Why America Prefers Tragedy Over Travesty: A comparison between what are arguably John Green’s greatest novels

I recently went to see the movie “Paper Towns”, the cinematic adaptation of John Green’s novel of the same name. I am surprised to say that, in the months leading up to this movie, there was significantly less advertisement for this movie than there was for Green’s other book-to-film adaptation, “The Fault in Our Stars”. I was curious as to why that is and it struck me much in the same way a train strikes the bee that is unfortunate enough to fly across it’s path. This realization was simple but ever so true. America likes to be sad.

Now before you skip this entire article and go straight down to the bottom to leave a nasty reply telling me how wrong I am, allow me to explain myself. I am going to assume that the reader of this article has read the book and therefore am now adding: Spoiler Alert. That being said, I would like to move on.

The trailer for “The Fault is Our Stars” promises a sad story about love and ultimately loss, while the “Paper Towns” trailer brings the reader on an adventure of finding lost love and what it means to get out of your comfort zone, see others for who they truly are and, in the process, drop your own façade of having everything perfectly together. Two stories, each with their own lessons, which I believe are very important for any and every generation to learn. Why then is one favored more than the other not only in advertisements, but in box office totals as well?

“Paper Towns”, as of August 10, 2015, was able to bring in $29,096,825 in America and $60,496,825 worldwide while “The Fault in Our Stars”, by it’s third weekend, had grossed $98,694,043, already more than a third of what “Paper Towns” has been able to collect. Not to mention the striking differences in the gross of opening night, “The Fault in Our Stars” being at $26,062,046, and “Paper Towns” trickling in at a mere $6,328,167. A strong opening nevertheless, but when compared to the enormous weekend “The Fault in Our Stars” welcomed, it is weak in comparison.

This brings me back to my original question, why does America, and the world, prefer a story of lovers who face a tragedy to a story of lovers who face a travesty? I believe that one reason America prefers this type of tragedy over the innocent story of high school Seniors discovering what it means to break out of their comfort zones is because America loves to look at other people’s tragedy and, in comparison to their own, realize how not-terrible their life is. When watching a love story about two teens who have cancer, you can more easily forget about the unpaid electricity bill, the drama between you and your friend, all the little things in life that seem to add up over time look feeble in comparison to the characters impending death or the inevitable death of a loved one. When people see others going through difficult times, they can either empathize with them or they can feel better about the lack of issues that they currently have.

If the viewer decides to empathize with the characters, which I would assume most people would do, the question still remains unanswered. Why do people enjoy being sad?

My second answer would be simply “for distraction”. When we cry for something else, we are much less likely to be thinking of our menial problems, again, unpaid electricity bill or drama between you and your dear friend. This time of escape is brought on by your emotional connection to the character who, for the time being, you want to live happily ever after. It is when this character is ripped away from their happy ending that we, as the viewer, are forced to enter into this turmoil that is worse than what we entered into the theatre feeling. The difference between this turmoil and our own issues is that once we walk out of the theatre, we don’t need to worry about it any more, we aren’t forced to live through the pain that the main character, in this case Hazel and Augustus, were put through and, again, the problems that faced us walking into the theatre seem small in comparison.

This still doesn’t explain why America prefers the tragedy of a hopeless love story over the travesty of high school and “popularity”. Perhaps another answer we can give is the realism that accompanies “Paper Towns” over the fictitious story in “The Fault in Our Stars”. Don’t hear what I am not saying. “Paper Towns” is every bit as fictional as “The Fault in Our Stars”. That being said, the viewer is most likely not going to get cancer, fall in love with a fellow cancer patient, and be forced through the emotional trials that these characters must endure. On the other hand, many, if not all of us, have been where Quentin, the protagonist in “Paper Towns”, has been, hopelessly in love with someone who is out of his league and doesn’t even know it. For the average viewer, the story of “Paper Towns” hits too close to home and awakens demons within us that we thought we had beaten, feelings of reject, anger at loneliness, being at the bottom of the social totem pole. It is these very feelings that Green writes on and these topics, which once helped Green sell his novels, is now deterring certain types of moviegoers. His realism was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Now I am not to discredit John Green as a writer, he is a phenomenal author and a brilliant mind, but I am simply trying to make sense of the favor towards one of his novels to the other. Too little realism and people can get lost in the story while too many realistic features and people begin to see themselves, and people hate to see themselves, especially when they are exposed, their deepest secrets in the open.

This is not to say that “Paper Towns” is strictly realistic at all, in fact, I find it hard to believe that there are more than a handful of people in the world who would successfully run away and leave clues behind for someone to come and find her, it simply doesn’t happen. So what is realistic about it? The themes. The theme of getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing the world, something that many people are too afraid to do on a daily basis, and the theme of finding a piece of truth in everyone, realizing that no person is anything more than just that, a person. These themes of empathy and exposure do not settle well with those who would rather stay in their day-to-day routine. There is no history to be dealt with when it comes to star-crossed lovers with cancer, but when the story is about a popular girl who the boy is helplessly and hopelessly in love with, well, we can relate.

No matter how you want to look at it, the facts are that “The Fault in Our Stars” was much more hyped up than “Paper Towns” and I believe that it was for the reasons of escapism, realism, and relatability. A sad movie provides escape from our personal and everyday issues while a movie about a group of teenaged friends looking for the protagonists lost love provides no means for escape from reality. It is much more difficult to watch a movie and feel convicted about your personal comfort-zone than it is to feel convicted about having, or not having, true love. Association, I believe is the final piece that separates these two brilliant novels and movies. A story about two kids with cancer who fall in love is not as quickly associated with the pains of growing up as a story about an average high school kid getting in way over his head because he fell in love someone of a higher social-class. It is this very association that allowed for “Paper Towns” to be taken immediately as a more realistic and relatable feature, pushing it aside and allowing “The Fault in Our Stars” to sweep the nation in a way few movies have done before.

References to Box Office Totals:

The Fault in Our Stars: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=daily&id=faultinourstars.htm

Paper Towns:

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=daily&id=papertowns.htm

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