Author of Cult Classic Writes and Directs Film Adaptation
The Man Behind 'The Wallflower'
Published: Friday, September 21, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 17:09
Normally, when I hear that a great book is being made into a movie, my first emotion is disappointment. I am a huge bibliophile, and the film versions of my favorite novels rarely pass muster.
Luckily, The Perks of Being a Wallflower far surpassed my low expectations. First published in 1999, Perks is something of a cult classic for those who read it at the right age — including me. Even better, I got the chance to sit down and talk with Stephen Chbosky, author of the novel and director of the movie, which comes out today.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story about an unbelievably awkward high school freshman, Charlie, played by Logan Lerman. He’s dealing with the recent suicide of his best friend and some family issues, in addition to the challenges of his teenage years. No matter how many awkward sweaters or uncomfortable T-shirt and hoodie combinations they put Lerman in, his visible muscles and adorable smile made it hard to believe that he was a 15-year-old outcast. But I guess I can forgive Lerman for not embodying a horrifically self-conscious teen with the flawless gawkiness of someone like Michael Cera.
When Charlie first starts high school, he has no friends. But one day he attends a football game and gets invited to sit with a boy from his shop class, Patrick, played by a decidedly hilarious Ezra Miller. Charlie is immediately drawn to Patrick, a senior who seems so obviously comfortable in his own skin.
Patrick and his stepsister Sam, played by Emma Watson, take Charlie under their wing and introduce him to their alternative punk-rock friends. I bet everyone is dying to know whether Hermione Granger can pull off the role of a misfit high school senior from Pittsburgh. Although she did have some awful lines — “I love bulimia!” and “Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys!”— she gave a pretty convincing performance.
When I asked Chbosky how he felt about the actors chosen to portray the characters he created, he responded with enthusiasm.
“I couldn’t be happier about this cast,” he told me. He then went on to rave about Watson, calling her “a kindred spirit.” He also admitted that Lerman won him over five seconds into his audition and called Miller — who got the part after doing a Skype audition — “a force of nature.”
For the most part, I agree with Chbosky, though I might never forgive Lerman for the mediocrity with which he delivered Chbosky’s most beautiful and oft-quoted line in the book: “I feel infinite.” The film can be unclear as well. If you’re wondering why Paul Rudd keeps popping up and saying profound things, he’s not making a cameo; he’s not making a cameo; he’s the English teacher. But it’s hard to toe the line between quirky and stupid, because inherent in quirkiness is a bit of stupidity. The movie does a good job of that.
Overall, the plot in the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is as compelling as it was when I first read it in book form. It’s hard to say what makes The Perks of Being a Wallflower different from any other coming-of-age tale. Even Chbosky himself had trouble pinpointing why his story stands out from others in its genre. He said he imagines that people like it so much because of his own emotional issues — he was going through a bad breakup.
“I wrote it from an authentic place,” he said.“I wanted to understand why good people let themselves get treated so badly. I think because it was so personal to me, people recognized something in themselves as well.”
My best guess is that it has a lot to do with Chbosky himself. Despite the fact that I was interviewing him in the private dining room of the Ritz-Carlton, Chbosky came across as a genuine, down-to-earth and good-natured person. Something about his demeanor compels you to like him, and his lack of inhibition when talking about his personal life makes you feel connected to him in some way. It is no surprise to me that his story has resonated so profoundly with so many people.
At one point during our conversation, the general manager of the Ritz interrupted and practically tripped over himself to welcome Chbosky to the hotel. We were sitting at a large table meant for at least six with glasses of water at each seat. The manager asked, “Can I get you any more water at all?” to which Chbosky replied, “Uh, no. I think five will do it.”
It’s this quick wit and dry sense of humor that Chbosky passes on to the characters in both his book and his movie. The film is very relatable, and it does a great job of depicting the different dimensions of the adolescent world. The craziness of drugs and alcohol and boys dressing in drag is juxtaposed beautifully against the suburban backdrop. Seeing how high schoolers can go from panicking about trivial things like school dances, popularity and secret Santa gifts to worrying about serious things like suicide and homosexual hate crimes reminds us what it’s like to be 16.
“[I hope that what] people take away from this is a validation of their own experience, being young,” Chbosky said. “I think a lot of people feel alone in some of the things they go through. And I just wanted to let people know they’re not alone at all.”
Chbosky is hesitant about praising his own work, so I’ll do it for him. The Perks of Being a Wallflower certainly stands alone as a good movie. In Chbosky’s opinion, the book and the movie “complement each other perfectly by design.” As a bibliophile , I’m biased towards Perks in its original form, but I would definitely recommend seeing the film version. And if you find it lacking that “infinite” feeling, you can always head over to the bookstore and grab a copy of the novel instead.