Wonderstruck is comprised of two parallel narratives. The first follows Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in 1927. Young, deaf, and unable to communicate with those around her, she flees to New York to try and meet her favourite silent movie actress (Julianne Moore), who is due to perform on stage. The second follows Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977. After the death of his mother (Michelle Williams), he also sets of for New York, following clues that will hopefully lead him to the father he has never met.
In the book, Ben’s story is told in conventional text, whilst Rose’s story is told purely through illustration. It’s a nod to the silent movies she adores, but also serves as a visual representation of the way she sees the world. Director Todd Haynes replicates this unique narrative technique by having Rose’s half of the story presented as a black-and-white silent film, with Ben’s presented in conventional sound and colour. Not only does this instantly differentiate the two timelines as we flit back and forth between them, but it’s a clever visual marker of how cut off Rose feels from the world around her.
Normally, I would attest to the merits of an author adapting their own book into a screenplay. It often allows for the best and most faithful transition from page to screen. In this case, however, I felt Wonderstruck suffered from author Brian Selznick trying to be too faithful, opting for a rigid scene-by-scene conversion. Whilst it’s important to honour the source material, it’s a recognised fact that certain elements simply work better in a visual context, not to mention that the expected pace of a film is wholly different to that of a book.
The two stories increasingly weave together, with subtle though intriguing thematic and narrative mirroring. Just as things begin to build towards an inevitable reveal and the big emotional payoff, however, this subtlety is abandoned in favour of an info-dump, with the true connections between the two characters’ lives narrated to us. It’s a prime example of telling rather than showing, when the latter approach is normally far more effective. With much of the most compelling action and emotion taking place off-screen, it makes Rose’s half of the narrative (for all its visual impressiveness, and Millicent Simmonds captivating screen presence), feel somewhat superfluous within the larger context of the story.
The book was a charming, unique, and memorable reading experience that felt like something quite special. In trying to recapture that on the big screen, in an almost frame-by-frame manner, I felt some of that magic was lost. Perhaps lightning doesn’t strike twice, if you’ll pardon the pun. Though the film’s plot and impact may suffer in pursuit of its unique structure and style, it is still an easy watch.