Wonder No More: A Look at a Book to Screen Adaptation
I wah wah wah wah wonder!
Why why why why why . . .
Just me? Alrighty then.
Yep, so though I live far far away from my beloved New York City, this Chicagoland I’ve landed in is pretty darn hopping. They have jazz. They have some kind of ungodly pizza that’s as thick as a New York steak. They have a lake that has all the benefits of the ocean without any of the problems (nothing living in that puppy is gonna pinch, sting, or otherwise pain me). And it has motion picture screenings for reviewers, such as myself. Case in point, last week on Tuesday I was invited to an early screening of the film Wonder. This adaptation of the novel by R.J. Palacio has been much hyped thanks to its all-star cast including Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin (didn’t know about that one, did you?), and Daveed Diggs. Mr. Diggs, as it happens, was going to be attending the Chicago screening. Now not too long ago there was a screening of a very different Wonder-related movie by the name of Wonderstruck where many of my fine colleagues in NYC attended with Brian Selznick. They get Selznick. I get Diggs. It all evens out.
Actually, the comparison between Wonder and Wonderstruck (two middle grade realistic novels turned into movies at nearly the exact same time) is not original to me. Back in June I read an article in Tablet Magazine by Marjorie Ingall entitled ‘Wonder’ Movie Raises Red Flags for Jewish Disability Rights Advocates. It was Marjorie that directed my attention to Mike Moody, a 26-year-old writer and composer in Warwickshire, UK, who tweets under the name @guysmiley22 (which I love SOSOSOSO much as a handle, I’m just sorry I didn’t think of it first). Moody is facially disfigured and live tweeted the trailer when it was first released. You should definitely read it all but as she points out repeatedly, “I can’t stress this enough. This is trauma, when 99% of the disfigurements Disfigured people see on screen are makeup.” Because, as I’m sure you know by now, actor Jacob Tremblay of the film Room is wearing facial prosthetics. But what makes this all the more glaring is the fact that the film is being released alongside another movie for kids (ostensibly) where the lead child actor actualy has a disability. In the case of Wonderstruck the actress Millicent Simmonds is deaf, a fact celebrated wildly by folks like Vanity Fair.
Yesterday I read an article at SLJ that announced that Critics Question the Representation of Disability in ‘Wonder’ where Moody was cited again. It’s a good piece and worth reading as well. So let’s get right down to it, shall we? What does the movie do right and what does the movie do wrong and what is it like to watch it at all?
When I watch a film based on a children’s book, I have these little boxes I sort of set up in my mind to see whether or not it does the job it’s supposed to do correctly. These include (but are not limited to). . .
– Is the film actually interesting to kids? This may be where Wonder has a distinct lead over Wonderstruck, actually. I watched this film with a theater that was half full of kids and they were really into it. I’ve nothing against artsy children’s movies. Heck, I even liked Where the Wild Things Are. But if you think about taking a kid to a movie and then pause for a moment because you don’t know if it’s going to bore them to death or not . . . that is not a good sign.
– Does the film have any bearing on the book? Or does it veer off sharply in some random direction on its own? Fantasy films do this the most often, rendering themselves almost unrecognizable in the process. Do you remember during the height of Harry Potter fandom when they adapted The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper into The Seeker and proceeded to take out everything that HP fans would have potentially liked? Like, I dunno, the fact that it was British for starters? Well fear not for Wonder. It adheres very closely to the original material, and when it strays . . . well, we’ll get into that in a bit.
– If the book is accurate to the book, is it too accurate to the book? By that I mean, does it feel like a movie or like a series of vignettes taken from a book regardless of whether or not they make sense (the Harry Potter films, for all that I love them, do this repeatedly so that you won’t really be able to follow what’s happening unless you read the books first)? In the case of Wonder, it’s interesting. I actually found myself at times really wishing that the director had injected just a little more Juno or (I’m dating myself here) Better Off Dead into the fantasy sequences (of which there are a surprising number). There is a Wookie running gag that works well. Some more of that would not have been out of place, but I think they were trying to match the tone of the book stride for stride so it’s more interstitial than anything else.
With these boxes firmly in place I had my gigantic tub of popcorn in place (the movie meant I had to skip dinner which can only mean one thing . . . POPCORN DINNER!!) and I was ready to go.
Anyone who has seen one of the trailers for the film will be aware of the make-up that Jacob wears to suggest some kind of craniofacial deformities, so the moment he takes off his astronaut helmet wasn’t particularly shocking. That said, even if you haven’t seen the trailer, you’re not going to find his face much more than a bit of a skin condition. I had a sudden vision of the scads of discussions the movie makers must have had about this make-up. Remember Mask with Eric Stoltz and Cher? Again, it’s a case of an actor wearing make-up, making disability akin to a costume, but at least in that film there was a sense that the main character actually had lionitis. In Wonder Auggie is cute. He has this sweet little button nose right smack dab in his face that isn’t touched at all. So when characters recoil in his presence it’s more confusing than anything else.
To be fair, any kid that thought that their mom was the norm when said mom is Julia Roberts would have issues. The use of the famous people in the film is fascinating. They do not appear to be phoning it in. Julia Roberts is Julia Robertsing it all over the place, and Owen Wilson does the role of “dad” pretty well. Daveed Diggs is there, but he’s not exactly given much to do aside from breaking up a fight. Mandy Patinkin has his best moment in a scene that may or may not have been in the books. Now I’ve read Wonder but I haven’t read all of its spin-offs, and so the scene in the film when Julian is sitting in front of the principal with his parents was, without a doubt, my favorite. It may have come from Palacio’s Julian chapter in Auggie & Me. Wherever it’s from, it felt achingly real. Julian’s privileged parents bend over backwards to justify his behavior towards Auggie. Warning: If you work in a private school or a library in a private school you may wish to avoid this scene as feels all too ripped out of real life.
The child actors are the ones worth watching here, particularly the teens. As with the book, Auggie is not the focus of the film all the time. We get his sister’s perspective. We get her ex-best friend’s perspective. We get the mom (not the dad, interestingly) and Jack (but not Summer). Chris, Auggie’s first best friend, isn’t even mentioned in the film, which made sense from a screenwriting point of view but had the unfortunate result of making you think that Auggie’s life was more pitiful than it really was. But, as I mentioned, the kids are the actors to watch. The kid playing Jack does a good job, as does Auggie’s sister. Yet surprisingly it is his sister’s ex-best friend who gets the true Oscar-emoting moment in the film.
In the course of the casting, the film also hired black actors to play the parts of Summer and Justin. Remember though that neither one of these actors gets to have their point of view shown on the screen. Because of this, they veer dangerously close to the old Magical Black Friend stereotype. Summer sits down with Auggie when no one else will and Justin gives Via a hot, understanding, awfully nice shoulder to cry on when she’s feeling abandoned by her parents. There is also a moment when Auggie first meets Justin that probably should have been reconsidered. As in the book, when Justin meets the family Auggie asks him if he’s carrying a gun in his violin case. Now, examine this scene. Via is introducing her black boyfriend to her family for the very first time and immediately her little brother asks the guy if he’s packing heat. Anyone else see the problem here?
The author herself does make an on-screen cameo, though not where I originally expected it to be. I made the honest mistake of thinking she was playing the flashback grandma that appears midway through the film. In fact, she’s seated behind Auggie and his family at the climax of the film in the auditorium. For those of you who know what she looks like, I dare you to try and not look directly at her for the scene after scene after scene she appears in. Suddenly Stephanie Meyers’ veggie burger cameo is looking downright subtle in comparison.
So what are we actually dealing with here? When SLJ interviewed the author she said that, “I believe the movie captures the spirit of the book with great poignancy and tenderness . . . It is a compassionate, beautiful movie about the power of kindness.” I think that it’s fair to say that for a lot of people that loved the book they will love the movie. And those who felt antipathy towards the book will find that sentiment replicated here as well.
In the recent PW article Editors, Agents, and Authors Take the Pulse of Today’s YA, editor David Levithan said that we are currently experiencing “an ‘era of genuine voices’ right now—by which I mean that readers are looking for compelling, original voices instead of rehashes of popular trends.” It remains to be seen if Hollywood truly means to embrace the “genuine” part of those “genuine voices”, moving beyond the old, tired tropes and tendencies, towards something authentic and truly inspiring. Wonder has a lot going for it, but may find itself bogged down by its reliance on the old way of doing things, even as it rakes in beaucoup de bucks (as you know it’s going to do). An interesting film, but one deserving of closer scrutiny.
In theaters November 17th.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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