It’s apparently not easy to transfer even the best of “young adult” literature to the screen–of the many excellent books by Robert Cormier, for example, only one (“The Chocolate War”) has been made the transition particularly well, and other junior-high classics have really been botched in filming (just recall the mess than Larry Peerce made of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” back in 1972). But Andrew Davis–a director who’s previously specialized in action flicks–has considerable success with “Holes.” Perhaps he has a hitherto unknown affinity for this sort of material, or maybe it’s the result of the close participation of Louis Sacher, who adapted his own, very popular book (for which the Austin, Texas writer won the National Book Award in 1998). Whatever the case, the quirky, often positively bizarre material, with its overlay of myth and overarching messages about family, friendship and destiny, has made a surprisingly winning transition to film; the result is substantially superior to the glossy but solemn version of “Tuck Everlasting” that Disney released last year.
“Holes” centers on Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf), a youngster whose family tradition of bad luck, inherited from their European roots, is borne out by his wrongful arrest for stealing a pair of valuable sports shoes. As punishment he’s sent to Camp Green Lake, an ironically-misnamed juvenile work facility in the middle of the Texas desert, where he and the other inmates are forced to dig “character-building” holes every day under the watchful gaze of three semi-comic villains–The Warden (Sigourney Weaver), chief guard Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and hapless Dr. Pedanski (Tim Blake Nelson). Stanley initially has some trouble with his bunkmates–a crew with nicknames like Armpit (Byron Cotton), Squid (Jake M. Smith), X-Ray (Brenden Jefferson), Miguel (Miguel Castro) and Zigzag (Max Basch)–but he gradually fits in, developing a special comradeship with diminutive, apparently mute Zero (Khleo Thomas). Eventually the reason behind all the digging is revealed in flashbacks to the wild west times of Old Green Lake and a doomed friendship between the local schoolteacher (Patricia Arquette) and a considerate young black man (Dule Hill), and Stanley ultimately makes a discovery which frees not only the camp population from their cruel treatment but his family from their long string of misfortune, too.
Sachar’s fable has a lot of things going on, and it switches tones in a way that could have gone very wrong (Stanley’s family, headed by Henry Winkler, is, for instance, played in broad sitcom strokes, while some of the material involving the camp officers is almost Dickensian in its cruelty), but in Davis’ hands the mixture of magic and realism seems, if not entirely smooth, at least agreeably unusual. The whimsy of some sections may not dovetail perfectly with the harshness of others, but the changes don’t come across as clumsy or wrenching, and Stephen St. John’s splendid cinematography, abetted by John McNeely’s evocative score, helps to maintain the right balance. The cast serves the material nicely, too. LaBeouf has a natural likableness that suits Stanley well, and Thomas a sweetness that doesn’t preclude a mischievous streak; the remaining boys, doubtlessly prodded by Davis, give their characters a nice touch of roughness. Among the adults, Weaver and Nelson are fine, while Voight continues the wonderfully overblown work he’s done lately in pictures like “Anaconda,” creating a humorously crotchety figure with a hint of real menace to him as well. Arquette and Hill work effectively together in the flashback sequences, and Winkler puts his hesitant, nebbishy quality to good use as Stanley’s spacey dad. In a brief appearance as the old lady who lays the curse on the Yelnats family, Eartha Kitt makes a vivid impression even if she could use a dash of reticence.
The young readers who have made Sachar’s book a phenomenon should be as pleased with this rendition as Harry Potter’s loyalists have been with Chris Columbus’ blockbusters. And adults, even if they’re unfamiliar with the tome, will be pleasantly surprised by it, too. In terms of both content and style, “Holes” is far from being as empty as its title suggests–and as pictures targeted at youngsters usually are.