“I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories,” says Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist of John Green’s recent best-selling novel, "The Fault in Our Stars." The recent film adaptation of the novel, directed by Josh Boone, topped charts this past weekend, grossing $48.2 million during its debut. The film grappled with looming questions about suffering, tragedy and how to truthfully tell sad stories.
But both the novel and the film reference the story of another young girl whose tale, unlike Grace’s, does not reside in the realm of Green’s imagination: Anne Frank.
Frank’s home and memory are employed to bolster and broaden the question of innocent suffering. Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient played by Shailene Woodley, and her young lover, Augustus Waters (played by Ansel Elgort in the film) visit Amsterdam on a Make a Wish sponsored voyage. While there, they decide it’s imperative to visit the home of the young, tragic heroine. At the historic landmark, Hazel and Augustus (Gus) wax philosophical about the universal nature of suffering before passionately sharing their first kiss on site. Together they decide that living the best life possible does not disrespect the memory of those who have suffered in the past.
Frank’s presence in the film spurred debate over whether or not using Frank as a motif for universal suffering does a disservice to her memory. The debate made an online splash when two Jewish staff writers at BuzzFeed, Ariane Lange and Emily Orley, hashed out the two sides of the meaty conversation. Lange felt the movie’s treatment of Anne Frank was “ahistorical and callous.”
“Anne Frank in this movie is this cipher — they don’t talk about her history or how she died. She’s just a metaphor for suffering, and I walked out of the theater angry, and I’ve been angry about it ever since,” she wrote.
Orley thought the idea of living life to the fullest despite hardship warranted the analogy to Frank’s life.
“For me, Hazel and Anne are two young women that are dealt unfair cards: fates they don’t deserve; fates no one deserves. And I think while Hazel doesn’t wallow in self-pity, she looks at Anne’s life in that moment — the stairs she lived above, the bookshelf she hid behind — and found some sort, even the tiniest sort, of comfort in her own situation,” writes Orley.
In a recent interview, Green was questioned about Frank’s presence in the book. “Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus (also a cancer patient) wants — she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable — but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.”
Green’s assertion that Frank “just died of illness like most people” is technically true. Frank was arrested on Aug. 4, 1944, deported along with her family to Auschwitz where she used as a slave for a time before turning ill due to the filthy living conditions. She was then moved to Bergen-Belsen where, lice-invested, emaciated and malnourished, she died in 1945 of typhus.
However, despite the film’s failure to include accurate details about Frank’s life and death, Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University and author of the New York Times’ bestseller The Eichmann Trial, told The Jewish Week that worrying about Frank becoming a universal motif is a battle long-lost.
“That train has left the station years ago,” said Lipstadt. “Anne Frank has long been a symbol of the Holocaust for decades. Think synecdoche or metonymy.”
Though Lipstadt was not familiar with the specifics of Green’s book, she did comment that the benefits of introducing Holocaust symbolism into popular comes with significant risk.
“In a way, the underlying problems of causing this debate are an outgrowth of something the Jewish community wanted. We wanted people — the general population — to be more familiar with the Holocaust. Things succeeded way beyond our wildest expectations. But when that happens, you lose control of how it is remembered and applied.”