“Ian MacArthur is a wonderful sweet fellow who wears glasses and peers out of them with delight.”
That was the first sentence. The problem was that I just couldn’t think of the next one. After cleaning my room three times, I decided to leave Ian alone for a while because I was starting to get mad at him.
–The Perks of Being a Wallfower, Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out my sophomore year of high school. If I’d read it then I probably would have loved it just as much as everyone else seems to. I felt like a watcher then, especially that year. But as is my custom I didn’t get around to it, and then everyone else loved it so I avoided it. I do that sometimes, because I’m afraid that if I don’t love something as much as the other people I love and respect, that their love and respect for me will diminish. Better to be able to plead ignorance and nod along to the lecture you get about the thing. At least it’s still pulling you together that way.
I was perfectly content to live out my years in that ignorance, even though I had easy access to the book. There was a copy on my To Read shelf that had been given to me by a friend at some point along the way. It looked like it was going to be destined to sit there between Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy forever. And then the movie came out.
The movie–surprisingly well-written and well-directed by the author, two things almost unheard of in the Making Movies Out of Books business–is a thing of pain and beauty. The three leads do a wonderful job of portraying the tumult of teenage life and offering lines that might seem a bit silly in any other context with a large amount of unabashed sincerity that reminds me very much of what it was like to be a teenager. Everything felt so big then. The whole of my life was in front of me, yet every feeling I had and every slight I suffered felt like the last time. I held on to everything, worried that without any of it the rest of my life would unravel empty. In the movie, it’s Patrick (the amazing Ezra Miller, whom I’ve developed quite the crush on) who plays these things out the best, trying to maintain his air of ease and amusement while dealing with an unhealthy relationship that is eating away at him.
The movie broke open my heart and then sewed it up again. I laughed. I cried. I sobbed like a child. The book, which I finished on a plane on my way to Boston this past weekend, is something else entirely.
It’s unusual that a movie affects me more than a book, but I did not leave the book with the same sense of catharsis and hope that clung to me after the movie. In this case I’m tempted to say that the movie got there first, but I don’t think that’s it. I tried to leave the movie out of my reading of the book entirely, knowing that they’re two very different things. The format of the book left me stilted for a large part of it. It’s composed of first person, epistolary, observations from a young man just trying to figure out himself and the world around him. He seems to be a pretty reliable narrator when it comes to everyone but himself, because he’s not trying to persuade us to think things about these people, simply documenting the ways he interacts with them and the how that makes him feel. And maybe that’s it. Because he feels so removed from even the things he’s directly involved in it sometimes reads like a case study of modern youth. I didn’t quite feel the love he said he had for them for most of it.
That’s also one of it’s strengths, though, and the reason I wish I’d read it in ‘99. Because Charlie is viewing everyone through a window you get to see a lot of things that you probably wouldn’t see at all were the book written in another format. The people around him are in messy relationships that leave them vulnerable in different ways and are, for the large part, unable or unwilling to let go of them, even though they might hurt less in the long run.
I wish I’d known in high school that sometimes girls would have boyfriends that hit them and that sometimes girls would make hard decisions about their mistakes and their bodies. I wish I’d known, in a more than academic sense, that sometimes boys fell in love with other boys and that sometimes girls want to ‘explore’ lesbian relationships and that it’s okay. Normal even. I wish that I’d known that it wasn’t a weakness to cling to the small amount of love you think you have, because that’s what everyone does, even well into their adult years. And I wish I’d learned earlier that sometimes you have to laugh, because there’s nothing else you can do. The thing that the book does in an amazing, resonant way, that the movie doesn’t quite do for me, is normalize a whole host of different relationships that would have saved me time and agony had I just known that I wasn’t alone.
And that’s the whole point of it, really. None of us are alone, even when we think we are or want to be. Someone has lived this life before us. Someone has left behind instructions. We just don’t always know how to find them, and even if we do, we’re sometimes too proud and stubborn to believe that we’re not different and special and that the things that happened before aren’t going to help us.
Not only do we accept the love we think we deserve, but we accept the lives we think we’re owed, and we’re not always fair to ourselves. That’s a lesson I really could have used at sixteen, if only I hadn’t been too busy being afraid of the things I wanted to take them.
My friend Matthew Bowers and I discuss the film version in more depth over at Wrong Opinions About Movies, so give that a listen if you’re interested in all the ways that film broke me and put me back together, because that would be another 5,000 words if I tried to nail them down here.