The two mediums of film and literature often don’t fuse successfully due to a dispute on narrative intention, where the vision of those adapting the original material differs from how the writer intended the story to be told. The Perks of Being a Wallflower didn’t suffer from that common problem as author Stephen Chbosky has full reign of the adapted screenplay, the direction and the casting. It’s clear that the film comes from a genuine and heartfelt place, but it’s kind of like your dad coaching your local youth football team when you were a kid. There’s nothing he loves doing more than seeing you prosper in his hometown team through his management, and you want him to be the one to win the trophy, but you know that José Mourinho gives you a better chance at achieving success. Perks probably needed a more experienced, assured and frankly talented director to assemble a worthy adaptation to match the novels dynamism. It’s a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable film on a year of teenager life with trauma, love, dejection, struggle, discovery, growth, euphoria and all the usual teenage anxieties; but it’s sadly all too conventional a coming-of-age film for such a memorably unconventional book in that genre.
The main issue is that the emotional notes of Charlie’s (Logan Lerman) journey are conveyed too obtusely, lacking the subtlety and almost-poetic nature to how Chbosky originally penned them. We don’t need the bitchy girl in his English class whose sole purpose is to get across his outsider and loser image; it treats the audience as dumb bystanders needing guided through the story. The second half improves with a moving final act but much of it still feels tonally divorced from the novel, particularly the scene when Charlie inadvertently gets high for the first time.
The catharsis of Charlie’s letters is played down in this adaptation, naturally changing the manner of narrative delivery but remaining connected to the protagonists cognitions. One change that isn’t as successful is the much smaller role Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd, Charlie’s English teacher) is given. His impact on Charlie is still reflected to the same degree as in the novel, except it doesn’t convince as we don’t see enough of their meaningful interaction or understand the symbolism of the books on Charlie’s year at school. He still gets to say that all important famous quote, but it feels like he’s not earned it. Further omissions of Charlie’s relationship with his deceased best friend and the poem Christmas present to Patrick highlight the mere surface exploration of themes, which prevents the film from sufficiently uniting the romanticism and psychological aspects to the story.
One massive perk of Perks is the performances which wonderfully capture further regions than the essence of Chbosky’s original writing. The trio never succumb to pleasing any standard perceptions of Charlie, Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) but bring new and welcome dimensions to these characters that in turn enhance future re-readings. Lerman is at all times astutely measured in his level of performance, with a distinct personality and an always mysterious hint at darkness behind him that can’t be fully revealed until the end. He does a lovely job of balancing a mind of chaotic movements and a character of many conflicting characteristics, becoming someone you immediately warm to, care about and wish the best for.