My two most anticipated movies of the year released trailers recently. Yes, it will be exciting to see Andrew Garfield as The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Jackson returns with The Hobbit, and I’m just as excited as the next guy about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. But what really gets my heart racing, is the upcoming adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and a movie musical version of Les Miserables. I’ll try to return to the Les Mis teaser at a later date, but here I’ll focus on the former.
Perks could have gotten me excited on the strength of its cast alone, of course. I mean, there’s my boy Logan Lerman, an emerging talent since the days of Jack & Bobby, finally getting something to chew on in between those awful Percy Jackson movies (now, there’s a brave plural! Except it’s not, really. I’ll reimburse you or something if the sequel turns out to be merely bad); Emma Watson makes her first big post-Harry Potter splash, and Ezra Miller showed in We Need To Talk About Kevin that he has a kind of charisma that can take him in every direction. But as it happens, it also stars the reliable Paul Rudd in one of those Dead Poets’ Society-type roles that I always love to see, and the movie is based on a beautiful novel by Stephen Chbosky.
As I write this, and in typical self-obsessed fashion, I realize that I have written about the possible perils of adapting a beloved book to the screen before. I wrote about how you will inevitably be unsuccessful in satisfying every fan when you contrast their own images with yours, and that the best adaptations are those who at the very least dare to deviate a little bit from the line-by-line expectations of a middle-of-the-road movie adaptation. Then I realize that in the case of Perks, I will probably be one of those guys who get disappointed, if only slightly, no matter how it is played. I won’t be alone. Since its release in 1999, the novel has shown its abitility to reach ever new readers of young adult fiction, owing to its easily relatable characters and distinctive narrative voice.
The source is the classic format of the epistolary novel of letters, written from the perspective of Charlie, a high school freshman introvert. As in any good novel of this kind, the suspense lies not just in the narrative drive of what’s going on with the writer, but also in the potential for self-presentation and the holding back of information. I’m excited to see how Chbosky does this balancing act in the transition to another medium, but it is one of the relatively few reasons I could come up with for why it’s a good thing he’s adapting his own work (among the drawbacks I considered was that he wrote the screenplay to Chris Columbus’ predictably abysmal movie adaptation of Rent). On his way to letting his guard down, Charlie clicks with his English teacher (Rudd), and while his mind and his eyes are opened by several classics from the American canon, he connects with two seniors, Sam (Watson) and Patrick (Miller), who sense both a deep vulnerability and a refreshing honesty in their new friend. I won’t give away much more than that, both for the purposes of keeping things somewhat under wraps, and because, as you may remember, I hate writing plot summaries. But it makes for a gripping read and a celebration of weirdness, littered with lines that have now become centerpieces of the trailer (“Welcome to the island of misfit toys”; “We accept the love we think we deserve”; “In this moment, I swear we were infinite.”)
Does it sound sincere, to the point of sounding almost hokey? Yes, I agree. But at the same time, that relatively unashamed sentiment was what I responded to both in the book and now in the trailer. It’s they both set out to make some kind of statement about loneliness, and the importance of friendship and trust, and how much we really want to know about other people, but neither is doing it in an all-caps way.
And so I ask you, before you watch the trailer, to let down your guard, like Charlie struggles to, and maybe switch to a lower level on your cynicism filter. I say this because, even though I love the book and the trailer has raised my expectations for the movie, it will unavoidably rub some people the wrong way, either by coming off as too romantic towards the searching loner, or not romantic enough. Will Perks be the movie in which Logan Lerman finally again taps into whatever it was that made his Bobby McCallister so immensely watchable, or will he become too passive and distanced for the part? Will Emma Watson carry the entire movie on her, at different times, self-assured and vulnerable shoulders? And what about Miller’s Patrick; will he be played mostly for laughs (per the trailer, although the jokes are funny)? Obviously, I don’t I know, and by the time movie comes around, I hope I will have concluded that I am truly open to the fact that an adaptation needs to cinematic in some way, in order to make the transition from the page. Judging from the trailer, Chbosky is ready to take that leap, based on how Charlie’s social anxiety/passivity is handled. The movie seems to take a less cautious approach to Charlie’s condition than that of the book, but it can still get a lot out of how it influences the inner dymanics of this band of outsiders.
I can never be sure if a book or a movie will hold up if I ever re-read or -view them a couple of more times, but in a sense I hope that, if it’s good enough, the Perks adaptation could help it become a signifier, if only for a time, for its time. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to use book covers or movie posters to telegraph a character’s general attitude. We saw it in the British Skins, with Tony Stonem (Nicholas Hoult) reading Nietzsche signaled his latent hedonism, and in 2011’s The Art of Getting By, George’s (Freddie Highmore) alienation from his peers was illustrated in one by him reading The Catcher in the Rye (which, incidentally if not surprisingly, is on Charlie’s reading list as well). In the future, when I see a movie with a Charlie-style protagonist, I hope it’ll include a shot with him or her reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower.