As audiences flock to see The Fault in Our Stars, we ask what pleasure people take from tragedy on film.
Some movies fulfil an audience’s need for escapism, taking them to fantastical worlds like Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Panem, or Narnia, to name just a few of so many. Some movies provide a strong protagonist for audiences to live through vicariously. Then there are movies like The Fault in Our Stars, adapted from the much-loved book by John Green, which seem to exist for the sole purpose of excising as many hearts as possible, gathering them neatly in a pile, and stomping on them. Movies like this, most commonly referred to as tear-jerkers, draw audiences just as well as any other titles out in theatres for their own reasons. The easy conclusion to draw from people going to movies they know will bring out the worst sort of sobbing is to say that moviegoers are all a bunch of masochists.
‘Tear-jerkers’ like The Fault in Our Stars say, “Life can be awful, and sometimes the hero can lose. You’re not alone in that”
This may very well be true, of course, but there’s a little more to it than that. Modern-day tragedies such as The Fault in Our Stars don’t mask what they are, or the invariable end result audiences will experience (which is gross-sobbing). They showcase it proudly in their trailers, giving brief glimpses into the public gathering of sorrow that will follow once the full movie is in theatres. Why do moviegoers embrace films they know will bring them pain, really? There are plenty of plausible reasons, sure. Hardship is relatable. Finding out someone dear and important in a person’s life has cancer, is struggling with addiction, or has committed suicide, to name a few examples, is very relatable.
Movies featuring cancer, like The Fault in Our Stars, may be lacking in unicorns and magical spells, but they have the draw of taking what is commonly a group experience, seeing a movie in theatres or at home, and making it into a very intimate, one-on-one experience. It’s a fairly safe assumption that most people have known someone, close to them or maybe not so close, who has been affected by the disease. Speaking from more experience than I would care to dwell on, I know how painful it is to watch as cancer takes its toll, and so it becomes a sort of empathetic experience to see it on the big screen. It creates a big-budget experience, complete with some artistic license, that says, “Life can be awful, and sometimes the hero – the person you are cheering on the loudest – can lose. You’re not alone in that.”
To build on that further, it could be argued that audiences experience some level of growth as people, temporary as it may be, as they follow the characters in such tragic movies on their journey. A great, older example that embodies this idea is With Honors, starring Brendan Fraser and Joe Pesci. Fraser’s character, Monty, is an ambitious college student who is on his way to completing his thesis and graduating, when, in a situation likely only to happen in the movies, his only copy of said thesis ends up in the hands of Simon, a cantankerous, sickly homeless man played by Joe Pesci. Monty spends a good deal of the movie with Simon, initially against his will, seeking to get his thesis back so he can graduate and move on to bigger, better things, and in doing so they gradually become friends.
Movies like The Fault in Our Stars become a very real, human experience that’s felt on the individual level
Of course, bad things happen and Fraser’s character is forever changed for the better by Simon. Monty grows as a person, and by proxy we share in that triumph of personal growth. There’s always the very strong opposite of seeing these movies to feel connections to their characters and their tragedies, and it follows one of the oldest formulas in existence: comedy equals tragedy plus time. There’s no specification on how much time has to pass for a tragedy to transition to a comedy, and so some of these fictional bad-to-worse scenarios exist to some as a means of schadenfreude (happiness at the misfortune of others).
Instead of a chuckle at some unlucky bastard slipping on a banana peel and falling down some stairs, the truth is that some look at a movie like The Fault in Our Stars with the mentality of “my life sucks, but at least things aren’t this bad.” But whatever the personal draw, movies like The Fault in Our Stars become a very real, human experience that’s felt on the individual level. It’s the sort of thing that can unite moviegoers, reducing an entire theatre to tear-drizzled popcorn over the course of a few hours. Seeing movies like The Fault in Our Stars and With Honors, or any number of similar movies, is an exercise in indulging the very human need to feel sadness, and perhaps grow from it.
Now hear this: We review The Fault in Our Stars in the SR Filmcast
Featured image: 20th Century Fox
Inset image: Warner Bros