What is The Wonder based on and is Netflix's Florence Pugh period drama a disturbing true story?

If you're wondering what is The Wonder based on you might not be alone as this eerie tale takes you back in time to 19th century Ireland...

The Wonder based on Emma Donoghue's novel, starring Florence Pugh as Lib Wright
(Image credit: Cr. Christopher Barr/Netflix © 2022)

What is The Wonder based on might well be a question on many people’s minds as they learn more about the eerie plotline of this Netflix psychological thriller set in 19th-century Ireland.

Bringing together a sense of mystery that makes thrillers so compelling together with a historical setting like we’ve seen in The Essex Serpent, The Wonder is set to be a truly haunting watch for historical fiction and thriller fans alike. The Netflix film stars Florence Pugh as British nurse Lib Wright opposite Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell, a girl from the Irish Midlands in 1862 who, it’s said, has been surviving without eating any food at all thanks to her strong faith. Arriving to work out how Anna is achieving this miracle, Lib becomes embroiled in a world of powerful belief.

But what is The Wonder based on, is it a harrowing true story after all and when does the movie land on Netflix? We reveal what you need to know...

*Warning: Spoilers ahead!*

What is The Wonder based on and is it a true story?

The Wonder is based on the 2016 book of the same name by Emma Donoghue, who co-wrote the screenplay for the eerie Netflix movie. However, the original novel was partly inspired by some equally unsettling true stories, albeit not one in particular like we’ve seen with the likes of fellow dramas The Staircase and The Stranger. As revealed by Emma Donoghue on the Pan MacMillan website The Wonder is a story entirely of her own invention, but there was a series of cases of so-called “fasting girls” that captured her imagination.

The shocking phenomenon of the “fasting girl” concerns girls who either claimed that they could live without taking in any food, or others said this about them. Emma revealed that she came across the stories in the 1990s and that the stories of these fasters spanned the globe. 

“In researching the novel I looked at almost fifty of them, which ranged from Ireland and Britain, to Western Europe, to the USA and Canada, from the 1500s right through to the 1900s,” Emma wrote. “That’s an average of only about one a decade; these self-starving celebrities were very rare. In some cases they may have heard of each other, but the cases didn’t cluster; they happened at long, random intervals, anywhere from urban Brooklyn to rural Wales.”

The Wonder. Florence Pugh as Lib Wright in The Wonder

(Image credit: Cr. Aidan Monaghan/Netflix © 2022)

Although not exclusively so, most of these real-life fasting cases were understood to revolve around women or girls like Emma’s character of Anna O’Donnell (played by Kíla Lord Cassidy) in The Wonder.

Emma continued, “I thought it said a lot about what it's meant to be a girl – in many Western countries, from the sixteenth century right through to the twentieth – that these girls became celebrities by not eating. Paradoxically, they got power – attention, fame, sometimes fortune – by being weak and self-sacrificial, the ultimate in meek femininity.”

The Wonder author went on to express her belief that the “most common link is Christian faith”, regardless of denomination and that many of the fasters were lauded as “heroines in the medieval tradition of saints”.

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

(Image credit: Cr. Aidan Monaghan/Netflix © 2022)

“It’s possible to see these girls as victims of a society obsessed with policing femininity, while also acknowledging that they managed to win status and fame,” she added.

If the phenomenon wasn’t already shocking and poignant enough, for many of the real-life fasters, their lives ended horribly. Some tragically starved to death as others looked on, including Welsh faster Sarah Jacob whose parents were found guilty of manslaughter. Others were imprisoned or hospitalized and there were also some fasters later exposed to have been hoaxing those around them.

Despite this heartbreaking and shocking inspiration that influenced her writing of both The Wonder book and the movie that adapted it, Emma disclosed that she never focused on one particular case of one specific girl from history.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue | £8.39 | Amazon

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue | £8.39 | Amazon

Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, this disturbing psychological thriller is inspired by the real-life "fasting girls" and sees nurse Lib Wright arrive to see Anna O'Donnell. Only she's not there to nurse her, so much as watch her as the claims that she can survive without eating are scrutinized by those around Anna.

“I never found one real case that rang that little bell in me, telling me this was the story I had to tell in a novel,” she wrote, before later adding, “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, and let myself invent a story that would have in it everything I wanted to explore about this phenomenon.”

She also invented the character of British nurse Lib Wright (played by Florence Pugh) who arrives to see Anna O’Donnell and ends up effectively guarding her - something that Emma opened up about in a 2016 interview with NPR.

The Wonder. (L to R) Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell, Tom Burke as Will Byrne, Florence Pugh as Lib Wright

(Image credit: Cr. Aidan Monaghan/Netflix © 2022)

Emma said, “Well, I knew that this nurse would be in the very peculiar position of being hired as kind of a jailer. And this part of the novel was inspired by several real cases where a staff of hired watchers were brought in to make sure that the faster wasn't eating. And I thought this put a trained nurse in a very peculiar position where she really wasn't nursing. She was guarding, you know…”

The writer explained that she wanted Lib, who nursed in the Crimean War, to have a background in handling highly intense life-and-death situations so that her new experience with Anna would be a stark change for her as she’s not directly nursing.

The Wonder. (L to R) Tom Burke as Will Byrne, Florence Pugh as Lib Wright, Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell

(Image credit: Cr. Christopher Barr/Netflix © 2022)

Both The Wonder book and movie are set in Ireland, where Emma Donoghue hails from and the story is set in the late 1850s - a point between the older, more superstitious perception of the fasters and new, more scientific perception. 

So for anyone asking themselves what is The Wonder based on, the highly-anticipated new Florence Pugh Netflix movie is adapted from a book and not real life. However, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder book did draw inspiration from the historical phenomenon of the “fasting girls” for her character of Anna and her story. 

When is The Wonder released and how to watch? 

The Wonder is released on Netflix for people to watch at home from November 16 2022, though for anyone eager to see the movie’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s eerie and heart-wrenching story, you might not have to wait quite that long. The Wonder movie is now available to watch in selected movie theaters for US and Ireland-based viewers, whilst UK-based viewers will be able to see the film in selected theaters from November 4.  

Emma Shacklock

Emma is a Royal Editor with eight years experience working in publishing. Her specialist areas include the British Royal Family, ranging from protocol to outfits. Alongside putting her royal knowledge to good use, Emma knows all there is to know about the latest TV shows on the BBC, ITV and more. When she’s not writing about the next unmissable show to add to your to-watch list or delving into royal protocol, Emma enjoys cooking, long walks and watching yet more crime dramas!