Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book to Film: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out in 1999, a thin little book that was released straight to paperback, and one with a very unassuming cover at that.  It didn't have a lot of fancy publicity, and it wasn't a smash hit like Harry Potter or Twilight.  It was a quiet book, but there was something about it that made people want to pass it on.   Librarians handed it around to each other.  Friends recommended it to friends.   It built a following, then people started talking about it as an underground classic. It's now quite easy to find quotes from the book all over the internet (frankly, they sound kind of trite  out of context).  And finally, it's become a movie.  I read the book about seven years ago, and saw the movie with my daughter last weekend.  We both loved it.  It's a great adaptation, but then again, it should be--it had Stephen Chbosky himself as screenwriter and director.

Perks was a book that really spoke to me.  First of all, it's set in the early 90s, and refers to things like making mixed tapes for your friends.  That made me all nostalgic--I had a friend who used to make the best mixed tapes for me around that time.  But it also resonated because of  how closely I could identify with Charlie, the book's main character.  He felt like me when I was a young adult.  Charlie is damaged by things he can't talk about.  He's introverted, socially awkward, clueless about setting boundaries or expressing himself (except in writing).  He reads a lot and thinks a lot, and watches people, but he's not easily noticed. He's a loner who wants to be more connected but can't seem to do it naturally.  But here's the thing--when I was growing up and going through all of that, I didn't really like myself a lot.  But Chbosky makes us just love Charlie.  I mean, just adore him.  That made the book for me right there.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about Charlie's first year in high school.  This awkward kid manages to make a few friends, Sam and Patrick, who are seniors, much older than Charlie and seemingly much freer as well.  They have a group of buddies, dramatize The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the movies every week,  go to parties where the brownies taste a little strange, and listen to lots of music.  The story is about the ins and outs of their friendship.  Charlie's friends have their own issues, and the friendships aren't straightforward, but they are very believable.  I think Chbosky has captured both how warm and enlivening it feels to belong to a community of friends, and also how left behind you can feel when a friendship falters.

I was a bit worried about the casting before I saw the film--the characters felt real to me in my head, and I didn't want to sit there thinking "Oh look, there's Hermione Granger pretending to be Sam, and Percy Jackson's taking a break from being a demigod to be Charlie."  I kind of wanted people I had never seen before playing the roles.  But Logan Lerman absolutely disappeared into Charlie, and Ezra Miller, who was a new face for me, blew me away as Patrick.  Emma Watson was obviously the big name in this film, and although she is much more of a refined, classic beauty than I imagine Sam being, she brought a lot of warmth to the role.

Even though it's a relatively short book, Chbosky streamlines the story quite a bit for the movie.  I didn't feel it lost anything, though.  The big shock at the end of the book is much more foreshadowed in the film, but I already knew the plot, so I can't really judge what that would do for someone coming to the story fresh.  One difference I did notice;  although in the book I definitely felt that I was reading about a certain time period, the movie seemed to blur that a bit.

Here's the movie trailer:

And here's an interview with Stephen Chbosky and Emma Watson:


Every Day by David Levithan

It's hard to think of a teen writer today more romantic than David Levithan. From his breakthrough novel Boy Meets Boy to the recent Lover's Dictionary, he writes about love beautifully and optimistically. Every Day is about love, of course, but being David Levithan it's a little more philosophical than many teen love stories, and it uses elements of fantasy and magic realism to explore some questions that most of us aren't forced to ask.  What is it that really makes us love someone, and how important is the physical aspect of love?  I personally trust  David Levithan and I'll read whatever he cares to write, but while I found Every Day quite thought-provoking, I thought it had a few flaws in its premise that kept me from totally buying into it.

Every Day is about a person named A.  Because A is without a body, he doesn't have the normal attributes we cluster around identity--gender, race, culture, religion, family, even language change for A every day. (I'm going to refer to A as a he, just so I don't go crazy writing he/she).   A wakes up in a new body each day, lives the life of that person with the aid of memories that he can access, and then moves on to another body in a totally unconscious process that takes place each night while he sleeps.  It's been that way for A since infancy, and while A doesn't really understand why he's different, he's never told anyone.  There are a few parameters:  A ages normally (A is now 16, and so only wakes up in bodies that are also 16) and doesn't range too much geographically.  A can't choose whose body he will occupy, and  is never in the same body twice. 

As you can imagine, A is the ultimate loner.  With no relationships to anchor him emotionally, A goes through  life mostly as an observer--the main goal being not to disrupt or interfere in the lives of his hosts, whatever they are like.  But one day A wakes up in the body of a not-very-emotionally-sophisticated 16 year old  named Justin and meets Justin's girlfriend Rhiannon. Just like that, A falls in love.

From there, the story launches into a unique courtship.  After an idyllic day at the beach, A begins to anonymously seek Rhiannon out, to meet her anew and befriend her each day. He can't bear to be without her.   A finally tells her what his life is like, and despite some initial skepticism (of course) she finally believes him.  They slowly grow more attached. They sometimes communicate by e-mail, and sometimes in person, but A's changing bodies become an issue.  You can see Rhiannon respond differently to him when A occupies the body of a handsome jock, or a really fat kid, or a severely depressed goth girl, or a transsexual.  Whether Rhiannon will hold his hand or not depends a lot on what body that hand is attached to.  It also bothers Rhiannon that there is a sense that she can't rely on A.  He doesn't know what his circumstances will be from day to day.  As she points out to him at one point, he's always going to leave her, even if he always comes back. 

There are so many interesting and unexpected things about this story and how the relationship plays out, and I thought the premise was really clever.  But something bothered me all the way through.  The way A experienced infancy and childhood, with a different family each day, should have left him not as emotionally functional and mature as Levithan makes him.  Young children do not thrive emotionally with no attachments.  Yes, there is an undertone of melancholy and poignancy around A when he thinks of  his childhood, but A is not presented as a sociopath (unlike the one other transient soul he meets toward the end).  A is a kind, moral, caring person who would probably have no trouble finding love in normal circumstances.  I can understand why Levithan set things up the way he did in terms of the storyline, but psychologically it didn't feel right to me.  Still, if you can overlook this, Every Day is an absorbing, original read. 

Here's a video of Levithan talking about Every Day: