Interview with Author R.J. Palacio and Director Stephen Chbosky of Wonder

by Quentin Singer

Based on the critically acclaimed book by R.J. Palacio; the motion picture Wonder tells the story of Auggie Pullman. Auggie was a boy with severe facial deformity and aside from his mother’s homeschooling office; he’s never sat in a classroom a day in his life. The story of Wonder is centered around Auggie and the challenges he faces living with his facial difference. Having never attended public school, Auggie learns his parents are enrolling him into 5th grade at a local elementary school. Both Auggie and his family are constantly battling their inner fear of kids tormenting and bullying him, especially considering the new environment he’s being put in with hundreds of kids. The movie not only showcases Auggie’s struggle but branches off to his parents and his sister’s perspective as well, by giving a glimpse of what it’s like to live with someone who’s always under such care and has special needs.

After seeing this movie, I didn’t leave the theater being blown away, or enlightened with any new moral ideas. The film doesn’t do anything new in terms of its overarching message “to be kind to one another;” and it almost felt a little copy-paste from similar family movies. However, I don’t think the goal director Stephen Chbosky had in mind was to make a refreshing new family movie for all audiences, but rather make a movie that’s dedicated to a younger audience as well as their parents. The movie has very important themes for children and opens the conversation to how we should treat kids with disabilities.

A few days after the screening of the film, we had a chance to sit down and interview director Stephen Chbosky and author R.J. Palacio.

Berklee Groove: Mrs. Palacio, how did you come up with the idea for the story?

R.J. Palacio: Well there’s a scene in the book where Jack Will (one of Auggie’s classmates) talks about the very first time he saw Auggie, and that scene was based on a real-life encounter I had with my two sons. We found ourselves in very close proximity to a little girl who had a severe cranial facial difference, and my son reacted. This inspired me to think about what it must be like to face a world that doesn’t know how to face you back. One that stares at you and points at you, when you just feel absolutely ordinary on the inside, but no one else sees you that way.

Director Stephen Chbosky

Berklee Groove: Mr. Chbosky, the same goes for you, what inspired you to adapt the book into a film?

Stephen Chbosky: I loved the book, and it was given to me right around the time my son was born. There was something about the timing and reading this beautiful story of a boy, his parents, and his sister; and here I had a daughter and new son, so it just spoke to me in seeing all the struggles the Pullman family went through. I also felt like I related to my own memory of being a child through Auggie. I recognized the quality of the book and I think it’s one of the most important books in the past decade. I love it, it’s so artful especially for this age range, and I was honored to be a part of it.

Berklee Groove: How does the movie differentiate from the book and vice versa, in terms of how the story is told?

R.J. Palacio: Two ways, one I would say the movie tells a couple of stories that aren’t in the book. We see more of the parents in the film, where in the book we only see the parents from the kids’ point of view, so we only know what their lives are like through the filter of their kids. The parents are central to the story, but are in the background, whereas in the movie, they’re central to the story and more complex. The second difference is related to the overarching theme of the book, kindness, and how they beautifully echoed and enhanced that theme through the movie. You leave the movie feeling good, really good, and certainly given the times we’re living in now, that’s something really great.

Berklee Groove: One thing I appreciated from the story, was the different perspectives, and how it doesn’t only focus on Auggie’s struggle, but also his sister’s. The story shows how challenging it is for his sister, and how her whole life she’s been used to not receiving the same amount of attention as Auggie.

Author R.J. Palacio

R.J. Palacio: Yeah! Some of the sweetest compliments I’ve gotten from parents who read the book have been about how important it is to acknowledge their other children. Having a kid with any kind of special need impacts the entire family, and you really have to remember that as a parent.

Stephen Chbosky: Yeah the multiple points of view is something I love most about the book and I wanted to preserve that for the movie as well. I thought, how do you tell a story about kindness or empathy, without stopping and going ‘this is what mom’s going through right now.’ It led to some really great things artistically and I loved doing it. And going back to the emails R.J. was talking about, we had a lot of kids who had this condition visit us on set, and it was very interesting. Something I learned about kids with cranial facial differences was everyone around them wants to talk about that condition. Everyone wants to talk about that condition more than the kid. The kid wants to talk about baseball and Star Wars. That was a fascinating thing to watch and I tried to remind us that we are not our conditions, we are ourselves.

For more on Wonder you can check out the movie when it hit’s theaters November 17th, or you can pick up the book Wonder, by R.J. Palacio.