'The Wonder' Writer Emma Donoghue on True Story That Inspired Netflix Movie

The wait for The Wonder to land on Netflix is finally over.

Starring Oscar nominee Florence Pugh, The Wonder is a tale of truth, religious fanaticism, faith, and motherhood.

Pugh stars as English nurse Lib Wright who is requested to "watch" a young girl Anna O'Donnell (played by Kíla Lord Cassidy). Anna is believed to have survived four months without food but remains miraculously alive. Wright, with the help of journalist William Byrne (Tom Burke), is determined to get to the truth of the so-called miracle and save Anna in the process.

To tell the story of The Wonder, author Emma Donoghue was inspired by the "fasting girl" phenomenon between the 16th and early 20th centuries—something she stumbled across while carrying out research in the 1990s.

Florence Pugh The Wonder
Florence Pugh as Lib Wright in The Wonder. Wright is requested to "watch" a young girl, Anna O'Donnell, (played by Kíla Lord Cassidy) who survives four months without food. Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

The Fasting Girls

A "fasting girl" was someone who claimed to be able to live without food, or, alternatively, others claimed these young women survived on no food. The "fasting girl" was usually in their teenage years, and would often go on to achieve celebrity status in their local community by not eating as seen in The Wonder, when Anna's parents begin to accept money from visitors who had traveled miles to witness Anna's condition.

Often, visitors to the "fasting girl" believed their survival to be the work of God. Some women would also be praised as heroines, such as Catherine of Siena and Lidwina of Schiedam, who are believed to have undergone rigorous fasting. Other women did not eat as a form of penance for their sins or for others'.

In some cases, the fasting girl would be exposed as a hoax. Some would live their entire lives claiming not to eat, and sadly, others died from what would today be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa.

Donoghue told Newsweek: "When I came across these real fasting girl cases from the 16th century to the 20th, I thought 'that's the freakiest thing' and then I thought, 'no, it's quite likely to be heard, isn't it?' It's quite like girls being terrified to become girls in a culture that sees them as sex objects.

"One thing I love about writing about the past is that it's all hugely connected to today—but indirectly. So it's a lovely way of telling stories that kind of sidle into people's heads, rather than having their theme completely upfront. I always found historical stories are totally connected to today, because of course, the questions you bring to them are the questions that the writer living in 2022 has."

The Sarah Jacobs Case

Donoghue told Newsweek that one case, in particular, caught her attention. However, she found it too sad to adapt for her 2016 novel.

She said: "There was a Welsh case in the 1870s—Sarah Jacobs. It was too sad for me to write about because basically, a newspaper hired nurses who watched for, I think a week, and she died.

"I came across that case in the late 1990s and I remember thinking, 'okay, even I have my limits.' It's just desperately sad but much later, I finally thought I could do a fictional case, which wouldn't be as shattering and which I could choose how to shape and draw on the kind of spooky realities of these cases, but not actually be shackled to how the case ended."

The real Sarah Jacobs died in 1869 aged 12 and is said to have gone without food for two years. Under the nurses' watch at Guy's Hospital, London, who had instructions to feed Jacobs if she asked for food, Jacobs began to show signs of starvation and died. It transpired she had been consuming food secretly for the past two years.

Ultimately, her parents were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labor.

The Setting of The Wonder

Explaining her choice to set The Wonder in 1850s Ireland, Donoghue described it as a "really powerful" way to tackle sexism and the experience of women in the country for several centuries.

She explained: "With the [real] fasting girls, I thought there was something really important going on about food and bodies and girls and sexuality and religion, and especially choosing to set the story in Ireland. I mean, there are just so many examples in Irish history of girls and young women being punished for having bodies at all, really. So I thought this story would be a really powerful way to tackle all that."

Donoghue channeled her own experience of growing up in Ireland and of the Catholic faith to fuel the story of The Wonder.

Kila Lord Cassidy Tom Burke Florence Pugh
(L to R) Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell, Tom Burke as Will Byrne, Florence Pugh as Lib Wright in The Wonder. Explaining her choice to set the movie in 1850s Ireland, Donoghue described it as a "really powerful" way to tackle sexism and the experience of women in the country for several centuries. Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

Real moments in Irish history, particularly the devastating Irish famine from 1845 to 1852, which killed over a million people, and the subsequent mass emigration, influenced the setting of The Wonder.

Donaghue reflected: "I've often written stories, which could be said to be very critical of aspects of the Catholic Church but to be honest, these fasting girls' real cases... some of them weren't particularly religious, some are Protestant. When I just published the novel, The Wonder [in 2016], a girl in India died after fasting and she was one of the Jain religion. So this is not just a Catholic thing but I think if you're going to be deeply critical of a culture, it should be your own. So Irish Catholicism was the one I chose.

"I grew up on all that fasting, giving up chocolates for Lent—it's like a fetish about food and so I wanted to be subtle in my treatment of religion. I wanted to show that for these people who have nothing, their kids have died in the famine. Between emigration and the famine and poverty, it's such a half-empty landscape, to show religion could be this extraordinary sense of hope they would hold on to keep themselves going."

She continued: "For a child like Anna, a Victorian Irish child who is never going to vote; she's never going to get a job; she's an absolute nobody; but in the context of her religion, she gets to take on this kind of saintly power and you can see that it was a huge force in her life, just as much as you can see the dangers of her clinging to the story."

The Wonder is streaming on Netflix now.