‘Wonder’ director, author of inspiring best-selling book give a crash course in kindness
BOSTON — With her story of a fifth-grader ostracized by his classmates because of a severe facial deformity, R.J. Palacio’s novel, “Wonder,” swirls you up in a tsunami of emotions.
Palacio, otherwise known as Raquel Jaramillo, published the “humble little book” on Valentine’s Day 2012. But her target audience wasn’t the lucrative young-adult crowd. Rather, it was written for middle-school-agers as both a rallying cry against bullying and a teachable moment on celebrating differences and developing empathy.
Then the unexpected happened. The story of the boy named Auggie resonated so strongly, it made entire families weep. Parents and children were reading aloud together. Boys put down their comic books and PlayStation controls. “Wonder” seems to have made every child — and adult — that read it a better person. The book went on to become a worldwide sensation, selling more than 5 million copies in 45 languages. It sparked the #ChooseKind movement, a campaign built on the book’s simple yet powerful message about tolerance and acceptance.
“Wonder” fervor continues (bring tissues) when the film adaptation, directed by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), comes to local cinemas loaded with star power: Oscar-winner Julia Roberts (“Erin Brockovich”), Owen Wilson (“Midnight in Paris”), Noah Jupe (“Suburbicon”) Daveed Diggs (Broadway’s “Hamilton”), Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”) and Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) as main character, August “Auggie” Pullman.
“Everything that’s happened since the publication of the book has been far more than anything I could have ever dreamed of. And, I dream big,” Palacio said in a joint interview with Chbosky at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston.
The movie is as moving and uplifting as the book. It captures the sweetness of the story and hits all the highs and lows of Auggie’s fifth-grade year at Beecher Prep, his first ever “regular” school. I cried three times — before the opening titles! I’m not alone. Palacio said “Wonder” makes her weepy, too. She said she shed many tears while at work on the novel in the tiny walk-in closet she converted into an office.
“I wrote the book mostly in the middle of the night because that was the only time that no one would bother me,” Palacio said. “My routine was get up at midnight and write until 3 in the morning, and I did that for about a year-and-a-half. There were many times when I would find myself absolutely sobbing as I was writing. Your characters just take over. You set up a situation, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. The characters tell you.”
She cites a scene set in the woods with Auggie and three of his classmates — Amos, Henry and Myles — when Auggie lifts his hand to high-five the boys, who up until now had never touched him. “He raises his hand in that night sky not knowing if they were going to reciprocate,” she said. “I didn’t know while writing that scene whether or not they were going to high-five him back. When they did, I was weeping. I was so glad.”
Palacio said she was inspired to write “Wonder” after her son reacted negatively to seeing a young girl with a craniofacial condition at an ice cream shop.
“It was an awkward scene, and I wasn’t really happy with the way I handled it,” Palacio said. “My son started crying and I whisked him away, not to protect him from seeing the little girl, but to protect the little girl from seeing his reaction to her face. Afterwards, it just got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back.”
On the ride home after that encounter, Palacio turned on the radio and heard Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder.” It was serendipity. “I started writing ‘Wonder’ that night,” Palacio said.
“It’s another one for Catholic guilt,” says Chbosky, joking. “I don’t care what anyone says, it leads to good stuff.”
Chbosky said he’s one of “those boys who read the book and was changed by it. I might be older but the book spoke to me. So in the process of reading it and adapting it … it’s made me a better everything — father, director, person.”
In adapting the movie, Chobsky had some tough decisions to make. The book is told through the shifting perspectives of six characters. Chobsky picked four for the movie and expanded the roles of Auggie’s mom, Isabel (Roberts) and dad, Nate (Wilson).
“I wanted to reward the parents. For me, it was very personal the things that I added for Isabel,” Chobsky said. “You know, I was fascinated by Mom’s first day of school. We always show the kids’ first day of school, but what about Mom, who’s been home schooling him for 10 years? That was a little, quiet, private love letter to my wife and everything she’s gone through since having my kids.”
From the casting choices to what aspects of the narrative were left out or added, Chobsky said all his decisions were in service to the book and its messages.
“From the biggest star all the way on down to a production assistant, we all knew that we were doing something special and we just wanted to serve this story,” he said. “I’ve done enough, written books, screenplays, directed before, and I just wanted to create an atmosphere that was inclusive of everybody’s opinions because you can’t make a movie about kindness without being kind. It’s impossible. And there’s going to be no yelling on the set, so I gained 20 pounds instead.”
Palacio said she felt the warmth the first time she visited the set. “Everybody talked to me about it, saying ‘This is really, really special. This is not typical.’ People kept saying ‘It’s not usually this nice, this calm, this wonderful.’ The kids all had such a great time. He was like their teddy bear, Pied Piper. It was just something very special about being on that set.”
Chbosky said he hopes that feeling translates to audiences. “I love my business. I love movies. There have been a lot of bleak ones the past few years. I don’t know what’s going on out there, but I think someone needs to bring Hollywood a nice cauldron of soup and pass out cookies. With ‘Wonder,’ I wanted to do a fun one for the underdogs.”
Palacio compared the movie adaptation to “giving over your child to be raised by other people.” But she said she got a good sense after she met producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman.
“They wanted to make a movie about kindness,” she said. “Our thoughts on how to do that very much aligned. I remember telling them ‘I wrote this very small and humble book and I want to make a small and humble movie. If you’re going to do it, please make it like that, understated.’ Because if not done deftly by really good talented people it could become sentimental, over-dramatic. I did not want that.
“So when they brought Stephen on, it was the perfect match. There’s a lot of emotion in the movie and Stephen’s a master at restraining that emotion and knowing when to let it flow and when to narrow down the focus. He brought a writer’s viewpoint to the story.”
Palacio said she never set out to change the world with her story about Auggie Pullman. She was just hoping to make tuition money to pay for her two sons’ school. “But if this is my legacy, it’s not a bad one to leave behind ... To be the spokesperson for kindness and choosing kindness is not a bad thing.”
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.