Come Oscar time next year, I doubt that Louis Sachar’s screenplay adaptation of his 1998 novel Holes will get much consideration. After all, it’s a kids’ movie, and if you read the book, it doesn’t appear that he’s done much but reproduce it, plot point by plot point, line by line.
Both those statements are largely true, yet I had more fun at Holes at age 32 than I’ve had at an “adult” movie in ages, and Sachar’s screenplay features a number of subtle but important improvements and is a model of efficiency and pacing. It’s going to take a damned good batch of movies to knock Holes off my list of 2003 favorites.
The book and movie tell the story of Stanley Yelnats, an inventor’s son who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets nabbed for stealing a famous athlete’s sneakers from a homeless shelter that was to benefit from their auction. Stanley is sent to the desert wasteland of Camp Green Lake, where the juvenile delinquents dig holes to “build character,” they’re told by the gruff “counselor” Mr. Sir. But it also appears that the boys are being used to search for something that the mysterious Warden wants very badly, and the narrative weaves in the history of the hard-luck Yelnats family and long-ago-fertile Camp Green Lake, once the home of Kate Barlow, the kissing bandit.
Holes is story of seemingly offhanded inventiveness, rich in telling detail and grounded in real emotion, but full of fancy. There’s a natural quality to Sachar’s narrative; his expert storytelling, matter-of-fact tone, and understanding of human behavior make it easy to swallow a tale that is fantastic and eventually a touch too efficient and neat in tying together its strands.
Holes was in many ways not a difficult adaptation. The novel (which I bought and read after seeing the movie) runs only 233 pages and has exactly the right amount of story for a standard movie running time. It’s plot-driven, and the emotions and motivations of the major characters are easily understood from action.
That said, adaptation is always a dicey affair. There’s a tendency to be too faithful to the details, and the result often misses the spirit and energy of the source material. Cinema being a collaborative art, bad direction, design, or acting can also kill strong source material and a good screenplay. The Harry Potter books, everybody tells me, are wonderfully fun and exciting, and the two movies based on them do their best not to alienate fans demanding reproduction. Director Chris Columbus is largely to blame, but the movies are terrible — dull, flat things devoid of magic and wonder.
The adaptation of Holes, though, is cause for celebration. Sachar’s script gives a key piece of information early that’s missing from the book, and it also starts telling Camp Green Lake’s history earlier. Both changes suggest that Sachar is smart enough to know that even his best work can be improved, but the general fidelity of the movie to the book shows that he also understands not to mess with things that work perfectly well.
And director Andrew Davis and his cinematographer, designers, and cast turn in exemplary performances. Davis proves that The Fugitive was not a fluke, and here he shows the same gift for brisk, smart, and efficient filmmaking. Their work is not flashy and does not draw attention to itself; it is simply and beautifully professional, serving Sachar’s vision.
Of particular note is the handling, by both Sachar and Davis, of the interracial romance that ends in tragedy and spurs Barlow to become a murderous thief. Neither author nor director belabors the race issue, and their treatment lends the chaste love a sweetness, purity, and rightness that are almost shocking for the absence of politics. And this makes what follows all the more horrifying.
You might expect that level of sensitivity and tolerance from an adult movie (and by that I don’t mean porn, although ... — but that’s a subject for another entry). Yet even then the subject is usually given a heavy-handed treatment. (See, for example, Monster’s Ball.) In this way but also in every way, Holes’ script and filmmaking assume and respect decency and intelligence in the audience — both kids and adults — and that’s a rare quality indeed.