Three years ago, Walden Media released their freshman film Holes, one of the sharpest, most satisfying live-action family films in years. Based on the Newbery Award–winning novel for young readers by Louis Sachar, Holes was refreshingly free of the usual Hollywood dumbing-down, sticking remarkably close to its source material and delivering a potent blend of mystery, hardship, excitement and fate.
Walden’s latest film, an adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s Newbery Honor book Hoot, has many of the same ingredients as the earlier film. Beyond their similar monosyllablic titles, both Holes and Hoot weave together a number of seemingly unrelated plotlines as their young protagonists wrestle with a mystery involving an area of land riddled with holes — land with a secret known only to the nefarious grown-up conspirators. Other points of contact include multiple species of deadly reptiles (which in both stories are used to deter the grown-up conspirators), bullying and juvenile delinquents, and a kid who needs a pair of sneakers. Oh, and both feature Timothy Blake Nelson as a similar twit of an authority figure.
Alas, lightning has not struck twice. The similarities between Holes and Hoot only serve to underscore how far short the latter falls from the high standard set by the former. Written and directed by actor Wil Shriner, Hoot dumbs down a story that, for what it’s worth, was no Holes to begin with. Hiaasen’s book is engagingly written, and the first half promises a smart, rewarding story that the second half doesn’t deliver on. Unfortunately, nearly every change made by Shriner only aggravates the book’s narrative and moral problems while watering down its charms.
Here is a small indication of the relative obviousness of the film versus the book: In the book, pressed to come up with a fake name on the spur of the moment, young Roy Eberhardt — a Montana transplant to sunny Florida, where he’s been saddled with the nickname “Cowgirl” — comes up with “Tex.” In the movie, he blurts out the name on the first nametag he sees: “Ling Ho.” (Add “ho”s as necessary.)
When we first meet him, Roy (Logan Lerman) is not having a very good day, or perhaps he is. On the one hand, his face is being forcibly smashed into the school bus window by school bully Dana Matherson (Eric Phillips). On the other hand, looking out the window, he notices a barefooted boy (Cody Linley) running like the wind, and for some reason this fleet-footed kid captures Roy’s imagination. Who is he? Why is he racing around barefoot when everyone else is going to school?
Meanwhile, Curly the foreman (Nelson) is definitely not having a good day. Every morning when he arrives at the site of the future Mother Paula’s Pancake House he’s meant to be overseeing, he’s greeted by some new act of vandalism or malicious mischief that delays the onset of construction. The stakes may be pulled out of the ground, or perhaps there are live alligators lurking in a most unexpected location. Eventually Officer David Delinko (Luke Wilson) stakes out the site, determined to catch the perp red-handed. What happens to his patrol car shouldn’t happen to anybody.
Shriner’s film covers the events, but misses the tone and the feel that make them work, to a point, in the book. Take Officer Delinko, whom the film presents as a buffoon cop barely a step above Enos in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Delinko is a clown who code-names his stakeout “Operation Flapjack” and whiles away the hours narrating his adventures with dramatic lines like “Just me and the night… just a lone wolf stalking his prey.”
The book’s Delinko wasn’t ridiculous, although he did make mistakes, and played a more active role in the story. Why was it necessary to transform him into a buffoon? Come to think of it, Walden’s superior Because of Winn-Dixie added a slapstick yokel cop who wasn’t in the book. I hate to think of this stereotype becoming a Walden staple.
Other grownup characters suffer similar downgrades. Producer Jimmy Buffet, whose music makes up most of the film’s soundtrack, is quoted in the production notes praising the film’s message that “kids are smarter than grownups.” If that’s true, why aren’t movies for kids smarter than movies for grownups? Perhaps it’s because grown-ups are making them. But if kids are so smart, why do they let the grownups do it?
Perhaps it’s telling that Buffet himself plays the only adult in the film worth a darn, the cool hippie teacher Mr. Ryan. Mr. Ryan is so cool that when Roy runs out of class as Delinko comes looking for him, even though the teacher has no idea why Roy is running from a policeman or what Delinko wants him for, he misdirects the policeman to help Roy escape. I wish my teachers in grade school had been that willing to spontaneously help me get out of trouble, no questions asked.
Roy’s parents remain basically sympathetic, if less insightful and helpful than in the book, and Roy’s relationship with them matters less. I particularly miss a touching exchange from the book with nascent pro-life resonances, in which Roy’s mother, whom the book reveals has suffered a miscarriage, reacts with pain and sorrow at the thought of the barefoot boy being unwanted by his mother — of any child being unwanted by any mother — leaving Roy aware how blessed he is to have the parents he does.
The barefoot boy, known only as Mullet Fingers, is another problem. In the book, there’s something larger than life and wild about him; he’s part Huckleberry Finn, almost part Mowgli or young Tarzan, a boy who can rassle four-foot gators and catch poisonous snakes with his bare hands (not to mention slippery mullets), a boy so far outside the social mainstream that he doesn’t even have a name, and whose only care in the world is the well-being of all God’s creatures.
This larger-than-life quality helps us overlook the fact that, viewed realistically, Mullet Fingers’ motives may be noble, but his actions are highly problematic — reckless, dangerous and illegal, for starters. The book’s own back cover copy calls him a “renegade eco-avenger,” though “avenger” isn’t quite right. “Eco-terrorist” would be the usual term, if not necessarily the most accurate; “eco-saboteur” or “eco-guerrilla” perhaps gets to the heart of the matter. (I can’t pretend it’s a spoiler; the title itself alerts you that owls are involved.)
Whatever the label, it’s hardly role-model behavior, and in the book Hiaasen is careful to depict Roy himself (and his parents) placing a high premium on confronting problems in a legal way. This nuance is lost in the film, though, along with Mullet Fingers’ larger-than-life status. The film’s Mullet Fingers is basically a truant runaway and a vandal, or malicious mischief-maker, or whatever.
Mullet Fingers’ sister Beatrice (Brie Larson) is likewise a far cry from the intimidating soccer roughneck depicted in the book; she, her brother and Roy all seem like pals much too early in the story, when Roy should still be intimidated by Beatrice and know little or nothing about Mullet Fingers. When Beatrice gets on Roy’s bike, there’s no sense of tension or uncertainty; it’s an odd thing for her to do, but there’s no question of him possibly not get his bike back, as there is in the book.
Just what is the problem with the pancake house site? I’m not entirely clear. Of course it’s got something to do with the owls, but the story seems to offer least three different possible messages about the exact problem:
Maybe it’s just me, or perhaps it is the characters in the story who are too woolly-headed to know exactly what the problem is. Certainly they’re inept enough to attempt to hide evidence of the problem in a government-filed environmental impact report by — get this — tearing out the incriminating page from the report. Not only that, they keep a second, complete copy of the report on file, a smoking gun invented for the film.
Didn’t it bother the filmmakers that Mullet Fingers sets poisonous cottonmouths loose on the grounds of the site to scare off the guard dogs — potentially endangering the very creatures he’s trying to protect, not to mention the dogs and the humans? (To get around this, Hiaasen had Mullet Fingers tape the snakes’ mouths shut; the film forgets to mention this.)
Since their breakout hit Holes, Walden has continued to produce honorable family-film adaptations of acclaimed children’s books, all worth seeing, though none in quite the same league as Holes. Because of Winn-Dixie was a fine girl-and-her-dog film, and I Am David was an intriguing if not entirely satisfying road trip about a young boy who escapes from a concentration camp and searches for his mother.
Walden’s biggest hit, last year’s adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was also their biggest departure from the source material — a middle-of-the-road Hollywood retelling in which Lewis’s artistry and religious themes were somewhat diluted, if still partly honored. Given Walden’s official education emphasis and unofficial Christian milieu (Walden honchos Micheal Flaherty, Cary Granat and Phil Anschutz are all committed Christians), this was rather disappointing.
Now, for the first time, Walden has made a family film adaptation not worth watching, and the possibility of Holes having been something of a fluke is getting harder to ignore. A year ago, I would have been sanguine about Walden’s upcoming versions of Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terebithia. I’m still sure, given the source material and Walden’s track record, that they’ll be better than Hoot, but that’s not saying much, alas.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.