R.J. Palacio never envisioned that her “little book about a little boy with enormous challenges” would one day become a feature-length film. But it has; the Lionsgate adaptation of Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, 2012) releases on November 17, starring Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, and Owen Wilson. The Perks of Being a Wallflower author Stephen Chbosky directed.
Not only was a Wonder movie nowhere on Palacio’s horizon, when she was writing the book, she didn’t know that it would necessarily even be published: “I had no idea that it would become what it’s become,” Palacio said. As a first-time author who had also worked as an art director and book jacket designer, Palacio knew of the hurdles facing any book, particularly one that “didn’t fit into the categories trending at the time” (notably, dystopian fiction was hugely popular). Wonder is the story of a 10-year-old boy named August (Auggie) Pullman, who was born with craniofacial differences. The novel is initially told from the previously homeschooled Auggie’s perspective as he struggles to find acceptance and friendship in a new school. The story also shifts to the narrative point of view of Auggie’s sister and other characters.
With its contemporary storyline and quiet focus on empathy and accepting differences, Wonder was a far cry from the dystopian blockbusters of the era. Yet, now Palacio sees that the story resonated with readers because it offered “a combination of the right message at the right time, told in the right way.” She believes the emphasis on choosing kindness “expands beyond the circumstances of the novel itself,” and ended up having a more enduring impact on readers than, say, a title that might fit more neatly into a trending category.
For Palacio, the film’s release is especially—if regrettably—timely. “We are living in very, very difficult times, when the very notion of kindness is politicized. Kindness is seen as a sign of weakness but, actually, kindness takes courage and strength,” she said.
An author allowing others to adapt her story to screen takes a kind of courage and strength as well. Palacio counts herself lucky: she felt early on in the adaptation process that Wonder was in the hands of the right filmmakers. She is especially appreciative of her director, Chbosky, whom she calls “so supportive and mindful.” She knew intuitively that Chbosky and his team “wanted to make a great movie for their kids,” and said they approached the project not like Hollywood directors and producers, but “like great parents.”
Chbosky, who wrote and directed the film adaptation of his own YA novel, vividly recalls the first time he read Wonder, in spring 2015, shortly after his son was born. “I loved the book; I cried several times. I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he said. While he was struck by the novel’s sensibilities and moved by Auggie’s voice, Chbosky really began to feel that the book “was an instant classic” when he reached the point in the narrative when the story expands to include the perspectives of other characters as well. “I fell in love when the book switches POV,” Chbosky said. He knew then that the book was “something much larger” than a story about a boy struggling to make his way through school; it was also a book that conveys how “everybody has a story,” he said.
As a filmmaker and author, Chbosky had an early sense of how a film might play out: “I saw it unfolding cinematically in an emotional sense. I knew the approach to take with it.” But before he embraced the project, he felt he needed to visit the person who created the story in the first place. “I wanted to be sure we saw the same movie; adaptation is an art form, but every character came from her brain and heart,” he said. He and Palacio walked around her Brooklyn neighborhood, getting to know one another and talking about Wonder. During the course of their visit and his frequent consultations with Palacio during the making of the film, he began to sense a commonality between them. Both he and R.J. grew up in inner cities—Palacio in Queens and Chbosky in Pittsburgh—experiences that have helped to shape them. “We are both emotional people from tough places,” he observed. Significantly, Chbosky believes that Auggie, too, is an emotional boy from a tough place.
Chbosky wanted the film to honor Auggie’s internal complexity with “humor and heartbreak,” and he recognized the importance of striking just the right tone. “I knew that the worst mistake was to be too precious with the material. Auggie isn’t a victim. He deals with his life with a lot of grace,” he said. When it came to actually casting an actor to play Palacio’s multilayered character, however, Chbosky believes that the choice came easily: “Jacob Tremblay, one of the finest child actors perhaps in history, happened to be the right age,” he said.
Wonder in the Classroom
Palacio followed Wonder with several other titles connected to Auggie and other characters, including 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts, The Julian Chapter, Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories, and We’re All Wonders. Since its publication, Wonder—and now the subsequent books—have organically “dovetailed with education programs,” Palacio said. The way in which Wonder gently confronts the topic of bullying has allowed teachers to open dialogues in their classrooms. Palacio believes that teachers have been empowered to ask of their students the question that will matter not only in school but in their adult lives: “What kind of character do you have?”
Now, Random House and Lionsgate are partnering with Walden Media and Gap Kids for an educational initiative, the Wonder Certified Kind Classroom. The program will provide resources and educational materials for third to sixth grade classrooms as part of a year-long curriculum, with prizes given to classrooms that demonstrate acts of kindness.
As her “little book” makes a big transition, Palacio trusts that more readers and viewers will find the courage and strength to act with character and kindness. Chbosky hopes that the movie leads readers back to the book and that, above all, they take away from it the simple yet often elusive idea that “we share so much in common with our fellow human beings.”