By Randi Loyd. Published in our Summer 2021 edition.
Warning: This essay deals with potentially disturbing issues of sexual abuse and suicidal ideation.
It proves quite difficult to adapt a novel made up entirely of letters, called an epistolary novel, into film. According to David Roche, “[letters] are really difficult things to dramatize. They’re quite boring in terms of film” (Roche 2007, 1). Because epistolary novels provide a deep look into the thoughts of the letter-writer, directors must convey the right information for the flow of the film while simultaneously keeping the audience’s interest and attention. Throughout the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, the main character, Charlie, embarks on a story told through a series of letters to “Dear Friend,” about the wonderous and sometimes hostile process of surviving teenage adolescence. During his first year of high school, Charlie meets new and older friends and struggles with mental health and depression as he tries to outrun his childhood traumas. Chbosky uses popular songs to effectively portray Charlie and his struggles. Similarly, the novel’s film adaptation, also written and directed by Chbosky, uses songs to channel Charlie’s emotional trauma within his letter writing. However, Chbosky consistently ignores the larger themes of depression and isolation presented in the novel version. For example, throughout the novel, the lyrics Charlie presents to his friends and family as gifts allow the audience to understand Charlie’s traumatic experiences, and, in turn, his resulting actions. Charlie’s gifts are analogous with the letters Charlie sends to “Dear Friend.” These gifts are vessels for Charlie’s thoughts and emotions and function as a cry for help; a concept of the emotional narrative completely lost on film audiences. The gifts are represented in the film with the use of sound and the songs Charlie listens to in the novel, which helps to mimic the voyeuristic nature of Charlie’s letter writing in the novel, but in total, fail to truly convey Charlie’s complex character.
Letter writing remains the sole medium for the emotional connection between Charlie and “Dear Friend,” but the inclusion of songs allows Charlie to convey deeper meaning in his prose. Charlie continually writes about his life and the problems he faces, but the letters themselves are gifts, sent by Charlie and received by “Dear Friend,” who is anonymous. Charlie writes, “You sounded like such a good person … the kind of person who would understand how they [the letters] were better than a diary because there is communion and a diary can be found” (Chbosky 1999, 206). Charlie found connection to “Dear Friend” through the “communion” or sharing of his deepest secrets. The isolation Charlie faces throughout his life impacts the connections he longs to strengthen through gift-giving. Charlie recognizes the lack of connection in his life and actively tries to repair this damage by gifting his thoughts to “Dear Friend” and establishing a relationship with his friends and family through gift-giving. Charlie’s gifts portray a plea for acknowledgement, something sorely lacking in his life. Similarly, all the gifts Charlie presents are conduits containing Charlie’s voice, much like the letters to “Dear Friend.” These concepts of gift-giving, intimacy, and Charlie’s desperation for understanding become completely lost on the film audience. The deeper connection that Charlie strives to achieve through his repeated gift-giving is not depicted in Chbosky’s efforts on film, though Chbosky attempts to bridge this connection gap through the technical aspects of film, using both sound montage and a musical soundtrack.
To convey Charlie’s intense psychological trauma, Chbosky uses the interesting tactic of brief, disorienting montages of Charlie’s childhood. This is an attempt to convey the motivation of Charlie during his traumatic episodes. At the climax of the film, when he walks home from the house of his friend Sam, the sound quality also changes. Chbosky employs a technique called sound montage, by using clips of different sounds to create a disjunction in relation to Charlie’s mental state. The audience experiences a soothing piano ballad but also hears snippets of the past memories Charlie fights to repress [1:29:02]. This method gives the audience a peek into his mind similar to how readers of the letters in the novel experience his breakdown. This showcases the degradation of his mental state because of the exclusion he faces, and the intimacy of the letters he confides in. This intense care for detail mimics Chbosky’s writing in the novel, which helps to convey the epistolary nature, but fails to help the audience understand Charlie’s motivation during his mental breakdowns.
Chbosky’s use of sound montage in the film suggests that the songs chosen for the soundtrack have a deeper meaning and can be analyzed to uncover more nuance in Charlie’s trauma. Laura Anderson, author of “Beyond Figures of the Audience,” claims, “popular music soundtracks are conceived as shaping the psychological processes by which audiences make sense of film texts” (Anderson 2016, 30). Soundtracks should represent the missing connection between the audience and Charlie and help the audience to “make sense” of Charlie’s actions. As such, the music Charlie listens to represents his mental state and unconscious desires. Because of the way music is connected to psychology, it is especially important to consider in young adult books and movies. Karen Coats writes in ‘“The Beat of your Heart’: Music in Young Adult Literature and Culture,” “Music becomes an important code for social and individual identity formation, much like it functions in actual teenage culture” (Coats 2012, 112). Therefore, we have to pay attention to the “code[s]” in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Coats suggests, the most important song in Charlie’s life, “Asleep,” by The Smiths, signifies this “code of social and individual identity.” To solidify the connection between Charlie and the audience, Chbosky rightly chooses to include “Asleep” within the soundtrack, which is an important song repeatedly mentioned throughout the novel. The lyrics of this song provide insight into Charlie’s trauma, which becomes a part of his identity due to the intense nature of his childhood sexual trauma. Lead singer of The Smiths, Steven Morrissey, croons, “Sing me to sleep, I don’t want to wake up on my own anymore” (Morrissey 1986). These lyrics are a parallel to the letter Charlie writes within the novel, which reveal the suicidal loneliness Charlie experiences in his everyday life. These feelings of self-harm and depression are expressed through Morrisey’s metaphor of sleep as death. He sings, “Don’t feel bad for me. I want you to know, deep in the cell of my heart, I will feel so glad to go” (Morrisey 1986). These lyrics signify a deep yearning for an end to suffering – an end to life. The resulting gladness that Morrisey mentions stems from the relief of the pain the singer, and listener, feel. The haunting tune drifts with the words, “There is another world. There is a better world. Well, there must be” (Morrisey 1986). This is a suggestion of the afterlife that Morrisey pleads there must be, in order for him to escape his loneliness. A world where he can go to sleep and never wake up. The song ends with a repeated “bye” as the singer gives a final farewell to the people in his life and the world that could not save him. Chbosky uses this song in the novel and film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a source for Charlie, and his audience, to understand the trauma and depression Charlie truly feels. In the film, the employment of the song, along with the montage of Charlie’s isolation at home and school [9:26], provides the audience with at least a partial conception of Charlie’s life.
During a Secret Santa event, Charlie gifts his friend Patrick a mix tape with the song “Asleep” on the tape twice. Jan C. Susina, author of “Sound Tracks of Our Lives: Mix Tapes and Playlists in the Young Adult Literature Classroom,” suggests, “A well designed mix tape allows the individual to craft a musical narrative that evokes a specific mood and feeling through the lyrics of music or songs” (Susina 2020, 302). This recurrence of the song “Asleep” within the novel reiterates the importance of the song in Charlie’s life, and the mood associated with the lyrics. However, since film audiences too often do not pay attention to the soundtrack, playing the song only once for a brief moment in the first ten minutes of the film does not provide the crucial suicidal details at the time in the narrative, the halfway point in Charlie’s realization, when viewers most need this information. This, in turn, further alienates the audience from Charlie’s true feelings. This fault in the film ruins Chbosky’s attempt to convey the intimate emotions that the novel reveals.
To adapt his beloved epistolary novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, into an entertaining film, Chbosky needed to imitate the intimacy of Charlie’s letters. His tactic of employing the material of songs using sound fell short from emanating Charlie’s unique voice and psychological state. Furthermore, the film fails to acknowledge the importance of gift-giving within Charlie’s life and the importance of the song “Asleep” to Charlie and subsequently, his friends. Charlie gives and receives songs that represent his innate need for companionship and understanding. The songs in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are themselves vessels of Charlie’s thoughts, like his letters. The film’s treatment of letter writing is too subtle to truly convey the vastness of correspondence and its many analogous mediums represented in the novel. Though the film forsakes Charlie’s letters and gift-giving for a more classically cinematic approach, the novel still binds Charlie and the reader together through the trials, tribulations, and intimate secrets Charlie pens, finding the “Dear Friend” in us all.
Anderson, Lauren. 2016. “Beyond Figures of the Audience: Towards a Cultural Understanding of the Film Music Audience.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 10.1 25-51,103.
Chbosky, Steven. 1999. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Gallery Books.
Chbosky, Stephen. 2012. Director. The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Coats, Karen. 2012. “‘The Beat of Your Heart’: Music in Young Adult Literature and Culture.” Contemporary Adolescent Literature and Culture: The Emergent Adult, edited by Mary Hilton and Maria Nikolajeva, Ashgate Publishing Co. pp. 111–125.
Roche, David. 2007. Books and Letters in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005): Anticipating the Spectators Response; Persuasions On-line, 27.2
Susina, Jan C. 2020. “Sound Tracks of Our Lives: Mix Tapes and Playlists in the Young Adult Literature Classroom.” In Teaching Young Adult Literature, edited by Mike Cadden,