It’s rare for me to be in social situations where I am uncomfortable and so determinedly correct in my feeling uncomfortable that I address the public about it. An example: over the weekend I sat in a movie theater, high-tops flexed atop the empty chair below me, happily downing an Icee that cost more than most meals I ate in Berlin this summer. It was capitalism and fall break in full, lazy glory, and I rested on several judgments (laurels?)—betting my friend that “everyone coming to see this movie would resemble the characters in it,” squirming after a few seconds of generic acoustic strums during the opening credits, which were rendered in typewriter Courier—but I was at peace with an open mind. Emma Watson portraying a complicated American high schooler who, like Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, screeches that she “love[s] The Smiths!” couldn’t be that bad. Especially considering the big-budget context of a film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s epistolary novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which, being big-budget and all, supposedly necessitates cute-ification.
Until it was that bad. Somewhere between the scenes where Sam (Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller, the sole beacon in a filmic sea of miscast teens) toast protagonist Charlie’s (Logan Lerman's) wallflower status (“You see things, and you understand. You’re a wallflower.”) and Charlie passes out in the snow after taking LSD, I turned toward the rows behind me and wondered aloud—with passive-aggressive inflection—why everyone thought these parts were laughable. Unless this was part of some meta-narrative intended by the filmmakers to force moviegoers out of their own wallflower tendencies and into the realm of “participation” that Chbosky elaborates on so beautifully in the novel, I wasn’t buying it.
The movie’s plot is easy enough to follow and to describe, and maybe this is the problem. Circa 1991, Charlie, a high-school freshman dealing with (suggested) mental illness and that damning overly-analytical approach to social life, falls in with a crew of seniors (among them Sam and Patrick). They introduce him to an idea of fun that I can’t really argue with: Smiths-and Beatles-heavy mixtapes, brandy-filled house gatherings and tunnel drives that make everyone “feel infinite.” In the novel, all of this plays out via letters Charlie writes to an anonymous “Friend,” whom he addresses from the get-go: “I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.” The film begins with Charlie speaking this text, but immediately it feels wrongfully distorted. The book version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, while in my mind a rough cross between Stargirl, Go Ask Alice and The Catcher in the Rye (which, incidentally, Charlie re-reads obsessively in the novel and not in the movie), is no ordinary bildungsroman. Charlie’s impressionistic observations in the novel meander from vulnerable to befuddled to mundane to prescient. There’s a bit of eccentricity in his voice that’s hard to define, unlike Holden Caulfield’s unilateral cynicism and angst. No matter the entry, Charlie’s letters show how crucial it is to understand himself and his surroundings through writing. When reading, we feel like Charlie is really living through all he describes, sure of nothing save for the unsureness of his own conclusions. This isn’t narration to be performed, and certainly not atop a score of sentimental instrumentation and early-90s indie songs, as well as the blasé Disney Channel movie-style cinematography. All of this gives me pause because Chbosky wrote and directed the film himself. I’m curious about the intentionality behind the film’s generally chipper monotone—excepting the final five minutes of headspinning montage, the closest the film comes to honoring the book’s tone and content—which ensures easy narrative digestion in accordance with the film’s big-budget bloatedness. It seems serving up a glazed-over tale of quirky teenagehood overrode the challenging prospect of staying true to the novel’s wandering and often very intense—but always honest—essence.
So why is it that I still get chills when I re-watch the trailer for this film? There’s something in me that wants so badly to like it more than I do, a part of me strongly defensive of my identification with Perks’ themes. Moreso, though, I feel icky about people pledging allegiance to this film without having read, and felt something, about the book. And this isn’t coming from Michaela the elitist bookmonger, waving the chartreuse paperback over a crowd of pubescent girls as they trample her en route to Urban Outfitters. It’s coming from someone who took the book up again this past week after a seven-year gap and was a little freaked out—first by how nuanced the text actually is; second by how I wanted everyone I know to read/re-read the book at this point in our young adult lives; and third by how eerily discordant the book and film feel.