In the movies, love and dying go together like airplanes and flying. While it is no surprise that a romantic weepie based on a bestseller such as The Fault In Our Stars will find an audience, what has been surprising is how astonishingly well it has done at the box office in the United States.
The drama earned US$48 million (S$60 million) in its first weekend, blowing away the big-budget Tom Cruise action-thriller Edge Of Tomorrow (a less-than-stellar US$29 million) on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon with innumerable newspaper centimetres and online bytes dedicated to its stars, the author of the book it is based on, hardcore fans of the book and even the crying that takes place during the movie screening (and how not to do it).
Opening here tomorrow, the multi-hankie romance's box-office take is likely to make Singapore distributors 20th Century Fox weep - with joy.
Praise has been heaped on lead actress Shailene Woodley's naturalism and girl-next-door likeability. There is also the pent-up demand from fans of the book. But the film's success has as much to do with social trends as it does with its merits as a movie.
A glance at the most popular tearkjerkers of the last four decades will indicate the first key difference of Fault, or TFIOS (as fans of the book call it): Just how young the lovers are.
In the novel, Hazel (Woodley) is 16, while Gus (Ansel Elgort) is 17. Both are aged one year older in the film, most likely to make their sexual intimacy more palatable to conservative elements in the audience.
Contrast this with Love Story (1970), in which Jenny (Ali McGraw) and Oliver (Ryan O'Neal) were in their 20s. In almost every tearjerker romance since Love Story, the ages of the lovers have reflected that of the audiences they were trying to attract. There are a couple of outliers - the French arthouse drama Amour (2012) featured a couple in their 80s, while My Girl (1991) feathered two pre-teens.
But mostly, the couples have traditionally tended to be grown-ups, aged from 20 and older. That group works for fictional purposes because they are newly independent and have all to live for, so the stakes are higher when one half of the couple bites the dust, leaving the other with an empty home. Children are sometimes added for extra poignancy (as in the Japanese drama about a widower, Be With You, 2004).
The phenomenal success of TFIOS can in large part be attributed to demographics: The 12-to-18 age range has recently emerged as a powerful mover in popular culture, one that is driven by book sales. Pundits say that even as bookstores close worldwide, one saving grace has been the increase in e-book downloads of teen-oriented titles, including ones penned by John Green, the author of TFIOS.
This audience, given the marketing title Young Adult (YA), propelled the Twilight, Hunger Games and Divergent novel-based franchises into monster hits, while being much cheaper to make than boys'-toys or superhero flicks Pacific Rim (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
So while the death of an older person might feel more tragic because a home and a marriage have been lost, TFIOS adds weight to the loss in the typical YA way, by making both teens old souls. Gus and Hazel are wise beyond their years, capable of articulating their pain and shouldering it with noble, heartbreaking fortitude - traits they share with other YA fan favourites, Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Beatrice Prior (Divergent, played in the movie also by Woodley).
The other characteristic that makes the new weepie different from the old: The army of online book evangelists, who preach the faith all over the Internet, then go out in droves to watch the movie adaptations. It happened with Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent, but especially so with TFIOS. The Green faithfuls (a group he dubs "nerdfighters") peppered Amazon and goodreads with positive reviews, as well as made the movie's trailer the most liked in YouTube history (with almost 23 million views at press time), according to reports.
One more trademark of the updated weepie is how it deals with teen sexual activity in a matter-of-fact way, despite being marketed at youths.
TFIOS has a PG13 rating here, for scenes with "brief intimacy and brief coarse language", according to the Media Development Authority. (Spoiler alert: The two teens in it are clearly shown having sex.)
There was a time in Singapore and in the US when it seemed that underaged teen sex was shown only in shlocky slasher flicks - just before the characters die in horrible ways as payment for their sins.
In TFIOS, neither is punished for the act; both emerge unscathed and happier for it. Despite the film's massive teen following, no parent has yet complained on moral grounds. Times have indeed changed.
Finally, the new-generation weepie is specific about illness. TFIOS names the exact type of cancer in all its multi-syllabic glory. Aggressive medical procedures are shown. This suits the movie's more realistic tone. Recent YA-targeted fare, such as the coming-of-age dramedies The Way Way Back (2013), The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012) and The Spectacular Now (2013, also starring Woodley), while not romance weepies, feature real and specific health issues such as mental illness and alcohol abuse.
In older films, lovers died of a vague set of symptoms, succumbing to what critic Roger Ebert diagnosed as "Ali McGraw's Disease", a mysterious ailment that was as slow and beautifying to a person's face as it was deadly.
That kind of sickness would seem hokey in our medicalised time, especially to teens. For them, inability to focus and sadness have always been diseases (ADHD and depression respectively), to be treated with drugs.
But even TFIOS cannot break the one sacred weepie rule, the one that says that the dying person must still look attractive, even if ravaged by illness. In that respect, the movie, in the end, sticks to weepie traditions.
The Fault In Our Stars is now showing.