'Wonder' is a story of empathy during very divisive times
Chbosky's latest film, "Wonder," is an adaptation of R.J. Palacio's 2012 bestseller about a fifth-grader named Auggie Pullman, who has a craniofacial difference caused by Treacher Collins syndrome.
The message of the movie, which is told from the perspectives of Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), his best friend, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the class bully, Julian (Bryce Gheisar), and other non-adult characters, is simple: "When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind." (That's self-help guru Wayne Dyer, who is quoted in the film.)
While promoting "Wonder," Chbosky, 47, and Palacio, 54, sat down to talk about how they get inside the heads of children and the importance of teaching empathy in an age of division.
Q: R.J., the idea for your book came from seeing one of your children react badly to seeing another child with a craniofacial difference. What exactly happened?
Palacio: It was just a brief encounter with a little girl. I never spoke with her, but my son got a little afraid and started to cry. The little girl didn't even realize what had happened, because I whisked my son away rather quickly, in an effort to shield her from seeing his reaction. That got me thinking about what it must be like to get stared at and pointed at — and worse — wherever you go. What must it be like for her sister, and her mother, for her family and friends? I started writing that night.
Q: Stephen, do you think there's something universal about feeling like an outsider?
Chbosky: On some level, if you ask anybody who's ever lived, "Was there ever a day when you felt different, when you felt like the only sane person in the world, or the only crazy person, was there a day when you felt ugly?" the answer would be yes. If the book were only about Auggie's story, it would be a lovely, lovely, lovely story. But R.J. goes through so many different points of view, brilliantly. Every voice is authentic. It shows the benefit of regarding each other with respect, and listening to each other's stories. That is the nature of empathy, and that is the gift of this book.
Q: "Wallflower" - the book and the movie - also is about the theme of the outsider.
Chbosky: The misfit. It's a theme that is very near and dear to my heart.
Q: "Beauty and the Beast," as well. Belle is a freak because she's bookish.
Chbosky: She is singled out in her village for something as strange as being a girl who reads.
Palacio: And the Beast, of course, is the classic outsider.
Q: "Wonder" is told through the perspectives of several characters, but not Auggie's parents. Why?
Palacio: I purposely chose not to focus on the parents, because this is the world of children. When you start writing from the point of view of adults, that becomes a totally different world. As an author, I like letting careful readers read between the lines to get what was going on with Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson). You can intuit a lot by what's not said.
Q: You've said that Isabel is the heart of the story, at least for you. How so?
Palacio: I relate the most to her. You don't have to be the mother of a child with a craniofacial difference to know what it's like to worry about your child. There's a point of entry for everybody here.
Chbosky: R.J. and I never talked about this, but my rule was that the only people in the movie who got their own "chapter" are the people who have secrets. Julian has no secret in the movie. Isabel doesn't, either.
Q: Does it bother you that movies about young protagonists automatically get pigeonholed as family movies?
Palacio: Yes. I remember seeing Truffaut's (1976) "Small Change." Back in those days, it didn't feel like you could have a movie about kids that wasn't just for kids.
Q: There have always been grown-up movies about children. Speaking of Truffaut, what about "The 400 Blows"?
Chbosky: Or "My Life as a Dog."
Palacio: "My Life as a Dog" was the first movie that we referenced when Stephen and I first met. I remember saying, "You know the kind of movie that I would love to see? 'My Life as a Dog.' You probably haven't seen it." He said, "That is my second favorite movie of all time." There are no easy gags. The children are just little human beings.
Q: The closest that "Wonder" ever comes to the tone of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies is the scene in which the science-project volcano explodes in the face of the bully.
Palacio: And that makes the kids laugh. We have to remember them, too.
Chbosky: What's important in that scene, from the perspective of grown-up storytelling, is that Auggie and Jack win the prize, and that Julian is jealous. If the reason that everybody is laughing at him is something that kids like, all the better. If I can make an adult point about jealousy, and still show kids burping in the cafeteria, great.
Q: Stephen, you were in your late 20s when you wrote "Wallflower." R.J., you were in your 40s when you wrote "Wonder." How does a grown-up channel a child, other than through this mysterious thing called empathy?
Palacio: I remember a lot of what I used to think and feel when I was a kid. I don't know why.
Q: Don't most people try to forget that?
Palacio: For some reason, I find it very easy to get inside the head of a 10-year-old. My older son was 12 when I started writing "Wonder." I was around a lot of boys that age, eavesdropping when I dropped them off at school.
Q: It sounds almost anthropological.
Palacio: It was! There were times when I felt like I was watching a Discovery Channel documentary: "And now the popular girl walks over ... "
Q: Were you the Jane Goodall of middle school?
Chbosky: (Laughing) "Preteens in the Mist!"
Palacio: It's a question of treating their drama with respect. You never dismiss stuff they're going through, even if you've had a hard day with "real" stuff. For kids, what goes on at school is all-important. It's their politics of the day.
Q: Are you saying that surviving fifth grade shouldn't be any less of an accomplishment than surviving, say, World War II?
Palacio: Yeah. It's a "Lord of the Flies" moment. For preteens, it is the first time that children begin experimenting with who they are. With little kids, parent and teachers decide everything. At 10, 11, 12 years old, you get your first taste of freedom and start making moral choices. It's tough, but it gets easier as you grow up, because you have more of a sense of who you are.
Q: Does it get easier? Stephen, in the foreword to the movie tie-in rerelease of the book, you write that "Wonder" shines a ray of light "in our troubled times." You don't specifically mention Trump but -
Palacio: (Laughing) But it's implied, right?
Q: I hate to make this political, but for some people, the book's message of choosing kindness doesn't seem to have sunk in as they got older.
Palacio: I'm happy to talk about that. I could go on and on.
Chbosky: We had many discussions about it. It's remarkable.
Palacio: It's not that this movie is made for these times, because we began the process well before the election. But it is an appropriate movie for the times. The theme of kindness runs throughout the book and the movie. Kindness is compassion, empathy, tolerance, forgiveness — and love — for those who are different. All of those things, in the times we're living in now, seem to be ridiculed. What happened to kindness toward refugees? Kindness toward people who need heath care? Kindness toward people who can't afford basic necessities? The mark of a great country is how well it takes care of its weakest citizens. I find the current lack of compassion, at the highest level of government, astounding, and I can't wait until it's over.
Q: I can see the headline now: " 'Wonder' author calls movie adaptation a rebuke to Trumpism."
Palacio: (Laughing) Oh, no, I'll get in trouble.
Chbosky: When I said "troubled times," it wasn't tongue-in-cheek. How many people are there in America? Three hundred and thirty million? Each one of those human beings has hopes and dreams. Doesn't matter political affiliation. Doesn't matter how old or young you are, what gender you are, what your sexual orientation is. When I say "troubled times," I mean it has reached a point where groups are demonized all across the spectrum. Today's divisiveness is its own cancer. What I love about this book is its incredible lesson: Do you want to be a Julian or a Jack Will? It's as simple as that.
Q: How do we teach kindness?
Palacio: I think it's something that can be "Trojan-horsed" into a lot of things. It can be as simple as choosing stories that have characters that we aspire to be like.
Chbosky: Kindness is eternal, but in this high-tech age, the ways in which we can be cruel to each other have become very sophisticated. As technology changes, the ways in which we teach kindness have to evolve. The message of R.J.'s book is going to last a lot longer than anyone's tweets.
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