One day author R.J. Palacio sat outside a New York ice cream parlor with her son when a young girl sat down beside her. However, unlike other girls her age, this one had pronounced facial scars and deformities. Even though she was intrigued, Ms. Palacio nonetheless tried her best not to stare.
“My reaction to her, my son’s reaction to her, got me thinking how hard it must be to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back,” Ms. Palacio told The Washington Times. “So I started writing from that point of view; I thought this was a good idea for a book.”
And write she did. Her manuscript, “Wonder,” was published in 2012, and followed a fictional boy named Auggie who, due to a difficult birth, bears many of the deformities Ms. Palacio observed on that mysterious New York youngster years earlier. Fearful of venturing out in the open world, Auggie maintains a healthy fantasy life, and ventures outside only under cover of an astronaut’s helmet gifted by his father.
Unsurprisingly, given the whimsical nature of the story, movie producers started courting Ms. Palacio for the film rights to “Wonder,” but she initially balked at most of the overtures.
“I didn’t love their vision for how they would do it,” she said. “I’d rather no movie get made of my book than a bad movie.”
However, she was soon wooed by producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, who shared Ms. Palacio’s vision for “Wonder” to transition to filmdom.
“I loved that they were so honest, [saying] ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this movie, but I promise we’re going to do it, and you’re going to be happy with it,’” she said the producers assured her.
The producers hired screenwriter Stephen Chbosky to write the script, having previously worked with him on the live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” starring Emma Watson.
“I knew the title because she and I were both best-sellers,” Mr. Chbosky said, referring to his own book, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” “I thought, very wrongly, that it was a book for kids exclusively. Then I read it right around the time my son Theo was born, and I just loved it.”
Mr. Chbosky not only co-wrote the script with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, but was also hired to direct the film. (He had earlier adapted his own “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” as a film.) Similarly to the book, the film narrative of Auggie is interspersed with those of his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), his best friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Via’s estranged friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell).
Young Jacob Tremblay (Brie Larson’s son in “Room”) was cast as Auggie — an actor Mr. Chbosky describes as “once in a generation.” As the film opens, Auggie’s parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) tell the young man it is time to leave behind the safe cocoon of homeschooling and attend a school with his peers.
Some kids, like Jack Will, are kind to him, but many more bully Auggie both due to his physical appearance and his intellect, which is years ahead of his peers. To transcend the taunts, Auggie often escapes into fantasizing that he is hanging out at school with Chewbacca.
Getting Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy to grant permission for the Wookie warrior to appear in “Wonder” took “one phone call,” Mr. Chbosky said.
“[Because of] how beautiful the book is, they approved it right away,” he said of the company that is now under the Disney umbrella.
Far too many films feature preteen and teenage characters whose dialogue might as well have been written by Aaron Sorkin. However, both Ms. Palacio and Mr. Chbosky were conscious that the young heroes at the center of “Wonder” would behave and speak age-appropriately.
“I consider myself first and foremost a professional eavesdropper,” Ms. Palacio said. “I think if you just stop to listen, you can learn a lot.
“In terms of the ‘kidspeak,’ I had a 12-year-old son and a 3-year-old son while I was writing ‘Wonder,’ so I was surrounded by boys all the time, [so] I speak ‘boy.’”
Mr. Chbosky added: “For me, in terms of why a lot of adults can’t write kids or teenagers is because they consider them kids or teenagers versus human beings who happen to be this age or that age.”
One of the central tenets of “Wonder,” the book and the film, is that even good kids can get caught up in taunting others not because they are inherently mean but simply because they succumb to peer pressure and the social trap of not wanting to be the outsider themselves.
“One of the things I tried to [show] in the book is everyone is insecure, even the popular kids,” Ms. Palacio said. “They’re making jokes at someone else’s expense because they’re just trying to be popular themselves.”
Mr. Chbosky, who said he was bullied just like Auggie, humbly admits that he too once jumped on the bandwagon of taunting a fellow student simply because everyone else was doing so.
“This one kid in the neighborhood, the kids all called him ‘Ricky Ticky Taffy,’ and he was like the different kid,” Mr. Chbosky said. “One day the neighborhood, they just deiced they didn’t like Ricky. You go along with it [and] it still makes me sad to this day.
“If I could find that kid and apologize, I would.”
Nonetheless, as “Wonder” unfolds, not only does Auggie find the kindness in many of his fellow students, but also a spirit within himself that he perhaps didn’t allow to be seen by anyone beyond his immediate family.
“I think George Saunders said it really beautifully: ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,’” Ms. Palacio said. “Those moments when it’s not even so much when people were mean to us, but hopefully those few moments when we could have been nicer.
“I think one of the things ‘Wonder’ does do is it tries to inspire empathy in kids so that you do know that littler snigger that no one else is hearing, the kid actually can hear it,” she sad.
“Wonder” opens in the District Friday.