Stanley Yelnats IV (LaBeouf) is walking down the street,
minding his business, when a pair of tennis shoes drops onto
his head out of the clear blue sky. Mere moments later, Stanley
IV is apprehended by police who are looking for a shoe snatcher.
You say you can’t get that kind of police response when burglars
bust in and take your TV, let alone your tennies? Well what’s
so important about this particular pair is that they belonged
to baseball legend Clyde “Sweet Feet” Livingston, and were
to be auctioned off to benefit a shelter for homeless kids.
It takes a pretty lowdown so-’n’-so to steal from homeless
kids, and you can imagine how Stanley’s story goes over with
the judge. For his crime he is sent to Camp Green Lake. (Guess
which two of the three words of this appellation are not true?)
At this juvenile facility, boys pay their debt to society
and build character by digging 5 foot by 5 foot holes in the
ground every day the Lord sends.
If it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. Turns
out the Yelnatses have been under an unlucky star for a couple
of generations, ever since Elya Yelnats brought down a curse
upon the family by not following the instructions of Madame
Zeroni (Kitt), a gypsy fortuneteller, back in the old
country. For dooming them all to mishap and misfortune, Elya
is generally referred to as the “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.”
Meanwhile, back a century or so ago, when the town of Green
Lake was still a lush oasis, malign fate brought Stanley I
to an encounter with Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Arquette),
outlaw queen and highwaywoman extraordinaire. The story why
Kate took the lawless trail is the third leg of Louis Sachar’s
beautiful, symmetrically woven tale, wherein fortunes are
made and lost, a curse is declared and lifted, ancient wrongs
are righted, and we see the beginnings of a beautiful friendship
(part Rick and Louis, part Nicholas and Smike). If it was
any better, it’d be opera.
If you’re not familiar with the Holes phenomenon,
here’s a little background. Holes was published in
1998, and won just about every award you can think of—National
Book Award, Newbery Medal, New York Times outstanding book
of the year, etc.—and deservedly so. I remember bringing it
home: We read it aloud, from cover to cover, in one sitting.
Holes is the popular choice of several public libraries’
“everybody read the same book” campaigns. There have been
polls where kids voted this the best book ever—yes, above
It must be simultaneously daunting and a delight to bring
a work like this to the screen. Trifle with a much-loved book
at your peril. I’m sure I was not alone in heaving a sigh
of relief upon learning that Sachar was writing the screenplay.
Lovers of the book will be pleased to know that they can head
to the multiplex and see a pretty faithful adaptation. Yes,
there are some changes. The Stanley Yelnats of the book is
a fat boy. Instead, we get Shia LaBeouf, a skinny kid, but
otherwise a good fit. The book had a great deal of exposition,
so the movie had to resort to voiceover (lots of voiceover,
practically word-for-word from the book). Some characters
have been amplified. Stanley’s mom and dad (Hogan and
Winkler) have more scenes than they did on the printed
page. Mr. Sir (Voight) in particular, is louder and
larger than life; in fact, his shifty-eyed Texas lawman is
so overblown he’s almost too large for the big screen. Tim
Blake Nelson, on the other hand, is spot-on as Dr. Pendanski,
camp counselor and mouther of platitudes. A wonderful Sigourney
Weaver radiates authoritarian menace as The Warden, a
sort of West Texas Cruella deVil.
There is a mild down side. Disney, in perhaps a play for
relevance with that older-kid crowd, has thrown in loud, intrusive
music. Lots of it. It’s not bad music, it’s just there all
the time. The minute someone shuts their mouth, music comes
up. Many of the music department’s choices appear to have
been informed by repeated viewings of O Brother, Where
Art Thou? There’s also such excessive reliance on slow
motion in the old town scenes that you may long to have the
use of slo-mo declared illegal. I’ve read that the producers
wanted to make kid entertainment that wasn’t pap, and good
on ’em for that intent, but they’re not wholly there yet.
Holes-the-movie has lots of heartfelt glances, a VO
explanation of what any attentive kid would’ve figured out
without the hint, a greatly amplified punishment sequence
for the evildoers, plus an unsubtle gullywasher of an ending.
I blame Hollywood. Sachar clearly already knows that this
audience doesn’t need to be talked down to, but the suits
weren’t so sure.
All said and done, though, even if my fingers were sometimes
in my ears, Holes kept my eyes glued to the screen.
And I knew how it was going to end.