This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On a recent Saturday, a sold-out crowd of more than 1,200 people — mostly teens, mostly girls, with a smattering of boys, parents and other adults mixed in — cram into USC’s faux-medieval Bovard Auditorium. The crowd buzzes with anticipation, then roars to life as a man walks on to the stage. Dressed in jeans, suede Adidas low-tops, an untucked Oxford and black wire glasses that vaguely evoke Harry Potter, he sports a look in that gray area between slightly passe hipster and cool, young suburban dad. The cheering is deafening–never underestimate the power of young lungs.
Meet John Green, the It boy of YA literature.
The raucous crowd is only a tiny portion of a fan base that has snapped up more than 7 million copies worldwide of his 2012 best-seller The Fault in Our Stars, the story of two cancer-stricken teens who embark on a star-crossed romance and made Green one of the biggest names on YouTube. His vlogbrothers channel (he runs it with his brother, Hank; the duo post regularly on a wide range of topics, from buying a Chevy Volt to explaining the ongoing war in the Central African Republic) has almost 2 million subscribers who have racked up more than 425 million views since 2007. The brothers also run the Crash Course channel, which streams their compulsively watchable educational videos (another 94 million views); their Nerdfighter online community of 100,000 followers dedicated to opposing bullying and promoting tolerance; and John’s personal Twitter feed (2.3 million followers).
On June 6, Fox 2000 will release the much anticipated Fault movie reuniting the Divergent duo of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort (that movie grossed $210 million). The Fault film, the first based on one of Green’s five books, could presage a significant shift. In the 15 years since the arrival of Harry Potter, the YA literary pipeline has been dominated by wizards (eight Potter movies), werewolves (four Twilight films) and dystopian war games (Hunger Games — two down, two more planned). Divergent producer Pouya Shahbazian says Fault has changed the game. “I’ve already had calls from studio execs who want to be on the list for small, intimate stories that previously would have been impossible to sell to their senior execs. Who would have believed a small-budget, YA teenage cancer love story would have rival studio execs calling it a potential event movie?”
Over lunch the day before the USC signing, Green, who, despite his massive online fandom still is getting used to the idea of being a celebrity in real life, betrays some anxiety about the attention that comes with a big movie. Predictions of the movie’s success rattle him. My offhand comment that industry buzz has his movie poised to be a hit leaves him “amazed.” He shoots back, “We should bet” — as if betting the under is his way of assuaging his nervousness about the looming changes in his life.
In fact, sources say Fox’s hopes are high, particularly in the wake of Woodley’s Divergent success. Fault doesn’t need to do huge business to be a hit. Made for just $12 million, anything over $125 million worldwide would be considered a home run.
Green says he’s pleased with the film, admitting he and his wife, Sarah, an art curator (they have two young children), got emotional the first time they saw it. “We were both crying, and I think I’ve seen my wife cry five times in the 10 years that we’ve been together,” he says. “I knew that was a good sign.” He acknowledges the fears of some fans that Woodley couldn’t pull off the look of cancer-stricken Hazel, the beloved lead character, but says he knew she was the right choice on the first day of filming. “When I saw Shay walk out of Hazel’s house with the cannula [breathing tube] trailing her oxygen tank, I immediately felt, ‘She’s got this,’ ” he says.
Green was supposed to spend only the first few days on set but ended up hanging around for most of the production, which shot in Pittsburgh and Amsterdam, mainly, he says, as a cheerleader for the “excellent” script written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the team behind (500) Days of Summer. He even enthusiastically signed off on a streamlined ending. Says Neustadter, “There are only so many emotional gut punches” a movie can have, so it was “deliver[ing] the same impact in as few scenes as possible.”
That the movie happened at all is a surprise. “I was very reluctant to sell — very, very reluctant,” Green says.
Green attributes some of his hesitation to the story’s difficult origin. After graduating from Kenyon College in 2000, he worked as a volunteer chaplain for young cancer patients in Chicago while contemplating going to divinity school. The experience made him want to set a novel in that world, but he couldn’t get the story right and put it aside. He wouldn’t publish a novel until 2005 with Looking for Alaska. “Everything that I’d written before had been mostly from the perspective of a 22-year-old chaplain, not trying to imagine what it would be like to be a patient in that hospital,” he says.
In 2009, while at a Harry Potter convention in Boston to talk about video blogging, he met Esther Earl, a 14-year-old local girl with thyroid cancer who was a fan of Green’s work. They struck up a friendship, and Green visited Earl as her condition worsened. Through her, he found the book he wanted to write.
“I had to come to a philosophical place where I believed that short lives could also be rich lives,” he says. In Earl, “I saw more of the complex story that happens outside of the hospital … the richness and the fullness in her life.” After Earl died in 2010, he wrote in earnest. Fault came out in early 2012.
Green dedicated Fault to Earl, but he’s quick to emphasize the difference between fact and fiction. “Her charm and snark inspired the novel, but Hazel’s story is not Esther’s,” he says. “Esther’s story belongs to her.” Earlier this year, he helped bring out a collection of Earl’s writing, This Star Won’t Go Out.
But Green’s deeper reluctance to sell Fault can be traced to his frustration with the “datedness” of Hollywood’s portrayal of teens. “It looks more like a John Hughes movie than it is. There’s a lot more fluidity [in real life]. I think a lot more of their social lives happen online or in sort of a cross space between off-space and online,” he says. “Hollywood doesn’t treat teenagers as intelligent as they are, and then when Hollywood does make a movie that kind of acknowledges the complexity and intelligence of teenagers, it does really well,” he says, ticking off Easy A and Mean Girls as favorite examples.
For Green, Hollywood’s worst impulses were manifested in a comment from a development executive about Will Grayson, Will Grayson, his 2010 novel co-written with David Levithan (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) about two identically named teens — one gay, one straight — whose lives change when they meet: “The only thing that Hollywood dislikes more than smart teenagers is smart gay teenagers.”
The settings of Green’s novels are a road map of his life: Orlando, where he lived as a child (Paper Towns); Birmingham, where he attended the Indian Springs boarding school (Looking for Alaska); time in his twenties in Chicago (Will Grayson, Will Grayson); and finally, the city where he settled: Indianapolis (Fault). He was, by his own admission, an outsider as a kid, and sometimes bullied. He attributes his skill at dialogue to his loneliness. “I was constantly imagining what I would say to someone if I had a friend, or what I would say to this person or that person.” He says he has no interest in writing adult novels.
Previous attempts to adapt his books have foundered. Paramount picked up the rights to his first novel, Alaska, soon after it won the 2006 Printz Award for best YA novel but even with a Josh Schwartz script, the project never got off the ground. East of Doheny got his second novel, An Abundance of Katherines, in 2006, but no work has happened on a film version. In 2008, Mandate Pictures optioned Paper Towns, the story of a geeky high school senior’s search for the most popular girl, who disappeared on the eve of graduation. Green says his attempt at writing a screenplay for it was a disaster.
Shortly after Fault hit bookshelves on Jan. 10, 2012, Green switched film agents, moving from WME to UTA agent Kassie Evashevski. And soon after that, Fox 2000 optioned the book for Wyck Godfrey’s Temple Hill production company, pledging fealty to the novel. “Stuff that was important to me — like that Hazel have her [breathing tube] in, that it not be sentimental or exploitative, that it would be inclusive of people living with illness — they were just completely on the same page,” he says.
Now everyone’s in a hurry to get the band back together to start work on a new version of Paper Towns, whose rights had reverted to Green. Temple Hill is producing again. Neustadter and Weber are writing, and Nat Wolff, who has a supporting role in Fault, is signed to play the lead.
Green’s ambivalence about Hollywood is one reason the web has been his outlet of choice since he and Hank (younger by three years) started vlogbrothers on YouTube in 2007, pledging to only communicate with each other via video for a year. Online video is “where most of the really innovative, exciting stuff is happening,” he says. Other projects spun out of vlogbrothers: Their fan community Nerdfighters raised more than $2 million through its charitable Project for Awesome; and they created the educational Crash Course videos.
Green’s digital outlets have given his passionate fan base a place to come into their own. They’ve adopted the Nerdfighter moniker and Green’s DFTBA slogan (Don’t Forget to Be Awesome), and started clubs at high schools and colleges to, in Green’s words, “fight world suck” (a catchall for bullying and inequality). Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s transgender child, Stephen, is among those who identify as a “nerdfighter.” With his mix of authenticity and humor and his ability to pinpoint the issues his fans care about, Green has figured out it’s possible to succeed by appealing to teens’ better impulses.
True to form, Green started video blogging midway through his THR photo shoot. A post released three days later, as he headed out of L.A., captured Green’s ambivalence. Mixed with a montage of hanging out poolside with Elgort and walking the MTV red carpet was this observation: “Interviewers kept asking me how I was handling all the attention about a book becoming a movie and whether our community would change, and I wanted to answer every question with, ‘I’m freaking out.'”