The Perks of Being a Wallflower
As much as I watched movies growing up, I spent more time reading in my youth than watching film. As a result, I was very much the typical “Read the book before the movie” kind of person and often staunchly the “book was better than the movie” person as well. This included things from Dracula, the Harry Potter book series, the cases of Sherlock Holmes, the works of Agatha Christie, the James Bond books, and even the somewhat frivolous choice of Jane Austen (I had a thing for English writers, I guess). However, as I grew to be a better writer, as I grew to love film more passionately, and as I grew to be a better film watcher I slowly drifted from that state of mind to one of “treat the two as almost separate entities”. I’ve become the kind of person who will pipe up defending a film’s interpretation of a book, even if drastic changes are made and even if I didn’t like the film. A film should be able to stand on its own and be as broadly accessible as possible, right? That may be so, but I noticed very recently that, despite my mild evolution in thought, I still relapse into the same state of mind when watching certain television adaptations of works. From HBO’s Todd Haynes directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce to the British television series that adapted Poirot and Miss Marple to the incredible I, Claudius, I’ve inadvertently made a strange exception. And I don’t quite understand why, but I will try to discuss it further here.
One of my most vivid memories as a child is one that takes me back to second grade. I was lying on the bed in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to the audio book of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, narrated by the great Jim Dale. (Full disclosure: A lot of my “reading” was actually done by audio book. I have no shame.) Sure, the Harry Potter books make not be the literary masterpieces a lot of people my age would purport them to be, but I really do enjoy them and, at that age, I found them to be quite magical. There was so much depth and detail, the characters seemed so fully realized, and I wanted to be a part of that world. I assumed, as do probably most people at that age when reading a book, that the film adaptation would take me to that world exactly as I had imagined. But it didn’t.
Much to my dismay, I was unable to really make much out of the first three movies, which to me, were a fiasco (they still aren’t great, really). But I was so in tune to my own interpretation of the book that it never occurred to me a) the director has his own ideas b) the author has their own intentions and c) the adaptations should be able to stand on their own, in order to make the world more open. Also, there was an issue with running time, so there was that as well. (I still find it kind of strange that director David Yates decided to make the longest book into the shortest film. Clever, but strange.) My own ego was at work here, and fully manifested itself in a very angry letter written to the film’s producers (this is again, in second grade) begging them to adapt as completely as possible Book Five to the screen. All the tiny, minute details, all of the characters, story arcs, dialogue, etc. I was 9, and I thought I was entitled to a complete version of the film. A transliteration. (The letter remained unsent, for the record.)
I had the same issues with several other films, but I think the majesty of something I saw as so fantastical and enjoyable really struck me. Seeing those changes in the film versions of my favorite books literally offended me. I scoffed at the screen. I probably deemed whatever film it was poor due to the numerous changes. The 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula always annoyed me because they omitted several characters, “destroying” an intriguing plot. For, at that age, I could not be satiated unless it was as accurate as possible.
However, as I grew older and I began to understood film more and more as medium, as an entertainment device, etc. I realized that these departures should be fine, so long as they cohere with the rest of the film. It’s the reason I had such an issue with the screen version of Les Miserables: you approach a film almost blindly usually, with very little context. That’s supposed to be made up in exposition, extra scenes, etc. Les Miz didn’t have that, but neither did the musical. The reason being is that the approach is different. The point being, with no context, you should be able to go into a film adaptation of a book and get a majority of it. Sure, there will be some nuances missed or not understood, some in jokes to please the readers, etc., but generally speaking, it should be a simple, fun, engaging ride.
Now that I’ve understood that literature and cinema, despite their connections and roots, should be able to operate alone, there are a few exceptions I’ve noticed, in terms of how I treat and come back from a film. One of the first is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I count this as a notable exception because the film was directed by its original author, Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Rarely, as far as I know, does the original author direct and write the screenplay of the film version (the focus being “and”). In that film, you’re supposed to get the full vision, the full realization of the characters that the author created. And, all said and done, it’s pretty good. There are some notable differences in how the subject matter is treated, and with that ambiguity comes a couple problems: Chbosky spent so much time tiptoeing around certain aspects of his original novel that he mentions a couple things and then drops them without resolution. A couple characters jump the gun and don’t make a “complete circle” in terms of evolution. But, all things considered, these are pretty minor issues. The most important stuff is in there. And yet it’s not a transliteration. It still remains a film that can be treated separately from its source material.
I talked about transliterations a while back in my review for Mildred Pierce and I would like to bring it up again. I haven’t read the entirety of the original novel, but, rewatching the series, I’m struck not only how faithful the series is, but how good it is. Part of the issue of transliterations conceptually is that it doesn’t bring much originality to the table. It suffocates the work (see: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen). But even though Mildred Pierce was exhaustively adapted, using a majority of the dialogue and nearly every scene from the book, it still breathes life into the novel. It is not merely because it’s a film of the novel, but because it still remains an interpretation, primarily that of director Todd Haynes. In interviews, Haynes stated that although there book was essentially the text, he wanted to have every screen from Mildred’s perspective, giving the film a slightly subjective lens. That alone frees it from being exhaustingly dull and commonplace. What may be as important as the source material in an adaptation is the passion the maker brings to it, which includes their interpretation.
That said, had this not occurred, had the film not so lovingly been adapted from the book, with the words practically lifted off the page, I don’t think I would have given the film a pass. It’s a curious thing I’ve noticed over the last few days, actually. For some reason, I’m less inclined to give television adaptations any kind of leniency than I am film.
With film, you’re allotted a narrow amount of time, usually, which means that a lot has to be cut out and a lot has to change in order to meet those constraints (though, I still don’t understand why the dialogue can’t be retained). With television, you’re given an incredible amount of freedom, especially in terms of time, if not necessarily with budget. So, I believe the preconception I approach television adatations with (and others do the same, I think) is: “They have all that time, which means they should be able to get in a majority of the details in there.”
I’ve been rewatching some of the more recent ITV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books, particularly those starring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the spinster Miss Marple. I’m a bit rusty on the novels, but I still remember a fairly good deal about them, at least the main arcs and characterizations. But I noticed some rather drastic deviations. The Nicolas Winding Refn directed episode of Marple called “Nemesis” retains one conceit from the novel and throws the rest away, even changing the murder, the victim, the perpetrator, and the motive. SparkNotes, in comparison, would be far more accurate. I resented this change. Why bother changing all of that? Why bother adapting that book in the first place? For the episode “By the Pricking of My Thumbs”, one of the protagonists is characterized as a resentful alcoholic. Um, why? Was it an attempt to add depth to that character? Was it an attempt to fix a plot hole? (The novel was originally intended for Christie’s Nick and Nora-esque detectives, Tommy and Tuppence, who are relegated to supporting roles in the TV adaptation.) 2010 brought a new adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel Murder on the Orient Express, but even then, I found the changes to be extraordinarily inessential. The darker tone, the focus on Poirot being a Catholic, the change of characters, the drop of an important piece of evidence, etc. No, that episode did not “pass my test”. The book had earlier been adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974 (garnering Ingrid Bergman with her third Academy Award), and that one was rather accurate, but also contained seemingly bizarre, “unnoticeable” changes. Many of the changes in both television series’ earlier incarnations would probably only be noticeable to avid readers, so why bother changing them at all if they’re so minute?
The approach is the same: more time, more reason to add or retain details. I, Claudius (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) gets it right (including chunks of dialogue too), so why can’t everyone else? It may not have to be a transliteration, but the faithfulness was lacking in the Christie series.
To completely generalize, I believe that we hold film adaptations of books under such scrutiny because it is usually a book that we care deeply about. As much as I adore and love cinema, books are something very special and unique. They can be just as, if not more, transportive than film. But, I believe it’s good to let go, to allow the two to be, for the sake of an analogy, cousins, if not brothers and sisters. And I believe that I hold television accountable, not only because of the spacious room they seem to be given in how they’re able to tell their story, but because I want to be enveloped in what I fell in love with for a longer period of time than a movie adaptation can do. It’s not right, but it’s my flaw.
That said, I love film and books both completely and passionately.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teenager who is fairly introverted will go through a lengthy awkward phase when transitioning from middle school to high school, and thus must be in want of some friends. From personal experience, the transition is hardly easy, but for Charlie in the novel and film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was even worse. Written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999, I fell in love with the young adult novel, told in a delicate epistolary form, in my freshman year of high school and a friend told me the protagonist reminded her of me. Its author went on to write the screenplay and direct the feature film adaptation, and what he presents is a satisfying adaptation that is nuanced enough to make a difference in the plethora of teen films, changing the story a little bit. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a different teen film because of its refreshing approach to the pains of adolescence.
Perks tells the story of a young man who enters his freshman year of high school and has, well, a lot to deal with. Charlie (Logan Lerman) has spent some time in a mental institution after his best friend committed suicide, and his introverted nature makes the transition far harder. He stands by the side and observes. He “doesn’t think anybody noticed” him. The focus here is not finding him the perfect girlfriend, but finding him a perfect band of misfits; people who will be there for him. Because, unlike the myriad of films in the teen canon, high school is not all about finding the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend: it’s about finding the people who help you find who you are. Perks, as trite as it can be, presents this very aspect of learning well.
As someone who was deeply attached to the novel, I, of course, was hesitant as to the film adaptation’s treatment of the material, both from a standpoint in terms of accuracy as well as to framework and content. So, I was naturally surprised to learn that the man behind the novel wrote and directed the film. If he’s happy with this, then it will be his vision. But rather than spend my time comparing the book and the film constantly, I’ll only go over a few things and their translation onto the screen.
Part of the uniqueness of the book, I suppose, is its epistolary format, with Charlie writing to someone we never meet. This is retained to some extent as the initial framework, but, more importantly, the narration is not a constant. This gives the film a slightly more objective look than the book, but completely. Much of the film’s events and experiences are still presented subjectively, one particular scene almost reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
One of the highlights of the films is its occasional subtlety. Although the film may at times feel heavy handed, which may partly be responsible due to both the general “genre” the film falls in as well as the current atmosphere amongst teenagers. The novel handled certain questionable and dramatic subject matter and content very well, and its translation to the screen often thrives fluidly. The issues that Charlie has dealt with, as well as the subject of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his sexuality, are handled almost in an elegant manner. Charlie’s problems are never dressed so directly that they seem redundant, and Patrick is never overtly mentioned as gay. Both character are as they are.
That said, some of the subtlety, as brisk and well allocated as it may be, over compensates for itself in certain moments. Character development is sometimes sacrificed at trying to either be subtle or completely avoid subjects. Thus, for novel loyalists, certain scenes involving Charlie and Patrick are mentioned one moment, but never exactly elaborated upon. It is almost as if the thought was incomplete. These mistakes seem somewhat infantile, almost as much as some of the heavy handedness of certain scenes, but I suppose they are forgivable for a first time director.
The choices made, though, manage to be wise. The cinematography in the film, in particular, is one of the small beauties of the film. Soft focus and soft lighting make the film look almost misty and romantic, and fits at moments because the image will become as misty as your eyes. This small beauty of the film manages to accentuate much of the emotion in the film, perhaps setting it apart from many teen films. There is, therefore, equal balance and focus on the look of the film (which is distinctly 1990s) and the story of the film.
That said, the way the film portrays its story is, for the most part, successful. Aside from the strides of too much subtlety or too much heavy handedness (You have to admit that Chbosky’s dialogue hasn’t exactly aged well), the film nicely takes a different route regarding adolescent angst. There is far more reliance on Charlie being able to find a support system in the form of honest to God, true friends. His romantic fixation on Sam (Emma Watson) or with anyone else is not nearly as important as his ability to make friends with people.
The performances are one of the best things the film has to offer, with Lerman, Watson, and Miller giving extraordinary performances. Lerman presents himself as awkward and self-conscious without giving way to becoming Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg. There’s a beautiful vulnerability and lucidity that Lerman gives that makes him Charlie. More than I could have imagined (I was a skeptic early on), Lerman renders one of the best performances in this kind of film, looking like a more sympathetic Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. And in a lot of ways, the best parts of the film owe a lot to Francois Truffaut’s angsty masterpiece. It may be the 400 Blows for “my generation” (as much as I hate using that phrase). Emma Watson continues to expand her repertoire as Sam, also providing a lovely vulnerability. (A note on her accent: It’s convincing and merely sounds like she’s been living in the United States for a few years.) Everyone is lauding Miller for his role, and, sure, he was great. I was not as mesmerized as everyone else (I was more satisfied with Lerman’s performance), but Miller was undoubtedly good.
Stephen Chbosky’s successful young adult novel translates to the screen as a successful teen film. Its uniqueness in approach, concentrating on the protagonist’s issues with acquiring a support system, and does so well enough that it deserves to sit next to any John Hughes film on the teen canon. Its refined look and subtlety make it, in some respects, a Truffaut-esque film (perhaps similar to the also lovely, if underseen Submarine). What Perks does best is simply be itself, much like its characters. Subtle and sweeping, Perks observes the innocuous anomalies in teen life without to succumbing to too much trite material. To be completely reductive and a little corny, somewhat like the film, Perks works.