You can’t be ordinary when you were born to stand out.
The story of a 10 year-old boy with facial differences becomes a multifaceted look at what it means to be human in the film adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s bestseller Wonder,directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), who, along with Steven Conrad (Unfinished Business) and Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), adapted Palacio’s bestseller.
It 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.
Jacob Tremblay (Room) tackles the one-of-a-kind role of Auggie Pullman, whose birth defects and multiple surgeries have kept him out of school — until now. Jettisoned into what is for him the brave new world of the 5th grade, Auggie steps into an unexpected journey.
All Auggie ever wanted was to be an ordinary kid, but as his sister keeps telling him, you can’t be ordinary when you were born to stand out.
Though he once found solace inside a space helmet, suddenly he must face a whole universe of gawking kids who don’t yet know how to face him back. Now, in a year by turns funny, tough and beautiful — Auggie and all around him are transformed by the things that count most: friendship, courage and the everyday choice to be kind to everyone in your path.
The Wonder of Wonder
Few books have the power to make people act, but that was the unusual case with R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder. Published in 2013, the book took considerable risks. Were readers really prepared to follow a boy who, due to a genetic condition, was born with a pronounced “craniofacial difference” that could stop strangers? It turns out that readers were more than intrigued by Auggie Pullman.
Palacio’s humorous yet pull-no-punches take on Auggie’s life – and her inclusion of the many viewpoints of those in his orbit – honed in on something on the minds of many people: that in today’s world we can get so caught up in surfaces, we no longer see what people are going through beneath.
While many novels explore dark worlds of dystopia, Wonder took a 180, demonstrating that a riveting story can revolve around something as seemingly basic as figuring out how to be good to other people. “I’ve always thought of Wonder as a meditation on kindness,” summarizes Palacio.
Spread from hand to hand, family to family, the book sold more than 5 million copies, but its impact went deeper as it also sparked a grassroots “Choose Kind” movement and inspired readers to share their own stories. The book soon lured Hollywood attention as well. Film producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman of Mandeville Films both read the manuscript on the same night and did not wait to jump. “We called each other and we were each in tears, I’m not ashamed to admit,” recalls Lieberman. “We’d both fallen in love with this beautiful tale of compassion and friendship.”
Adds Hoberman: “The story spoke to so many things we believe in. We loved how the story is told through multiple points of view; and how it encompasses an entire American neighborhood so everyone can identify with someone in the story. Most of all, we loved that it touches on the idea that we’ve all felt like outsiders at some point — and shows what can happen when you reach out to others.”
Lieberman and Hoberman were especially excited to explore a type of character still rarely seen on screen: one who completely defies the notion that physical differences can even begin to define us. When they got on the phone with Palacio, the simpatico was evident. Palacio told the producers that she had always felt if a movie of her book were to be made she would impose just one condition: that it absolutely must preserve the book’s upfront style and not try to soften Auggie’s reality.
“When I wrote the book, I wasn’t striving for something that would become a worldwide phenomenon. I wrote the book without any expectations — I didn’t even know if it would be published,” Palacio admits. “I just wanted to write a little book with a simple message of kindness, so that’s how I thought the movie should also be approached. I was convinced Todd and David had that same vision.”
She goes on: “Other filmmakers had talked about not even showing Auggie, which I felt was disrespectful to kids with craniofacial differences. I didn’t want a movie that would minimize the severity of Auggie’s facial differences, because that’s such an important aspect of who he is. It was very important for me — as it was for Todd, David and Stephen Chbosky — to make sure that the audience sees Auggie front and center from the very beginning.”
What Auggie candidly calls “that looking-away thing” in Wonder – that humiliating moment when people avert their eyes from him — actually inspired the creation of his character.
R.J. Palacio openly admits that she was the one who, in 2008, found herself running from, rather than engaging with, a child who looked different in an ice cream parlor incident. A graphic designer by day and hopeful writer by night, she was out with her kids when she did something she deeply regretted.
She takes up the story: “We found ourselves sitting next to a child who had a severe craniofacial difference, who looked very much the way I describe Auggie in the book.”
But it didn’t end there. Feeling shame, Palacio wanted to face up to her response, to turn the tables on it, by looking at it from the most important POV: the child who unwittingly sparked it. “I started thinking about what it must be like to live everyday facing a world that doesn’t know how to face you back. I began writing the book that night.”
That’s when Auggie Pullman sprang into being, along with an entire cast of characters who took Palacio by surprise. “All the characters that started coming to life on the page felt so real to me that they motivated me to keep at it,” she remembers. “I feared that if I didn’t finish the story no one else in the world would ever have the chance to meet them, and I really wanted the world to meet these characters.”
Palacio very specifically decided to make Auggie a middle-schooler, but one about to attend school for the first time ever, an event he gears up for like a spaceman entering an alien world. “That 10-to-12 age frame is so wrenching under any circumstance because it’s so raw,” Palacio observes. “It’s when kids are figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Everything’s evolving – bodies, friendships, interests, relationships with parents. It was a great time to have Auggie first encounter the world.”
At first, Palacio did not know a lot about craniofacial differences, so she dove into as much medical and first-hand family knowledge she could find. She determined that Auggie was likely born with Treacher-Collins Syndrome, which, though caused by a mutation in just a single gene, can result in a radically altered formation of the bones of the face. Some people have such a mild form they don’t even know they have it. Others have bones that grow into a skull shape that can interfere with breathing, hearing and seeing, often requiring multiple reconstructive surgeries before age 5.
Despite all the medical issues associated with Treacher-Collins, the kids who live with it are like all kids – curious, sensitive and resilient. Both realities combine to create a unique experience for every family. But most families find one aspect hardest to navigate: the often unthinking reactions of others.
This led Palacio to tap into something else she’d wanted to examine for a long time: the roots of ordinary compassion. “Every parent wants a better world for our children, but sometimes we forget that it is very simple things that create that. That’s why I wanted to fill this book with many different examples of how important just being nice to one another is,” she explains.
That focus could have gone terribly wrong, could have been gooey and sentimentalized. But Palacio’s writing avoided the melodramatic. It was raw, candid and sharp. When the book hit the shelves, it was embraced by the craniofacial anomaly community, who had long awaited the chance to see their stories, but equally by many who have known the loneliness of being different in any of millions of ways.
Says Palacio of her philosophy that kindness is something people not only need to heed but to practice: “I really do believe that inherently people want to be good and, given a chance, want to do the right thing. But the thing we have to confront is that we all have to work at it. That’s all anyone can ask: try your hardest to be your best.”
That core theme is what drew Julia Roberts to Palacio’s book. Says Roberts: “I think that if we could really hold on to the concepts of this book of simply being fair and understanding, we would be in better times. For me, it has been a really wonderful reminder to find more ways in a day, or even in a conversation, to choose the nicer way rather than the faster, sarcastic or negative way.”
Stephen Chbosky’s Sense Of Wonder
Once Lieberman and Hoberman had Palacio’s blessing, the search was on for a director to bring the book to the screen with honesty and humor intact. Their first thought went straight away to Stephen Chbosky, with whom they had just worked on the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast – and who also happens to be a novelist. Chbosky previously adapted (then directed) his own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, into a film that garnered the 2013 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
Says Lieberman: “The most important quality we needed for Wonder was the ability to evoke emotion without being manipulative or heavy-handed. Stephen is astute emotionally, but at the same time he’s lighthearted and can blend humor into profound themes.”
As it turned out, Chbosky initially declined the offer, in part because his wife had just given birth and felt he was in no position to dive in, and also because he thought he didn’t want to do another school-based movie on the heels of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But as pursuit by Hoberman, Lieberman and Lionsgate continued he finally sat down to read the book, just to see what he might be missing.
That was all it took. Chbosky couldn’t walk away from what he considers a “coming of age story for this generation.” He explains: “Having my son, Theodore, made the story personal to me, and I was ready. What struck me most in the book is that the sum of every choice you make creates your character. You alone can make the choice to be a hero in your life – to stand out, to be yourself, to act on your best nature.”
Rather than place the focus entirely on Auggie, he embraced the book’s tangle of viewpoints in his approach. “Auggie’s bravery has a ripple effect on all these characters,” Chbosky points out, “and the different points of view help you realize there are things everyone is going through, not just Auggie. That’s where empathy begins.”
As things took off, Chbosky and Palacio forged a tight bond, especially as Chbosky joined with co-writers Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad to adapt the novel.
STEVEN CONRAD (Screenwriter) is the writer of The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He also is the writer and director of the television series “Patriot.”
JACK THORNE (Screenwriter) began his screenwriting career on Shameless and Skins and lead wrote the darkly comic C4 series Cast Offs, broadcast in 2009. Jack’s television work includes The Fades for BBC3, and This Is England ’86, “88 and most recently 90. Jack created Glue” (E4) 2014 and his original pan-European crime thriller for Sky and Canal+. “The Last Panthers” aired autumn 2015 in Europe and in the States on Sundance Channel last year.
In film, Jack wrote the original films The Scouting Book for Boys and War Book and adapted Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Jack also writes for the stage, amongst other work Let the Right One In transferred to the West End in spring 2014 and The Solid Life of Sugar Water transferred from the Edinburgh fringe to The National Theatre after a successful tour last year. Jack wrote Harry Potter & the Cursed Child from an original story by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and himself which is currently running on the West End and in Spring of 2017 his adaptation of Woyzeck played at the Old Vic starring John Boyega.
Jack is currently adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for Bad Wolf, Newline and BBC One, is writing on the Philip K. Dick anthology series for Channel 4 and Sony Pictures TV, and is penning The Eddy to be helmed by Damien Chazelle for Netflix. Features in development include; Dirt Music for Wildgaze Films and Film Four, an adaptation of the graphic novel Radioactive by Lauren Redniss for Working Title & Shoebox, Secret Garden for Heyday Pictures and StudioCanal, Intertia for Temple Hill and Fox 2000, and The Aeronauts for Mandeville and Amazon Studios.
Palacio wasn’t sure what to expect, but found herself handing her trust to Chbosky. “Stephen brought so much artistry but also respect for the words,” she says. “Every script choice he made felt spot on. I hope fans will see that Stephen went out of his way to honor the book’s characters – big and little – and they are all in there as I imagined them. The film might not follow every tiny detail, because you can’t in this art form. But Stephen brought something vital: that key feeling in the book I call laughing/crying.”
For Palacio nailing that duality of tones was the bottom line. “I think one reason the book has invited so many people is that the Pullman family is not sad, they’re joyful people making the most of what they’ve been dealt,” she reflects. “That’s how real families are. I was gratified that Stephen understood that less could be more in letting these characters be themselves.”
The script evolved with the entire team in synch. Says Lieberman: “The novel really was the best blueprint so we didn’t deviate much.’’ Palacio was always there to lend support. “She was invaluable, offering insight on everything from script to casting,” says Hoberman. “She’s at the core of the film’s family.”
“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place.”
— Mr. Tushman
Part of the Wonder phenomenon has been empowering young people to more confidently confront the poison of bullying, bigotry and ostracism. “The book has sparked international anti-bullying campaigns,” notes Lieberman.
“One of the most important things is that the story explores the many different ways people get bullied. Emotional bullying is a big deal to me, and it’s one of the reasons I really responded to the book. Bad behavior has been going on forever, but with social media you now have people treating others unfairly on an even wider spectrum, so the need for these kinds of stories is more timely than ever.”
Palacio now speaks with kids around the country about bullying as part of the Choose Kind movement started in response to the book, and has had thousands sign her Choose Kind pledge. She says it helps to remind kids that the attitude they have now towards others will affect them their whole lives.
“When I talk with kids, we talk about how you would want to be remembered 80 years from now. Do you want to be remembered for moments of unkindness? Or do you want to be remembered for being the person who was brave enough to go over to the new kid in class and make friends? That’s when kids start to get it, when they start to see what they do even in a small way really, really matters for a long time.”
But Palacio says that much as her book is anti-bullying that alone is not enough. She hopes the book and now the movie will inspire everyone to be proactive, to take the one extra step to give someone a boost or a helping hand. “Sometimes it doesn’t take much at all to make a huge impact,” she points out. “The best part about small acts is that you never know when you might actually be saving someone’s life.”
Palacio notes that the operative word in the Choose Kind movement is choose, something she thinks Stephen Chbosky and the cast and crew of Wonder brought to the fore in the movie. She concludes: ““You can’t really mandate kindness. What you can do is inspire people to see and feel what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”