On June 6, 2014, a movie was released that may have just changed the game for the way health and ill-health are represented in storytelling — whether it be in books, movies, television series, or other platforms.

image courtesy of imbd.com

Of course, this all started way before the movie itself. While it started with writer John Green, it also started long before he became a YouTube sensation and before he created a community with such a level of solidarity that it defies physical geography, known as nerdfighteria. The initial inspiration for the story came when Green was working as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. Much of his role was simply to spend time talking with, laughing with, and listening to sick kids. Many of them were living with chronic or even terminal illness; but, as he surmises in this interview with The Atlantic, Green saw something else, too: “The kids I met were funny and bright and angry and dark and just as human as anybody else… and the stories that I was reading sort of oversimplified and sometimes even dehumanized them.”

Green wanted to write a book that would show the kind of vitality, struggles, and normalcy that he saw on a daily basis. It wasn’t until after he had written several other books first, though, that he had the opportunity to make this dream a reality. On meeting a vibrant, passionate young woman named Esther Earl – who had also been suffering from cancer for much of her teenage life – he made the decision to turn what had been a vague, distant idea and an un-publishable manuscript into something much, much more.  The Fault In Our Stars would go on to the NYT Bestseller list and achieve worldwide critical acclaim. More importantly, however, it would find an audience in people from all walks of life: adults, teenagers, sick kids, healthy kids –  all kinds of people in general. Even in an age where blockbuster action movies are favored over more contemporary or people-centric stories, it was still picked up for development by a movie studio. Given a risky summer release, it surpassed all expectations by doing better at the opening box office than Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow and Disney’s Maleficent.

So where do we go from here? Does the publishing industry immediately seek emotional rollercoaster issue books in an attempt to compete with this global phenomenon? Does the film industry cancel the final installments of The Hunger Games franchise and invest only small-scale, heart-breaking love stories for the next three years? Is illness the new dystopia?

Of course not. None of these ideas are realistic, but they will all in some way be attempted — whether it’s with the release of more books in the genre or the highly-anticipated release of more young adult book-to-film adaptations, like (the admittedly brilliant) Gayle Forman’s If I Stay.

The Fault In Our Stars is not the first young adult book to tackle a tough subject in a frank, funny, or emotional way. It is not the first book with a female lead to garner millions of fans or a successful movie adaptation. It is not the first book to allow for complex imagining of characters, the creation of a connection between the reader and the book’s world, or insight into issues many of us would never otherwise experience. But it is one of the first young adult stories that, in its own very unique way, truly brings these topics and styles of storytelling into the limelight – and not just among fans, but in the wider world.

The Fault In Our Stars is a sad book, but it is not a “cancer weepie,” as many so crudely put it. This story is one of ill-health and fear, uncertainty and realization, but it is also a story about finding love, happiness, and friendship. Even more crucially, it is a story about how it’s okay to be depressed and confused and so blazingly furious that you can’t see straight because of the crappy hand that life has dealt you. It’s normal to feel that way, whether we’re talking about physical or mental health.  And that’s game-changing for storytelling industries that so regularly rely on the oversimplified, epic, otherworldly drama that they use illness to provide.

Illness cannot, and should not, be used for entertainment. It can, however, be part of a story – the same way that it’s part of daily life for so many. But striking that balance can be daunting. It can especially be too daunting for some executives and other figures of authority in publishing and film since their job is to ensure financial success for their company. That’s understandable, though, when you look at how other young adult books and movies have fared in an arena where they must punch vastly above their weight just to be seen as profitable.

The Fault In Our Stars, however, may have just changed that. As a limitless and fiercely told tale, it shows a side to being sick that other creative outlets just haven’t shown before.  The Fault In Our Stars — like the nerdfighter community — is a book without borders, and that, I think, is the key to where we go from here.


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