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Within contemporary literature, there are many novels that end up being adapted to major motion pictures after their initial publications. It is very rare, though, that the author of a famous novel writes and directs the film version of his or her work. However, that was what Stephen Chbosky did when he decided to adapt his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for the silver screen. The final result is a powerful and moving depiction of a teen’s coming of age story that is ultimately a life-affirming classic for today’s audience.
Starring Logan Lerman (Charlie), Ezra Miller (Patrick), and Emma Watson (Sam) in the leading roles, this film examines the universal struggle of fitting in and finding one’s place in the world. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is quite interesting because of his vision that stays faithful to the novel while adapting it to the unique medium of film. The epistolary novel tells Charlie’s story through a series of letters that he writes to an unnamed correspondent.
While changes are made for the film, Chbosky brilliantly uses Charlie’s narration and interaction with the other characters to depict his journey and the struggles he faces during his teenage years as a shy, introverted individual struggling with depression, including his experiences with friendship, love, and sexuality.
Charlie is a complex, dynamic character that the audience gets to know and see evolve throughout his personal odyssey with the help of his friends. As a young and awkward freshman, Charlie finds himself in the company of Sam and Patrick, two upperclassmen who take him under their wing. His desire to form meaningful relationships during high school sets up most of the teenage drama present in this film adaptation.
Charlie is a passive character throughout the novel and film, and he has issues forming friendships because of his trouble expressing himself. This might explain why he decides to hang around Sam and Patrick even though they are not the most positive influences. In fact, Patrick at one point suggests that Charlie should write stories about their adventures with the humorous title, Slut and the Falcon.
Chbosky’s depiction of Charlie as a misfit high school student and his ensuing experiences reveals that the people you choose to surround yourself with in your life have a direct influence on you as a person, for better or worse. In a sense, Chbosky’s utilization of Charlie is a way to depict both the idea of true friendship— in the way that Charlie cares for and treats Sam and Patrick—as well as a warning that sometimes being part of the wrong crowd can result in dire consequences, especially since *spoiler alert* Charlie ends up in a mental hospital near the end of the film.
The film also explores various aspects of love and romance in relationships, including both heterosexual and homosexual types of love, all of which are major issues that teenagers deal with during their transition from adolescence to adulthood. Charlie and Sam embark on a convoluted romantic journey together in which Charlie feels attracted to her and genuinely cares about her even though she would prefer to “friendzone” him. Chbosky artfully portrays their relationship in the scene where Charlie and Sam perform the risqué musical number “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In the scene, Sam expertly embodies the character “Janet” through her flirtatious interaction with Charlie and provocative dancing. Charlie, on the other hand, looks like he is a bit clueless about how to react to Sam’s sexual energy. It is almost as if this scene is a depiction of Charlie’s real-life predicament; he cares for Sam, but he does not know how to declare his love for her. The awkward dynamic between these two characters helps illustrate Charlie’s dilemma with Sam throughout the film, where he tries to respect their friendship but struggles with his desire to be with her romantically.
In the film, Charlie asks his English teacher, Bill, “Why do nice people choose the wrong people to date?” Bill responds to Charlie by saying, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Charlie then asks, “Can we make them know that they deserve more,” with Bill answering, “We can try.” This interaction suggests that love is actually very subjective. Bill specifically uses the term “think” because he wants Charlie to know that “thinking” is not the same as “knowing.” In other words, “thinking” that someone’s love is true is not the same as experiencing pure, genuine, and unconditional love, and making a choice based on that distinction is not so simple. This is an important lesson about self-worth and knowing when you deserve better from a relationship.
For Charlie, this particular reference is about Sam, who has suffered from poor relationships with men. She was molested when she was younger, and she continues in an unhealthy relationship even though someone like Charlie, who truly loves and cares for her, is around. She friendzones Charlie in a misguided effort to be with Craig, whom she thinks is the one for her. Throughout the film, Charlie constantly struggles with his love for Sam and trying to distinguish between his love for her as a friend and romantic interest. Charlie’s exploration of how to deal with these two types of love helps reveal the challenges and complicated nature of relationships. Indeed, the love that the characters share takes on multiple forms, all of which reveals how love is complex, multi-dimensional, and multi-faceted.
Friendship, love, and sexuality is further illustrated in the relationship between Charlie and Patrick. Charlie and Patrick are close, and as Patrick starts on a downward spiral after he breaks up with his boyfriend Brad, Charlie is there for him. In a touching scene, Patrick opens up to Charlie about his breakup, and then kisses Charlie.
The kiss in the film is sudden and unexpected, and it feels like Patrick is trying to express a sense of admiration and love for his friendship that manifested into a romantic gesture during a moment of emotional vulnerability. This scene between Patrick and Charlie addresses the often times confusing emotion of love that is a natural part of adolescence.
However, the issue of friendship is eloquently portrayed in the aftermath of the kiss through Charlie’s reaction. He doesn’t freak out or react with disgust, he simply embraces his friend in a time of need and tells him that “It’s all right.” Charlie is compassionate and understanding, and he treats Patrick with kindness instead of focusing on the idea of being kissed by another guy. In this sense, Charlie embodies the idea of true friendship.
While teenagers may struggle with various emotional issues related to relationships, love, and sexuality, some friendships forged in high school leave a lasting impact, and are as infinite as the music played in the tunnel scene that has become an iconic moment in contemporary cinema. An interesting change between the film and novel concerning this particular scene, though, is that the novel uses the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, while the film uses the song “Heroes” by David Bowie. Perhaps Chbosky chose this song to make the characters feel even more infinite, and to suggest that they act as heroes for each other.
Even with the original novel’s acclaim and anticipation for the film adaptation, the film had to deal with censorship issues because of its mature content. In fact, the film almost received an R-rating, but MPAA granted this film a PG-13 rating on appeal because of the way it artfully depicts its mature themes and melodramatic tone. The film is somewhat tough to watch because it openly presents issues that modern-day teenagers face, such as struggles with depression and mental health, friendships and relationships, and defining one’s sexual orientation.
Nevertheless, such mature and relatable content is one of the reasons why this film is so special; it showcases the shift between adolescence to adulthood and the issues of friendship, love, and sexuality. All three of the main characters change dynamically and dramatically as the film progresses, and then the film has a satisfying ending that implies that the journey to adulthood is never over since change is constant. Even when the film officially ends, many still wonder what the future holds for these characters, which is a universal theme that applies to everyone as they embark on the remarkable journey known as life itself.
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