Youth, love and cancer. That’s a formula of sorts, one that conquered the world back in 1970 with Love Story and has since bounced back and forth between Hollywood and the Lifetime network. The most recent incarnation is The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel by John Green, starring Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley. It’s getting decent reviews and may very well be a head above the rest of the genre, to the extent that one can use the word “genre” to describe this mini-phenomenon.
Yet what I find the most interesting about this particular sort of film is the way it might be seen as something of a psychological education. The fact that The Fault in Our Stars is a YA novel has raised some eyebrows and ruffled some feathers, in particular given the anger evoked by a Slate piece shaming adults for reading the book. While I’d object to the idea that YA books are exclusively for teenagers, I wonder whether we can consider them somehow proscriptive texts. Is The Fault in Our Stars, at least in part, trying to introduce young people to the concept of serious illness? That’s an open question. It’s also a good an excuse as any to look back at a particularly fascinating cartoon.
Why, Charlie Brown, Why? is a Peanuts TV special that first aired in the spring of 1990. As you can probably tell from the title, it isn’t exactly the subtlest educational cartoon in television history. Like The Fault in Our Stars it is a romance. Linus is evidently crushing on Janice (a character created just for this particular special). She’s recently noticed that she gets bruised easily, and finds another on her way onto the bus in the morning. Then, sitting next to Linus in class, she realizes that she doesn’t feel very well. He tells her to go to the nurse, where she discovers a temperature of 104. Linus watches her leave school from the window of his classroom, confused and scared.
The idea for the special was suggested to Charles Schultz by Sylvia Cook, a registered nurse. The script was assisted by her and the American Cancer Society. The Peanuts series, with its stylistic commitment to the voices of its child characters over the intrusion of adults, allows for a remarkably organic message delivery system. When Charlie Brown and Linus visit Janice at the hospital there are no doctors. She tells them all about her leukemia all by herself, with simple terms that she, Charlie and Linus, and the kids at home can understand. All of the questions a young child might have in this situation “Is it contagious? Is it my fault? How do you fix it?” are written into the script as naturally as possible.
All of this is coupled with the tranquil smile of Schultz’s world. Comic interludes featuring Snoopy and Woodstock are especially necessary here, counterbalancing the heavy material. One extended sequence, a rare stylistic indulgence, features the two animals bouncing about in the snow until they tumble into the shape of a makeshift Christmas tree. Meanwhile, the romance is kept light and heartwarming. Linus and Janice first bond at the swing set and that’s where they will end up. At the height of her illness, he turns to her and says “You’ll get well, Janice, and I’ll push you on those swings forever.” It’s got all the schlock of a juvenile “Love means never having to say your sorry.”
For its mission and its heart, Why, Charlie Brown, Why? got an Emmy nomination. Love Story certainly didn’t have nearly as explicit an agenda, and The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t necessarily want us to consider it proscriptive either. But, at the end of the day, what’s really the difference? You laugh, you cry, you learn, and hopefully all at the right moments.