by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-Chief
Based on the New York Times bestseller, WONDER tells the inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman. Born with facial differences that, up until now, have prevented him from going to a mainstream school, Auggie becomes the most unlikely of heroes when he enters the local fifth grade. As his family, his new classmates, and the larger community all struggle to find their compassion and acceptance, Auggie’s extraordinary journey will unite them all and prove you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and discuss Wonder with Screenwriter/Director Stephen Chbosky as well as the writer of the beloved source novel, R. J. Palacio, who also served as an executive producer on the film. Chbosky is no stranger adapting novels for the big screen, his last film was the well-received adaptation of his own coming of age novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower back in 2012. With Wonder he tackles another coming of age story, but one that is no less impactful than Perks.
The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.
As a writer you always worry about what someone will do when they adapt your work for another medium. Knowing that Stephen is a writer, did that ease any concerns going into this?
R.J. Palacio: It did, it really did. We had met for a really wonderful three-hour dinner before we started with the movie and it was really evident to me that Stephen, as an author, his intention was to be as faithful to the book as possible. And where he wasn’t able to be completely faithful to the book, he was faithful to the intent and spirit of the book. So, I had complete faith.
Where did the idea for Wonder come from?
RJP: I was inspired by, in fact in the book there’s a scene where Jack Will talks about the very first time he sees Auggie in his neighborhood, and that scene was based on a real life encounter that I had when I was with my two sons where we found ourselves in very close proximity to a girl who had a very severe cranial facial difference and my son reacted and I kind of… That just inspired me to think about what it must be like to face a world everyday that really doesn’t know how to face you back. To face a world that stares at you, that points at you, when you feel absolutely ordinary on the inside, but no one else sees you that way.
Stephen, what made you want to direct a film based on this story?
Stephen Chbosky: What inspired me was that I love the book. It was given to me right around the time my son Theodore was born. There was something about the timing of reading this beautiful story about a boy and his parents and his older sister. And here I had an older daughter and a new son. The symmetry, it really spoke to me and seeing all the struggles that the Pullman family went through. I felt like I related to what my own memory of being a child, for Auggie, but then his parents. So all the different points of view in the book, which I love, it really got me in the heart. Not only that, but I also recognized the quality of the book. I really think this is one of the most important books written in the last several decades. I love it. I think that it’s so artful, especially for this age range, and I was honored to be part of it.
How did you approach creating a story that appeals to both children and adults?
RJP: I’ve always thought a good story, is a good story. I think one of the worst things a writer can do is write down to a certain age group. And certainly I tried never to do that with Wonder. The only thing I did in terms of keeping my target audience in mind, was to write with shorter sentences, which I might usually express myself as a writer with. I get the way that kids read. Keep the sentences a little short, keep the chapters a little short. Otherwise, a good story is about propelling the narrative forward and keeping kids or adults excited about turning the page. That’s all I tried to do.
SC: It was easier for me, because I loved the book so much to just focus on the characters. My approach was, regardless of how you get into the story, whether you’re a parent or a kid or close to one age or the other, or you’re an educator, whatever it is, there would be some way in. I was just hoping that everyone would find the same exit. However it got you, that you could share this story about kindness or about empathy, or you could just enjoy a good laugh or a good cry, or optimism or hope. As R.J. said, a good story is a good story. I was really excited… I think we all go into the movie thinking, “Oh we’re going to see Auggie’s first day of school,” right? I was really proud that we had enough bandwidth to tell mom’s first day of school story. Just in that one little shot, that’s all you need, alone in the house. I’m really excited as a parent to know that there’s going to be millions of children who will see that and for one brief moment think, “Huh, what’s my mom do while I’m at school?” That’s really exciting. There’s something about just shining a really simple light on a simple truth and then let the audience make their own conclusions. That’s exciting every time.
How collaborative did you make the process of adapting the book? R.J. mentioned there were changes, was she a part of that process?
SC: One hundred percent. R.J. was more than an author to me. She was my secret weapon in everything. Being a fellow author, I know what I brought to Perks of Being a Wallflower as a filmmaker, but as an author I knew how valuable knowing all… I never got, for example when I was making Perks, no actor ever said to me, “My character would never say that.” It doesn’t exist because I create the whole world, so now I’m adapting it. R.J. was an invaluable resource and I honestly think she’s a brilliant writer. So, if I was stuck on a scene, or I was working on the screenplay, I would always ask her, “Hey, do you have a version of this scene?” I want to read it. I might only take one line from it, but that one line was all the difference. I’ll give you an exact example of her and my collaboration at work, Summer and Auggie are sitting at that table and she offers her hand and R.J. wrote the line, that “You’ll get the plague.” I never thought to put it in there and I love that line so much that I took it and I gave Summer the line, “Good.” That was it. It was a perfect marriage. But there were so many others. We talked about casting, we talked about cuts, we talked about everything. Because ultimately I knew that I would never make a successful version of the Wonder movie without her approval, her input and ultimately her blessing.
RJ: And there were moments when Stephen or the producers would ask my opinion and ultimately decided to go a different way. And that was fine because I always felt like I, and I said to them, that I don’t need to be the final voice in the room, I just want to be one of the voices. Just so you hear my opinion on something and it should have no more importance or weight than someone else’s voice. They were really good at respecting that and it was really a lot of fun for me. I would get call from Stephen out in California about little things. Like, “So what color sofa do you think the Pullman’s would have?”
SC: It’s important stuff.
RJP: Or, “What kind of laptop sleeve would Isabel have?” Or, “What would she be writing her dissertation about?” It was great for me because these were my characters that I got to then think, “Huh what would her dissertation be?” It was actually a fun way of extending the Wonder writing process.
You’ve now adapted your own novel as well as someone else’s. Which is easier for you?
SC: It’s pros and cons for each. I find the process of collaborating with another author a lot more fun because not all the pressure is on me. It’s slightly nerve-wracking sometimes because I don’t have all the answers. You know? If someone says was, “What would Isabel’s dissertation be about,” God, I don’t know. It’s terrible that I don’t know this. Luckily we had a great relationship. Out of all our disagreements, there’s only one we had that I thought could be dismissed, which was, “Don’t use Springsteen.” Shame. (Laughter) That’s it. Otherwise…
RJP: Whooa. It was the Christmas song. I love Springsteen.
SC: It was Santa Claus is Coming to Town. “I don’t know about that song, Stephen.” Well, I do and I like it.
If you get the rights for Springsteen you use it.
SC: Thank you, thank you.
RJP: Just not that song.
SC: New York Christmas, hmm…. East coast Christmas. Uhhh… Name another song, you can’t. Thank you, case closed.
In the book, Auggie’s facial difference isn’t explicitly described. How did it go from what you had in mind to the actual prosthetics?
SC: We got very fortunate, Arjen Tuiten, our makeup designer is a very brilliant guy. He did some work on Pan’s Labyrinth, he did some work on Maleficent and a bunch of other things. He’s trained by Rick Baker and is a brilliant guy. Part of being a director is being a pragmatist. Whatever I can imagine as a reader in this case, not an author, as a reader. There’s only so much as a nine-year-old actor can go through. There’s only so much you can do to a face. My guiding principal was I want the make-up to be real. I want the performance to be his. Sure, you could animate the face if you want to, but I knew it wouldn’t be as powerful. So we took the make-up to as extreme a place as we could go practically. Then we used CGI to clean up certain little things. That was it. I knew for the audience to respond to Auggie that it would have to be Jacob’s real eyes, his real voice, his real mouth and everything past that would feel fake.
RJP: In every single book that you love when you see it translated to a movie, there’s always that moment of, “That’s not exactly how I pictured the vampire Lestat looking.”
SC: Wow. Deep cut. (Laughter) Tom Cruise is passing on your next one.
RJP: Then you see it and they made it their own, but it’s different than what you imagined. And that happens anytime any book is turned into a movie. In wonder It’s especially important because really it’s all about the face. On the other hand, in the book, one of the reasons I didn’t go into too much detail… I described it a little bit, but one of the reasons was because it didn’t matter what he looked like, it’s just that he looked different. The movie gets that. Regardless of whether he’s an extreme version of a kid with a cranial facial difference or a moderate version, there’s lots of distinctions on the spectrum, the fact is that he looks different than other kids in the fifth grade. Any difference is enough, especially at that age, to make you the target, the easy target of the meaner kids in the class.
Did Stephen create what you had in your head?
RJP: My vision of Auggie was probably different.
SC: Yours was more extreme.
RJP: Yeah, mine was more extreme. But I was really happy when I saw it. Now it’s tough for me to see Auggie in my mind and not see Jacob.
Stephen, is it scary to hang the success of your film on a ten-year-old under heavy prosthetics?
SC: Well, he was nine. (Laughter) No. It’s not, because first of all, without Arjen… I was shown some other things early in the process that looked terrible. Not Arjen’s stuff. But before that there were other people did bids and I realized that it just wasn’t going to work at all. Once I saw his sculpt, he has this amazing contraption, a helmet and it attaches with glue to his eyes and you could click it and you can literally move his face around. Once he showed me how it could be done I had every confidence in the world. And Jacob is so good, he’s just such a once in a generation talent that I had no reservations. I really didn’t.
What is something that you think the book does to add to the experience and vice versa?
RJP: Two things. I’d say one is that the movie actually tells a couple stories that aren’t told in Wonder. We see more of the parents in the film. In Wonder (the book) we only see the parents from the kids point of view. So we only know what their lives are through the filter of their kids. So, they’re central to the story but they’re somewhat in the background. Whereas here we see them without the kids. We kind of get to know them a little bit better and Stephen wrote scenes that filled in those narratives on their own. So they are a little bit more complex (in the film).
The second thing is, what I think they did justice to in the movie… The book I’ve often described as being a meditation on kindness, because really the theme of the book is all about the importance of the impact of kindness. I would say on that note they really, really beautifully echoed that from the book. In their own way, they enhanced it. You leave the movie feeling good, really good. Certainly living in the times we are now, that’s really great. That’s a nice thing.
SC: My hope is that the movie will lead everybody back to the book. The book has two more points of view, Justin and Summer and they are both incredible. There was only so much room that we had, so I chose four (points of view) instead of six. And there are supplemental books and other things (that R.J.) has written. If you really want to do a deep dive it’s worth your time.
One of the great parts of the story is the struggle of the other family members and how their lives are impacted both positively and less positively by a kid like Auggie. I don’t think most people probably ever think about that.
RJP: A lot of the sweetest emails I’ve gotten have been from the parents of children with any kind of difference, who after reading the book they were reminded about their other children and the impact of having a kid with any kind of special needs… how that impacts all of the other kids and to remember that sometimes they just don’t have time. They’re going through so much with this one kid that the other kid’s kind of become self-sufficient and they have to remember that, no they’re not. They’re still our kids and they need us. That’s been really nice.
SC: The multiple points of view is one of the things I love most about the book. I thought it set it far and above any other book even around the subject. So I wanted to preserve that for the movie.
Wonder does it did really well, compared to a lot of other family films by showing the perspectives of all the other characters whenever possible.
SC: Yeah. I thought, how do you do tell a story about kindness or empathy without stopping and saying, this is what mom’s going through, this is what Via is going through. It leads to some really great things artistically and I loved doing it.
It reminds me too; (To R.J.) you were saying before about the emails that you get… Something we haven’t talked about is… we had a lot of kids who had this condition visit us on set. It was very important to the actors on set and to me and the whole community of filmmakers. It’s very interesting because something I learned about kids and tried to give it to the movie is, if you have a kid with a cranial facial difference, everybody around them like their parents, wants to talk about that condition. Everybody wants to talk about that condition more than the kid. The kid wants to talk about baseball and Star Wars. That was a fascinating thing to watch, and I tried to, as much as I could with the different performances and the different points of view to remind us all the time that we are not our conditions, we are ourselves. That was something in the point of view that the process lead to that was very exciting.
R.J.,How do you feel about your book being used in classrooms?
RJP: You can’t foresee any of this. Certainly when you’re writing a book you’re hoping it gets published. Then if it gets published, you’re hoping one or two people will read it and that’s as far as I would go. So everything that’s happened afterwards has been, whether it’s the movie or the idea that it’s been adopted in so many classrooms across the country… and in Germany and the UK… and Ireland, I just found out has a whole curriculum in year six of the whole country is using Wonder as a year six sort of mandatory reading. That really threw me because I am a huge fan of Irish writers and if they like my book then I’m like, Woooow. No one writes like the Irish
SC: In sixth grade they give every kid a copy of Wonder?
SC: And a Guinness.
RJP: Just the idea that it’s kind of a rite of passage at a certain point, just like To Kill a Mockingbird is kind of a rite of passage for seventh grade in most of the country and the idea that Wonder might someday be that kind of, you’ve reached fifth grade or sixth grade and it’s sort of a schoolwide read… That’s kind of cool, knowing that long after I’m gone from this earth that this might still be the case.
SC: I think that there are very good chances.
RJP: I don’t know, but it’s nice to that if that’s what I become known for for the rest of my life… that’s not a bad thing.
SC: She gave you the very, very polite, very self-deprecating author answer. Here, I’ll give you the fan answer, which is yes the book is that good, yes it’s being taught in schools, deservedly so. Once I came on board to the movie and people asked me about it, I said to everybody: I believe for middle grade there are three books in American literature that are taught in school… There is To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s The Outsiders and there is Wonder. I think that’s the list, personally. I would even put it above The Outsiders, but that’s just me.
With things like Stranger Things and IT, kid focused stories seem to be back. Do you see yourself doing more kids films?
SC: Yeah. I do. Absolutely I do.
RJP: He’s so good with kids.
SC: I just finished my second novel on Friday. It revolves, not a hundred percent, but there’s definitely a kid element to that one as well. I love it. I love their enthusiasm, they’re SO excited to go to work.
RJP: And you speak kid.
SC: I’m very immature.
RJP: You should have seen him on set with the little kids. They just loved him. The way he would talk to them. He speaks kid. They loved him.
They say you should never work with kids or animals and you do both here.
SC: And make-up. I got all three.
RPJ: The dog was a little tough, right?
SC: Yeah, dogs, make-up and kids. it was all quite an experience, but I loved it. I have a philosophy with casting, I don’t just cast actors, I cast human beings. These kids were so nice and so grateful and enthusiastic to be there that it just made us all better.
The two child leads are very, very good.
RJP: They really are.
SC: Yeah and I remember saying to the casting folks, Deb and Tricia and Jen that I want the best kid cast since Stand by Me. That was my bar. I thought, whether we get there or not, lets aim for it. It’s always fun to aim really high. And I thought, man, did they deliver. it was amazing.
Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson had surprising chemistry, as well as the kids.
SC: A lot of that was, we had a read through of the family, we had a read through of the kids and that was it. Rehearsal was to go bowling. You know? Go have a pizza party. If you just catch kids being kids… Like the fireworks. I didn’t direct that. Kids know how to be in school, they sit there, they know how to pass notes and they know how to do those kinds of things. A lot of it was just trying to capture the spontaneity and let everybody, all the actors especially know, they literally could not make a mistake. My only rule was, know your lines. If you know your lines, then everything else will be free and fun. And it was. And that’s really important. To make it feel like summer camp, not like a job.
Was there anything that you shot and loved but ultimately decided that it didn’t fit with the rest of the film and you had to cut it? Or was there anything you wished you’d been able to shoot?
RJP: Maybe small details here and there that I can’t even think of now, but at the time might have seemed important. Stephen would always tell me, when I’d bring up those little details, “What about this line? I really liked that line” And he would say, ” I tried, it’s not fitting. Just trust me, just trust me.” It wasn’t until I actually saw the movie from beginning to end that I realized that he was absolutely right. In terms of telling a story, in terms of pacing the story, in terms of all these filmmaking things that of course I had never been part of a movie, I’d never seen a movie being filmed, so I didn’t have any context with which to judge, Stephen was right. Like, oh that’s why he made that scene more important, even though it’s not that important in the book. In the movie there is a certain pace to the narrative and the story unfolds in a cinematic way. Differently that it does in a book. And that’s a necessity of a translation of mediums and he knew that. I had to see it to get it.
SC: One of the things, it took me a couple of movies to realize this… to use a music analogy, a song is not all chorus. It’s really hard for something, like this story that’s so powerful, so emotional, restraint is the way that you have it. You don’t have an emotional film by indulging in the emotion. You have an emotional film by fighting the emotion. So sometimes I’d have to make decisions… Here’s a good example. There’s a beautiful scene in the book, one of my favorite chapters in the book actually, which is about Daisy. After Daisy dies there’s a beautiful scene in the book where Auggie talks to his mom about, will Daisy recognize me in heaven? It’s incredible. I filmed it. But it was just too much. We just went through this experience; the audience has to breath. So I changed it. I still wanted a parent moment so I changed it to Auggie walking up and comforts his father. Which, in the book is so beautiful, where he witnesses his father cry, which was so moving. Then I thought, I’ve seen that before, I’ve never seen the child… I’d never seen the baton being passed. I’m going to comfort you this time, dad. So that’s what I did.
Did you have any particular favorite scene?
SC: My favorite scene in the film is a very easy one for me to answer. The flashback to Via’s fourth birthday. Because that’s my daughter. I was in Vancouver filming, I missed her actual, honest to god, fourth birthday. It just so happens that she looks a lot like Izabela Vidocic, who played Via. And it also happens that there is a flashback that she talks about wishing for a brother. And I thought, oh wouldn’t that be great? I needed one little flashback to get to the end of the beautiful monologue in Our Town. In terms of the book? I couldn’t even pick. There’s so many great moments, so many surprising and unexpected moments, I couldn’t love it more. Yeah, it’s amazing.
RJP: I am working on a couple of books. One is a graphic novel and the other is a novel I’ve been working on that’s not Wonder related, which I put on hold to work on this graphic novel which is somewhat Wonder related. Tangential. It’s like my other stories, they’re not sequels, but they kind of live in the Wonder universe. They’re either characters that are mentioned in the book or whatever. This actually is a story that takes place during World War II, it’s the story of Julian’s grandmother.
SC: As I said, I just finished my second novel, (the first) in two decades Friday. So we’ll wait to see what my agents think.
Can you tell us anything about it?
SC: I can tell you this… It’s my tribute to my favorite American writer, Stephen King. I love his work and I’ve always wanted to tell a very epic, emotional horror story. And that’s what I did.
Wonder is open nationwide Friday 11/17/17. It really is a wonderful film to share with the whole family, with a lovely message. Take a look at the trailer below: