A Novel Idea: Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
June 15th, 2011

“A Novel Idea” is a recurring feature at Gordon and the Whale that combines two things that I may have some expertise in – books and movies. “A Novel Idea” is essentially book reviews with a cinematic bent, examining literary works already slated for the big screen treatment – aiming to give us an idea of what to look for when those books finally hit the silver screen, for better or worse.

The importance of a slice of entertainment hitting its consumer at the precisely correct moment in their life cannot be overstated. Sometimes, it cannot even be sufficiently explained to others who have not had a similar experience. It’s entertainment, plus emotion, swirled with experience. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower hit shelves in February of 1999, back when this writer was the tender age of fifteen (is there anyone as young as a fifteen year old?) and a sophomore in high school. Though Chbosky’s book revolves around high schoolers who feel that they exist especially on the outside of “normal” teenage society, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not alienating in its depiction of, well, alienation. You did not need to be teenage outcast for the novel to touch you. But it certainly didn’t hurt.

I was not an outcast in high school. But anyone who believes that their high school years were the best years of their life is not someone that I am able to connect with on an emotional or an intellectual level. I’ve been out of high school for over a decade, but this notion has held true over those years. Anyone who says they never felt a moment of alienation during the ages of approximately thirteen to eighteen is a liar (or they’re just deluding themselves). But what The Perks of Being a Wallflower was best at was not allowing teens to feel okay with their misery, but the opposite –it reminded its readers that, even in the miserable cesspool of high school, it was possible to feel real emotions and have honest experiences. It was possible to find a transcendent moment in between gym class and the Sadie Hawkins dance. As a book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a wonderful piece of Young Adult fiction that’s wise beyond its years – as a film, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower revolves around high school freshman “Charlie” (in the book, an assumed name for reasons of anonymity). Charlie is, simply put, not having an easy time of it. Before high school even started, his best friend killed himself, and the after-effects of that death are mingled in with every single one of Charlie’s interactions at home or at school. Friendless in school, Charlie is also the odd man out with his family – his older brother is a college football star, his older sister is pretty and popular, and his parents seem to have long forgotten what it means to be happy. An invisibility shrouds Charlie everywhere he goes – until he meets Sam and Patrick, and finds himself accepted into a motley crew of older kids who take him in without question. But even as Charlie finds a place with his new friends, the pain of his past and the immaturity of his present threaten what will become of his future.

As straightforward as the plot of the novel sounds, it’s miles more complicated than the average YA novel (well, the average YA novel that doesn’t include elements of the supernatural). The novel works in an epistolary format – the story is told by way of letters Charlie writes to someone he’s never met. We come to understand that the recipient of his letters is a student in another school, an older girl that Charlie heard other people talking about in such a way that he believed she would “understand.” The conceit of Perks is a dated one – if the book took place in the year 2011, the idea that Charlie could write to someone who would never discover his identity would be laughable, it would only require a few strokes on a keyboard to suss him out via Facebook, but the film version of Perks is sticking to its mid-‘80s roots, so the concept of anonymity is still at its core. It is this anonymity that allows Charlie freedom in expressing his experience – but how will that translate to the screen? What’s most interesting about Charlie’s letter-writing in the novel is how easily it’s forgotten in favor of flowing into a typical first-person narrative with a slight twist. There’s no need to show Charlie sitting down and writing letters, we just need to know that the film is firmly told through his perspective, which guarantees that it comes with a very specific set of misunderstandings and misdirections.    

The novel is being brought to the screen by its own author, Stephen Chbosky, who has both written the script and is directing the film. Chbosky’s pedigree as the novel’s writer puts him in a unique position – he’ll be able to bring his beloved book to the screen the way he wants, but he’s a somewhat unknown force behind the camera. Chbosky did, however, graduate from USC’s Filmic Writing Program and he’s even helmed a film that appeared at Sundance in the 1990s, but his film work is still frighteningly slim. Chbosky’s mixed resume also includes penning the screenplay for the RENT adaptation and creating the television show Jericho. Like I said - mixed.

A less invested screenwriter or director may have felt inclined to axe a subplot of Perks that is guarded within the majority of the text, yet central to understanding Charlie and his copious issues that shape the novel. Despite a relatively unproven resume, it seems that the one thing that fans of the novel can count on is a faithful adaptation of the novel by its own writer. Chbosky may not have logged enough time behind the camera to helm just any project, but he’s at least involved enough with his own source material to “do it right.”

And Chbosky has already done at least one solid thing that is encouraging for the film – he’s assembled a nearly-perfect cast for his adaptation. The cast is relatively young – here are kids playing kids, a welcome change from the now-standard practice of casting twentysomethings as teenagers, effectively making even actual teenagers look too young for age appropriate roles.

As Charlie, Logan Lerman needs to capture the strange dichotomy of his character – he’s a wide-eyed innocent that has seen more trouble in his sixteen years than some people do in an entire lifetime. He needs to carry the entire film with a disarming mix of painful honesty and hidden secrets. I’m a big fan of Lerman, and think that such a role is a bold choice to add to his body of work, a nice change from standard franchise fare. This is the rare kind of part that allows a teenager to have many facets, no need to spice it up with werewolf fur or vampire sparkles.

Emma Watson is a solid pick for Sam – the punk chick is “cool” in a different way than what most people define as “cool” while in high school. Watson has done little work besides her turn as Hermione Granger in the HARRY POTTER film, but these girls are from the same mold. Sam is the type of girl who travels through high school as someone categorically off-beat who will later emerge as the most interesting person to matriculate alongside you. Sound a bit like Hermione?

Chbosky has rounded out his cast with a number of other interesting young actors – Nina Dobrev as Charlie’s sister with her own secret, Ezra Miller as a heartbroken Patrick, Johnny Simmons as quarterback Brad, Mae Whitman as Charlie’s first girlfriend Mary Elizabeth, and Reece Thompson as cool-guy Craig.

The casting of Paul Rudd is the only false note in the whole bunch – he is the biggest name in the cast, but his role as Charlie’s English teacher Bill is essentially peripheral. We hear much more about Bill before we ever fully meet him, and so much of what we “know” about him is through the eyes of his student – an unreliable narrator for a character never quite fully formed. The Bill of the book is also much younger than Rudd – as a newish teacher, Bill’s immediate taking-to of Charlie is much easier to understand when one considers that they are both “new kids,” veritable outcasts in what they perceive as established institutions. Viewers of the film may not notice anything amiss with an older Bill, but the casting of Rudd loses something in translation.

Though told in a linear format, Perks is still a funny little book in terms of its structural choices – it steadily builds on its sadness, piling on Charlie’s troubles in a believable way that doesn’t reach a climax until much later in the book. There’s no drawn-out dénouement here, and the cut-short nature of its ending is both satisfying and open-ended. Perks could easily have seen a sequel, but the slightly unfinished feeling of its ending stays true to the honesty that has infused and guided the entire novel. It’s not a “cheap” book, and it can certainly be made into a film that is equally as rich.  

Returning to The Perks of Being a Wallflower many years after my first few reads was, in short, a strange experience. Whereas Charlie’s triumphs and disasters, the emotional roller-coaster of his life, seemed endlessly relatable in my teen years, viewing it with the added perspective of intervening years somehow makes it more touching. Charlie is not just a sad teenager, he’s a sad person who has endured considerable tragedy in a short time. Perks is not “feel-good,” but it’s also not depressing – it’s just real.

With Chbosky at the helm of the film, I can only hope that it doesn’t back down from its tough roots in favor of creating a fluffier (and more accessible) film about a general “teenage experience.” There’s nothing general or typical about those tough years, and the writer has already crafted a novel that speaks to that. If he can translate that story to film with even half to the emotional impact of his novel, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER could become part of the great high school experience cinematic canon.

I'm leaving the choice of book for the next installment of “A Novel Idea" to you fine readers. What would you like to see me tackle next? Let me know in the comments!

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