Stephen Chbosky: Feeling Alone, Journeys Toward Truth, and Refusing to Romanticize Pain

Stephen Chbosky: Feeling Alone, Journeys Toward Truth, and Refusing to Romanticize Pain

Stephen Chbosky understands loneliness. Traces of his ardent understanding can be seen throughout the wide-ranging catalogue of his work. He has created characters that are personal yet profound, such as those in his breakout novel, for which he also penned the screenplay, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He’s also explored some of the most universal and classic characters of all time, such as in Disney’s 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast. Yet, the ongoing theme of loneliness, and how we contend with it, runs through every story, no matter how big or small, that Chbosky writes or directs.

His new project, Dear Evan Hansen, explores the idea through a very different type of character—someone who has done something terrible.

When asked about why loneliness and what it means to be human resonates so deeply with audiences, Chbosky says, “I think that's quite a profound question. I do think about that. I mostly think about it in a very specific context. Perks of Being a Wallflower in many ways, started the thought process for me. I wanted to know why good people allowed themselves to get treated so badly. Why is there suffering? Why is there self-hatred? And why are we so hard on ourselves about everything all the time? Why do people think that they're too fat or too skinny or too this or too that?

"If you look at being human, almost in and of itself, it’s contradictory. We have this remarkable gift. We have proof of grace and miracles everywhere you look. We've got all the things that we have going for us and yet, it's a daily struggle to be able to see them. It's a struggle to feel appreciative or to feel okay or to admit sometimes when you feel sad, or you feel depressed or anxious or you feel like you're losing hope. Why is there stigma to these things? Why do we feel so alone in them when there's such proof that we're not?”

There’s an authenticity in Chbosky’s voice as he utters these words that betray a sincere conviction, and not just benign pleasantries.

“That contradiction in all people is something I find fascinating. The struggle between love and hate, I find fascinating. Why is being positive sometimes so much harder than being negative? These are the questions that make me continue to want to use my work, and the incredible privilege of being able to direct movies with a budget and these amazing actors and this wonderful material, to be a source of good in the world. I take great pride in that and great humility, that I'm able to do this. Because let's look around at the landscape, for the most part, these movies don't exist, and I'm able to make them, and I'm very, very grateful that I get to,” Chbosky said.

Questions about these human experiences and his own exploration of the realities that surround them are what brought Chbosky to Dear Evan Hansen.

“I was always on the lookout for another piece that spoke to this, that spoke to levels of empathy. And in Dear Evan Hansen, I found it in such an interesting way, because it's not as cut and dried as it is in other stories. Auggie in (another of Chbosky’s films) Wonder is not a controversial character. Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is almost a complete innocent. Evan Hansen is a more complicated person, in the sense that he is a wonderful person who really has a lot of issues. He is alone in his house and doesn't have a lot of friends. Then, he does this really bad thing. To take a character like that from sin to redemption, from the dark to light, from the lie to the truth, was really challenging and very exciting for me to try to do,” Chbosky said.

While Hansen shares some qualities in common with Charlie, the protagonist of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky explores the characters in significantly different ways.

He explains, “I think that their journeys to truth are different. With Charlie, it was memory, and it was repressing, and it was almost lying to be absent, right? But ultimately, this creates an innocence, and he doesn't do anything with any malice. He doesn't really tell lies and yet, he does feel isolated. He does struggle with mental health issues, doing the best he can to keep it all together, and he is suffering in silence, much like Evan.

"Evan grabs a very, very misguided life raft, in telling this lie to his family. I don't believe he has malice in his heart, like the way that Charlie doesn't have malice. I do believe ultimately that his is different, obviously, because he tells this lie. But fundamentally the theme of both movies is to be yourself and that's enough. That theme resonates very strongly with me.

"This is something that I have struggled with my entire life, as a person, to just know that it's OK. I don't have to be perfect all the time, and I don't have to have everyone like me all the time, and I don't have to have my work applauded all the time. I just simply must move forward with integrity and honesty and be accepted as I am, by the people who are going to accept me and not concern myself with the people who don't. The only difference between Charlie and Evan is the fact that Evan tells a lie and Charlie doesn't. And we can judge Evan accordingly and ultimately, hopefully, I think, forgive him, because he deserves forgiveness.”

Chbosky’s connection to these ideas is not isolated from his audience. His ability to create from a place of lived and heart-felt truth is recognized by audiences in project after project.

However, the stories he’s told about young people, from Perks, to Beauty and the Beast, to now Evan Hansen, seem to create a special connection. Asked what he might be hoping to communicate to that younger audience that he so often tells stories about, he says, “When I wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I wanted to show somebody who I thought was genuinely innocent and have them contend with all these struggles, so that the audience and the reader would understand and say, 'Charlie didn't deserve this.' Hoping that those who have experienced these mental health issues or traumas, or different kinds of abuse of every kind, would know that they didn't deserve it either. That these things happen, and it's not a moral failing on their part.

"I made Perks because Charlie was innocent. I made Evan Hansen because he was guilty, because I wanted to ask, 'Is this person worth something, despite making mistakes?' We can see it right now out there in the world. Pressure that is being put and self-imposed on young people, to be perfect, flawless, to know every right phrase and every right way of talking about every issue, is so unsustainable and unfair. So often a young person makes a mistake, and they think that their life is over and it's not, and it was very important to tell a story that said exactly that. His life is not over. There is redemption. There is redemption after sin. There is light after darkness, and you cannot find truth without at least fundamentally understanding what a lie is.”

Telling stories like Dear Evan Hansen have always been difficult. They have grown increasingly difficult in the past several years. Chbosky is keenly aware of the difficulties and offers this guidance to creators.

“What I would say is to look at every issue that we might find difficult, and simply understand that when you look at that issue, there is always a positive counterpoint to it. If we are dealing with depression, then we have to do it in part, by speaking of happiness. If we're talking about isolation, we have to speak of it, in part, through the lens of what it's like to feel connected. Everything has its opposite. All these things.

"I’d also say to remember that it's fundamentally OK to be entertaining. It's OK to have a laugh or two, even when the subject is very painful. So, to not wallow in the pain of it is, I think, the trick to these types of movies.

"It's so easy to get lost in trying to paint victimhood, but that's not what I'm interested in doing. I'm not interested in people’s pain; I'm interested in their salvation. I'm not interested in their isolation; I'm interested in their catharsis. There have been so many films where I felt seen and understood. And I'm just simply paying it forward because I know that art can change, and in some cases, even save lives—simply by showing the light at the end of the tunnel, as I did in Perks, literally, and metaphorically with Dear Evan Hansen.”

Dear Evan Hansen is currently playing in theaters.

*Feature Photo: Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen / Universal Studios

John Bucher is a writer and mythologist based out of Los Angeles. He has worked with companies including the Joseph Campbell Foundation, HBO, DC Comics, and A24 Films.
More posts by John Bucher.
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