From Page to Screen, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” Never Loses Its Emotional Impact

Stephen Chbosky seems to be very passionate about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He penned the novel in 1999 and adapted it for the screen this year as both screenwriter and director of the film. As can sometimes happen when someone is too close to the source material, the adaptation can suffer because they can’t see the forest for the trees. Fortunately, I think enough time passed between the novel and the film that Chbosky knew what elements were essential to draw out to make Perks a compelling film.

Narrated by the eponymous wallflower Charlie (played perfectly by Logan Lerman), we experience this shy and troubled teenager’s adventures in his freshman of high school (in a similar fashion to how Felicity narrates her freshman year of college to Sally). While his original goal was just to survive the year unnoticed, he manages to befriend an outsider group of seniors. Who better to teach him about the life of an outsider than exuberant homosexual Patrick (Ezra Miller shedding off all remnants of his dark character in We Need to Talk About Kevin) and his flirty yet bossy step-sister Sam (Emma Watson shedding off most of her hair and British accent to remove all hints of her Hermione persona). Together these two introduce Charlie to a world of sex, drugs, and alternative music.

In the novel, much more time is spent on Charlie’s family than in the film: not so much his mother (Kate Walsh) and father (Dylan McDermott) as his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) and Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). Charlie builds a bond with his older sister as he helps her deal with an abortion, and memory flashes of Aunt Helen haunt him throughout the story. In the film, Chbosky removes most of Candace’s part, pairing her off with dufus Ponytail Derek (Nicholas Braun) and including only the scene where Charlie catches Candace’s boyfriend hitting her (more on that later). However, those incessant flashbacks of Aunt Helen, obviously, remain (since those memories are vital to end of the film).

Including so much family story in the novel makes sense for a coming-of-age novel about an introverted boy. But Chbosky chooses to focus the film Perks on friendship. So much of pop culture today is centered on outsiders bonding, and Chbosky manages to capture it astutely in the film. Through Patrick and Sam, Charlie is introduced into their close-nit gang of Punk Rocky enthusiasts like Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman, no longer being an Anne hog); Alice (Erin Wilhelmi); and Bob (Adam Hagenbuch). They teach Charlie how to navigate the world of friendship and even that scarier realm of dating (Lerman’s chemistry with Watson is as palpable as his chemistry with Whitman is not). Charlie also manages to make a friend out of his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who sees Charlie’s potential and coaxes it out of him by assigning extra reading and paper writing.

Overall, Perks is a fully engaging film that matches the emotional intensity of the novel. The biggest difference is that Chbosky plays down the motif of abuse that is so rampant in the novel. Literally every relationship—familial or romantic—involves some form of abuse, be it physical, substance, or emotional. In the film, he eases off this motif, giving us just small glimpses into a world of physical abuse through Candace’s incident with her boyfriend. Limiting the audience’s exposure to these abusive relationships makes the impact of Charlie’s past much more vivid for the audience.

When I first read Perks in college it was one of the books that I could not put down. I felt easily drawn to this world and the characters (I already knew many of the perks of being a wallflower). Rereading the novel now, I found it to be painfully juvenile. That means that Chbosky expertly captured the voice of Charlie, but that also means that I’ve outgrown the novel. In making this film, it seems that Chbosky, too, saw the juvenility of his novel and aimed to have the film resonate for adults as well. In this he also succeeded. So for those of you in high school (or just starting college) I highly recommend the novel; but for everyone I recommend the film—just remember to bring a lot of tissues with you to the theater.

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2 Comments

  1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – review | Dominic Yeo
  2. Holden Caulfield Is the Worst Kind of Teenager « The JK Review

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