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.
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.
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.
Chbosky, though, passes this test as well. During one key scene, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is out driving with the two seniors he's recently befriended at a party, Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller). David Bowie's "Heroes" comes on the radio, and as they fly through a tunnel on the highways around Pittsburgh, Sam climbs into the back of the pickup, stands up, and raises her arms, with the music and the wind and the speed all combining for that particular teenage euphoria at the endless possibilities of the world. Charlie calls it feeling "infinite." It's one thing to describe that sensation and another thing to visually depict it, and Chbosky nails the visual representation as surely as he does the verbal.
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The film is filled with moments like that, where the director triggers genuine sentimentality and waves of nostalgia through interaction between sound and image. Music plays an especially vital role here, and even manages to expand the appeal of the book. Where before he depended on record-collecting readers to have The Smiths' "Asleep," or Cocteau Twins' "Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops" in their head to hear as they're mentioned, film allows him to bypass references in favor of direct playback.
Chbosky does have a slight advantage over other novelists-turned-directors in that he was trained as a screenwriter and did direct a little-seen indie feature 17 years ago. But even so, Perks seems like the work of a much more experienced director, maintaining fidelity to the source material without sacrificing any cinematic qualities.
He doesn't do it by himself, of course. The primary trio of actors delivers outstanding performances, starting with Watson, who sheds the memory of a decade playing Hermione in the Harry Potter series with an about-face as a flirtatious but insecure free spirit. Miller also plays against his most recent performance, which was as the tightly wound titular teenage psychopath in We Need to Talk About Kevin, to deliver a giddy, scene-stealing turn as Patrick. Lerman, best known from the Percy Jackson series, shines as Charlie, a role that demands he be immediately likeable while still holding onto some deep darkness that can't be fully revealed until the end.
It's in that reveal that Chbosky really makes the full leap into a purely cinematic experience, cross-cutting puzzle pieces from throughout the rest of the film in a barrage of images that both stitches together a story and reflects Charlie's own deteriorating state of mind. It's a method that could only work on screen, and reveals a movie that one suspects Chbosky always felt was within the pages of his novel, obscured by the epistolary format.
Fans of the book have probably been hoping for years that Chbosky might follow Perks with another novel that speaks to them in the same way. Now, though, they'll just as likely be anticipating his next movie.