Most of the books I treasured as a child I still enjoy reading as an adult. Louis Sachar’s Holes is one of the few children’s books I’ve read as an adult that made me wish I’d been able to read it as a kid. Wry humor, thrills, and vividly bizarre details figure in a convoluted, almost epic plot in which seemingly unrelated elements are cleverly dovetailed into a satisfying, redemptive climax that takes on a weight of destiny.
All of this is effectively brought to the screen by director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) and Sachar, who adapted his own book. A few things are lost in translation, naturally. Young Stanley Yelnats, who in the book was overweight and dorky, is played in the film by photogenic Shia LaBeouf ("Even Stevens"). And a few of the book’s twists and surprises are either telegraphed or dropped altogether.
Yet Holes manages that rare trick of faithfully evoking what was special about the book without becoming slavish or by-the-numbers. Davis captures the book’s blend of coming-of-age realism, tongue-in-cheek grotesquerie, fantasy, and adventure, and capably navigates the plot’s multiple timelines and settlings. Solid art direction and cinematography convincingly plant the story in the middle of a Texas dust bowl, and the well-cast ensemble ably brings the characters to life.
LaBeouf makes a sympathetic, underdog hero as the boy who has the bad luck — or is it an old family curse, or perhaps something more? — to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, winding up convicted of stealing a valuable pair of sneakers and consigned to reform camp. Little Khleo Thomas (Friday After Next) is self-possessed and guileless as Zero, the camp resident with the slowest tongue and the fastest shovel.
Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, and Tim Blake Nelson strike the right notes of cartoonish menace as the camp’s villainous adult supervisors, while Henry Winkler, Siobhan Fallon, and Nathan Davis bring an endearing quirkiness to Stanley’s appealingly eccentric family. In the sequences set in the past, Patricia Arquette and Dule Hill are sweetly appealing as a high-minded schoolmarm and a sunny handyman who mends her schoolhouse and breaks her heart through no fault of his own, while Eartha Kitt is effectively spooky as Madame Zeroni, a Latvian fortuneteller who pronounces a curse on a young swain for neglecting a promise to her.
Precisely how a story about a pair of stolen sneakers and juvenile delinquents digging holes in the hot Texas sun eventually encompasses a tragic frontier romance in the Old West, a nineteenth-century Latvian curse, a dried-up lake where no drop of rain has fallen since a murder was committed more than a century ago, a legendary female bank robber, deadly yellow-spotted lizards, rattlesnake-venom nail polish, and a formula for eliminating foot odor is a discovery, or rather series of discoveries, that are among the pleasures of watching Holes.
Another pleasure comes from discovering how, despite what seems like Stanley’s abyssmal luck, or perhaps his family really is cursed, there’s a deeper benevolence at work in his story. Somehow or other, the universe, or perhaps it is Providence, is looking out for him.
When the stolen sneakers seem to fall out of the sky on him, setting him on the path to the cruelly misnamed Camp Green Lake, it seems like a cosmic practical joke. But there’s a larger fate at work, and we see that chances at redemption often come about in surprising ways; and if there are curses, they can eventually be broken. (In the book, a certain circumstance is directly implied to be an act of divine judgment, and by inference a later change in circumstances seems to be divine mercy or lifting of a punishment. The film doesn’t make this explicit, but it plays out the same way.)
With its Chinese puzzle-box of a plot, Holes is easily one of Hollywood’s most challenging and intellectually engaging family films in recent years. Davis and Sachar deserve credit for refusing to dumb down the story and delivering a film that will reward repeated viewing.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.