Thomas Rockwell’s beloved novella How to Eat Fried Worms is a cheerfully disgusting tale of boyhood bravado and rivalry among friends that winds up going too far. The new film version, by writer-director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters), transmogrifies this minor classic into an unpleasant endurance test about coping with bullying by humiliating and degrading yourself before the bullies can do it for you, with a trite, tacked-on message of solidarity that’s about as realistic as a package of Gummi Worms.
The film marks a new low for once-promising Walden Media, which still professes to be education-oriented and once espoused a commitment to faithful adaptations of quality children’s literature. Their last film, Hoot, was a poor adaptation of an admittedly flawed novel by Carl Hiaasen. Fried Worms is a melancholy new landmark, their first bad film from a good book.
The book, as picturesque an evocation of 1950s rural American boyhood as one would expect from the son of Norman Rockwell, begins with a silly debate that turns into a fifty-dollar bet between big-talking Billy and argumentative Alan. Can Billy, who boasts that he wouldn’t quail at a few bites of anything, eat fifteen worms in fifteen days?
A fair wager between equal parties, there are rules proposed to and agreed upon by both sides. Alan and his friend Joe can supply the worms, but Billy and Tom get to prepare them any way they want — boiled, stewed, fried, fricasseed — and Billy can eat them with as much ketchup, mustard, horseradish or whatever else he wants. Also, he doesn’t have to eat them all on the same day — a worm a day for fifteen days. With the stakes so high, sportsmanship takes some increasingly hard knocks as the drama progresses, but in the end fair is fair, and everything is worked out.
The story is on the light side, and needed to be fleshed out to make a feature film. Yet Dolman’s version, which relocates the story to contemporary suburbia, jettisons nearly everything about the book except for a few character names and the gross-out subject matter.
In place of the original story are bits and pieces borrowed from other sources, notably previous Walden releases. Like Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, and especially Hoot, Fried Worms casts its protagonist as the new kid in an unfamiliar social context, unsure of the rules and worried about fitting in. The resemblance to Hoot is especially strong, with the same new-school woes and trouble with bullies.
A contemporary family film can’t be just about boys, so Fried Worms throws in a girl borrowed straight from Hoot, a tall, intimidating tomboy regarded as a freak of nature by the smaller boys. There’s also a goofy park ranger who chases the boys in an unimpressive buggy, recalling Hoot’s Officer Delinko with his meter-maid cart. Other borrowed elements include a reclusive, eccentric old lady rumored to be a witch (Because of Winn-Dixie) and a character named Twitch whose name and general look are borrowed from Holes, still Walden’s best film.
In the film version, the topic of eating worms is first raised by a sick prank that Joe (Adam Hicks), here a rotten bully, plays on Billy (Luke Benward), here the new boy. (Alan, the main antagonist in the book, is nowhere to be found.) After an absurdly humiliating first morning in school, Billy opens his Thermos in the cafeteria only to find it filled with dozens of nightcrawlers.
In an inspired moment of bravado, Billy turns the tables on Joe in the cafeteria, but his triumph is short-lived as Joe and his gang hound him after school. “Worm boy, worm boy, worm boy,” they screech, until in desperation Billy resorts to the role of the kid too weird to be belittled, proclaiming his fondness for baked, boiled and fried worms. “The greasier, the slimier, the better!” he shouts defiantly. “I could eat ten worms!”
And then comes the “bet.” Billy has to eat ten worms in one Saturday. At stake is not fifty dollars, which I guess lacked the extra gross-out factor Dolman wanted, but the ritual humiliation of coming to school with worms in one’s pants.
Of course bullying Joe has all the power to dictate terms. His gang gets to provide the worms, his gang gets to prepare them. If worms alone aren’t doing the trick, they’ll add generous dollops of hot sauce — and deny Billy water. If Billy still isn’t nauseated enough to puke, thus forfeiting the bet, they’ll spin him on a playground merry-go-round before forcing the next worm on him.
And Billy endures it all, grimly chewing his way through worm after worm — proving, I guess, he can take it as well as they can dish it out. Didn’t anyone involved in making the film stop and say, “Wait a minute — this isn’t overcoming bullying, this is bullying”?
Urging Billy to stay the course and “beat” Joe, one of Billy’s few allies pleads, “This is our one chance not to be losers.” So if a bully tells you to eat worms, and you do it, that makes you a winner?
I know, I know, supposedly Joe will have to come to school with worms in his pants if Billy wins. But in the first place, what possible reason does Billy have to trust Joe? They aren’t friends, and Joe hasn’t exactly been a model of fairness so far. In the second place, which is more degrading, wearing worms in your pants or eating them? Would Alan agree if Billy were to say, “Hey Alan, how about if I put the worms in my pants and you do the eating?” Even after decades of inflation, I’d rather have the fifty dollars.
There is one moment when the film seems briefly aware that Billy’s willingness to go along with the “bet” is misguided. When Billy tries to explain to sympathetic Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) why he couldn’t back down, she seems unconvinced. Later, though, the film blows this as Erika confirms Billy’s mission to finish eating the worms, telling him that no one has ever “stood up” to Joe this way before. Oh. Is that what Billy is doing.
Incidentally, though the film does root for its “losers,” it also mocks them as remorselessly as the bullies. Billy’s buddies Adam (Austin Rogers) and Donny (Alexander Agate) are as uber-geeky and, well, loserish as possible.
Tall, athletic Erika, on the other hand, is the most mature, well-adjusted character in the film. This includes Billy’s parents, who are at least reasonably sympathetic and appealing, especially Mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). Dad (Thomas Cavanagh), judging from irrelevant scenes at his new job, seems to be no better at being the new kid than his son, and as ready to humiliate himself at the behest of the local bully, in this case on the tennis court. Mom gets more points for grown-up perspective, and while she looks almost as ridiculous on the tennis court as he does, at least she does it for the sake of standing by her man.
Erika takes a liking to Billy for no reason at all, and, in a clumsily deployed cliché, Billy insults her for no reason at all — ostensibly because he’s embarrassed to be associated with the class freak, even though (a) his other allies are low-ranking class geeks and (b) Erika’s obviously the coolest kid in school.
The movie has no idea what to do with Erika, for the excellent reason that she’s irrelevant to the story. Her role in the film largely amounts to standing at a distance shaking her head and tolerantly murmuring, “Boys are so weird.” Even so, her sheer self-possession elevates her so far above the rest of the film that every time she appears on screen, one wishes the whole film could be about her, and the stupid worm business could be the odd bit in the background.
But no, in this movie it’s Erika that doesn’t belong. Billy and Joe can’t even understand how Erika, a girl, could even know what’s going on. “You’re a girl, you don’t know about the bet,” she is repeatedly told, as if in this universe girls speak a language other than English.
The rest of the film’s logic is equally phony and cliché-ridden. Bullies surround themselves with intimidated hangers-on, but given the chance, their flunkies will abandon them one by one and side with the underdog whipping-boy du jour. Bullies bully because someone else — perhaps an older brother, if not a father — has bullied them, but show them a little kindness and they’ll come around right away. Enemies will spontaneously band together to defend the most hated among them against a threat greater than any of them, and a vicious teenaged delinquent will allow himself to be faced down by a handful of united fifth graders.
The film’s inversion of self-humiliation as triumph reaches its climax in the final scene, as previously violent enemies celebrate their mutual good will by jointly embracing a self-imposed penalty as a badge of honor. As they dance out of the school, liberated by their indifference to public opinion, the whole school cheers in celebration. It’s one of the most aggressively phony happy endings of any family film in recent memory.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.