We’ve all read good books that made terrible movies (“The Great Gatsby,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and “Bee Season” come to mind), and some good books that made good movies whose final product bore little resemblance to the original (“The Shining,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”). But what makes a good film based on a book?
Often, it comes down to the screenplay. The new film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, succeeds largely because of the continued involvement of Stephen Chbosky, who authored the 1999 epistolary novel, wrote the screenplay and directed the movie. As such, the integrity of the material wasn’t compromised. There are no Hollywood endings (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), no invented characters (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), no weird plot twists (what exactly was the point of the character Halloran in Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining?). All the important plot points are there. All the critical dialogue is there. And since the book was only 170 pages or so, the novel didn’t need to be butchered to make it onscreen. Yes, the Harry Potter movies are good, but so much material was relegated to the cutting room floor that some hardcore fans felt cheated.
I’d never heard of Chbosky’s novel before, but after reading a review of the movie, my daughters and I quickly read an ebook version of Perks and saw the movie to a mostly empty theater on a Thursday night. Too bad, because the experience was moving and exhilarating, one of those rare examples of a film not only matching the book, but matching the absolute best in the genre of teenage coming-of-age movies.
Chbosky has written screenplays before, most notably the underwhelming film adaptation of the musical Rent, but the experience clearly paid off with the challenging task of adapting his own material. The first ten minutes feel a little clumsy and forced as the characters and essential information is introduced, but once the characters are firmly established, the movie takes off.
Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame acts four years her junior in the movie, playing step-sister to Ezra Miller. Together, the seniors befriend outcast freshman Logan Lerman, who’s struggling to find his place in the wake of personal difficulties, but he soon finds that his newfound friends have personal struggles of their own. That Watson and Lerman would befriend a freshman so fully is perhaps a plot point that’s difficult to believe, but if you can suspend that bit of reality (and the reality that Lerman is actually a freshman – he’s twenty in real life), then you’re in for a beautiful ride. It’ll be leaving theaters soon, but mark it down as a definite rental a few months from now.
On a side note, I must mention that Innocence Mission’s “Evensong” astonishingly made it onto the soundtrack of the movie. I have no idea how this obscure track from an obscure album from an obscure band from 1991 made it into the film, but it was so good to hear.