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‘The Fault In Our Stars’ Resonates For Esther Earl’s Parents

Wayne and Lori Earl are pictured at the Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Wayne and Lori Earl are pictured at the Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Today, the much anticipated film “The Fault In Our Stars” opens in theaters.

The movie stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as two teens who meet in a cancer support group and fall in love, and is based on the blockbuster John Green novel.

Green was inspired to write the book by one of his fans, Esther Earl, a young woman who succumbed to cancer in 2010 shortly after her 16th birthday.

In March, we spoke to Esther Earl’s parents, Lori and Wayne Earl, who published Esther’s writings and some of their own in the book “This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life & Words of Esther Grace Earl.” We revisit that piece and get their thoughts on the new film.

Guests

  • Lori Earl, mother of Esther Earl and co-author of “This Star Won’t Go Out.” She tweets @starmom16.
  • Wayne Earl, father of Esther Earl and co-author of “This Star Won’t Go Out.”

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, BYLINE: "The Fault In Our Stars," based on the blockbuster, John Green young adult novel, is out - Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort starring as two teens who meet in a cancer support group and fall in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAULT IN OUR STARS")

ANSEL ELGORT: (As Augustus Waters) What's your name?

SHAILENE WOODLEY: (As Hazel Grace Lancaster) Hazel.

ELGORT: (As Augustus Waters)And what's your full name?

WOODLEY: (As Hazel Grace Lancaster) Hazel Grace Lancaster. Why are you looking at me like that?

ELGORT: (As Augustus Waters) Because you're beautiful.

WOODLEY: (As Hazel Grace Lancaster): Oh, my God.

YOUNG: First in line at early screenings, John Green's wildly devoted online following. They call themselves nerdfighters, fighting in defense of reading and doing good. Also at a screening, the parents of Esther Earl, the young woman who inspired John Green's book. In a moment we'll hear what Lori and Wayne Earl thought of the movie. But first, our conversation when their daughter's book came out. Esther died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 16. The young woman from Quincy, Massachusetts was a loyal nerdfighter, a huge fan of author John Green, thrilled when she finally met him at LeakyCon - that's a convention for "Harry Potter" fans - as we hear in this YouTube video she posted.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

ESTHER EARL: I saw John Green. I saw John Green. And then I was like, OK, well, I really want to take a picture with him. So my sister walked me up to him 'cause I couldn't talk. I was like (panting). And I was drinking water, and my water was like this in my cup. It was, like, shaking all over the place, so I had to throw it out.

YOUNG: Esther and John Green became friends. Like his character Hazel, Esther had thyroid cancer that affected her lungs. She breathed through an oxygen tube. But unlike Hazel, Esther was confined to her room much of the time. And so she lived on the Internet, developing and inspiring her own online community, including John Green. In January, Esther's parents Lori and Wayne Earl published "This Star Won't Go Out," culled from Esther's and their posts from her long illness. In March, they came into our studios to tell us about their daughter.

LORI EARL: She was always, you know, an empathetic, carrying young person. From the time she was really little she was that middle kid in our family that just brought the whole family together. She - you know, we call her our hub child.

YOUNG: Well, it's funny you mention empathy because John Green, who again, was inspired in his novel by Esther - but he also said he was inspired through her and others in this online community to realize how much empathy young people have. Talk a little bit about that because there are parents who are petrified of their children joining these online communities.

L. EARL: We've had the amazing privilege of getting drawn into that world - "Harry Potter" and Nerdfighteria. And, you know, she was making these friendships. She was feeling like she was doing something meaningful. She got involved with The Harry Potter Alliance, which is a nonprofit that empowers young people to social activism. She got involved on the Project For Awesome, which is the day when the nerdfighter community basically takes over YouTube with celebration of videos for favorite charities.

YOUNG: Millions know about this. But for those who don't, the Project For Awesome, their clarion call - DFTBA, Don't Forget To Be Awesome.

L. EARL: Right.

YOUNG: Is that from John Green?

WAYNE EARL: It is.

L. EARL: It's part of their organization, yeah. They started the Project For Awesome. One of their bylines is to decrease worldsuck.

YOUNG: (Laughing).

L. EARL: So, you know, it's like...

W. EARL: Increase awesome.

L. EARL: Increase awesome, decrease worldsuck. And the sense of purpose it gave her and the sense of involvement was - just gave her life, you know? It was like the walls around her melt away because she's making a difference. And, you know, they attribute - The Harry Potter Alliance won a $250,000 grant from Chase Community Bank. And a lot of it was because John said, let's do this for Esther because this was something she cared about.

YOUNG: Why? What did she begin to mean - we're hearing what the community meant to her. A child confined to her room had this huge world of friends. But what did she start to mean to this community?

L. EARL: We don't like to really use the word symbolism. It's more that she gave voice to other people's desires to make a difference. And that even when things were tough, you could keep fighting. And she was doing that. And she was living that. And she was showing. It's kind of like she's become a little bit of a celebrity in some little ways. But she was already doing this. It wasn't something that happened just because she died.

YOUNG: Just because she died. In fact, many of the people that now - these young people in these fan forums who didn't feel appreciated anywhere else, who knows what might happened to them if they hadn't had friends like her. And they didn't know she was sick.

W. EARL: She didn't disclose it because she didn't want to be marked by her cancer. She wasn't going to be the kid with cancer. She was going to be Esther. And people came to love her in that way. And she came to make a difference in their lives.

L. EARL: Yeah. You hear lots of stories about the Internet and how scary it is, and you've got teens. And it's true. We have to be careful. But it's also - it's an avenue to community.

W. EARL: Esther would introduce us.

YOUNG: Yeah.

W. EARL: She'd say, dad, do you want to come in and talk to my friend Taryn (ph), here? She's on the line. And I'd just, no, no, no. That's your thing. I want to - OK, is it a real person? OK, good.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, but ultimately it's about cancer. I mean, you know, she has all of this that distracts, that gets her to feel like she's outside of that room. But ultimately, it's about cancer. And she blogs about that too. Let's listen to another YouTube video of Esther Earl.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

E. EARL: I feel bored. I feel so many more feelings, but there are so many that I just can't even find them. I feel slightly overwhelmed by that - that I can't even figure what all my feelings are. And I feel sad about things that have happened in my life. And I feel happy that I'm still alive. But I feel kind of ashamed that I'm not doing that much with my life.

YOUNG: This must be hard.

L. EARL: There's lots of things that are hard. After Esther left us, I couldn't go into make-up aisles for a long time because she was known for her crazy eye shadow and I never walked out of a store without buying her something.

YOUNG: But to this point that she felt like she was fooling people. Like, she was getting this fame, and all these people were loving her but, you know, I'm fooling you all because - this is from that same passage - I'm not this perfect person.

W. EARL: She was pretty amazing. But she was just a real person. That's what she was saying. Hey, I'm just like you.

YOUNG: Well, and now, as we've said, her story has inspired a film. That's Wayne and Lori Earl, speaking to us about their daughter, Esther, in March. This week, as we said, they attended a screening of "The Fault In Our Stars," the film inspired by the book, inspired by their daughter. The story of Hazel and Gus, two teens with cancer. We called them up to get their thoughts. And I know you both loved the film, but what was it like to see it?

L. EARL: When I started off watching the movie, all I could think of was the parallels to Esther. But as the movie progressed, I was just immersed in the story - love story - of Hazel and Gus and, you know, their situation.

YOUNG: In reading your daughter's writings we know she yearned for so many things. Was this, maybe, a gift to you from John Green - the love, maybe, that she could have had?

L. EARL: I know I felt that way. But I don't want to presume anything. But yeah, it's a bit gratifying to be able to think of Esther and think, this is the life and the love that she, you know, could have had.

YOUNG: Yeah. And Wayne, Lori wrote us a note and said there's one scene when Hazel's carried by her dad into the hospital. That had to be tough.

W. EARL: Oh, that's - yeah 'cause that's our story, isn't it? But, you know, when I was with Esther when we thought we were going to lose her - and I remember being in the hospital and thinking, you know, her - she's bleeding from the lungs. And she's going to die. And the nurses don't seem to be overwhelmed by this time. And I'm sobbing. And I'm with Esther. And she told me, daddy, I don't want you to be sad, you know, when I die. And I said, I can't promise that. She said, but you've got to promise me that you're going to go on. And I said, I absolutely will because you've modeled that for me. And in the movie, you know, you see that - you see that portrayed. And I just, you know, 'cause all she wanted to do was make a difference and have a boyfriend and kiss him without poisoning him with the chemo. And she just wanted to love somebody. And I think the message of the movie and the book and her life are the same - that if you have one person to love, if one person loves you, then that's got to be enough.

YOUNG: Yeah.

W. EARL: That's got to be enough.

YOUNG: Well, it doesn't take away that you had a terrible loss, but it is very true that this star has not going out.

W. EARL: Well said. Thank you, Robin.

L. EARL: Well, that's pretty true.

YOUNG: OK, Lori and Wayne Earl - their daughter Esther, the inspiration for John Green's book "The Fault In Our Stars." It's now a film. Esther's book is "This Star Won't Go Out: The Life And Words of Esther Grace Earl." You know, Jeremy, you can compare it to "The Diary Of Anne Frank" just in the way you really get to know a young person in reading it. And there are going to be a lot of teary teenagers this weekend going to see this film. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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