The Perks of Being a Wallflower: The Novel, the Movie, and Why Some Novels are Best Left Untouched

Reading a novel and then watching a movie based on it can be tough. Because when we are reading a novel, we are as potent as anyone. Barring dialogues, we create and control everything about that world the novel is set in. We are in charge of the setting, the atmospherics, lighting, theatrics or the lack of it, even the damn mise-en-scene. And if the novel resonates with us, that world becomes as personal as anything we have lived and experienced before. Come to think of it, when we are reading a novel, we are the director of that movie. But watching a movie is different. It’s a primal difference derived from the inherent nature of two different mediums. While watching a movie, we are constrained in our seat and made to absorb the vision of someone else’s world. And it can get conflicting, at times. To differing capacities, we are innately stubborn, and that’s why one of the reasons adapting novels to screen is not just about adapting the material but also being so brazenly talented that we surrender our own world. Not out of our own volition but because the images are so compelling, the mood just apt, that we internalize that not only our own world is inferior, but also in safe hands.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is based on a novel written by Stephen Chbosky of the same name. The novel came out in the year 1999, and found mass acceptance with adolescents in the U.S. I read the novel a week back and could see why. It’s a heartfelt novel written from the point of view of a misfit – Charlie. He’s a fifteen-year old who is soon going to begin high school. The novel begins by Charlie writing a letter to someone who’s just described as ‘a friend’. The entire novel unfolds in a series of letters written by Charlie to this nameless friend. And this method of narrating a story is apt in this case because it’s such a personal novel. We have all been wallflowers in some way or the other at different points of time in our lives, sitting on fringes, just observing, insecure, hoping people would take us in. Or at the very least, people who would get us. People who see the same things as we see, people who hear the same things as we hear, people who are like us in some ways.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

And it becomes all the more difficult to adapt a novel like ‘The Perks of being a Wall flower’ both because of the novel’s nature and the nature of the protagonist. Firstly, it’s an epistolary novel, and there’s a reason for it. It’s because the protagonist has difficult opening up with people. That’s what defines wallflowers – their ability to speak less, and absorb more. Obviously, it’s not an easy role to essay. And in the novel, you are close to Charlie because he tells you things. You can’t do the same in a movie as effectively using voice-overs, because it not only becomes clumsy but also risks dumbing down. And to bring out the conundrums of a wallflower, it required an actor and a director of an exceptional caliber. Stephen Chbosky is neither that director, nor is Logan Lerman that actor. His performance as Charlie is frustratingly one-note.

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is an important novel, because it delineates the world around us, voicing things that people don’t talk about as often as they should. And that’s what a work of art is responsible for — giving visibility to things irrespective of whether they are in vogue or not. And as the novel’s popularity suggests the adolescents needed the novel as much as the novel needed them.

The novel has often been called ‘the Catcher in the Rye of the noughties’ and in all fairness to the American classic, the comparisons are not misplaced. Even though Charlie does not share Holden’s angst or cynicism, and as a result both novels have vastly different voice, but they are still vastly similar in being brilliant character study of two awkward adolescents. It’s been more than half a century since The Catcher in the Rye was published and no movie has been made on it yet. And Salinger wasn’t being whimsy for his continual refusal for the novel’s movie adaptation. He explains himselfin this letter, and some of the salient points include: ‘There are many of his thoughts, of course, that could be labored into dialogue – or into some sort of stream of consciousness loud-speaker device – but labored is exactly the right word’, and, ‘And Holden Caufield, in my undoubtedly super-biased opinion is essentially unactable.’

And those two points hold true for ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ as well. Compared to the novel, the movie appeared to unfold in a series of unhinged scenes. Hardly any scene had an emotional truth to it, because when you are chronicling the life of a timid introvert, the scenes are just not about the present, there’s a lot of history attached to the protagonist’s emotions. The motion picture is not a natural medium for it. And here you cannot even blame someone else for sabotaging Chbosky’s vision, because he’s the one who has made the movie too.

I would have definitively liked the movie a little more had I not read the novel, but that’s only minor consolation, because even as a stand-alone movie, it fails to work. The acting is so mediocre, barring Erza Miller (who was equally brilliant as the titular Kevin in ‘Let’s Talk About Kevin’) who’s perfectly got the simultaneous pathos and deliriousness of his character. Emma Watson sadly, still doesn’t act as mature as the role requires her to be. She looks almost as caged as her wallflower friend, inching closer to lose herself, but not quite there. In such coming of age movies, the movie hinges a lot on performances, because the movie has to feel personal. That intimacy is lost here. And we are never successfully sucked into Charlie’s world. Bizarrely the real wallflower here is us, not Charlie. We are waiting that he and his friends would accost us and strike up a conversation, but they don’t seem to care. Much of the relationship arcs among the characters poignantly present in the novel are absent from the movie. And it is not difficult to understand why. The movie had to be snappy, while still being immeasurably sad. A faithful adaptation of the novel had to be a much longer and nuanced movie. Right now it’s just a dreary slapping together of scenes.

J.D. Salinger was astute and careful enough to not let the motion picture ruin his deeply personal ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ When we talk about the novel, we only talk about the novel, it’s not maligned by its inferior counterpart. But when people will talk about ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, I am afraid that they would also talk about botched chances, and unfulfilled promises. Why can’t some novels be left as they are? Is their adaptation to movie the only, final compliment? J.D. Salinger was intelligent enough to know otherwise.

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