By Ariel Henley
The film adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s bestselling novel downplays some painful truths about what it’s like to live with disfigurement.
Since its premiere last month, Wonder has been touted as a “feel-good,” family-friendly movie for the holiday season. The film is based on the 2012 bestselling novel by R.J. Palacio and follows a boy who was born with a craniofacial condition known as Treacher Collins syndrome, which causes disfigurement. Ten-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has had to undergo nearly 30 surgeries, and his mother (Julia Roberts) gave up working on her Ph.D. to care for him. Wonder begins with Auggie facing a new sort of challenge: entering fifth grade at a mainstream prep academy after being homeschooled his whole life.
Wonder, both the book and the film, has received praise for being a nuanced tear-jerker about a difficult subject. The story’s emphasis on the value of empathy has resonated with many educators, parents, and children, while the struggles of its main character have spurred a greater awareness of craniofacial conditions, which affect the formation of the skull and face. After the novel was published, the Children’s Craniofacial Association ordered thousands of special-edition copies with its own logo to use as teaching tools. Wonder is, in short, one of the most popular modern stories about what it’s like to live with a facial difference. And yet, in many ways, it isn’t really about disfigurement, or even primarily about Auggie himself.
Told from several different perspectives, Wonder is broadly about human connection and the idea that everyone is extraordinary in their own way. As a result, the new adaptation (and to a lesser extent the novel) speaks less to people living with disfigurement and more directly to those affected by its aftermath—the family and friends of individuals with craniofacial conditions—and to the general public. Wonder is, to be sure, a well-crafted, well-intentioned movie. But it also downplays some important economic, emotional, medical, and psychological realities of living with a facial difference. In neglecting key opportunities to build on its source material, Wonder missed a chance to better represent the experiences of children like Auggie who are already so widely misunderstood.
To stay true to the alternating narration style Palacio used in the book, the film’s director Stephen Chbosky divided Wonder into chapters, each told from the point of view of a different character. The earliest scenes show Auggie’s perspective, revealing what it’s like to live with a disfigured face in a society where physical appearance so often determines a person’s worth. Chbosky makes clear that Auggie is a lot like other little boys: He loves his family, which consists of his sister Via and their two parents. He likes Star Wars and learning about space. Only his face sets him apart. Auggie learns at a young age to rely on his charm and self-deprecating humor to cope with bullying from other children. A talented performer, Tremblay easily communicates a particular kind of self-awareness that can develop in response to social ostracism.
When I saw Wonder, a number of choices stood out to me as unintentionally ignorant or insensitive, but one of the first things that surprised me was how the film chose to portray the Pullmans as a wealthy family. The novel doesn’t exactly delve into the financial considerations that can come with having a child with a facial difference. Yet the adaptation seems disingenuously detached from economic reality, offering an almost Hallmark movie–esque depiction of Auggie’s home life. Viewers aren’t encouraged to think about the enormous toll that paying for 27 surgeries might have taken on the Pullmans, who live in a Brooklyn brownstone and can send two children to private school on a single-parent income. Of course, not all films need to dig into their characters’ money situation. But a movie centered on a family navigating the difficulties of Treacher Collins shouldn’t distort such an essential part of that experience. (Though the syndrome isn’t outright named in the book or the movie, Palacio has specified in interviews that Auggie has that particular condition.)
After my twin sister and I were born with Crouzon syndrome, which resulted in the premature fusion of bones in our skull, a local newspaper ran an article calling us “The Million-Dollar Twins,” because of how expensive our medical procedures were. My mother still laughs at the headline, because our hospital bills far exceeded $1 million. Like Auggie, I grew up in an upper-middle-class family and had the privilege of being treated by top surgeons at top hospitals. But both of my parents worked full-time (and sometimes more than one job) to cover the costs, so homeschooling was never an option. Wonder’s rosy approach to the Pullmans’ financial circumstances obscures the hardships faced by many parents of children with facial differences.
The adaptation also skews reality—and, in this case, the source material—by making Auggie’s appearance far less extreme. In the novel, Palacio gave page-long descriptions of the boy’s face, detailing the at-times-gruesome truth about living with a craniofacial condition. “Sometimes people assume he’s been burned in a fire: His features look like they’ve been melted, like the drippings on the side of a candle,” Palacio writes. Auggie’s eyes, readers are told, are halfway down his face and sag and slant downwards. He doesn’t have eyebrows, eyelashes, or cheekbones. (If you look up images of Tremblay’s Auggie and images of children with Treacher Collins, you can see how stark the difference is.)
The film’s producers likely had their reasons for giving Auggie only a slight disfigurement, maybe to avoid being seen as exploiting his looks or to make the movie as broadly appealing as possible. But it’s one thing to read about severe disfigurement and the social trauma that can accompany it in a book, and another entirely to see it play out on screen, where viewers might be forced more viscerally to confront their own prejudices. The adaptation, instead, goes a gentler route: The prosthetics that Tremblay wears make Auggie difficult to look at, but not too difficult, allowing viewers to be more receptive to the film’s message of accepting those who look different—though not too different.
Critiques of how Wonder handled Auggie’s looks and the Pullmans’ wealth have been largely absent from the many positive reviews the film has earned. In fact, many reviews have used language considered derogatory within the facial-difference community, highlighting the relative invisibility of people with craniofacial conditions within the media (one piece referred to Auggie as a “deformed little kid”). It’s little surprise then that one of the movie’s most highly praised features happens to be, in my view, one of its biggest weaknesses: the multiple-perspective storytelling.
In addition to Auggie, Wonder looks through the eyes of his sister Via, Auggie’s friend Jack, and Via’s best friend Miranda. In doing so, the film takes a multifaceted approach to everyone except, somehow, Auggie himself. Via’s chapter digs deep into her love for her brother and her envy of the attention he receives. “Auggie is like the sun; the world revolves around him,” she says in a voiceover. Via’s story centers on her resentment about always coming second to Auggie at home because of his medical problems. But Wonder explores the many other parts of her life, too, including her relationship with Miranda, her crush on a classmate, and her plans to audition for the school play.
Wonder could have been a better adaptation if it had afforded Auggie the same interior complexity it gives to Via and the other narrators. To its credit, the movie includes fewer perspectives than the novel does, granting Auggie more room in the film. Still, he functions mostly as the thread that ties all the characters together, and his main mission is adjusting to a society that treats him like an outcast. He’s quiet, likable, and slow to anger. “Dude, this is after plastic surgery. It takes a lot of work to look this good,” Auggie says when Jack asks if he’s considered getting reconstructive work done. But this question isn’t even treated as insulting because Auggie’s entire identity comes back to what he looks like.
It would have been powerful to see Auggie accept his own face, while still wishing to be accepted by others. Instead, he spends much of the first half of the film wearing an astronaut helmet out of shame, an image that dominates Wonder’s promotional material. Eventually, Auggie’s father (Owen Wilson) hides the headgear. “I want to see my son’s face,” he tells Auggie. Of course, many people with craniofacial conditions have a hard time coming to terms with their appearance. But given how few films exist about people with facial differences, scenes like this can leave the false impression that deep insecurity is the default for children like Auggie, when that isn’t always the case. In a story published by The Washington Post, Teresa Joy Dyson, 10, offered her thoughts on the movie: “I didn’t like that Auggie was ashamed of his face. I have Treacher Collins syndrome and I’m kind of proud of my face. I’m not afraid to look at people and show who I am,” she said.
Some of Wonder’s representation problems echo the issues that can arise when Hollywood makes stories about marginalized groups. The existing lack of pop-cultural visibility for people with facial differences (roughly 600,000 people have been diagnosed with a craniofacial condition in the U.S.) is amplified by Hollywood’s emphasis on conventional attractiveness in performers. It’s unfortunate that Wonder—a film about how there’s no shame in being who you are, no matter what you look like—ended up casting a child without a facial difference as Auggie, and fitting him with elaborate prosthetics to re-create his disfigurement. It was hard for me to watch the movie and not feel like Wonder had validated Auggie’s desire to hide himself away out of embarrassment, despite producers’ efforts to cast a child with a craniofacial condition.
“I was pushing hard to cast a boy with Treacher Collins,” Palacio said in an interview with The Sun. “But finding one the right age, who had the right facial differences, whose parents would let him miss school for months of shooting, leaves a very small pool of people.” Palacio’s explanation nonetheless glosses over the fact that her novel never specified which condition Auggie had, which could have allowed producers to expand their search. The author shared that one boy with a facial difference came close to nabbing the lead role:
Acting can be tough. You have to read the lines 30 different times, in different ways, with 100 people watching you, opposite Julia Roberts. Nathaniel had physical limitations, he was hard to understand sometimes, and if you have a $20 million movie you have to make that call. The family did become consultants on the movie, though, and during filming his dad said to me, “Thank God they didn’t cast Nathaniel. It would have been too much.”
Tremblay did a skilled job of bringing Auggie to life. But his casting means that a nondisfigured writer (Palacio) and a nondisfigured actor (Tremblay), who have no personal experience with craniofacial conditions, have now seemingly become the face and voice of an entire community. (For her part, Palacio was inspired to write Wonder after her 3-year-old son started crying at the sight of a young girl with a facial difference.) Investing in authentic casting, despite the difficulties of the search, would have allowed the film’s creators to really stand by their message of inclusion and acceptance.