It was a strange choice for a summer blockbuster. A weepy film about a girl dying of thyroid cancer who meets her boyfriend in a support group and then travels to Amsterdam so she can meet the author she idolizes before experiencing the ultimate heartbreak. The film’s distributor handed out tissues at advance screenings, counting on audiences to break down even if they included some of the most hardened and jaded film fans. Without a single explosion, spy versus spy showdown, or car chase, the opening box office of The Fault in Our Stars was $48 million, handily beating the latest Tom Cruise flick.
The decision of a major studio to rely a quiet, heart-wrenching romance film as their big summer hit was made even more bizarre by the fact that both of the lead characters were disabled. Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) has cancer that’s metastized to her lungs, and the prongs of a nasal cannula are visible in almost every scene. Her boyfriend, Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), has “a touch of cancer,” as he describes it, that’s also metastasized despite an earlier amputation to control its spread. While the film initially falls into the sweet trope of childhood cancer movies, with politely blurred lenses and long shots that romanticize the illness and distance viewers, in the end, we also see Augustus vomiting blood onto himself, shivering uncontrollably in the parking lot of a gas station. This is not your gentle fading away: This is cancer angry, and uncontrolled.
Based on a book written by a nondisabled author (John Green), and played almost entirely by nondisabled people (some of the cancer group cast members seen in the background were cancer survivors), The Fault in Our Stars was peculiar example of the nondisabled gaze. It’s book and a film created for and by nondisabled people, but about disabled people, allowing consumers to view disability through a lens that was at first safe and comfortable, and then increasingly unstable. That’s what makes it peculiar in the world of disability narratives: Viewers who were expecting a soft, easy, accessible story were ultimately in for a rude surprise.
One of the most interesting characters in both book and film is not Hazel or Gus, but Isaac (Nat Wolff), Gus’ friend and another member of the cancer group. Cast as the obligatory third wheel, Isaac is a fascinatingly complex and intriguing person who deals with his cancer in a different way than others around him, and, in a sense, becomes the very embodiment of the nondisabled gaze.
Isaac, you see, goes blind early into the story, losing all vision when surgeons have to remove his remaining eye to stop the spread of his retinoblastoma. His inability to see is a very literal reflection of the nondisabled refusal to acknowledge or engage with the disability community. The fact that his world is mediated through other senses, and interpretive media, is also a reflection of the way nondisabled people distance themselves from disability as though it’s a toxin. Except that for Isaac, this is reality, not a choice.
Fortunately, The Fault in Our Stars manages to avoid the usual treatment of blindness that comes up in film and television, where characters stagger drunkenly across the landscape, run into things, and appear completely dysfunctional. He walks with the assistance of a cane, and clearly has trouble orienting himself in the landscape after his surgery, but his blindness itself is not comedic. Isaac is not being played for laughs as a blind person, but is instead respected as a whole character.
Nat Wolff, Ansel Elgort, and John Green at the fan signing. Photo by PrettyinPrint, via Creative Commons.
However, Isaac’s primary role in the film is still as comic relief, to release the strain on nondisabled audiences who are discomfited by being surrounded by so much disability. He makes sharp, funny comments when Hazel and Gus are falling too hard into each other, he reduces the tension in scenes that are growing too intense, and he makes a joke of his blindness in a way that is supposed to suggest that he’s dealing it through humor. He is the classic good-spirited cripple, smiling through the pain for the audience.
This is nothing new, but rather a trope we’re long familiar with. However, within Isaac, there are glimmers of something else, a new path for disabled characters. It’s what made The Fault in Our Stars so revolutionary—it’s a love story featuring disabled people that was not actually about disability, but love. There were moments when the film pushed at something greater for disabled characters in film, something other than tragic objects, figures of pity and horror, or suspicious, haunting figures on the margins of the story.
That’s what’s exciting about Isaac. He’s not A Blind Character, but a character who happens to be blind, and the full spectrum of his experience is depicted honestly and openly. He defies popular perceptions about what it means to be blind, and what life is like for blind teens, challenging the viewer to re-envision her own cultural assumptions.
We see Isaac in value-neutral scenes, like one where he casually plays videogames while Hazel and Gus talk. The center of the scene, and the conversation, is very much on them, not Isaac—he’s playing video games comfortably with the use of assistive devices and isn’t engaging in the performative blindness often used on film and television to remind viewers of the aching and persist perceived tragedy of disability. But we also see him smashing trophies in Gus’ room in a fit of rage and misery over the fact that his girlfriend has announced that she’s leaving him because losing his vision is “too much for her to deal with”—it feels like Isaac’s obligatory mad scene. While the scene plays as tragicomic (“Not that, Isaac,” Gus says, as he puts a trophy into his friend’s hands when Isaac is looking for something to take his rage out on), it’s also a very comfortable, traditional view of blindness. Here is Isaac, struck senseless by everything he is about to lose, and in this scene even Hazel seems to suggest that such is the lot of disabled people, to be left by nondisabled people who “can’t handle it.” (Foreshadowing, of course, for her determined attempts to shake Gus because she’s proclaimed herself a “grenade.”)
The scene that, for me, felt like the pinnacle of the story’s complex approach to Isaac’s disability is when the three friends go out to egg his ex-girlfriend’s car, knowing that Gus’s days are numbered. This sort of last minute, desperate hurrah is not uncommon in films of this genre, where viewers get the impression that terminal patients go for a no-holds-barred approached to life in their final weeks. It’s supposed to be the scene that warns viewers the end is coming and they need to live one last good day—a concept that’s achieved a nearly mythical status in Cancer Narratives. In this case, the scene is supposed to be about Isaac and his need for cathartic release, but of course it’s really about Hazel and Gus, providing yet another opportunity to see the star-crossed couple in love. In the scene, they drive to the ex-girlfriend’s house, and Hazel and Gus set Isaac up with a package of eggs. Unable to see, it takes a few tries before he manages to land an egg on the girl’s car, but he can hear the lovers whispering about him. In a line Wolff allegedly improvised, he says “I’m blind, but I’m not deaf.” It’s a moment that’s bittersweet: on the one hand, the film is attacking the common practice of talking about disabled people as though they aren’t there, but on the other, it’s also putting down another disability, suggesting that deafness and hearing impairments are somehow a negative, a license to talk about people in their presence.
When the girlfriend’s mother emerges from the house, alerted by the sound, Gus “plays the cancer card,” citing the fact that all three teenagers are living with serious impairments, and she quietly goes back inside, leaving the three victorious. The three are brought back together once again, a group of friends instead of two distinct entities, HazelandGus and Isaac, are all enjoying a “cancer perk.”
This is a film that at times struggles with itself and what it wants to say about disability. Nat Wolff, along with the two stars, consulted with disabled people while preparing for his role, but is not disabled himself, following the trend in Hollywood of choosing to use cripface in casting rather than offering opportunities to disabled actors. Unlike Elgort, however, he didn’t have a stunt double to rely upon: He had to play all his scenes as a blind teen learning to navigate the world, with the assistance of specialized contact lenses and dark glasses. In interviews, he says that the effect was so absolute that he stumbled around the stage in more or less total darkness, and was glad that he’d taken the time to practice, learn the set, and get familiar with his stick and the other navigational aids used by blind people in the real world.
Some critics have argued that Isaac lacks independence, which is typical of the nondisabled gaze, where disabled people are often shown to be helpless and dependent on others. However, those who have acquired blindness later in life as a result of illness or accidents have noted that, as with other disabilities, there’s an adjustment period. Isaac is learning to use assistive devices, learning to navigate spaces, learning about how and when he needs help and when he doesn’t. In the cathartic egging scene, he’s exercising independence – just as he is when he walks to the lectern in the church for the pre-funeral funeral and stumbles.
This is the reality of disability. It’s complex, multifaceted, and constantly changing. It’s a reality that, in all its messiness, is rarely shown on film, because this would require an abandonment of the nondisabled gaze and a frank examination of what disability really is: A confrontation with disability itself, an engagement with disabled people. This is when TFiOS gets uncomfortable for nondisabled viewers, becoming too real.
Could the success of The Fault in Our Stars, in both book and film form, mark an important moment for the visibility of disability in pop culture? Are creators going to be interested in reenvisioning the way they depict disability to viewers, presenting nondisabled people with a much more nuanced, complex, and honest characterization?
One of the myriad problems with the visual presentation of disability now is that it’s so rare, making characters like Isaac, Gus, and Hazel stand out. They are forced to shoulder a huge burden, bearing not just the responsibility of carrying their own stories, but also the responsibility of providing a glimpse of the disabled experience. No one character can possibly sum up all experiences, and the more disabled characters present in media and pop culture, the easier it will be to reenvision disability, to create a world in which it isn’t a tragedy, an inspiration, or anything else. Instead, it can be something that just is, and disabled people can live their lives without feeling like they owe a duty of becoming educational performing animals to the world.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Fault in Out Stars is that the ultimate tragedy here isn’t the disability, but the end of the love story, and the great connection between Hazel and Gus. For Isaac, the tragedy is that he’s left behind. Not that cancer has taken his vision from him, which is something he can adapt to, with time, and eventually adjust to, possibly with the help of rehabilitation and training. Instead, the tragedy is that cancer is taking his friends away, which is an experience that many teen viewers can identify with. Though the thief is not always cancer, many teens spend their teen years watching their friends torn away from them: By accidents, by faults of geography, simply by growing apart. That The Fault in Our Stars touched upon this universality in a film ostensibly about a star-crossed love, thereby demystifying disability and making it a relatable experience, is no small accomplishment.
Related Reading: The Surprising Emotional Core of “The Fault in Our Stars.”