January 12, 2014 by Jason Seligson
Charlie from Stephen Chbosky’s ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is one of my favorite YA protagonists of all time. The book and film adaptation are both very personal stories to me, and in many ways, I hold it up as the gold standard for young adult novels. Early last year, I read Tim Tharp’s ‘The Spectacular Now.’ I didn’t have nearly the same connection to Sutter as I did Charlie; I wanted to like it more, but the ending left me feeling cold. This past summer though, I sat down to watch the movie adaptation. I was taken aback—and pleasantly surprised—with how the film addressed and solved every last one of my concerns from the novel. Watching the film had another unexpected effect on me: I started to see Charlie and Sutter intersect in ways I had never thought of before.
On the surface, ‘Perks’ and ‘The Spectacular Now’ deal with characters who couldn’t be more unalike. Sutter is the life of the party, and Charlie—well he’s the guy who watches other people be happy at parties. Charlie is always quiet, always observing, ever the wallflower. He counts down the days until he’s finished with high school starting on his very first day, while Sutter doesn’t see any reason to ever leave. But even in this stark difference there’s a striking similarity: the future weighs on both of these characters almost as much as the past. Given a closer look, the two lost souls have a lot more in common than one initially expects.
By all appearances at least, Sutter Keely’s life is perfect—it’s a lie that he certainly believes for a while. I think there’s an element of reality to that; if someone’s the life of the party, then we often don’t tend to look past their outgoing exterior, and see what the person is really like. But there’s a darker side to this personality type: it’s not that being popular itself is a curse, it’s that there’s never a time for the mask to come off, not with all the endless partying and day seizing. Sure, these people can appear almost inhuman from a distance—but they’re obviously not, and that façade has to stop eventually. This is Sutter’s struggle: In many ways, ‘The Spectacular Now’ is actually a deconstruction of the “life of the party” archetype.
I want to focus more on the film version of Sutter (played by Miles Teller) than his book counterpart. I surprised myself by having more sympathy for Sutter upon a second viewing of the film; once again, a huge reason for my newfound support is because of the distinct deviations from the original source material. The Sutter Keely in Tim Tharp’s novel doesn’t get much hope in the end—he has no chance at redemption. The book provides such little closure to Sutter as a character, which was a bit disappointing given the investment built up for the reader up until that point. It’s precisely this lack of closure that makes the book pale in comparison to the film.
In the book, Sutter breaks things off with Amie (Shailene Woodley), and decides to go have a drink with some older gentlemen, who do nothing but encourage and reinforce his decision, saying that he “had to” leave Amie, and that he “saved that girl.” Finally putting an end to his relationship—something he thought she was going to do long ago—snaps Sutter back into the fog he was in at the beginning of the novel. He drives off in his car, drunk, and alone, concerned only about living for the moment—for the ‘spectacular now’ that he’s romanticized so much—and that’s it.
The movie’s version on the other hand, is far more satisfying: Sutter still leaves Amie at the bus stop, and goes to the bar, but instead of driving off alone, he comes home. After crashing into his family’s mailbox, Sutter’s mom comes running outside. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she asks him. And Sutter, who has wise-cracked the entire film—has numbed the pain with drink after drink—finally lets his guard down.
First, he gets angry. He tells his mom that he went to go see his Dad and that she was right—Sutter is exactly like him. Then, he breaks down in tears. He says he thinks nobody loves him. Seeing how hurt her son is, she holds him and tells him that he’s nothing like his father; that his heart is so big; that he genuinely cares about everyone. What Sutter failed to do up until this point was think about himself—he pushed the pain he was feeling down, thinking he could focus on other people, make them happy, have fun all the time, and that would be enough—instead, he became numb to everything he was doing in life. That, to me, was a huge breakthrough.
To not have Tharp’s Sutter reach this point—or have any real growth—by story’s end felt to me, like a missed opportunity. With these two well-thought out narrative tweaks, screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter pulled off a far more emotional ending. For him to go on having no relationship with any family, or with Amie, to continue to exist in his own alcohol-induced haze, is a sore mistake, and unnecessarily tragic (to the point of frustrating).
Thematically, the difference in endings matters enormously also: to paraphrase, in the film, Sutter has this wonderful realization about how living in the now is great and all, but the best part about ‘now’ is that there will be another one tomorrow. Essentially, he learns that the mystical ‘Spectacular Now’ isn’t the place to be living his life. His ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) knew this about Sutter all too well, and repeatedly tells him that he can’t just joke all the time; that there’s a time to be serious. As far as closing out Sutter’s journey, the movie nailed it where the book fell flat. ‘The Spectacular Now’ is one of few stories where its film is better than the original.
Sutter Keely is his own worst enemy—he says as much in his final paper, which he completes at long last (and possibly far past its due date) at the end of the movie. He needs to juggle the things about his personality that work against the things that don’t. He can’t and probably shouldn’t change who he is entirely; but he also has to enact real change for himself if he wants to grow and move on with his life.
Being your own worst enemy—or at least needing to confront your past in order to move forward—is a central struggle depicted in ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower.’ I’ve written before about the interesting dilemma the novel presents both Charlie and the reader with by the story’s end. It’s a toss-up between growing and not changing who you are completely. Toward the end of the novel, Sam tells Charlie that she wanted him to tell her how he really felt. That he can’t always be thinking about everyone else. And there’s so much truth to that—we want Charlie to get his happiness, but he’ll never get to prove his love for Sam by standing on the sidelines.
Because of who Charlie is (and not just because of what happened to him), he experiences everything so much more intensely than everyone else. And because he’s so compassionate to all the people that surround him, their pain is Charlie’s pain. Sutter may not seem like the most selfless person throughout the majority of the film; but we know he also struggles with these same issues of wanting to please everyone, putting others before yourself, even at great personal cost—even when it seems too much at times. To put it into a high school context, Sutter (who is never intentionally malicious) would not be one of the countless kids who bullied Charlie in ‘Perks.
‘Perks’ is about being an outsider, and finding friends who understand you. But ‘The Spectacular Now’ may also be just as much about those feelings of alienation, just told from the perspective of someone who is constantly surrounded by others, and has chosen to numb their pain. Sutter may be a social butterfly, but he certainly shares a lot in common with Charlie. In the end of their respective journeys, both of these characters are trying to better themselves, even when they’re not sure how to go about doing that. In essence, they’re trying to overcome their biggest obstacles in life: themselves.
Both Sutter and Charlie internalize their thoughts and feelings to their own detriment; this bottling-up eats away at them until they break down. In the beginning of Perks, Charlie seems to fear people, even though he’s desperate to make a connection (take his ongoing narration in writing letters addressed “Dear Friend”). By the end, Charlie’s been through the emotional ringer, but has a richer life with the friends he’s made, and the person he’s become; he’s always going to be a wallflower, but he promises to participate more [in his own life.] To borrow a quote from the book: “Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.” Charlie may use thought not to participate in life, but for Sutter, it’s the exact opposite—he uses life not to participate in thought.
Each character arrives at a similar point of self-realization, but their journeys in getting there are quite different. Both characters must accept their own limitations; forgive themselves for the things that aren’t their faults; and try to be live happier lives while doing so. The two are on the same emotional spectrum because they are both the most empathic people in their stories.
In a hypothetical world where fictional characters cross paths, Sutter and Charlie probably wouldn’t be very close, but I don’t think they would hate each other, either. Maybe they’d end up giving each other some sound advice at a party, swapping stories about “living in the now” and “feeling infinite.” I know I identified with both of these seemingly polar opposite characters a great deal, so who knows? Perhaps these two great fictional leads aren’t so different after all.