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Is The Wonder based on a true story?

Here is the true story of the young, starving Victorian-era women who inspired Florence Pugh's latest hit thriller movie, The Wonder

The Wonder true story: A close-up of Liz

Directed by Sebastián Lelio, The Wonder is Florence Pugh’s latest thriller movie, and has taken the world by storm. Telling the story of a young woman in the year 1862, it is filled with religious undertones, comments on starvation, and dives into the attitudes towards women in the 1800s – but is it a true story?

Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) is a young woman living in rural Ireland who claims to have not eaten anything for months. However, despite her starvation, she appears perfectly healthy – causing the community to believe her to be a miracle. However, the English nurse Lib Wright (Pugh), is a firm believer in science and is determined to discover the truth behind Anna’s condition.

A battle between religion and science unfolds, and with so much detail added to the story, you can’t help but ponder if The Wonder is fiction or fact by the time its credits start to roll. Well, we are here to clear up any historical confusion. Below, we dive into the truth and uncover if the hit drama movie is make-believe or based on a true story.

Is The Wonder a true story?

Technically The Wonder is based on the 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue of the same name, so it isn’t strictly a true story. But its fictional plot was indeed inspired by a very real historical phenomenon known as ‘the fasting girl’.

A fasting girl is a term given to young Victorian-era women who claimed that they could survive without consuming any food for long periods of time. Although their ages sometimes varied, the majority of these women were reported to be young pre-pubescent girls throughout history. In addition to forgoing any kind of nourishment, these young women also claimed to have special religious or magical powers.

Now, this may sound like a pretty farfetched thing, but at the time, fasting girls were seen as something miraculous. The ability to survive without nourishment was considered a sign of sanctity since some saints during the Middle Ages were said to have lived without food for long periods of time.

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Looking at the phenomenon of the ‘fasting girl’ and the plot of The Wonder, it is easy to label these individuals’ actions as a case of anorexia – an eating disorder where you deny yourself food to avoid weight gain (a very simplistic description). However, it is important to remember the strong religious connotations that fasting had when we look at The Wonder.

These women were viewed as pure figures who avoided the urges of the body (not a great mindset, we know). They were praised in their society and were given recognition during a time when women had no rights of their own. Eating disorders often go past body image and are also said to become a method of feeling in control, so it’s easy to imagine how forms of anorexia played into and worked in tandem with the women’s religious beliefs and social standing during the story of The Wonder.

Fasting girls would later be labelled as suffering from hysteria, and when the term anorexia was coined in the 1870s, they fell under that bracket too. The Wonder takes place in a time period where the miracle status of ‘fasting girls’ was clashing with scientific developments. However, the film isn’t inspired by purely one case. That is right; there was no real Anna O’Donnell.

The Wonder true story: Liz and Anna in Ireland

“It occurred to me that if I was still so fascinated by the fasting girls, two decades on, I should drop my usual method of writing a historical novel based on one real case,” author Emma Donoghue wrote in an article for Pan Macmillan. “And let myself invent a story that would have in it everything I wanted to explore about this phenomenon.”

So although Anna O’Donnell isn’t a real person, the time period in which she existed in and her situation is very much real. As is the Netflix movie’s detailed examination of these women’s complicated relationship with food and the modern overlaps with eating disorders today.

The Wonder is now available to watch on the streaming service Netflix.