Is The Wonder based on a true story? The astonishing inspiration behind the Florence Pugh film explained

The real story as just as incredible as the film's version of events

Florence Pugh as Lib Wright in The Wonder
(Image credit: Christopher Barr/Netflix/Future)

There’s a very disturbing inspiration behind Florence Pugh’s latest film, dating back to the Victorian era.

Florence Pugh is set to make her latest film outing in Netflix’s astonishing film, The Wonder. Released on the streamer on November 16, the action is set in Ireland in 1862, following sceptical English nurse Lib Wright as she’s called to a remote village to witness and validate a so-called miracle. This involves a very religious 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell, who asserts she has survived for months without food, living on what she calls “manna from heaven” - or sustenance from God. Along with a nun, Lib is  tasked with observing Anna to prove she isn’t eating, and discover how she could be surviving. As Lib and Anna grow close, a desperate Lib is determined to uncover the truth before Anna’s life is destroyed. Although seemingly implausible as a true story, there is some shocking inspiration behind the film - read on to find out how it was inspired.

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Is The Wonder based on a true story?

The Wonder isn’t based on a true story, but is inspired by the real phenomenon of the “fasting girls”, a 19th Century concept where young girls alleged they could live without food or sustenance.

The fasting girls were usually always young, and confined themselves to their beds where they claimed to survive with no food or water. Many also claimed to possess psychic powers, and suggested they displayed signs of stigmata. The girls often attributed their fasting to religious devotion, possibly in the hope they would be made into Saints. Many of the fasting girls became the subject of pilgrimages for fellow religious devotees, almost treated as a spectacle to be exhibited. 

Parents of fasting girls were happy to accept donations for pilgrims to witness the religious event, which modern scholars believe could be simply parents profiting from a sick child. Although the girls attributed their starvation to the phenomenon of being nourished by God, or emulating the suffering of Jesus, it is also believed they were suffering from an early form of anorexia nervosa. 

Florence Pugh as Lib Wright, Josie Walker as Sister Michael in The Wonder.

(Image credit: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

The Welsh fasting girl

The Welsh fasting girl refers to the famous case of Sarah Jacob, a young Welsh girl who claimed she hadn’t eaten from the age of 10.

A local vicar became convinced Sarah’s case was authentic, and she became very famous due to being miraculous and existing without food or water. Doctors were inevitably sceptical about her claims, proposing she be monitored in a hospital setting to find any truth in her case. In 1869 she was sent to Guy’s Hospital for testing, where nurses were instructed not to deny her food if she requested it, and to observe and record any she did take. Two weeks later, Sarah displayed clear signs of starvation.

When informed of their daughter’s declining health, Sarah’s parents refused for their daughter to be offered food, insisting the observation in hospital continue. Even when told their daughter would soon die, they insisted she had been in a similar state previously, and the symptoms were not related to lack of food. Sarah eventually died of starvation at the age of 12, and it was discovered she had been consuming small amounts of food in secret that her parents were unaware of, which she had been unable to do when supervised. Her parents were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labour for their actions.

Josie Walker as Sister Michael, Toby Jones as Dr McBrearty, Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell, Niamh Algar as Kitty O’Donnell, Florence Pugh as Lib Wright in The Wonder.

(Image credit: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

Is The Wonder a book?

As well as being inspired by true events, The Wonder is also an adaptation of a book of the same name by Emma Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian playwright, historian, novelist, and screenwriter. She also wrote the novel Room, which was adapted into a film starring Bree Larson. Also responsible for writing the screenplay for Room, Donoghue was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for her work on the movie. 

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue £9.39 | Amazon (opens in new tab)

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue £9.39 | Amazon (opens in new tab)

Read the psychological thriller described as a "searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul" now a major Netflix film starring Florence Pugh.  

The Wonder was originally published in 2016, becoming an international bestseller. One reviewer on Good Reads (opens in new tab) wrote “Spell binding and so atmospheric, The Wonder is one of the best Irish historical novels I have read in a very long time where facts and fiction come together to create a story that gets under your skin.” Another added “Emotional, at times disturbing, and tremendously thought-provoking, The Wonder once again demonstrates the sheer power of Emma Donoghue's storytelling ability, which first dazzled me with the extraordinary Room.

Florence Pugh as Lib Wright, Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell in The Wonder

(Image credit: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

The Wonder: Cast

  • Florence Pugh (Black Widow, Hawkeye) as Lib Wright
  • Tom Burke (Strike, Mank) as William Byrne
  • Kíla Lord Cassidy (The Doorman, Viewpoint) as Anna O'Donnell
  • Elaine Cassidy (Disco Pigs, the Paradise) as Rosaleen O'Donnell
  • Caolán Byrne (Borderland, Bloodlands) as Malachy O' Donnell
  • Niamh Algar (Raised by Wolves, Calm with Horses) as Kitty
  • Toby Jones (Detectorists, The English) as Dr. McBrearty
  • Ciarán Hinds (Justice League, Game of Thrones) as Father Thaddeus
  • Dermot Crowley (Foyle's War, Luther) as Sir Otway
  • Brían F. O'Byrne (Mildred Pierce, Little Boy Blue) as John Flynn
  • David Wilmot (The Crown, Station Eleven) as Seán Ryan
  • Josie Walker (Call The Midwife, Vera) as Sister Ryan
  • Debbie McGee (Celebrity MasterChef, Strictly Come Dancing) as magician's assistant

Speaking to Radio Times (opens in new tab) about the challenges of playing Lib, Florence Pugh said "I choose roles where there’s always something that that woman is pushing back on and loudly pushing back on, and it’s something that I love playing, whether it’s in a different era. And for this I read the script and I was like, 'Yes, pushing back!' And then actually I came to play to it and I was like, 'No, she can’t push back because we’re dealing with a completely different time, with a religion that was so impressive and powerful that no matter how much she knew and how much she was aware of what was going on – she believed in science over religion – she can’t say that."

She added "And so for the first time ever in any role that I’ve done, I actually couldn’t be loud about it. I had to be quiet about it, and that was what made it really, really exciting and fascinating to do. Her push back was infuriating but it couldn’t be done in a loud aggressive way that we can do now, and that was exciting for me to do."

Toby Jones as Dr. McBrearty, Dermot Crowley as Sir Otway, Ciarán Hinds as Father Thaddeus in The Wonder

(Image credit: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

The Wonder: Reviews

So far, the critical response to The Wonder is very positive. 

Benjamin Lee from The Guardian (opens in new tab) offered 4 out of 5 stars. He said "The Wonder is a stark, slow-burn thriller that uses its medically impossible conceit to ask questions about fact vs faith at a time when those in the latter camp were dominating the conversation. Pugh’s nurse is a firm believer in the former, attempting respect for those around her who see it as an act of God but gradually, fearfully losing patience with those who refuse to deal with a potentially lethal situation with any sense of rationality. A fearless directness has become something we immediately associate with Pugh as a performer and, as such, it’s a perfect fit for her."

David Fear from Rolling Stone (opens in new tab) was similarly enthusiastic, writing "Pugh knows that stories need protagonists to follow, and she gives you a great one: spiky, sullen, sensitive, enraged, grieving, lustful, loving, nurturing, and not prone to taking prisoners.  And when it’s time for her nurse to make all of the storytelling that has hurt her ward come to end, she does so in an oddly satisfying, if somewhat extended climax. It’s a movie that begins and ends with a wink. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a tear in your eye as well."

A Rotten Tomatoes (opens in new tab) audience member weighed in, saying "Florence Pugh is excellent as Lib, infusing the character with a sense of both determination and vulnerability. Her scenes with Cassidy are particularly strong, as the two actresses play off each other perfectly. The cinematography is beautiful, and the film's exploration of its themes is thought-provoking. The script is intelligent and well-written, and the film's overall atmosphere is incredibly effective. The Wonder is a slow-burn film about the power of belief, and how it can sometimes lead us down a path of self-destruction and is sure to leave you guessing until the very end with a lot to talk about after the credits have finished rolling."

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