The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016)
The Wonder directed by Sebastian Lelio (2022)
If you want more Emma Donoghue, I have a Room book vs movie which she wrote! The movie stars Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.
And if you came here looking for Wonder, the story about a boy with treacher collins syndrome, I have a book vs movie for that as well! That movie also happens to star Jacob Tremblay!
English nurse Lib Wright comes to Ireland when a committee is in need of a nurse to take turns with a nun to watch an eleven-year-old who claims not to have eaten in four months. As Lib takes her turn watching, she grows fond of Anna, and doesn’t see how she could be getting food, but even if someone is sneaking her food, Anna herself is sincere in her fast.
As the story goes along, we find out the truth about Anna’s fast as well as some details of Lib’s life.
The book (and movie) is more of a slow burn but I was always interested because I wanted to find out what the deal was with Anna. The book has a supernatural vibe at times due to the townsfolk strong belief in Catholicism, but that religious belief kind of blends with the supernatural as they have different superstitions and believe in fairies. There is also a person in the book who thinks Anna has been taken over by a changeling and that is how she lives without food. There is a dark, foreboding ambiance to both book and movie as well. In the book there is this unsettling feel, and the truth that is revealed turns out to be quite sinister and disturbing.
All in all, I did like the book. I liked the bond between Lib and Anna and I also liked the way the book ended.
While it is critical of extreme religious beliefs, there is some balance because Will is Catholic yet is more liberal in his beliefs. We also see near the end that Lib had made some assumptions of certain people because of their religion but she is proven wrong about them. Specifically the nun and the priest, both of whom don’t believe Anna is a miracle and won’t to find evidence of the truth.
In the book we learn more about Lib and how she worked under the Nightingale (this is mentioned in the movie but only briefly). We know she has her secrets, and near the end it is revealed that she is not a widow, but her husband left her soon after their baby died. Her family was disappointed in her that her husband left (not disappointed in the husband, but in Lib for not being able to hold onto him) and when she tells them she will claim to be widow, her family is shocked and cuts off communication with her. This is revealed in the movie as well, but we don’t hear about her family cutting her off.
The movie shows early on how before bed she unwraps a cloth which has baby’s knitted booties, as well as a bottle of some liquid she takes. It seems to be some kind of drug she takes to fall asleep and afterwards she pricks her finger. This was not in the book. However, this scene shows how even though Lib is critical of religion, she has her own rituals. The book shows how she idolized the Nightingale, and studies her medical books in a religious way you could say.
In the book, Will informs her that the Nightingale is bedridden and this is a blow to Lib because as said, she idolized her so much. This is not in the movie.
In the book we hear a story about how when she was s nurse they were in need of spoons, but the hospital wouldn’t buy more. The Nightingale takes things into her own hands by using her own money to buy spoons and Lib is the nurse she entrusts with the money to go buy them. When she later takes the situation with Anna into her own hands, Will says that it is the spoons all over again.
In the book and movie Anna is initially doing fairly well when Lib first meets her despite Lib not seeing her eat. She also sees that Anna is genuine and she quickly grows fond of her. In book and movie Anna tries to guess Lib’s first name and as the days go by, Lib tells her. In book and movie, we learn that Anna wears the boots of her older brother, but what the movie leaves out is that she wearing his boots because her feet are so swollen they won’t fit in her own shoes. Swollen limbs are a side effects of malnutrition and starvation and the swelling gets worse as the days go by.
In book and movie Lib notices the mom giving Lib a hug and kiss at morning and night, however one day Anna puts her hand up against her mom, preventing her from hugging her. The mom is clearly hurt, but Anna is steadfast. Whereas, in the movie, Lib tells the mom not to get close to Anna anymore.
Anna, Will, and Lib
In the book Lib tells Anna riddles and this is one of the ways we see them bond. When Anna meets Will, she then tells Will the riddles. The movie shows the bond Lib forms with Anna, but I felt it more in the book and the scene when she meets Will was sweeter in the book as well. Will by the way is a journalist who is in town to write about Anna and Lib strikes up a friendship with him and the two have a bit of a romance.
In the book, it is after Will sees Anna and tells Lib “She is a delightful dying child” that Lib realizes Anna is dying. She had seen her gradual fading away and hadn’t acknowledged how serious things were getting until someone with fresh eyes looked at Anna. In the movie it doesn’t seem to be Will who makes her realize this but she just sees it on her own when Anna is faint while out with Will.
In the book a doctor shows up and says Anna should be force fed but Lib is disgusted by the inhumanness of him. However, when she realizes Anna is dying she contemplates it. She doesn’t go through with it though because she couldn’t bear to do that to Anna. In the movie she actually starts to put the tube down Anna’s throat, but then pulls it back out and doesn’t do it.
Why Anna is fasting
We find out that Anna has a brother who had died the previous year. (There is a creepy family photo in book and movie that was taken after the son died.) Anna tells Lib she thinks her brother is burning in hell and she is fasting to get him out. Lib says how he was just a boy when he died, 15 years old, and surely, he hadn’t done anything that would cause him to be in hell.
We also learn that Anna’s communion was the last time she ate. We also learn in the book, not the movie, that she and many others had their first communion while this Catholic priest was preaching in their town. There was a fiery sermon he made about the evils of fornication, and the next day is when Anna received her communion and after that began her fasting.
Manna from heaven
She says that she eats manna from heaven, and we find out when the mom would give her a hug, she would feed her like a bird and called it manna from heaven. But like I said, in the book she decides one day to no longer receive this food whereas in the movie Lib prevents her from getting it by not allowing the mom to hug her daughter.
What is never said in book or movie is how this feeding began. In my mind, Anna started fasting, and the mom, seeing that Anna could not be moved to eat, came up with the story of receiving manna from heaven and feeding her that way. The mom could also want to keep up the appearance of Anna fasting though since it makes people think she is so special and such a wonder and a miracle. Hence the secret way of feeding her the “manna”.
In the book, Lib realizes this is how Anna got her food and she hears there is committee meeting and decides to attend and tell them what she knows. She tries to get the nun to come as well, but it seems the nun won’t. In the book, Lib comes into the meeting and sees Anna’s parents there and she is taken aback and rethinks her plan because she knows the mom will deny it.
She instead tries to convince them to stop the watch because Anna is dying. The nun then walks in and has Anna in her wheelchair. It is so clear that Anna is dying, yet the committee says they will continue the watch.
In the movie, she asks for the meeting and reveals the feeding method. The parents, nun and Anna are then brought out and they ask Anna and the nurse if this feeding method is true and both deny it. This denial was not in the book because Lib never brought it up.
Why Anna is fasting (part 2)
As Anna is dying, she confides in Lib that the reason she is worried about her brother’s soul is because when she was 9 and he was 13 he convinced her to do “double love” where they love each other as brother and sister but also as “husband and wife”. Soon after this, he gets sick and dies. That preacher who was teaching the evils of fornication specifically talked about it being a sin for siblings and this makes Anna fear for his soul even more. She also fears for her own, despite being too young to stop it from happening. She wants the two of them to be in heaven, but only as brother and sister as they are meant to be.
In the book we learn that Anna told her mother about what her brother did soon after his death, but the mom told her to never speak such lies and stayed in denial about it. Lib tells the preacher as well, and we find out that Anna had also told him but he too told her to keep it to herself! Lib never tells the mom or preacher about it in the movie, so we never learn how they covered it up, which was a huge part of leave out of the movie because I found the fact that they listen to her even more condemning.
Lib helping Anna
In book and movie, Lib convinces Anna that she will die, but she will be reborn as a new little girl named Nan (a name they had talked about earlier, Anna liked the name but said if she were to be called something different, she would be different). Anna agrees to believe in it and she finally eats a small bit of food. Will then takes Anna away, Lib burns the house, stays for questioning and then meets up with Will and Nan and they start afresh.
In the book and movie, before she leaves the nun tells Lib that she had left mass early and saw a vision of Anna being carried away on a horse and asks Lib if Anna is in a better place, to which Lib tells her yes. I loved this scene in book and movie. In both the nun is pretty closed off, though we get more of a feel for her in the book. And I loved in this last scene we see that she also cared deeply for Anna and will keep Lib’s secret in order to protect Anna’s life.
Kitty in the movie
In the movie, it begins on a soundstage with the actress who plays Kitty saying in voiceover how we all have stories we believe in, and that we should believe in this one. Then part way though the movie, Kitty breaks the fourth wall and talks to the camera. In the end, we pan away from the final shot, to once again reveal the soundstage and we see Kitty in modern clothes. I didn’t really get why these scenes we included. If you get the meaning of it, please comment and let me know!
Book vs Movie
Due to the “mystery” aspect of this book and movie, it is almost a guarantee I will prefer whichever I experienced first because the mystery is a bit part of the pull. And I will say that is the case here. I found the book more engaging, though the movie is very well done. It has a very creepy, foreboding score, and Anna also seems creepier in the movie (up until a certain point) than she had in the book. As said in the book review portion, I also liked the otherworldly vibes we were getting and I wondered if the book would take a supernatural turn because it was such a presence. I will say the book made it pretty obvious that the son had done something terrible and I guessed that part of the story before it was revealed. I wish the movie had kept those other elements, showing the townspeople superstitions even more, and it would have better fit the creepy score, had it focused more on some of the unsettling elements of the story. Of course the story is still plenty unsettling. The score just had a horror movie vibe, and while it set the tone, it almost seemed more than what the story was actually telling.
All in all, the movie is well done and Florence Pugh is amazing as Lib and it is beautifully shot and atmospheric, but the book wins.