It’s a gamble to make a bestselling book into a movie, especially if it’s a book aimed at and turned into a hit by young readers. The 10-15-year-old readers who gobbled up R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel “Wonder” — about 10-year-old Auggie, a boy born with major facial disfigurement caused by a Treacher Collins syndrome — are at that impressionable age where what they read is vividly conjured up in their minds.
The movie adaptation of “Wonder” is an example of a book being a book and a movie being a movie, and even though there are plenty of similarities, what young readers have envisioned isn’t necessarily what they’re going to get. But that is not a problem here. The central feature of the book, the severity of Auggie’s face, which makes him “different” from everyone else, has been softened for the film. Not to worry, he still doesn’t look like anyone else around him on his first day of the fifth grade, which is also the first time the homeschooled boy has mingled with a general population like this.
He’s not described in any detail in the book till the story is well under way, but he’s shown onscreen five minutes into the film. There are other differences that avid readers will pick up: The identity of the first person who will sit with Auggie at lunch, the movie that’s playing at the school’s field trip (Oh, no! “The Sound of Music” has become “The Wizard of Oz!”)
But enough nitpicking. What’s important is that the film expertly captures the spirit of the book and does a great job of delivering the book’s message that people need to be nice to other people. As long as that shines through, then it doesn’t matter what’s been left out of or added to or switched around.
Jacob Tremblay, the young actor who starred in “Room,” takes on and really becomes the character of Auggie, who is adored by mom and dad (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) as well as by his older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).
The film is introduced as Auggie’s story, being told by him in narration form, explaining that he’s pretty much come to terms, as best he can, with his lot in life. But, just like the book, the film is broken down into chapters, and suddenly, it becomes Via’s story, in which it’s revealed that not everything is as rosy as it seems with her. Auggie’s first day in a mainstream school coincides with Via’s first day in high school, meaning that both of them are entering new, uncertain worlds. We’re also informed, through Via’s narration, that she wishes she had as much attention at home as Auggie has been getting.
It keeps going back to being Auggie’s story and how he’s coping with things, but plenty of time is given to plenty of other characters. Mom and Via are stressed by their own situations: Mom hasn’t had any “me” time for years, and Via has realized that she’s been dumped by her old friends. Dad, though, is one cool cat. He’s closest to Auggie, and when dropping him off on the first day of school, finds it easy to softly but firmly say to him, “You’re gonna feel like you’re alone, but you’re not.”
It’s too bad that some of the other young characters have had their roles trimmed down, though there’s still a well-rounded portrait of Auggie’s new friend Jack (Noah Jupe, currently in “Suburbicon”), and some depth is added to the relationship between the young bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar) and his appalling parents.
Director Stephen Chbosky, who did everything right when directing teenage actors in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” does the same here with the talented Tremblay and his young costars, and knows exactly what to do with Owen Wilson’s uncanny timing in line delivery, and in having Julia Roberts do a lot more reacting than straightforward acting.
In the end, despite the fact that certain portions of the book have been toned down, that lesson of being nice to people stands strong. Here’s hoping the message gets through to its intended audience.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne; directed by Stephen Chbosky
With Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Noah Jupe, Izabela Vidovic