Wonder

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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. Wonderbegins 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.Like Auggie, I’m living with a facial difference due to a craniofacial condition that required dozens of surgeries. 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.

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