‘Wallflower’ Captures the Perks of Adolescence
When he was 26 years old, Stephen Chbosky found himself in the midst of a painful break-up. As budding novelists are prone to do, he began furiously writing, channeling his confusion into a semi-autobiographical story about one year in the life of a bright but troubled high schooler named Charlie. The end result was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, one of the most beloved and controversial young adult novels of all time.
Since the book’s publication in 1999, Chbosky has moved on to other, wildly different projects, including creating the short-lived but acclaimed post-apocalyptic TV show “Jericho” and adapting the Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Rent” for the big screen. Yet, in all this time, he never forgot his experiences surrounding the writing of Perks.
“I was a pretty lost person,” he explained in an interview with the Wheel. “I needed hope in my life and Charlie is the form that that hope took.”
Hope serves as an important talking point in the discourse surrounding the book. While its frank depiction of drug use and sexuality among teens has placed it on the “banned books” list in many high school libraries, its supporters uniformly eclipse its detractors. Feeling a kinship with Charlie’s introverted nature and his struggles, the book’s audience has only grown in numbers over the years. Chbosky frequently hears from fans that the book helped save their lives.
Nearly a decade later, Chbosky decided to return to world of Perks and adopt the novel into a feature film. With a minimal budget, Chbosky took complete creative control of the project — not only penning the screenplay but also occupying the director’s chair.
Boasting a cast list that includes such young talents as Logan Lerman (“The Three Musketeers”), Emma Watson (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) and Ezra Miller (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), the film offers up a faithful adaptation of the book’s storyline. Lerman plays Charlie, the film’s titular wallflower. As the film opens, Charlie has just begun high school. Feeling lost in the chaos, he retreats further into his shell and counts down the days until graduation.
Eventually, Charlie befriends a beautiful, outgoing senior named Sam (Watson) and her openly gay brother Patrick (Miller). The remainder of the film chronicles Charlie’s misadventures over the subsequent school year, including experimenting with drugs and participating in a live performance of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Among his new friends, Charlie experiences a newfound sense of acceptance. However, he must also deal with the heartbreak that comes with his unrequited crush on Sam as well as his own repressed childhood trauma.
With its relatively small scope, Perks marks a significant contrast from Chbosky’s more elaborate, big-budgeted scripts for “Jericho” and “Rent.” Despite these three projects’ disparate genres, however, Chbosky believes they all share a common theme.
“They’re all survival stories,” he explained. “It’s all about making a great life against impossible odds, whether those odds are the apocalypse [“Jericho”], AIDS in New York City in the early 80s and 90s [“Rent”], or—in this case—high school. I just love the idea of transcending all those things and finding peace in yourself and love in your life.”
Nina Dobrev (“The Vampire Diaries”), who plays Charlie’s sister in the film, had not read the book prior to accepting her role but was well aware of its influence.
“All my friends thought I was absolutely insane for not having read it,” she said in a roundtable interview with the Wheel. “They were all so personally affected by it. It really is a moving and powerful book.”
Though Chbosky had envisioned a film version from the get-go, it wasn’t until much later in his career that he found the confidence to finally see his vision realized. The exact moment came at the end of his run on “Jericho.”
Despite the show’s cult following, the CBS program lived under constant threat of cancellation. Feeling drained and stressed from the proceedings, Chbosky wandered into a movie theater and found himself enchanted by the low-budget Irish musical “Once.”
“I thought, ‘God, they took 100,000 dollars and a video camera on the streets of Dublin and they moved me more than anything has in years,’” he said. “I thought, ‘Alright man, go back and do what you’re supposed to be doing.’”
Chief of all, however, Chbosky cites his wife in helping him find the emotional strength to move on with the project.
“Because this is such an emotional story for me, I needed her support and I needed to have a beautiful home to go to every night to pull this off,” he said.
Prior to the film’s release, Chbosky screened the movie for a packed audience at Atlanta’s own Plaza Theater. After the screening, he took the stage for a Q&A session to rapturous applause. Rather than asking questions, many audience members expressed their appreciation to Chbosky both for his book and the film.
One woman claimed that the book encouraged her to finish her own memoirs. Yet another claimed the book profoundly affected him as a teenager and, as a teacher, he now assigns it to his students. On behalf of his class, the man even presented Chbosky with a mixed CD of songs inspired by Charlie’s story.
During the Q&A, Chbosky went into detail about the film’s production, including his determination in securing the film a PG-13 rating. Aware of his book’s influence among teenagers, he wanted to make sure that the film’s targeted audience would have the chance to see the film. For him, this meant meticulously looking through the MPAA rating system and adjusting the film as such.
As the film makes its way into theaters, Chbosky expresses immense satisfaction with the final product, calling it “the definitive” version of Perks. Yet, despite his excitement with its quality, the film’s release comes with a sense of relief.
With one of his long-term projects finally seeing the light of day, Chbosky now feels that he can now move on to other things in his life.
“There’s so many images that had been in my mind for years and now they’re out. They’re on the screen, they’re not in my head anymore and now I’m free,” he said. “I have more room to be a good husband and father. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
— By Mark Rozeman