This past Sunday, I presented the soon-to-be-released film The Spectacular Now – adapted from Tim Tharp’s 2008 book of the same title – at Baltimore’s Cinema Sundays at the Charles. Although I prepared for the screening by watching director James Ponsoldt’s two previous features, and read the book, the distributor did not make a screening copy of the movie available to me beforehand. Frustrated, I decided to watch another recent film about troubled teens, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Before watching that film, however, I felt compelled to read the book that it was based on, Stephen Chbosky’s original 1999 novel. I am so glad that I did. I enjoyed Tim Tharp’s book – and found its cinematic adaptation very interesting – but the best thing that happened to me, by far, in the past two weeks of prepping was my encounter with The Perks of Being a Wallflower book.
Why? I found the main character, Charlie, extremely compelling. He narrates his own story through a series of letters written to an unknown friend. This epistolary device allows us to encounter his voice in a first-person style that feels even more naturally confessional than would a diary. Charlie emerges from these pages as a very bright and sensitive boy struggling to overcome past trauma and become a young adult. For those of us who had awkward and reflective childhoods and, especially, early teen years, Chbosky speaks to us directly, evoking our own fears, challenges, and triumphs. Not since I read The Catcher in the Rye have I experienced such a sense of identification with the protagonist of a young adult novel. When Charlie tells his new friends, Sam and Patrick, as they drive down the road listening to a song, that he “feels infinite,” I knew exactly what he was talking about.
The novel follows Charlie during his first year of high school, which he begins shortly after losing his best friend from middle school to suicide. We quickly infer that Charlie is suffering from depression, that may only partially be due to this event. Still, he has a loving family, with two older siblings and a mother and father who may not entirely know how to speak to him, but who are not completely distant or incompetent, either. We learn that there was a beloved aunt – his mother’s sister – as well, now deceased.
For a few weeks, Charlie has no friends, except for his English teacher, who takes a shine to him and gives him extra reading (including The Catcher in the Rye). But then he meets two Seniors, Samantha and Patrick, who also take a shine to him (he is apparently very appealing to other sensitive and intelligent folk), and the novel really takes off. It’s fun and moving to watch Charlie grow as a person and emerge from his depressive shell.
The film adaptation was a very worthy attempt to bring the story to cinematic life. Interestingly, it was written and directed by the author, Stephen Chbosky, himself. I am actually quite impressed at the significant changes Chbosky made to his story. He is a very self-aware and un-self-indulgent writer, able to step back and consider the issues of what would work best on screen vs. on the page. He simplified a lot of the story and many of the adult characters, and devised creative visual ways to film the narrative. He’s certainly not the first author to adapt his own work, but an author who directs the adaptation of his novel or play is a lot less common, though people like Clive Barker (Hellraiser) and John Patrick Shanley (Doubt) have done it, as well. And it is to his credit that his movie works so well as a movie, while both respecting the source text and leaving much of it behind.
That said, I missed the beauty of Charlie’s voice in the film. We get some of the letters, but much of the awkward sweetness and sensitivity is gone. I understand why. There is a certain passivity to Charlie in the novel – which he outgrows – that would most likely not work as well on-screen. Maybe it’s the casting, too: Logan Lerman is a fine young actor, but not quite believable as a wallflower. The same goes for Emma Watson as Sam. Though very solid, she’s almost too lovely and preppy-looking to work as such a supposed misfit. The most welcome surprise in the film is Ezra Miller, whom I last saw in a film I loathed: We Need to Talk About Kevin. For me, he was clearly not well served by the material or the director in that previous film, because here he shines and sparkles as Patrick, and is the charismatic core of the story.
Perhaps there is no way that such an introspective novel could be adapted into a film and not lose much of the voice of the narrator. At least, not in a popular and commercial format. One of my favorite introspective films is Alain Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour, but that movie, though brilliant, was not designed to tell a clear three-act narrative, or to reach a mass popular audience. So I’ll take Chbosky’s adaptation for what is, and keep the book nearby when I next want to revisit Charlie and friends.