Gay author Stephen Chbosky finally adapts queer teen novel for the screen
Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower touched many queer readers’ hearts with its positive, honest depiction of Patrick, a charismatic gay teenager. The book’s profound messages — of acceptance, the benefits of being different and overcoming emotional trauma — actually saved some of those LGBT readers’ lives (more on that below). Due to Wallflower’s accurate reflection of teen life and language, many conservatives deemed it obscene, fighting to (and sometimes succeeding) in banning it from schools and libraries. From 2006 to 2009, it was on the American Library Association’s annual list “Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Books.”
A whole new generation is soon to experience Wallflower through its cinematic adaptation, which Chbosky wrote and directed. Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, an emotionally damaged Pittsburgh high school freshman, who falls in with a clique of seniors including Sam (played by Emma Watson) and her gay stepbrother, Patrick (Ezra Miller). Patrick, who performs as Frank-N.-Furter at local Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings, is also having a clandestine relationship with closeted jock Brad (Johnny Simmons), which Charlie learns of and grows even closer to Patrick. These friendships and experiences ultimately help Charlie come to grips with a buried secret and end a crippling silence.
Co-creator of the TV series phenomenon, Jericho (which may yet be revived again as a Netflix series), Chbosky also penned the screenplay for Rent. Here he discusses bringing Wallflower to screen, Miller’s recent coming out and saving LGBT lives through his work.
Dallas Voice: Was the character of Patrick based on someone you knew? Chbosky: There was a person I knew in college who inspired a good deal of Patrick and the experiences I wrote about. Patrick was a combination of that friend and the older brother I always wished I had. It was important to me in the book, and especially the movie, that Patrick be the coolest character in the school. I remember growing up I loved Ferris Bueller and thought that type of person — who was so confident, self-assured, and free and generous to his friends — I wanted that in Patrick.
I interviewed Ezra a year ago and he was very open about his same-sex experiences. More recently, he just went ahead and actually said, “I’m queer.” I love Ezra as a person and actor. Ezra brings more life, heart and freedom to Patrick than I could have hoped for. He’s the type of person to always tell and live the truth, whatever it is. The more people that speak the truth about themselves, the less silence there is and more people will live better lives. Ezra’s a role model on that level.
What about Johnny Simmons as closeted Brad, who is loathsome and allows his jock friends to abuse Patrick, but for whom you also feel compassion. Johnny’s a great actor. Listen, that character could have been played so arch or villainous, I could have cast some jock in it. Your heart broke for the boy and Johnny brought that. I love what he did. I feel like a father who loves all his kids. I want to talk up every actor!
Although this is a spoiler for those who didn’t read the book, there’s a scene in which Patrick kisses Charlie. Were you worried that would stir up gay panic amongst homophobes? Not for a second. I had no concerns about that scene. That scene, to me, is one of the most beautiful expressions of friendship. What was important is that Patrick is never perceived as a victim. Even when he’s being beat up in the cafeteria [by jocks], there’s fight in him. He reaches a point when he finally runs out of steam and has nothing left, and he kisses his straight friend, and the only thing Charlie can do is accept it, hold him, and judge nothing. I’m very proud of that scene and love what the boys brought.
Are there still a lot of efforts to ban the book? I read about a 2011 attempt in Rockland County, N.Y. It still happens, but not as frequently. It has become more and more accepted in schools.
Do you anticipate a similar response to the film? It could happen with the film, but I hope it doesn’t. When you make a movie to end a silence, the last thing you want is for people trying to discourage people from talking to each other. But I would not be surprised if it did.
What is the biggest change made in the translation from book to film? The P.O.V. In the book it’s 100 percent subjective [constructed as a letter written by Charlie] and a movie by nature is objective. It was challenging to find a way to breathe life into Sam and these other characters we only knew through Charlie’s eyes. I wanted the audience to love Sam and Patrick as he did, so it was putting that P.O.V inside the viewer’s mind.
Over the years what has been the most profound response to Wallflower? My friends and I went to a restaurant and at the end of the meal, the maître d’ of the restaurant, this kid, came up and asked if I was Steve Chbosky. Someone mentioned Rent during dinner, and he knew I did the screenplay. I said yes, and he said, “You saved my life.”
He was a freshman at NYU, gay and very confused and troubled and going to kill himself. He read Perks and didn’t do it. I cannot tell you what it’s like to be in that situation. Such a great kid, too. He’s alive and well and acting and doing great work. And that moment, and a lot of letters with the same message, have meant everything to me. That’s a life-changer.
Are there any deleted scenes we will see on the Wallflower Blu-ray? For the fans I had to film Charlie reading the poem to Patrick at Secret Santa, and there are other scenes with the family I loved but found a more streamlined way of telling the story. There is some good stuff there.
The film is certainly a nostalgic one, and romances the alternative music of the late ’80s and early ’90s, like Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth and The Smiths. What do you most miss from that era, or want to see brought back into the public’s mind? I hope a lot of that great music is celebrated all over again. Past that, I don’t think the film will encourage people to talk more and text less, but it was fun making a movie that takes place before the Internet and to remind people that in the end it’s about the friends who get you through it, and not the gadgets.
To read an interview with recently out co-star Ezra Miller, visit DallasVoice.com and click Screen.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 28, 2012.
— Lawrence Ferber