With most literary adaptations, you wonder how the filmmaker could possibly translate the magical, methodical nuance of the written word, which comes to life in the reader’s mind across many hours, if not days or weeks of reading, into a couple of hours of moving images. With Wonderstruck, I found myself wondering how I could possibly be so moved by stories of these two children and their utter enchantment with the world around them without seeing into their wide, curious eyes.
Wonderstruck, the latest feature from director Todd Haynes, is adapted from a children’s novel by Brian Selznick, an American writer and illustrator whose work has previously received the big screen treatment courtesy of Martin Scorsese. Selznick is credited with writing the screenplay, suggesting that the film is more an extension of his vision, facilitated by Haynes, than a complete reinterpretation of the work on the the director’s part. Either way, the formal ingenuity displayed in bringing this uniquely told story to life is commendable in its conception and execution.
Wonderstruck follows two runaway children who find themselves alone in New York City; Rose arrives by ferry in 1927 from her home across the bay, while Ben, in 1977, steps off a bus all the way from Michigan. The novel version of Wonderstruck is partly illustrated, with Rose’s story depicted in elaborate pencil sketches and Ben’s narrated in regular prose. Haynes emulates this stylistic juxtaposition by filming Rose’s sections in the style of the silent cinema of her era, while Ben’s scenes are shot in colour – a formal flourish which proves more than just a neat gimmick. Both children in Wonderstruck are deaf, and while that fact is refreshingly incidental as far a the larger plot is concerned, it makes for a film which emphasizes the power of moving images. Wonderstruck is, above all else, a celebration of the joy of looking, of being humbled by the breathtaking enormity and novelty of the world in the kind of way that comes naturally children. And more than just a love letter to early cinema a la The Artist (though they certainly are that too), the silent portions allude to and complement the children’s perspectives, even if it film doesn’t intend to realistically immerse us in the experience of a deaf child.
Rather, what Haynes and Selznick set out to do and achieve so outstandingly with Wonderstruck is to capture the magic of the world as seen through a child’s eyes, deaf or no. It’s a film which revels in the odd obsessions that develop in young minds and celebrates their ability to see the thrill and artistry of the things we grow accustomed to as we get older. Rose, whose bedroom window looks onto the Manhattan skyline, is enthralled by the city’s architecture, so much so that she’s recreated it out of cardboard, PVA glue and newspaper. To see her gaze up in awe at the real thing is sincerely and utterly heartwarming, as is moment when space-fanatic Ben discovers the meteor at the Natural History Museum. There’s nothing supernatural about the world of Wonderstruck and yet it’s a film suffused with magic, in which, through the eyes of these children, the mundane once again becomes extraordinary.
Typical of Haynes, the attention to detail that has gone in recreating the two different eras is astounding and superbly evokes their distinctive atmospheres. The New York of the late 20’s is a bustling metropolis filled with utopian promise, where the skyscrapers seem to stretch to infinity and the crowds writhe like an electric current. The 70s New York, on the other hand, is a sweaty, exhausted dump but no less full of life, pulsing with sounds of funk and soul while heat haze clings to the asphalt.
Where Wonderstruck falters is its plot. The mystery connection between the two children turns out to be pretty much what you’d expect, but what underwhelms the most is shakey narrative scaffolding that sustains it. It’s definitely more convenient than it is believable, for instance, that Ben’s mother point blank refuses to discuss his father with him, nor maintain any contact with his side of the family. And you can add Wonderstruck to the list of kids fiction with dead parents; both Ben’s are deceased, while Rose’s mum and dad are absent and emotionally distant respectively.
And yet, there’s even something a little magical about the way the story neatly ties together too. What links Wonderstruck’s chain of events are coincidences – highly unlikely, yes, but not unreasonable. Like the rest of the film, they are instances of something extraordinary rising out of ordinary, a collision of quotidian events unremarkable to the casual observer that of huge import to Ben and Rose. Like the rest of the film, they suggest that magic is in the eye of the beholder.
For more on the Glasgow Film Festival 2018 and its programme click here.