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Stephen Chbosky was born on January 25, 1970 in Pittsburgh, PA, and grew up in Upper St. Clair, a suburb of Pittsburgh that is much like the setting of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chbosky studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and in 1995, he wrote, directed, and starred in the independent film The Four Corners of Nothing. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky’s first novel, was published in 1999 by Pocket Books, an imprint of MTV. Critical response to the novel was mixed, as many reviewers criticized the book as a pale imitation of The Catcher in the Rye. However, readers loved it. The book became the publisher’s biggest hit. By 2000, over 100,000 copies were already in print. Teenagers and adults alike embraced the novel, and it quickly inspired a cult following.
In 2012, Chbosky wrote and directed a film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which starred Logan Lerman as Charlie, Ezra Miller as Patrick, and Emma Watson, most famous for her portrayal of Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, as Sam. Initially, the film was given an R rating, but Chbosky and the producers thought that saddling the film with an R rating would alienate its core audience of teenagers, and the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to drop the rating to PG-13. The film was a commercial and critical success. The novel’s fans flocked to the movie, but the movie version also introduced a new wave of readers to the novel. In 2012, The Perks of Being a Wallflower hit the New York Times bestseller list for Children’s Paperback Books, and it stayed on the list for over two years.
Part of what draws both teenagers and adults to The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the way it draws on many iconic cultural figures. Many twentieth and twenty-first century coming-of-age novels and films are set in middle-class American suburbia, where characters’ complex backstories and rebellious natures are revealed in contrast with the banal backdrop. Many critics of the novel and the film adaptation have observed that The Perks of Being a Wallflower appeals not only to teenagers but also to adults who connect to the characters nostalgically.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a modern-day cult novel that contains many references to other cult classics in popular culture. Growing up, Chbosky was greatly influenced by The Catcher in the Rye, the book that has a major impact on Charlie as well. Indeed, Charlie himself is in many ways a modern-day Holden Caulfield, since he is a smart but troubled kid who is trying to come to terms with the trauma of having loved ones suddenly die. When Chbosky was a senior in high school, he wrote an anonymous letter to Stewart Stern, the screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause. Stern soon found Chbosky and became a mentor figure to him. Rebel Without a Cause, like The Catcher in the Rye, also features an iconic, rebellious, young hero. Charlie’s friends in The Perks of Being a Wallflower love The Rocky Horror Picture Show, one of the most legendary cult films of all time.
Chbosky has said in interviews that the image of a kid standing in a car while driving through a tunnel was what first prompted him to write The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The novel does indeed contain this image, as well as many other vivid and lyric passages, but the book also deals with much more serious subject topics, such as homosexuality, drug use, abortion, suicide, and sexual abuse. Because of its controversial content, the book has appeared six times on the American Library Association’s list of ten most frequently challenged books. Many schools have taken the book off their shelves throughout the years. In 2014, for example, a school district in Glen Ellyn, IL, voted to remove The Perks of Being a Wallflower from its classrooms because of the mature content. Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, The Perks of Being a Wallflower continues to survive in many more classrooms, libraries, and homes.