"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" REVISIT
From the moment I picked up the Perks of Being a Wallflower for the first time back at the end of 2011, I fell in love. The book seemed to speak to my soul, with its beautiful examination of high school friendships and the observant nature of the narrator, Charlie. The book is a series of letters written by Charlie to an unknown person called "friend." In the letters, Charlie documents the events of his freshman year in high school. The book cover is very minimalistic, lime yellow with the title in small brown letters across the top. I'd heard of the book through various websites that would post quotes from the book constantly. The quotes were always therapeutic in a way, commenting on something small but making a much larger point about society and human relationships. It was enough to make me buy the book at Atlantic Books, and it also helped that a film version was currently in the works starring Emma Watson.
Charlie is a very naive character. I very much related to this because I too was very naive in high school. He is sensitive and loving, defying conventions for a male protagonist. In fact, this book challenges a lot of things. It gives the teenage characters authority over their own lives, and does not judge them for their mistakes or imperfections. The book normalizes many taboo subjects such as mental health, homosexuality, and abortion. Characters do drugs as many teens will do and it isn’t encouraged, but it isn’t looked down upon. The book cares more about the struggles of the characters and doesn’t set out to preach. Set in the early '90s, the book also captures popular culture with precise nuance. It does all of this through the wit and observant ramblings of Charlie.
I revisited this book for a second time because I wanted to see if it held up reading it at age 28 versus at 21. While I can't say the book blew me away quite like it did the first time, it more than held its own on a second read-through. Since this is a revisit, I am going to talk spoilers. I will also be talking about the movie.
First I want to talk about Charlie and his relationship with his Aunt Helen. Upon first reading, I completely missed the important revelation that she molested Charlie when he was a little boy. I found out about this through online discussions and was completely stunned that I missed this. Don't ask how I missed it...I must have not been paying attention at this point in the book or skipped a sentence by accident. Reading the book again made me scour for this reveal. At first I thought the reveal had been subtle and would be hard to spot, but it really wasn't. Knowing about it made me realize how much the book was trying to tell the reader that there was more to Aunt Helen and Charlie's childhood than he knew. When Charlie starts to visit a therapist, the therapist keeps asking him to talk about his childhood and Charlie can't understand this because he feels like he has talked a lot about it already. Then the reveal itself appears in a pivotal scene and it heart wrenching. I'm still just shocked that I missed this very important detail the first time around.
What initially appealed to me about this book was its relationship to the media it presented. Charlie and his friends love music...not the Top 40 garbage but good music. Like me, they loved music so much that it spoke to their entire beings and they burned mixtapes for each other and celebrated it as if it were a religion. Never have I encountered a book that captures my love for music so perfectly. This book is also obsessed with books, particularly coming of age books like itself. Charlie's English teacher gives him extra reading material, which Charlie willingly accepts, and has him write essays about said material. Charlie reads books like "On the Road", "To Kill a Mockingbird", "A Separate Peace", "the Catcher in the Rye", "Peter Pan", and more. This book seems to rest comfortably in the idea that books are amazing, reading is amazing, and that it would fit well on the shelf next to the classics Charlie reads. It isn't wrong. This book does fit well on the classics shelf.
There are a lot of moments in this book where my love for the characters just knows no bounds. I teared up several times. Moments such as Charlie, Patrick, and Sam driving through the tunnel listening to a perfect song and Charlie exclaiming, "I feel infinite," and moments like Charlie taking his sister to the clinic to get an abortion in secret. I cried during Secret Santa when Charlie received his special suite from Patrick that all the great author's wear, and I cried when Charlie gave his gifts to everyone that were so perfect and meaningful. I cried at Charlie's lonely and traumatic birthday, when he was forced to remember the night his Aunt Helen died going out to buy his birthday present, and I cried when Sam and Charlie kissed after she gave him a typewriter. To be honest, I could go on but it probably would become too repetitive. Lets just say that I teared up a lot!
While the book held up for the most part, the movie left me feeling rather ambivalent about the whole thing. Author Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed the film, which makes one go into it with optimism. Indeed the film feels it was adapted in the best way it could have been, and Chbosky has screenwriting chops. He wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of "Rent" which I am not a fan of, but I won't put that burden entirely on his shoulders. That film is bad based on several factors, least of all how it was adapted for the screen by Chbosky. "Perks" is a hard book to adapt since it relies so heavily on Charlie's letters that simply can't be translated onto the screen, unless you want to watch a movie with constant voice over. The film seemed to be unsure of how to approach these letters, inserting voice over segments periodically but not taking over the film.
The defiant subject matters so readily approached in the book are severely downplayed to reach a wider audience and get a PG-13 rating. While there is a deleted scene of Charlie taking his sister to the abortion clinic, it was not included in the final cut of the film. In fact, Charlie's sister gets the raw end of the deal and his brother practically gets nothing except a really nice scene where he asks Charlie how he is doing in terms of his mental health. The mental health aspects of the book are still in tact in the movie, as well as Patrick's sexuality which is adapted quite faithfully.
Emma Watson plays Sam. This role comes right off of her time with the Harry Potter franchise, swapping her role as bookish Hermione Granger for a rebellious, sexually active teenager with a cute pixie cut. Sam's character doesn't move too far away from her book counterpart, but Watson's performance is much more vulnerable than the book. Sam's F-bomb is stolen away from her, instead given to Patrick. It seems obvious that Watson's image wasn't yet ready to go that far just yet, coming off of Harry Potter so recently. Then again, the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” scenes can get pretty dangerous. I love Emma Watson, but she tends to overact and this came across at several points in the movie. Regardless, she had some amazing emotional moments with Charlie, played by Logan Lerman. When it counted, she brought her acting chops out.
Logan Lerman was born to play Charlie. He is exactly how I pictured Charlie, and plays him in a way that I think brings a bit more life to him. At times Charlie's dialogue and actions feel a bit strange in the book, but Logan Lerman delivers these with personality and easiness that you can't help but love.
This film has an allstar cast by the way, including Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Paul Rudd, Joan Cusack, Nina Dobrev, Dylan McDermott, and Kate Walsh. Everyone does a great job.
I am very glad to have returned to this book and movie. While it didn't give me all of the same feelings upon first reading, it still evoked a strong response and I appreciate the book. It is most definitely still a favorite. As for the film, I don't think it will go down as something especially great. I find my enjoyment comes mostly from my love for the book and not for the film as its own being. But it still makes me happy.