Wonder could have been a better adaptation if it had afforded Auggie the same interior complexity it gives to Via and the other narrators. To its credit, the movie includes fewer perspectives than the novel does, granting Auggie more room in the film. Still, he functions mostly as the thread that ties all the characters together, and his main mission is adjusting to a society that treats him like an outcast. He’s quiet, likable, and slow to anger. “Dude, this is after plastic surgery. It takes a lot of work to look this good,” Auggie says when Jack asks if he’s considered getting reconstructive work done. But this question isn’t even treated as insulting because Auggie’s entire identity comes back to what he looks like.
It would have been powerful to see Auggie accept his own face, while still wishing to be accepted by others. Instead, he spends much of the first half of the film wearing an astronaut helmet out of shame, an image that dominates Wonder’s promotional material. Eventually, Auggie’s father (Owen Wilson) hides the headgear. “I want to see my son’s face,” he tells Auggie. Of course, many people with craniofacial conditions have a hard time coming to terms with their appearance. But given how few films exist about people with facial differences, scenes like this can leave the false impression that deep insecurity is the default for children like Auggie, when that isn’t always the case. In a story published by The Washington Post, Teresa Joy Dyson, 10, offered her thoughts on the movie: “I didn’t like that Auggie was ashamed of his face. I have Treacher Collins syndrome and I’m kind of proud of my face. I’m not afraid to look at people and show who I am,” she said.
Some of Wonder’s representation problems echo the issues that can arise when Hollywood makes stories about marginalized groups. The existing lack of pop-cultural visibility for people with facial differences (roughly 600,000 people have been diagnosed with a craniofacial condition in the U.S.) is amplified by Hollywood’s emphasis on conventional attractiveness in performers. It’s unfortunate that Wonder—a film about how there’s no shame in being who you are, no matter what you look like—ended up casting a child without a facial difference as Auggie, and fitting him with elaborate prosthetics to re-create his disfigurement. It was hard for me to watch the movie and not feel like Wonder had validated Auggie’s desire to hide himself away out of embarrassment, despite producers’ efforts to cast a child with a craniofacial condition.
“I was pushing hard to cast a boy with Treacher Collins,” Palacio said in an interview with The Sun. “But finding one the right age, who had the right facial differences, whose parents would let him miss school for months of shooting, leaves a very small pool of people.” Palacio’s explanation nonetheless glosses over the fact that her novel never specified which condition Auggie had, which could have allowed producers to expand their search. The author shared that one boy with a facial difference came close to nabbing the lead role:
Acting can be tough. You have to read the lines 30 different times, in different ways, with 100 people watching you, opposite Julia Roberts. Nathaniel had physical limitations, he was hard to understand sometimes, and if you have a $20 million movie you have to make that call. The family did become consultants on the movie, though, and during filming his dad said to me, “Thank God they didn’t cast Nathaniel. It would have been too much.”
Tremblay did a skilled job of bringing Auggie to life. But his casting means that a nondisfigured writer (Palacio) and a nondisfigured actor (Tremblay), who have no personal experience with craniofacial conditions, have now seemingly become the face and voice of an entire community. (For her part, Palacio was inspired to write Wonder after her 3-year-old son started crying at the sight of a young girl with a facial difference.) Investing in authentic casting, despite the difficulties of the search, would have allowed the film’s creators to really stand by their message of inclusion and acceptance.