There are two types of books. On one side is the type of books you’d like to share with people. You post about them on Facebook. You buy your friends copies, eager that they will become fans of the books too. And then there are those secret, special books. The ones that speak to something in your heart so deeply that you want to keep it close to you and somehow you hope that no one ever really knows the story, because they couldn’t know it like you know it. You’re not opposed to other people liking it, it’s just…it’s yours.
This is Perks for me. I discovered it in 2006, hiding in the Young Adult section of the library. I read it…and loved it. And then I read it again, and again, and again, and now I’ve read it close to 20 times. It became a lot more than a book for me. I’d discuss it with people, but rub my eyebrows in frustration when they somehow missed the whole sexual abuse subplot. (Typically people have to read it twice in order to get it, but it happened.)
And then it happened, the event in every book fan’s life that should be a joyous event- the news came around that it was being turned into a movie. I really didn’t know how to feel, to be honest. I loved this book so much…would they be loyal? Would they, you know, get it? i knew Stephen Chbosky was in charge so it would be okay but then…he picked Emma Watson for Sam and that is…frankly not who I saw as Sam.
(Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those reviews where I bemoan how it wasn’t Just Like The Book. No, it wasn’t Exactly Like It, but it was pretty close to perfect. I’ll go through the Not Good Enoughs, though.)
Logan Lerman was always going to be a perfect Charlie, so I was kept in relative peace, with the side comment of ‘Emma, please do not ruin Sam.’ It was going to be a big deal if she ruined Sam.
Somewhere along the way I seem to have forgotten that I don’t own Sam, and it’s not up to me to figure out who Sam looks like. It’s always difficult, as a reader, to remember who owns the characters. (Not us, fandoms. Sorry.)
And I went to Perks in the theater with a friend who had never read the book and did not know what it was about, which made me nervous. (It was fine. Close friend. Choosing a friend to watch Perks of Being a Wallflower with is a lot like choosing a husband.)
And it…I came out of the theater both laughing and crying and thinking yes…it’s perfect. And it was. It caught the awkward beauty of Charlie, of growing up, of dealing with horrible things too early. It was…okay it wasn’t entirely perfect. But we’ll talk about that later. First…
The Perfect -
The first thing you have to understand about Perks is that it is a book about abuse. Several types of abuse. More than that, a culture of abuse within a family and how to break the chain through generations. Yes, it is definitely about abuse and not about mental illness. No, this isn’t an issue up for interpretation. It is what the book was about. And it’s key to understanding this book. I gave this book to a former editor once, and he gave me I Am Charlotte Simmons because he wanted to teach me something about writing – I still don’t know what that was supposed to teach me, but then I didn’t finish the book. And he never finished Perks. He got halfway through it before quitting because Charlie is just….whiny and awkward. It’s the same complaint people have about Holden from Catcher in the Rye. I could write essays on this issue alone as a fan of both books but this is a movie review so in short- yes. Yes. Charlie is a whiny high school freshman. The friend who I went to the movie with remarked that she found herself at several points in the movie thinking, ‘stop being stupid. Is that LSD you’re taking? Really?’ and then was confronted with the fact that there’s more to people’s decisions than their…well..decisions. He is a whiny high school freshman but keep going, if you’re reading the book right now and thinking ‘so much whining, he just needs to grow up’. You’re selling yourself short if you stop reading now.
I was worried the movie would lie, would not insert the sexual abuse in favor of something more easily digestible, especially for a movie aimed at teenagers. And that would have ruined it and made this not a good movie review. But they didn’t lie. It was there. In ways that might make you uncomfortable, whether or not it has happened to you. It was the best feeling in the world after explaining to people that yes, Charlie really was abused to see it onscreen, not being beaten around. Just explicitly told in every way. The abuse, the flashback, the things that lead up to a flashback. The things that happen after. It’s refreshing to have something to see- and the book is useful in the same way- to not feel crazy when these things happen to you. It’s also useful to point people to. It’s explicit, without being intentionally triggering, and it doesn’t lie about what happened. So often in the lives of sexual abuse survivors (or, in more broad terms, other abuse) truth is the most powerful thing because lying about it, brushing it under the rug, is the way you survive until you can’t anymore. Yeah, you survive, but you can’t grow and thrive. So..it means a lot that the movie version of the story is on the thrive side and told the truth.
Perks is written in letters, and many of the things mentioned in these letters come out beautifully in the movie (say, Sam’s boyfriend and the way he takes pictures and why it’s bad.) These are important things, and they are done beautifully. Moments that weren’t necessarily in the book (but not necessarily not in the book because we have to remember it was composed in letters) like Charlie shovelling snow high on LSD and Sam taking care of him. Not everything about the movie is perfect and I have to be fair and dissect both sides.
The Not Perfects
I’m not taking issue with casting. I mean, Ezra Miller isn’t Book!Patrick. Book!Patrick wasn’t effeminate, but Chbosky has said that when he met Ezra over Skype he knew that was his Patrick so…okay. I’ll let it go. Plus, Ezra was a wonderful Patrick even if he wasn’t Book!Patrick. And I don’t have issue with much. Really, to be honest, just one thing.
Charlie’s dad was….he just wasn’t like he was in the book. I have a lot of conflicted feelings over the fact that he was just….a really good dad. And that’s good, but Book!Dad really wasn’t a good dad. There was a chapter in which Charlie said strongly that his dad would never beat him but goes on in quick succession to describe, without awareness, three separate incidents of physical abuse. It seems one of the reasons might have been the fact that he was the type of abusive that often gets doubted- no, he was just tough, or whatever excuse people want to explain away. I’m okay with not seeing those types of articles because the majority of people won’t read the book but will watch the movie. But it did take away a good portion of what the book was about.
So I’m not going to tell you to see this movie. It’s a secret thing and it means a lot and it seems to mean a significant amount to everyone I know who has read it. In a lot of ways the movie seems to have been made just for readers of the book. But in the same way, go see it. It’s beautiful.