How 'Perks of Being a Wallflower' Breaks an Old Filmmaking Curse

Stephen Chbosky's charming coming-of-age movie shows that authors can in fact successfully direct adaptations of their own books.

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John Bramley / Summit Entertainment

Pity the novelist who wanders into Hollywood with the dream of seeing their work brought to the big screen. Prevailing wisdom holds that literary adaptations lose the richness and complexity of the page, and while there are plenty of exceptions, that bad reputation is largely earned. High-profile botch jobs in recent memory include the digital-fantasy sheen of Peter Jackson's terrible take on The Lovely Bones and an entirely bloodless staging of the emotionally devastating The Time Traveler's Wife. Legendary book-to-screen flops from the past include The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and pretty much every Vonnegut movie ever attempted.

So it's understandable that authors might be reluctant to hand over their precious stories, labored over for months or years, to a team of strangers. Occasionally, authors will take matters into their own hands and step behind the camera themselves. But the results in those cases are often even more disastrous. Every writer thinking they'd be better off directing their own book should sit down and watch Maximum Overdrive, Stephen King's embarrassing 1986 directorial debut—and, to date, his only attempt at feature filmmaking . Plenty of others have tried and failed to varying degrees, including Norman Mailer, Ethan Hawke, and Michael Crichton. (To be fair to Crichton, he kept at it and improved, but his Ben Gazzara/Martin Sheen-starring TV-movie debut Pursuit is hardly notable enough to seek out.)

So there was reason to be nervous when news broke that Stephen Chbosky would be heading up the filming of his own hugely popular young adult novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Miraculously, though, he's managed to turn his powerful written words into a powerful movie, which opens in limited release today. How'd he do it? By respecting his book's storytelling conceit without being confined by it, by embracing film's unique ability to evoke emotions, and by enlisting a pitch-perfect crew of actors. It's a recipe that other authors-turned-directors-of-their-own-work would be wise to follow.

In the climax, Chbosky makes the full leap into a purely cinematic experience, cross-cutting puzzle pieces from throughout the rest of the film.

Perks is one of those books that, if you read it at just the right time in your life, becomes a beloved companion. The story, told via letters from its protagonist, Charlie, to an unnamed acquaintance, follows familiar contours: the shy kid entering high school who initially has trouble fitting in before finding his particular tribe. In this case that tribe is made up of a group of seniors who likely once felt just as separate as he does, but have long since embraced their status as punks, misfits, and outsiders.

It's standard coming-of-age material, but sets itself apart with a matter-of-fact approach to the more harrowing aspects of adolescence—depression, homophobia, suicide, domestic abuse—without becoming maudlin or preachy. More importantly, Chbosky gives Charlie a disarming earnestness that wins over not only the group of seniors who befriend him during his freshman year, but also the reader.

The book's format would seem to make the page-to-screen leap tricky. Over-narration can be a movie's death, but the book is entirely narration, courtesy Charlie's letters. Chbosky does right by both his novel and the needs of a movie by not cutting the letter-writing voiceovers completely, but using them sparingly—largely during montages that let the movie breathe following major plot points. These allow him to efficiently fast-forward through weeks and months to keep the book's year-long timeline moving forward.

Replicating the book's endearing tone would seem like another tough task. If the difference between a person who can play piano and a concert pianist is the ability not only to hit the right notes but to imbue them with feeling, the same idea goes for directors. Blocking scenes and setting up shots are technical skills that can be learned, but the artistry involved in conjuring emotion is what separates great films from so many disposable ones. Not to pick on Stephen King too much, but just because he can write and shoot a horror movie doesn't mean he can make it scary.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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