An Uncertain Embrace: Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I'm assuming you, reader, are an adult, living in the real world with real concerns, and are therefore long past the glorious, blindly enthusiastic days of youth. Whether you were popular, nerdy, or somewhere in between in high school, you look back on those years as a time when teenage ignorance invested every experience with profound meaning. History didn’t exist, the world was created anew every day, and freedom lay just beyond the confines of school and home. If you were in high school in the late 90s and early 00s, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the defining novel of contemporary teenage experience; the book sketched out exactly what waters everybody our age was navigating.

Perks was published in 1999. I read it my senior year of high school in 2002, recommended by a “weird” artsy kid. The experiences of extremely introverted Charlie, detailed through letters to an anonymous person during his freshmen year of high school as he becomes friends with outsider seniors Patrick and Sam and makes sense of his emotional instability following his best friend’s suicide, weren’t my own. The time wasn’t my own—the letters are written from 1991 to 1992—but it didn’t matter. The world of both infinite happiness and crushing heartache felt real, high school through Charlie’s eyes felt like my high school; it felt like a book finally understood and spoke to my life. I feverishly tore through the slim book in a few hours.

Millions of readers have subsequently latched onto the book in the same way: a tome of wisdom handed down from those in the know, an intensely personal connection formed with the narrative, a rush to initiate others into the book’s cult. Indeed, The Perks of Being a Wallflower has become a contemporary cult classic of young adult fiction in the last thirteen years, inspiring an untold amount of fan fiction, local theatre productions, and, in particular, fan-made trailers on YouTube for the film version that seemed to take an eternity to be made.

The wait is now over with the release of Perks in theaters nationwide on Friday, October 5th, featuring Logan Lerman as Charlie, Emma Watson as Sam (in one of her first starring roles since the conclusion of the Harry Potter films), and Ezra Miller as Patrick. Given my admittedly personal connection to the book, I couldn’t help wondering how Chbosky, as the film’s writer and director, would handle his own material over a decade since its publication. The promotional screening I attended had a surprisingly wide age-range, providing a glimpse into how the themes of the narrative would impact folks (if at all), beyond the predictable demographic of teenage fans and the hip twenty-somethings they later become.  The film minimizes much of the crying Charlie lapses into in the novel, instead transferring the tears to the audience, whose blubbering got louder as the film built to its powerful climax. To his credit Chbosky follows the book’s plot as closely as possible, preferring subtraction of extraneous sequences from the novel in the name of narrative cohesion, and fleshing out scenes with extra dialogue to strengthen characterization. The movie seems at pains to function separately from the book—good news for those of us too old to venture into the YA section for reading material—and this is where I find flaws in Chbosky’s approach. There is an obvious uncertainty in how much Chbosky wants to approach the darker aspects of the story: straight and gay teen sexuality, drug use, and psychological trauma. Charlie’s clear-eyed wallflower narration in the book renders adult experiences with truly shocking force (hence the controversy that’s plagued the book in public schools and libraries since its release), while the film opts for a softer touch in its engagement with adult themes and a flat visual aesthetic closer to that of made-for-TV movies. I suspect that viewers who haven’t read the book will at times wonder what all the fuss was about when teens having sex and doing drugs is common currency in Hollywood these days.

Despite pivoting away from the controversy-baiting elements of the book, Chbosky’s embrace of the sheer joy and energy of youth ultimately renders the film a success. The novel’s house parties, school dances, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and definitive tunnel scene break free from mere nostalgia when Lerman, Watson, and Miller are filmed as teens having fun, like watching a video some kids made of them hanging out.  In a brief interview Chbosky told me:

“It took some work to get [to the emotional core of the story]… and really respect and honor at eye level—not talking down, but not pandering—what young people go through; to recognize that a first kiss is so unique and special, to remember what it’s like to be at a dance and feel shy. It was a lot of memory work. It came from the philosophy that I was going to respect the totality of what young people go through. That’s what was important to me. That mantra helped me navigate those memories so I could make [the film] as realistic as possible.”

While saying this he drew out the words “respect” and “honor”; I sensed him moving away from normal “press speak” to a passionate indication of the personal nature of the project. “When [the crew] arrived in Pittsburgh,” Chbosky continued, “at first it was about my nostalgia but within days of [the cast] being around, it stopped being about my memory and started being about their reality.” Giving the cast—who skipped the usual teenage life to be raised on film sets, Chbosky reminds me—true teen experiences was absolutely important for investing the film with authenticity. Again, Perks succeeds when the cast is simply being themselves, letting their youthfulness run free, but is shaky when Chbosky is recalling the darker moments of growing up.

Attempting to represent the “totality” of the youth experience is indeed ambitious. To do so in middle age, when the days of feeling infinite seem few and far between, is more ambitious still. Perks is not always close to the aching heart of youth as Chbosky intends—the novel is far stronger in this respect—but the film has those moments that feel fully birthed, when we are no longer simply watching a portrayal of youth but experiencing youthfulness itself.