Book #136: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)

author: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 213 pages
finished reading on: 12 May 2017

I like it when I find a book that’s just nicely-presented, which is the main reason I bought this novel, if I’m honest. Usually I avoid the ones with movie tie-in covers, but the paper and layout of this novel is very good quality. So I actually feel like I’m getting better quality than I would if I bought the Kindle version.

I watched the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years ago – there are a lot of things I’d forgotten about the movie, but I kept remembering moments as I read through this. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, and it’s directed by the book’s author, which is pretty rare. One thing I’d forgotten is that the movie awkwardly tries to keep the conceit that the main character is writing letters to an unnamed stranger – the so-called epistolary style – by having him type the letters out on screen. It doesn’t work on screen, and I was a bit skeptical about the book when I first picked it up, but I found it works quite well.

It’s very easy to read, especially after the last book I read, which had quite thick and heavy prose. This is written in a more colloquial style and is often speaking directly at the reader. That and the shorter length of the book meant that I finished it much quicker.

I think it’s refreshing to have a young male character who’s unashamed of being emotional and upset – so much media, even modern media, still stereotypes men as being unable to express their emotions. And this tackles quite a lot of mental health issues directly, which is also good. I don’t have a lot to criticize about the book – perhaps that the main character is self-centred despite trying hard to be a “wallflower”, and annoyingly clueless at times. But I also recognized that awkwardness I and a lot of others I know have experienced in our high school days.

And there’s the ending twist, too, which I’d completely forgotten – it comes on the second-to-last page in the book. I don’t want to reveal it – I think the book is easy enough for people to read and I really liked it, so I think people should seek this book out. Perhaps it’s a bit young for me, really – the issues are distinctly teenage, after all, and I’m well past that stage of my life – but I still enjoyed reading it a lot. (And one of the side characters is gay. Also good.)

Film #97: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

perks-of-being-wallflower-featureddirector: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 103 minutes
watched on: 23 October 2013

It’s perhaps a testament to the good reputation of the book this film was based on that I didn’t realize until recently that it wasn’t actually a piece of “classic” literature, but rather was only published in 1999. I’m not sure why that was – perhaps the title just sounds like it? Anyway, the film is also rare in that it’s directed by the book’s author. That sounds to me at first glance like a bad idea, because the skills of direction and authorship aren’t really transferable, but it turns out that Chbosky does quite a good job of it.

The story is about a kid called Charlie who starts high school as a loner, and manages to make friends with a group of seniors. There’s hints of past trauma in his life right from the beginning, although we only gradually get to hear about the whole thing and what actually happened in his past becomes part of the climax. I think in the book it’s more obvious that he’s older than the usual freshman, perhaps having skipped a year because his friend had committed suicide, which makes more sense than just him making friends with seniors right off the bat, since high school tends to be more segregated by age than that, in my experience.

The central conceit is that the story is being relayed to a confidante via typewritten documents. The book actually just consists of these letters themselves, but the movie needs to actually show Charlie writing them out, and by extension narrating the story. I didn’t really feel this was necessary to show the story, as it seems to be a literary trope that doesn’t transfer well to the screen. A good movie shouldn’t need to have narration, in my experience, although it could go either way in the hands of the right director. It’s a minor point, and one that I quickly forgot about because the rest of the movie was interesting and poignant enough.

The story is quite theme-heavy, tackling several often serious issues all at once. The title refers to something similar to fly-on-the-wall, being invisible, and perhaps to finding one’s place in the world, something that the teenage characters are all fumbling about to try and do. The main character, played by the inexplicably cute Logan Lerman, really hates high school right from the first day, but seems to actually be keen to study. The other two leads, played by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson, in a role that cements her ability to break away from Harry Potter successfully, but not quite to manage a perfect American accent, are self-assured, confident seniors by the time we meet them at the beginning of the movie, and have an enviable lust for life – which, predictably, turns out to be an easily breakable outer shell.

I think those types of characters will always appeal to nerds, geeks and other “outcasts”, like so many of my friends, and myself, tend to be or seem in real life. Similarly, Ezra Miller’s character is gay, and although he’s not the main character, I do enjoy very much seeing that portrayed in any media, especially as mainstream as this.

The setting is at high school, which reminded me a lot of something that’s been bugging me for a long time: I don’t know what Hollywood and American cinema’s obsession with high school is. High school wasn’t terrible for me (like a lot of people I know), but it wasn’t particularly remarkable either. I spent it all in the closet/denial, and didn’t have the first sexual experiences many others report and as is portrayed in this film, for instance. Perhaps I would prefer movies set at university, but the American ones tend to get caught up in the Greek fraternity system, which I firstly don’t understand, and secondly is somewhat the antithesis of the kind of outcast characters that I find appealing, like in this movie.

But aside from it not matching up with my experience of reality, I enjoyed the film. I enjoyed the characters; although they were all too attractive to be real in that sense, they all had enough flaws that made them real as characters, and there was sufficient development over the course of the film. I enjoyed the plot, and I … well maybe enjoyed turns out to be the wrong word, but I found the overlying mystery of what happened to Charlie before the beginning of the movie compelling. It’s not perfect by any means, but I’d recommend it.