The cinematic universe trend may be dwindling in Hollywood, with even Marvel looking at the possibility of more standalone efforts and less connectivity. But while the industry keeps feeling the effects of sequelitis, and while even new Star Wars prequels and Fast & Furious spinoffs turn out to be box office disappointments, smaller film properties seem a safe bet for franchise potential. And they continue to come in unlikely places. Just announced this week: a Wonder spinoff/sequel/prequel called White Bird is in the works at Lionsgate.
Yes, that Wonder, the adaptation of R.J. Palacio‘s novel about a boy with facial differences during his first year in middle school after being home-schooled his whole life. The movie, which stars Jacob Tremblay underneath Oscar-nominated makeup effects, was released in late 2017 and became a sleeper hit, grossing $132 million in North America and another $174 million overseas. In addition to the Academy Awards nod, Wonder was also recognized at the Critics’ Choice Awards with nominations for makeup, Tremblay’s performance, and the screenplay.
It’s a popular, tearjerking feature that can be easily streamed via Hulu, Epix, Pure Flix, or Amazon Prime Video (over and over and over, if you’re like my son). And the book, a New York Times bestseller back in 2013, has since become required reading in schools — given that it’s about fifth-graders, that seems to be a good time for students to be assigned the novel, whether they’re at the end of elementary school or, like Wonder‘s main character, Auggie Pullman, starting junior high. It’s a perfect way to teach kids empathy, serving almost like a modern-day To Kill a Mockingbird.
Palacio has spun off Wonder into a variety of other publications. There’s a picture book that’s sort of a prequel about Auggie’s life before the events of Wonder. There’s a calendar book inspired by a teacher from Wonder, Mr. Browne (played by Daveed Digs in the movie). And there’s Auggie & Me, a collection of three novellas, each focused on a supporting character from the original novel. One of those belongs to Julian, the boy who is constantly mean to Auggie, winds up suspended for sending him cruel notes, and ultimately does not return to the school, Beecher Prep, the next year.
That story, titled “The Julian Chapter,” follows the eponymous boy the summer following the events of Wonder, as he visits his grandmother in Paris and reflects on his actions towards Auggie. His grandmère, as she’s called, tells Julian a story of her life during World War II as a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied France. She explains how she hid from the Germans with the help of a disabled classmate and his family while others were shipped to concentration camps or killed along the way. Grandmère’s account affects Julian and helps him to see the light regarding his own bullying.
Only about a fifth of the “Julian” novella is devoted to Grandmère’s tale, but it’s the most memorable section. Now Palacio has adapted the Holocaust-set story into a graphic novel titled White Bird. There are more details to the account this time around, as Julian’s grandmother re-tells him the story over the phone via Facetime for a school project he’s working on the next year at his new school. In addition to expanding on the events, the graphic novel has its own bully character (a Nazi sympathizer), fantastical dream sequences, allusions to the Beast of Gévaudan, and a greater historical context.
The movie of White Bird could very easily be isolated from Wonder. All they’d have to do is remove the bookending sequence involving the present day. The graphic novel only features Julian in the beginning, and that might not be enough reason to bring back the young actor Bryce Gheisar, who portrayed the boy on screen two years ago. Plus, he’s surely grown a good deal since then. Besides, the graphic novel doesn’t really deal with how Grandmère’s story affects her grandson in his remorse about his actions during Wonder. Instead, White Bird references current issues in America regarding immigration, travel bans, and the rise of right-wing extremism as reasons that this tale and the memory of the Holocaust is important today.
White Bird‘s adaptation could also be a tricky one given its subject matter. Fictionally dramatized Holocaust movies can be rather maudlin, and Grandmère’s tale is already sappier in graphic novel form than it was on a handful of pages in the book. The good thing is that White Bird will be made at the same studio as Wonder and by that movie’s producers, David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, and Palacio herself. If they get the same writers, including director Stephen Chbosky, to handle the script, then there’s a good chance that White Bird will work as a film, too.
Chbosky’s adaptation of Wonder could have very easily been a cheesy family film for all its sentimentality, but it’s handled with such honesty and has a whole lot of respect for its characters and its audience. The tears shed by viewers at various points of the movie are an earned reaction. Wonder doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings because it is about empathy rather than sympathy. That’s not just what made it a great movie but also so popular around the world. White Bird needs to do everything the same, just in a period setting, and the graphic novel adaptation could be just as big a hit.
And then, who knows where the Wonder cinematic universe might go next if that’s the case?