Another day, another young adult literary phenom makes its way to the screen. Yes, it would be easy to glibly dismiss today’s news that Lionsgate has hired Jack Thorne, the British playwright and screenwriter behind TV’s “Skins," to adapt R. J. Palacio’s bestselling debut novel, Wonder. But in this case, it would mean overlooking something truly extraordinary.
Wonder is not your average everyday YA novel. There are few heroes in the young adult fiction boom who aren’t introduced as the kind of unremarkable, perpetually underestimated kids whose extraordinary qualities have yet to make themselves known. But from the very first sentence of Wonder, it’s instantly clear that there’s nothing average about ten-year-old Auggie Pullman, the titular boy wonder at the center of Palacio’s deeply moving and mordantly funny bestselling debut novel. The book begins, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
Not only is it refreshing to come across a novel aimed at young readers that doesn’t presume that only the kids who blend into the crowd harbor the secret powers necessary to overcome adversity, this novel makes a point of making the opposite point. As the old saying goes, it’s our differences that make us stronger.
But there is nothing preachy or sanctimonious about Wonder or the pack of middle schoolers who populate its pages. The story follows Auggie, who has undergone many surgeries for his severe facial deformities, as he enters public school for the first time and attempts to navigate his way through that social battleground without being flogged. Fortunately, Auggie has a secret weapon in the form of his solid, supportive, and often silly family. But like most kids his age, all Auggie wants is to disappear into the crowd of wisecracking boys, particularly once he finds himself in the crosshairs of the school bully.
This is the kind of fragile material that requires special handling as it makes its way into theaters. And while Lionsgate is not known for emotionally nuanced takes on adolescence that don’t involve vampires or sadistic teen death matches, producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman are the team behind some creatively audacious filmmaking, including “The Fighter” and “The Muppets.”
The closest Hollywood has come to making a film like this was 1985’s “Mask,” which starred a young Eric Stoltz as a facially deformed teenager who builds a sense of belonging among his mother’s biker gang friends. While "Mask" took place primarily in the adult world and attracted a similar demo of moviegoers, with “Wonder,” the challenge (and mandate, really) will be to authentically capture the social dynamics of today’s tweens within a story that will also engage their parents.