of crying moviegoers made it “clear that the tissue idea wasn’t just clever — it was practical.”