In the era before the “talkies,” a 12-year-old Deaf girl revels in the wonder of silent films. Decades later, a boy who has also lost his hearing travels to New York City in the hopes of discovering his father’s identity. The two child protagonists in Brian Selznick’s heavily illustrated novel, Wonderstruck (2011), are connected across time by the shared experience of Deafness, the city of New York, and their mutual quest to solidify their sense of purpose and identity. Now their story has been adapted to the screen as a feature-length film, which will be released in theaters on October 20. The film, from Amazon Studios, stars Millicent Simmonds (Rose), Oakes Fegley (Ben), and Julianne Moore (Lillian Mayhew), and is directed by Todd Haynes.
Like its predecessor, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret—which was adapted into the movie Hugo in 2011—Wonderstruck has a decidedly unconventional structure, with Rose’s story told in pencil drawings and Ben’s story told in words. Selznick, who wrote the screenplay, spoke with PW about the process of adapting Wonderstruck, the ways in which the story lent itself to a cinematic telling, and the challenges of reimagining such a distinctive narrative for film.
Despite the pronounced visual element in Selznick’s novel, he had never anticipated that Wonderstruck would become a film: “I wrote the book thinking it could only work as a book,” he said. “When I’m making a story I think of it in words and pictures, designed to be experienced by turning pages in a physical book.” However, John Logan—who adapted Hugo—encouraged Selznick to write the screenplay for Wonderstruck: “[He] really took me under his wing and offered me wonderful advice and support. He even told me which screenwriting program to download (Final Draft).” And so the Caldecott Medal-winning author-illustrator became novice screenwriter. “As I wrote the first draft, all of my questions to him [Logan] were answered with a very encouraging ‘Yes! Try it!’ which made me feel very clever. It wasn’t until I’d struggled my way through that draft and asked him for feedback that he began to really dig into what worked and what didn’t. But it was his initial ‘Yes’s’ that gave me a great amount of confidence as I moved forward,” Selznick said.
Later constructive criticism from Logan concerned a crucial aspect of screenwriting that Selznick had not always had to come up against in his novels—the art of concision. “His first note to me was to cut the opening 50 pages in half. That was the hardest part, and when I asked him if cutting 23 pages was enough, he said, ‘No, cut 25. Keep going.’ So I did,” Selznick recalled. Logan also advised Selznick that if events in the book take a week to unfold, they should occur overnight in the screenplay.
Early in the screenwriting process, Selznick made an important decision concerning the way in which the film would differentiate between the two central storylines: “I had the idea to tell the 1927 story as a black-and-white silent movie and the 1977 story as one filmed in the 70’s, in color with sound.” Selznick said. “This turned out to be the key to making the screenplay work.”
Beyond the screenplay, Selznick was involved in other aspects of the filmmaking; he even worked on some of the film’s set pieces. “I was able to help make the prop book called Wonderstruck, which is part of the story. I wrote the entire book even though you only see about two pages in the film, I drew the bookstore for a prop book mark, and did a drawing for five-year-old Ben, which was challenging and great fun,” he said.
After that, however, Selznick appreciated being able to sit back and watch Todd Haynes work: “I’ve been a fan of Todd’s since his first movie, Poison,” said Selznick. Among the other memorable experiences Selznick had throughout the process was getting the chance to visit Abbey Road Studios in London, where composer Carter Burwell recorded the score for the film, which features the music of Deaf musician Dame Evelyn Glennie.
The experience of Deafness plays a significant role in the story of Wonderstruck. While on his author tour for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick was told by many people that the picture sequences in the book felt “silent” to them, an observation that Selznick had not considered before, but which intrigued him. “So for Wonderstruck, I wanted to use that silence to parallel the experience of a Deaf character,” he said. “When I was writing the screenplay I realized this would be a great opportunity to really use sound and silence in an interesting way.”
When Selznick first wrote and illustrated the novel, he took the time to carefully research Deaf Culture and the experience of deafness. “I worked hard to make the characters in the book feel realistic, but of course they are individuals and no individual is representative of an entire community. My goal though was for Deaf readers to feel like the characters were portrayed realistically and believably.”
One of the most positive affirmations Selznick has received about Wonderstruck came from the movie set. “When I met Millicent Simmonds, the brilliant 12-year-old Deaf actress who stars as Rose in the movie, she told me that when she first read the book in school a few years earlier she thought the author was Deaf,” he said. She felt this way because, as she told Selznick, “She’d never seen characters that so closely expressed her own thoughts and feelings. This was the best compliment of all,” Selznick said.