Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower has become something of a literary cult classic, making its way around high schools worldwide since its 1999 release. It’s not hard to understand the novel’s success; Perks perfectly captures the intense emotions of adolescence – the loneliness, the love, the drama – and whilst not a particularly original novel – it steals heavily and openly from numerous literary greats, primarily The Catcher in the Rye. It remains a surprisingly powerful book, one for the outcasts.
Working like a more mild version of Less than Zero, but with more likeable characters, Perks appeals to younger readers; it represents them and they can relate to it. Older readers will find in the book a sense of nostalgia and sad reflection. A film version was inevitable, and reader fears regarding a lack of faithfulness were quickly put at rest when Chbosky was announced as director – surely if anyone could adapt this very personal novel, it would be the man who wrote it in the first place. And whilst that notion didn’t fully pay out, Perks remains an insightful little movie, and provides an interesting look into the nature of adaptation.
The film focuses on Charlie (Logan Lerman), the eponymous wallflower of the title. Charlie is a shy and awkward boy, one who does better with books than social situations. Charlie’s life changes during his freshman year at college, when he meets cool-but-unpopular kids Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), who take him under their respective wings and introduce him to their circle of outcast students, or as Sam states, ‘the island of misfit toys.’ And through the group, Charlie begins to open up to life – through drugs, The Smiths, and performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All the while he waits for that one moment of life validation, the perfect drive to the perfect song – feeling ‘infinite.’ Complications arrive in the form of Charlie’s misplaced love for Sam, as well as openly-gay Patrick’s crumbling relationship with in-denial Brad (Johnny Simmons), and Charlie’s increasingly failing battle with depression.
Chbosky struggles to transport his plot into the cinematic medium. The novel is a rambling affair and open in structure, its epistolary style allows for distractions and deviations. The film flounders however, trying to mimic the pace, and feels far longer than it actually is. The film also suffers from being considerably tamer than the novel – the abuse elements are cut back and the film’s more unpleasant moments – those relating to abortion and rape – are cut. It’s easy to see why though, as Perks is thematically, already stuffed with drama – homophobia, breakups, isolation, depression – pushing further trauma upon the characters may have overstuffed things.
However, the tamer focus throughout means that the film comes across as considerably less intense than the novel, and its teenage dramas feel a little less important. Whereas the book comes across as sad and meaningful, the film falls into soap opera territory, and whilst Chbosky clearly understands his characters and treats them well, he isn’t a strong enough director to push this material into something cinematically stronger. What we get instead is a bit of a John Hughes knock0ff. The tone of the book is lost in translation and some dropped elements – particularly Charlie’s relationship with his sister – would have been interesting to keep.
Chbosky does have an eye for composition however, and crafts some beautiful shots – Charlie and Sam on a wall away from a dance, the wide shot of the kids on the bleachers – and in some areas, Chbosky really excels. The fight scene involving Patrick is strong, and though the tone doesn’t quite hit the emotional heights of the novel, the film does retain the book’s subtlety, particularly towards the end.
Like the book, the movie revels in music and the soundtrack is fantastic throughout, though the focus again is slightly different from the novel. The most important moment – the tunnel drive – is scored by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ in the novel, and Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ in the film, a change which serves as a nice example of how music can alter tone – ‘Landslide’ is a sad and slow song, ‘Heroes’ is an uplifting and joyous one, and the different music used completely alters the atmosphere. In the book time is fleeting and running out whereas the film takes the opposite approach, posing the future as a positive world of opportunity. It’s an interesting twist in tone, and both approaches work.
The best element of the movie is the cast – Logan Lerman does a great job as the introverted Charlie, playing the character as a little bit more fun and outgoing, whilst retaining the overall quirks. In the book, we’re privy to Charlie’s P.O.V and so understand him; without context, there’s a danger his passivity would come across as annoying and weak, but Logan manages to keep Charlie likeable. The character’s depression is lighter in the movie however, and without an understanding of Charlie’s mindset, his actions occasionally come across as well, mental.
Watson is a shining light as Sam, shedding her Harry Potter heritage with a passable American accent. She’s a cool and interesting character, and it’s easy to see why Charlie would fall for her. Miller steals the film as Patrick, the bright, burning spark of the movie. He’s great fun to watch and has a lot of chemistry with Watson’s Sam; the two make a wonderful screen pair. Paul Rudd is slightly shortchanged as Charlie’s teacher – in the novel, Charlie’s reading list – To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Road, The Great Gatsby, amongst others – serves to define him and expand his character; he grows with each novel. This element understandably falls to one side in the adaptation which means Rudd unfortunately isn’t given much to do.
Perks remains an interesting insight into adaptation – Chboksy understands his material and characters and casts his movie well, but falters in capturing the tone and emotional pull of his own text. Perks is a small-scale and very personal coming of age story, but one perhaps more suited to the reader’s imagination than the cinema screen.