Fact: It makes a huge difference when the original author is involved in writing an adapted screenplay.
In the case of Disney’s 2003 adaptation of Holes, Louis Sachar’s involvement as the screenwriter created a story that was pretty darn close to the original book. As of late, my experience with Disney’s adaptations has been pretty sour (see my Book vs. Movie post on A Wrinkle in Time for some… exhaustion in that matter) and so when I’d listed Holes for one of these posts, I dragged my feet. I had seen the movie before (I was 14 when it came out) so I knew it wasn’t a bad movie… but noticing the Disney-fication of other favorite childhood novels has been frustrating.
Louis Sachar’s screenwriting credit was one of the first things I noticed watching Holes. That raised my spirits immediately. Not shared billing… just… Sachar. Thank you. If anyone knows how to tell this story, it’s the original author, right? He wasn’t the initial screenwriter either – a dystopian version had been penned and rejected. While that may have been cool, it wasn’t Holes, and I’m grateful Disney brought in Sachar.
This was the magical ingredient that set Holes up to be a successful adaptation.
You need more than a good script to bring a classic book to life. You need actors, location, soundtrack, director… there are so many small nuances that go into making a film. And I will step outside of my book-to-film self for a second and say that source material and adaptation points aside, Holes is a good movie. It’s endearing and creative and fun and light. Even 17 years old, it’s timeless and easy to recommend.
I do have a few nitpicks, but honestly, they are so minor. This is a really good adaptation.
I think all the actors did a good job in the roles they played. I adore Dulé Hill in particular, but that may also stem from my love of Psych. Sigourney Weaver, Henry Winkler, and Jon Voight are wonderful in their roles. Other than Shia LaBeouf, I don’t know much about the other inmates at Camp Greenlake and what they went on to do, but they made a great cast and I would have loved to see Byron Cotton come back and do a Small Steps sequel… but we’re a little too late for that now. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for much more here.
In fact, I was ready to throw this movie under the bus for yet again casting adults as teens, but Shia LaBeouf was fifteen when this was filmed, and Stanley Yelnats is fourteen in the book. Nice work, Disney.
Visually, there’s not a lot exciting about the setting of Camp Greenlake. The whole thing is a giant desert, and … honestly, the set is perfect. Perfect, and importantly, consistent from the flashbacks and into the ruined present. I love that there are relics of the past not only buried around the grounds, but also just left to rot. It looks exactly the way I imagined it.
Also, because this is so fun, Louis Sachar makes a cameo in Holes, playing Mr. Collingswood. He’s one of the townfolk Sam recommends onions to in the first flashback scene.
Flashbacks can be tricky, and for the most part, I have no complaints about the way they were peppered in. They were present enough to tell the backstory, but concise enough not to ruin the pacing. Like the book, they’re good enough that you’re left wanting more of Sam and Kate. One of my favorite literary couples.
The changes from the book are minor – for example, in the book, Madame Zeroni is described by the g-word. In the film, this slur has been removed and she is called a “fortune teller”. Unfortunately, a lot of the appropriation still exists in her characterization, but I did appreciate the removal of harmful language.
There is a moment I found really interesting, and I don’t remember from the book. There’s one point where Zero is helping Stanley dig his hole and X-Ray looks down and says something along the lines of, “it must be nice to have your little slave helping you”. Of course, the viewer knows from previous scenes this is not what’s happening (and Zero shoots X-Ray a look to underline that) but it was an interesting exchange to see.
I also appreciated the conversation around homelessness with Zero’s character. It’s subtle – this is a family movie and a children’s book – but good. Another exchange occurs where Stanley says, “Oh, I used to go to that park!” and Zero says, “Oh yeah, I totally used to sleep there.” And there’s an awkward pause and a heavy reminder to check your privilege. So stuff like that was good. Sachar does that sort of thing very well in his books, and it seems, in his screenwriting as well.
Other than the weirdness with Madame Zeroni, I don’t have a lot to complain about in this movie. The flashback with Elya Yelnats is generally a bit cringey (the love interest and her new husband are also gross stereotypes of “dumb blonde” and “fat slob”) and essentially the daughter is being traded away for a pig… but that’s also in the book, and that whole scene sets the stage for the rest of the story, so it is necessary. Just not… great. It’s literally 3min. of the movie, though, and I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker, but you tell me!
In general, this is such a wonderful adaptation and really worth watching if you’re looking for a lighter watch. I know many people don’t reach for family movies in this age of superheroes, high tension action sequences, and saucy romance, but this is a good one, and worth your time. Doubly so if you enjoyed the book.
I don’t think anyone would be disappointed in Holes’ transition to the big screen.
Do you think Holes is a faithful adaptation? Were any of your favorite parts missing? Would you have skimmed some scenes if you’d’ve written the script? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!