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A sense of ‘Wonder’: What it took to bring the best-selling book to the big screen

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“There’s the reality of what Treacher Collins syndrome is,” said “Wonder” director Stephen Chbosky, “and then there’s the reality of what you can put a 9-year-old actor through to achieve it.”

By Ed Symkus Globe Correspondent 

The big breaks for filmmaker Stephen Chbosky and novelist R.J. Palacio came at roughly the same time. The year 2012 saw publication of Palacio’s first book, “Wonder,” and release of the film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which Chbosky directed and wrote, based on his own novel.

But Chbosky and Palacio (real name Raquel Jaramillo; her mom’s maiden name is Palacio) didn’t meet until well after “Wonder,” which opens Friday, was green lit, and Chbosky was finalized as the director. They got together for dinner to discuss how the book would be adapted into a film.

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The story is about a close, loving family — mom, dad, son, daughter — dealing with the fact that the 10-year-old son Auggie (played by Jacob Tremblay, from “Room”) was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare genetic condition that results in severe facial disfigurement. It picks up at the point when the home-schooled Auggie is going to mix in with other kids in a normal school setting.

“We met for dinner in New York,” said Palacio, sitting across from Chbosky in a Boston hotel conference room where she noted that, outside of book covers, she still goes by Raquel. “We talked about the book a lot, but it turned out we also had some favorite movies in common. I remember saying that Peter Weir was one of my favorite directors.”

“And [Weir’s] ‘Dead Poets Society’ is my favorite movie,” interrupted Chbosky.

“And ‘Gallipoli’ is one of mine,” said Palacio, who added, “Stephen was so excited about wanting to bring the book to the screen; he was excited about being able to sort of rework the draft of the script that was then in place. He kept coming back to the idea that if anything at that point was not quite right with the script, we’d have to go back to the book. He’d say, ‘I don’t know why the script goes this way, but the answer is right there on Page 97.’ ”

“There was a good amount of rewriting on the script that was given to me,” said Chbosky. “There was already some terrific work there, but it was my job to say if a great line or idea is already here, use it, and combine those really good moments with this book that I revere.”

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Then there was the decision as to what Auggie was going to look like in the movie. Palacio is constantly asked about the incident that inspired her to write the book. It still moves her, and the experience of sitting across from her as she recalled it was fascinating.

She looked off into the distance and said, “I was with my two sons in front of an ice cream shop. My younger son, who was 3 at the time, and I, were waiting out front while my older son went in to get some milkshakes. I was sitting on a bench, and he was in a stroller, facing me. Then some people sat down right next to us. I glanced over and I saw that the little girl sitting to my right had a very severe cranial facial difference. I panicked because I thought that if my little boy looked up and saw her, he would probably respond in a very vocal way.

“[S]uddenly my older son came out of the shop, my younger son looked up, and he saw the little girl. I could tell he was about to start screaming or crying, so I got up quickly, grabbed my sons, and left the scene. But afterwards I thought about how poorly I handled the situation, that I should have turned to the little girl and just started a conversation, normalized everything. I was obsessed about it all day long.

“Then that night the Natalie Merchant song ‘Wonder,’ about a child who’s born who looks so different that doctors come from distant cities just to see her, came on the radio. A light bulb went off. I decided to write a book called ‘Wonder’ and it was going to be about what it must be like to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back.”

The book is explicit in describing Auggie’s face: “His eyes are about an inch below where they should be . . . his nose is disproportionately big . . . his head is pinched in on the sides where the ears should be . . . he doesn’t have cheekbones.”

“But I had very little input in that part of the filmmaking process,” she said of the character’s physical presentation. “Ultimately, I’m very happy with where it came out. In the book, Auggie’s condition is severe, but in a movie, we don’t need to go that far to understand that. You know, when you’re 10 or 11 years old, any difference is enough to sort of mark you. The fact is that in the movie, he looks different and it’s an obvious difference.”

Chbosky added, “I was happy to go as severely as we could with the look, but not lose Jacob. There’s the reality of what Treacher Collins syndrome is, and then there’s the reality of what you can put a 9-year-old actor through to achieve it. If you’re not willing to make it a computerized performance, which I did not want, that was as far as you could go with practical makeup.”

Palacio acknowledged that she and the filmmakers have been getting complaints from disability rights groups about not using an actor with TCS.

“Before Jacob was involved, the producers put out a nationwide casting call,” she said. “Ideally they would have cast a child who had Treacher Collins. But to find a kid who is the right age, who had the right series of facial differences and could act, well, it’s a very narrow pool. They did fly one contender to Hollywood for a screen test, but ultimately they decided to go with whoever could bring Auggie to life the best, and Jacob is a once-in-a-generation type of actor.”


Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.