“And 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 if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing ‘unity.’”
“Charlie” is an introverted and cerebral high school freshman, the eponymous wallflower of the novel. His only friend, Michael, committed suicide the previous year. His favourite aunt, Helen, died in a car crash shopping for a birthday present for him when he was seven, and he doesn’t feel all that close to the other members of his family. Socially withdrawn, but surprisingly observant, Charlie begins penning pseudonymous letters to an unknown acquaintance. These letters reveal a number of disturbing events in his past, and dark family secrets, as well as sharing Charlie’s efforts to participate in the social life of his high school. When he befriends the beautiful senior, Sam, and her stepbrother Patrick, a whole new world is opened to him, one which he doesn’t necessarily have the skills to navigate. However, it is this very lack of social sophistication which gives him his unusual candour and pure curiousity, the very traits which make this introspective novel so moving.
Supposedly a modern classic, it’s hard to see the appeal of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the first few chapters. The letters which make up the novel are anonymous and vague, as Charlie tries to avoid providing identifying details. Charlie’s writing style is meandering and awkwardly lacking in contractions. However, through the plot device of having Charlie read extra novels and write book reports for his English teacher, Bill, his writing style improves, and ceases to get in the way of the story Chbosky is trying to tell. Despite containing more serious trauma and drama than the life of the average teen—rape, sexual abuse, abortion, promiscuity, substance abuse and mental illness—the novel narrowly manages to deliver an emotionally resonant depiction of the teen experience that withstands the fifteen years since its writing extremely well. I like this novel now, but I suspect I would have loved it when I was in high school.
Film adaptations are most often skewered for lack of faithfulness to the book, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower was both written and directed by Stephen Chbosky. As a result, the details that have been added or tweaked feel authentic due to the consistency of Chbosky’s voice. Chbosky’s cuts to make the novel fit the run time of a film have both positive and negative consequences for the narrative. Reducing the number of characters by removing Charlie’s extended family—except, of course, Aunt Helen—and removing his sister’s subplots both streamline the story and reduce the melodramatic, after-school-special effect of covering every teen issue in the book. However, in order to more fully flesh out Charlie’s family life in the absence of his extended family, Chbosky decided to portray the family as Catholic. With this added detail, the decision to remove the subplot in which Charlie’s sister has an abortion seems ideologically motivated. The scenes were in fact shot and are included in the special features on the DVD release. Chbosky’s commentary says they were cut for run time, but the decision not to include them is unfortunate.
In most other ways, the film only improves upon the novel. Superb casting and excellent music bring the novel to life. Both film and music have crucial roles on the novel, so it is only apt that they get room to shine in the film. Some parts, such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, belong on a screen more than they ever fit in a book. Ezra Miller, in particular, does not disappoint in his reprise of Dr. Frank-n-furter. Even Chbosky’s literary references fare surprisingly well in the film medium. Overall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an exceptionally successful book to film adaptation.