Monday, February 3, 2014

Brendan Halpin, John Green, And Cancer

The other day, one of my favorite authors, Brendan Halpin, took a machete to the trailer for The Fault In our Stars.


I’ll let you read his comments here:





I’m also going to link you to the trailer itself, which is here:





I had wanted to write a response directly to Brandon, and there are a lot of ways I could have done it.  I could have addressed him directly on Facebook, or Tweeted at him, or even said something on his blog.


But this is actually something I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time, so I’ll do it here and link at him later.


To summarize his position as I see it, The Fault in Our Stars looks like a movie about two people with magical, non-painful cancer that teaches them valuable life lessons also about love.  To take a quote from Brendan:


“It's not pretty. It's not romantic. You do not gain any beautiful wisdom from it.  Oh yeah, and cancer makes you hideous and wrecks your life before it kills you.”


Brendan’s wife died of cancer (much of the story is related in his amazing and heartrending memoir, “It Takes a Worried Man”) and it’s easy to see where this rage comes from.


Okay, so here I need to back up the train to two different locations:


The First Location:


Last year, I got to watch two very dear friends die of cancer.  And Brendan is not wrong.


Both my friends died bad deaths, and they’ve both left behind a lot of horrible emotional devastation.  There are huge holes where those people belong, not just in their families, not just in their friends, but in their communities.


In the trailer of the movie, the girl with cancer notes that she feels like a grenade, but I think this is not a very accurate description.  Watching someone die, especially when they die so much younger than they should, is more like watching them fall apart and turn into landmines.


You literally never know when you’re going to step on one, and feel all of the pain of that loss all over again.  It can happen weeks, months, years, decades after it happens.


The Second Location:


Two summers ago, I read The Fault in Our Stars, because I had two students that love to read, and both of them read it and loved it.


At the time, I had one friend who had cancer, and who I knew was going to die from it, and I read it anyway.


And here’s my capsule review, with the caveat that I read it more than a year and a half ago.


It was a good book.


I realize that right now John Green is the hot thing and this book is the hot thing, and people are going crazy for it, and I’m juuust starting to see the backlash as new readers are coming to it who don’t get what all the fuss is about.


This is not that backlash.  I enjoyed the book enough that I eventually worked my way through all of John Green’s books, and my review of Fault is pretty much the same review of all of his books.


They’re quirky indie movies.


If you liked the movie Garden State and/or enjoyed John Hughes in his teen phase, you will probably like John Green’s work.  I don’t mean this as a knock, exactly, but Green has definitely put himself into a niche of quirky teen fiction, and he appears to be happy there.


But what we’re talking about here isn’t quirk, what we’re talking about is whether or not “The Fault In Our Stars” is a fair representation of the horrors of cancer.


Which of course means we need to have two more flashbacks.


For the first, we need to go back to 1970, with a book and movie called “Love Story.”  The novel was a huge hit, and the movie was a HUGE hit, to the point where it became part of the world’s vernacular.


If you’ve ever hear the phrase:


“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”


That’s from “Love Story.” 


The other famous line that doesn’t get as much play:


“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach? The Beatles? And me?”


Okay, so, let’s talk about that movie for a while.  It’s a pretty basic boy-meets-girl thing.  Boy meets girl, boy marries girl and father cuts him off because she’s beneath him.  Girl gets very sick (in the movie they don’t say why, though Wikipedia tells me that in the novel it’s leukemia) and the girl dies.


“Love Story” is a perfect example of what Halpin is talking about with the “Fault” trailer, as it was absolutely designed to cause “feels,” and the leukemia itself has nothing to do with reality.  The “girl” in the equation is supposedly dying, but appears that she might have perhaps a bad cold.


But that’s the thing – the film was not designed to be a careful examination of the devastation that can be caused by dying young.  It was designed to show that love is powerful and wonderful and worth it, even if it ends horribly. 


It’s called “Love Story,” and not, “Cancer Story,” for a reason.


And the thing of it is, it worked, as far as catharsis material went.  The producer of the film tells stories about men bringing women to the movie specifically to cause “feels” which put them in the mood to do something “life-affirming” later. 


If you know what I mean and I think that you do.


One more quick side journey, and then back to “Love Story.”


When “Titanic” came out, no one knew that it would be a massive hit.  People saw that movie, which is three hours long, multiple times.  When it came out on video, people were buying three copies (someone researched this): one to keep, one to loan out, and one to give as a gift.


And there were stories about how women would actually have gatherings where they would sit and listen to the soundtrack and cry, as a form of emotional release.


Which… if it works for you, then, great.


And this is the spot where I start tying the threads together.


Ultimately, both “Love Story” and “Titanic” took real-life situations (terminal disease and Titanic disaster) and used them to, as the saying goes, cause “feels.” 


And in some ways, there isn’t anything wrong with that.  Unfortunately, real disaster and real sadness are hard to wrap your brain around when you don’ have a real-life tie to the actual event.  By making us care for these characters, in some ways we give people more sympathy and/or empathy for, respectively, people who lose their loved ones all too soon, and people who died horribly due to an inconceivable accident.


On the other hand…


In the case of the Titanic, many actual people died.  And yet, the film asked us to care about two people who never even really existed.  And people were mourning this tragic love story, crying to the soundtrack, even though actual human beings with family and friends really did perish.


And in the case of “Love Story,” well, it mostly made people crave an epic love and feel sad that someone died young, which, as Brendan noted, doesn’t offer up an accurate picture of what something like that looks like.


It takes a real-life horror and puts it on film, in a sanitary way that you can mock (because the movie is pretty cornball) and keep at arm’s length.


And now we’ve bubbled back up to “Stars.”


Watching the trailer, I found myself very much in agreement with Brendan.  Our two supposedly cancer-ridden characters, quite frankly, don’t look cancer-ridden.  The girl is carrying around an oxygen tube, but this seems mostly like an inconvenience or a mild affectation.  The boy seems ready to star in a show on the CW.


They have cutesy conversations.  They appear to go on zany adventure.  They make the beast with two backs. 


The fact of the matter is, judging by the trailer, Brendan’s assessment of the material is entirely accurate.  It makes the movie look like it takes a very serious subject, and gives lip service to the pain and horror it causes.




Okay, I’ll give my nutshell thought here, but to dig in a little deeper, I have to spoil the end of the book.


So the short version is, the book does take the topic more seriously, and is not entirely dishonest about the pain and humiliation and horror caused by cancer. 


To put it delicately, I wouldn’t put this book on the list of things people should read if they have a friend or family member with cancer.  I think there’s a strong chance they’ll reject it as unrealistic.


But if they make it to the end of the novel, I think they’ll find that that horror is there.  As it should be.




Here’s where the book gets into trouble.


First, it gives the girl a special drug that’s keeping her cancer in check, even though she’s in stage four.  (As one of my friends with cancer noted, there is no stage five.)  She’s pretty healthy and vital.


That drug doesn’t exist.  It might, one day, and it’s based on a drug that exists, but stage four is a lot more horrible than portrayed.


The book also exists in a fairy-tale world where the folks who grant wishes for sick kids can foot an impossibly large bill… which is also not terribly realistic.


Now, what’s interesting is that, in a post-internet world, we can cut to the tape of John Green discussing why he made these choices.


And here, I’m afraid, is where you have to walk away if you plan to read the book/see the movie with no prior knowledge:



Up there are answers to those questions, and many more, and in there is a question not asked by me that refers to the guy as a Manic Pixie Dream Boy.


(Which is to say, I probably wasn’t the first person who thought of that when reading the novel.)


And this is where the big “walk away now” line goes.


Because the big “twist” of the book, if you want to call it that, is that it’s the boy who ends up dying.  He who tried to teach lessons about life, who tried to teach our protagonist that the journey, nay, that LOVE is what makes the journey worthwhile?


He dies.


And the book IS honest, when it gets there, about the horrors of dying of cancer, which are many and varied.  But, well, in John Green’s own words (with editing for language):


Q. Did you have any second thoughts about the way in which you described the degeneration of Augustus’s health in his final days?


A. Well, I didn’t want to [lie to] the reader, but I also didn’t want to be gratuitous about it. I left the worst of it off the page, I guess, but I don’t really regret that. You might be asking whether I regret being so explicit, in which case the answer is definitely not. Our literature has enough novels that glorify suffering as transcendently beautiful.


And that, nearly 2000 words later, is the answer to the $64,000 question of whether this story gets at the true awfulness of the cancer experience.


The answer is, er…


Well, and no and yes, isn’t it?


Ultimately, the book is about trying to find meaning and making connections in life, no matter how short that life might be.


In another post about another novel, Green refers to his books as having “magical realism,” which I guess is a fancy way of saying that they exist in a heightened reality.


Which is to say, the world of quirky indie movies, where a guy can be depressed and meet a girl and she can turn his life around, or a group of people can end up in detention together and realize they’re not so different from one another.




There’s a saying, which I’m going to paraphrase, that the best answer to a bad book a better book.


And in this case, one exists, and Brendan Halpin wrote it.


That book is called “Forever Changes,” and if you squint your eyes a bit you can see the similarities.  In both cases, it’s about a teen girl who is, ultimately, going to die from a terminal illness (Cystic fibrosis, in “Changes.”)


And in both cases, the question is posed whether it’s worth trying to really live your life in the face of the end being so frighteningly close.


When I read “Fault,” I spent much of my reading time comparing the two books, and in the end I think that’s why I rated “Fault” as just a good book, as opposed to a great one.


“Fault” exists in a world where people have money, get treatments that don’t exist yet, and everyone learns valuable lessons about life.


It is, in its own way, about as realistic as “Harry Potter.”


But “Forever Changes” exists in a real world where people react badly to knowing their child is going to die.  Where love doesn’t conquer all, or even conquer some.  Where, when the ugliness comes at the end, it comes hard.


I’ve read “Changes” twice, and I cried both times.  Hard.  For all of the last 15 pages.


I did not cry at the end of “The Fault in Our Stars.”


And here is where I think I have to split the differences.


The fact is, “Fault” is a quirky indie movie book.  It’s a deliberate romantic tale that I think can give you a glimpse into the horrors of terminal illness, but really only a glimpse.


It tells you A truth, but not THE truth.


But as I said about “Love Story” and “Titanic,” I think there can be some value in that.  You can see the story, feel about the story, get in touch with that part of you, and then if you want to you can stick it somewhere in a box never really think about it again.


But in real life, as I said before, there are land mines.


So is Halpin right?


Here’s the truth:  Halpin IS right.


For better or worse, “Fault” soft-pedals the world of cancer.




I think John Green made that choice, all those choices, really, deliberately, in order to tell the best story he could.


Ultimately, if you want to see a cancer story that lays it all out on the table, you should go find yourself a copy of “Wit.”


If you want to read a book that shows those first few land mines going off, I highly recommend Halpin’s “Forever Changes.”  (His memoir, “It Takes a Worried Man” treads this territory as well.)


Green did not write the teen version of “Love Story.”  But he also made a deliberate choice to not write the teen version of, “Wit.”


He wrote a good book that, I think, falls somewhere between the two.


But it did soft-pedal, and I suspect the movie will do even more so.


Ultimately, watching people die of cancer changes you.  I don’t know if “Fault” is something that I could handle now, but I don’t know if it would make me feel sad or just angry.


I do know that I can never watch “Wit” again.  Not that I really felt I would be able to handle it before my friends passed away.


Ultimately, what I’m saying here is, John Green got cancer wrong in his cancer book.  He did it deliberately, and if I understand him, he did it not to soft-pedal cancer (even though he did) but in an attempt to talk about broader themes, and the value of love and connections.


For some people, this pulling back is going to be a trigger, and it’s understandable and even a correct reaction.


In the end, I’m not sure that John Green is the issue – it’s all the people feeling feels.  Books, movies, songs, yes, these are things that give you feels.


But cancer just causes devastation.



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