High school is a time and place that can be done so wrong, but these wallflowers do it so right. They embrace the outcasts, and they don’t shy away from the hard issues teens face: sex, drugs, suicide, mental illness; and they capture the beauty of youth: friendship, love, creativity.
– James Franco
At some point in our lives, we’ve all felt like misfits, outcasts on the periphery of life wanting desperately to find that place and those people with whom we truly belong. The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Charlie is one such socially awkward introvert trying to navigate through his freshman year of high school, an unchartered world of “first dates and mix-tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show … He is a wallflower caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it” (Book blurb) and it’s this journey that we undertake along with him.
“So this is my life. And I’m both happy and sad. And I’m still trying to figure out how this could be”.
My initial impressions are from the film because this time I unusually watched the film version before reading its source book. I didn’t read up on a summary before watching the film either because I didn’t want to be influenced in any way regards my view of it, but even then I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I eventually did. It was clearly a character-centric narrative heavily reliant on the main trio – Logan Lerman (Charlie), Ezra Miller (Patrick) and Emma Watson (Sam) – for its appeal and they didn’t disappoint.
The standout performance for me has to be Miller as the exuberant and unashamedly gay best friend. We get to see him in a strikingly different role than his scarily disturbing turn in Let’s Talk About Kevin. In Perks, he is the life and soul of every scene he’s in without overshadowing the others and yet we can also sense certain unexpressed internalisations that are only glimpsed throughout the film especially after that scene in the cafeteria. But these are not addressed as much as I’d have liked. Emma Watson as his beautiful, impulsive step-sister Sam does more than enough to pull away from the Hermione Granger tag and gives us a vibrant but essentially messed up girl who is trying to escape from an abusive and self-destructive past. Both of them are seniors and take Charlie under their wing introducing him to a new world and for the first time in his life, the sense that he belongs and has friends.
“I don't even remember the season. I just remember walking between them and feeling for the first time that I belonged somewhere.”
Logan Lerman (last seen as Percy Jackson in that movie franchise) gives a wonderfully understated performance that is so easy to ignore precisely because of it. He is the quintessential wallflower, listening, observing, understanding but never saying any more than is needed. But he is also a very sympathetic and relatable character because Lerman balances this passiveness with a sincere charm, intelligence, genuine concern and love, and a dry, ironic sense of humour. As a result a character that could have so easily been one-dimensional as soon as we move out of his head (like in the book) comes across as someone we instantly engage with, root for and often despair at when he is putting everyone else’s happiness and peace in front of his. That said there is also an emotional instability to him that is a bit unnerving and never fully explored, especially with the big revelation coming towards the end of the film leaving hardly much time to process it. I felt that the hints in the movie weren’t as consistent or powerful as they needed to be. We knew that there was something more to his guilt about Aunt Helen’s death than was obvious but there wasn’t sufficient impact or elaboration, especially with how his explosive pent-up anger and blackouts linked with his larger development.
Charlie, Patrick, Sam, Mary Elizabeth and the rest of their group may be nothing like us on the surface, but there are enough things there that we can identify with, we see a part of ourselves in all of them, their friends and family. None of the movie is undiscovered territory as far as themes go, the classic ‘bildungsroman’, the coming-of-age story that’s been done (well or badly) to death. The strength of Stephen Chobsky’s narrative is the searing honesty and unbiased fresh perspective that doesn’t shy away from the hard facts or gloss over the brutal realities of life and growing up. Growing up is awkward and quite unpleasant at times. Chobsky realises that and his characters are duly messed up, struggling to find their place and purpose in this world, and yet there are moments of beauty, calm and hope that keep them going and keep us reading and watching. Moments and sentences that are otherwise cliché make sense here and just ‘feel right’ because of the authenticity and genuineness of the characters, whatever their flaws.
“She wasn’t bitter. She was sad though. But it was a hopeful kind of sad. The kind of sad that just takes time”.
One such moment is the part in the movie where Charlie first utters the three words that have been repeated countless times – “I feel infinite”. Charlie, Patrick and Sam are on their way home in their pickup truck after Charlie’s first ever party and approaching a tunnel when Sam stands up at the back with her arms aloft. David Bowie’s Heroes is playing on the radio (though they are not aware of the name until a similar scene at the end of the movie). They go through the dark tunnel towards the lights of the city at the other end and there’s a heady sense of freedom and endless opportunities.
“And finally, just when you think you’ll never get there, you see the opening right in front of you. And the radio comes back even louder than you remember it. And the wind is waiting. And you fly out of the tunnel onto the bridge. And there it is. The city. A million lights and buildings and everything seems as exciting as the first time you saw it.”
It’s a feeling that is infectious even though you may have never taken a ride at the back of a pickup truck. A feeling that is as powerful in the first half of the film as it is at the end when it is Charlie who stands up at the back. You cannot help but get caught up in the goosebump inducing moment. The importance of which is reiterated in the book,
“I know these will all be stories someday and all our pictures will become old photographs. We’ll all become somebody’s mum or dad. But right now, these moments aren’t stories. This is happening … this one moment”.
But even though I enjoyed the movie, there was a sense of something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on back then. It is not until I read the book that I realised how much is left out and changed as a result. I am aware that you cannot adapt a book word-to-word but I feel that the movie would have benefited if a bit more of what was in the book had made its way onto screen. Especially when it came to the part about Charlie’s family, their complicated relationships and connections that give us a better sense of him as a character as well as aiding the big revelation with a stronger base. I would have loved to see a bit more of his connection with his English teacher, as well as the exploration of the much darker friendship that Charlie and Patrick share in the book. Throughout the book Charlie is going to a psychiatrist who is asking him increasingly more probing and seemingly weird questions about his childhood. They create a much better sense of foreboding though I still think there wasn’t enough time for it to sink in so close towards the end of the book.
The novel is a fragmented, rambling sort of narrative with no real cohesiveness because of its epistolary format. Because of this it deals with a lot of issues that would have cluttered the adaptation onto the screen. However I also felt that a little bit of depth was lost out in this transition. The author (who has himself adapted and directed the venture) has explained why a few of the darker themes didn’t make the cut, and while I agree that a movie by definition is a condensed art form, I feel that some (not all) more of the book would have made for a more solid base in a film which is a wonderfully, enjoyably fleeting experience that leaves you wanting just a bit more substance.
That said, one thing I’m glad didn’t make it onto the screen was all the crying. In the book Charlie cries a lot as do the other characters. Personally I found it a bit too weepy in parts and was glad for the extra effort at adding humour and a certain lightheartedness to the film adaptation. Unlike the film where we see all the characters and their interactions first hand, Charlie’s unreliability as a narrator is much more pronounced in the book which makes for a very different experience. We are stuck solely inside his head which is great to get an insight into the layers of his personality, but also a bit tasking and confusing when he is wallowing. I definitely liked the funnier, slightly bolder side of him that we see in the film, a performance that in retrospect you appreciate even more for how many unspoken things Lerman has managed to convey. We cheer for him when he finally manages to confront his demons and begins to learn the balance between living and observing.
“Please believe that things are good with me and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough”.
The language of the book is nothing to write home about barring some astute observations, but the repetitiveness and almost pedestrian writing can be largely ignored because Chobsky has created such a likeable and sympathetic narrator in Charlie, a voice that is honest, simple and true to his personality. There is nothing earth-shatteringly unique about any of his musings or discoveries; it’s his sincerity and warmth that elevates it from being the kind of clichéd self-absorption and the certain air of pretension common to teenagers experiencing and discovering things for the first time to something genuine that we have all felt at some point in our lives. It points out the alienation we all felt growing up as well as how universal all of it really is.
“All the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing unity”.
“You are not alone in the world. No matter what you’re going through, somebody gets it”.
When you read a book it’s all up to your imagination to mentally recreate the characters and the world they inhabit within the pages. But having seen the movie first, you already have the visuals tailor-made in front of you without being aware of the possible changes made in the transition from page to screen. So that when you read the book, it’s like you’re going inside from the outside instead of the other way around. You never know how your perception of the book and its characters is impacted through already-formed opinions. But be that as it may, it’s not often that the two offer different but equally refreshing takes on an age-old theme while maintaining the same strong core and heart. In spite of the things they may not have done right, I’d recommend both the book and the movie, whatever age, if not to simply remind us that,
“There’s nothing like deep breaths after laughing that hard. Nothing in the world like a sore stomach for the right reasons”.