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For his second movie, Stephen Chbosky — who made his debut in 2012 directing the big-screen adaptation of his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower — turned to another novel: R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. And he wasn’t expecting it, but Chbosky says his experience affected him on a personal level.

“What surprised me in making Wonder — and I did not expect this — was becoming a better person by making it,” he tells EW.

Wonder — which is up for three Critics’ Choice Awards at Thursday’s ceremony: Jacob Tremblay for Best Young Actor/Actress; Best Hair & Makeup; and Chbosky for Best Adapted Screenplay — centers on young Auggie, played by Room breakout Tremblay, who has multiple facial deformities and has been home-schooled his entire life by his devoted mom, Isabel, played by Julia Roberts. But now, he’s headed off to fifth grade in the local public school, where, naturally, the thought of being seen — and made fun of — by other children terrifies him. It doesn’t take long, though, for him to make friends, some of which aren’t as sincere in their motives as others.

Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

Chbosky says he did feel pressure in taking on another author’s material, fearing he “would let down a book, I would let down R.J., I would let down the kids that love that book.” But he found a way around that burden. “I was more objective about it because it wasn’t mine, per se, I could see it a lot clearer,” he explains. “And the proof in the pudding: at the end of the day, The Perks of Being a Wallflower had 22 minutes of deleted scenes and Wonder had four.”

Released on Nov. 17 and earning nearly $127 million to date, audiences awarded the movie an A+ Cinemascore … and he hopes the way it was made — “with kindness” — comes across on screen.

“For the most part, I think people have a lot more in common than they would otherwise know, that we all share this vision, that we all share this thing that we wanted to say in this book that we wanted to celebrate, that I want to be synonymous with fifth grade all over the world,” Chbosky says of the movie, which also stars Owen Wilson and Izabela Vidovic as Auggie’s dad and sister, as well as Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs. “Nothing would make me happier than for Wonder to be [for] fifth grade the way, say, Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird is to high school.”

“I’ll always be grateful to it,” he concludes. “I’m a better dad, I’m a better husband, I’m a better person, and I’m a better artist for, you know — you don’t get sucked up into the drama this way. It’s a really good way to be.”

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