Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: Holes

by Louis Sachar
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1971

The Book

Author: Louis Sachar (b. 1954)

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First published: 1998

The Film

Director: Andrew Davis (b. 1946)

Screenplay by: Louis Sachar

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette

Context

Young adult fiction has long dealt with the conflict between teenagers and authority figures, including parents, teachers, and at times even governments. In Louis Sachar's bestselling novel Holes (1998), the conflict is between teenager Stanley Yelnats and the cruel adults in charge of a harsh youth prison camp known as Camp Green Lake, at which each inmate is required to dig a deep whole each day and to which Stanley has been sent after being falsely convicted of theft. Protagonists of young adult novels often feel as if their lives are being shaped by forces beyond their control, but for Stanley, it appears this is literal: his bad luck, and that of his father and grandfather before him, seems to be the result of a century-old family curse. Over the course of the novel, Stanley not only overcomes the hardships he faces at the camp but also manages to reverse the curse, unwittingly changing the course of his life forever.

Written by veteran children's novelist Louis Sachar, who had previously gained a following for works such as the humorous Wayside School series, Holes became very popular among readers, educators, and critics soon after its release, and it won the 1998 National Book Award for young people's literature as well as the 1999 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for fiction and the 1999 Newbery Medal. Director Andrew Davis, who had previously directed such films as The Fugitive (1993), bought the rights to the book and approached Sachar about writing the screenplay. Although concerned that a film adaptation of his novel could become overly simplified or “fluffy,” particularly in light of Walt Disney Pictures' involvement in the film's production, Sachar was reassured by the fact that he would write the screenplay himself and as well as by Davis's history of directing gritty action films.

The issue of faithfulness to source material is often of great concern in regard to the adaptation of beloved children's and young adult novels, as viewers and critics often object to films that are either too faithful to their written counterparts or not faithful enough. The first two installments in the popular Harry Potter film series, for instance, were released in the two years prior to Holes' 2003 premiere and faced criticisms for both adhering too closely to the original novels and leaving out certain plot points and characters. In adapting Holes, Sachar and the film's team had to find a balance between meeting the expectations of readers and taking into account the needs of the film medium. The novel's complex and somewhat nonlinear narrative requires the reader to play close attention and, as the narrator notes in the book's final chapter, to “fill in the holes” themselves. To convey the novel's plot and strong themes of friendship, fate, and overcoming adversity in an effective and faithful manner, the film would have to adhere closely to its source material while at the same time striking the balance necessary when bringing any literary work to the screen.

Film Analysis

The opening scenes of Holes provide an informative illustration of the ways in which the novel was adapted for the screen. The film opens with shots of the unrelenting sun and the dry, cracked desert earth before panning over to show teenage inmates digging deep holes under the supervision of a rifle-toting adult. A shot of the area from above gives the viewer the first glimpse of the scale of the digging operation, as the pockmarked landscape stretches to every edge of the picture. While various inmates chatter in the background, the camera focuses on an exhausted camper whose labeled canteen reveals his nickname to be Barfbag (Zane Holtz). Spotting a rattlesnake near his hole, Barfbag removes his shoes and socks and steps close to the snake, allowing it to bite his bare foot. The camera follows his screaming face in slow motion before returning its focus to the hot sun above him.

This opening scene is effective for several reasons. First, the lingering shots of the sun and the dry ground provide a palpable sense of heat and drought, suggesting a vast desert while showing only a relatively small area. Barfbag's intentional injury, which is witnessed but not prevented by his fellow campers, aptly demonstrates the misery and desperation the camp inflicts on its inmates; Barfbag is willing to endure severe pain in order to have a chance to leave. Most of all, the opening scene demonstrates the various ways in which the film's creators altered the narrative to better meet the needs of the film medium. The novel opens with a chapter in which the third-person narrator describes Camp Green Lake and explains the dangers of the various creatures that live in the desert around the camp, particularly the rattlesnakes, scorpions, and deadly yellow-spotted lizards. “Sometimes,” the narrator notes, “a camper will try to be bitten by a scorpion, or even a small rattlesnake” in order to get out of digging. This chapter is an effective opening to the novel, as it sets the scene and makes the unpleasantness of Camp Green Lake clear. The third-person narrator who tells the reader this information in the novel is absent from the film, however, largely because the inherent differences between the two media. Instead, the film shows the audience the bleak landscape through both aerial and ground-level shots and demonstrates the misery of the campers through Barfbag, whose encounter with the rattlesnake is mentioned but never seen in the novel.

The introduction of the film's protagonist, Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), is similarly adapted to the narrative's new medium. The shot of the sun above Barfbag and his fellow campers transforms into the sun above Stanley, which is partially eclipsed by a pair of sneakers falling from above in slow motion. This transition ushers Stanley abruptly into the plot as the sneakers land on his head while he is walking home from school. Taking a cue from the novel's often nonlinear narrative, the film cuts from Stanley's encounter with the sneakers to Stanley riding in a bus as it passes through the parched desert landscape. It next shows Stanley being escorted to his home by the police, who incorrectly believe that Stanley stole the shoes, which belonged to an athlete and were being auctioned off for charity. After he is sentenced to eighteen months at Camp Green Lake in a brief trial scene, the scene shifts to a shot of the bus from above as it drives deeper into the scarred desert landscape, the lackluster oasis of the camp the sole spot of green in the distance. Stanley's voice-over replaces the book narrator's voice, further differentiating the film from the novel. The changes made to these opening scenes exemplify the sorts of edits made to the narrative and structure of the novel in adapting it to the medium of film. Where the novel's third-person narrator tells, the film shows, giving viewers a tangible sense of the film's setting and characters.

One of the novel's defining features is its extensive use of flashbacks. Throughout the book, chapters about Stanley's life at Camp Green Lake alternate with chapters that take place more than one hundred years in the past, explaining the origin of the Yelnats family curse as well as the history of the area around Camp Green Lake. In the film, the inclusion of such historical flashbacks is first hinted at when Stanley seems to see a ghostly figure outside the bus when he is first approaching the camp. The ghostly figure is that of Sam (Dulé Hill), an African American onion salesman who was murdered for his romance with schoolteacher-turned-outlaw Katherine “Kissin' Kate” Barlow (Patricia Arquette) more than a century before, in the years when the area around the lake was a thriving town. Flashbacks telling the story of Katherine and Sam are scattered throughout the film and often appear following a present-day event that ties in to them. For example, after Stanley asks his camp counselor about whether the dry lakebed was once a lake, the lake appears, beginning a flashback about the town that once thrived there. In another instance, a shot of Stanley using the camp's outdoor shower transitions into a shot of rain falling on Katherine's schoolhouse.

The flashbacks that reveal the origins of the Yelnats family curse are presented in a similar manner to their presentation in the book: while digging his hole, Stanley reflects on the bad luck and fabled curse that brought him to that point. In a series of flashbacks intercut with short scenes of Stanley digging and interacting with his campmates and camp officials, Latvian peasant Elya Yelnats (Damien Luvara) promises elderly fortuneteller Madame Zeroni (Eartha Kitt) that he will carry her up a mountain and sing to her while she drinks from a stream. In exchange, she will help him win the hand of a beautiful local girl. When his attempt to win the young woman over fails, Elya immigrates to the United States, neglecting to keep his promise to Madame Zeroni and thus inflicting her curse on his family. The scenes from Camp Green Lake that appear alongside these flashbacks aptly illustrate the ill effects of the curse, as Stanley struggles with digging under the hot sun and develops painful blisters. Through the use of such flashbacks, the film ties the past and present together, making the strong connections between the periods abundantly clear.

Significance

Much like its source material, the film Holes was received well by most critics, who praised its depiction of teenage male friendships and its exploration of fate and free will. Critics also commented on the film's sensitive depiction of race relations and racism, which play a key role in the flashbacks to nineteenth-century Green Lake, as well as immigrant identity. Those two themes of the original novel resonated deeply with director Andrew Davis, and critics generally agreed that they lent additional depth to the film's already complex narrative.

Holes performed well at the box office, bringing in more than 70 million dollars worldwide. The film was one of the top ten highest grossing PG-rated films of the year, demonstrating its success among young audiences. Holes was nominated for numerous awards, including the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for best live-action family film. Three of the film's young actors, Shia LaBeouf (Stanley), Noah Poletiek (Twitch), and Khleo Thomas (Zero), were nominated for Young Artist Awards for their performances; LaBeouf was also nominated for the MTV Movie Award for breakthrough male performance in 2004.

As a largely faithful adaptation of the novel, Holes is often screened in schools in which the novel is part of the curriculum. The novel itself has been challenged in school systems and libraries on various occasions, and parents have sometimes challenged the screening of the film as well. However, educators and librarians have been ardent defenders of both the novel and the film, praising the strong message about overcoming adversity and powerful overarching themes.

Further Reading

  • Armitstead, Claire. “The Holes Phenomenon.” Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 16 Oct. 2003. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/film/2003/oct/17/booksforchildrenandteenagers>.
  • Kovacs, Deborah, and Karin LeMaire. Holes: The Official Movie Scrapbook. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. Print.

Bibliography

  • Ebert, Roger. Rev. of Holes. RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital, 18 Apr. 2003. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/holes-2003>.
  • LaSalle, Mick. “It's Easy to Dig ‘Holes.’” SFGate. SFGate, 18 Apr. 2003. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/It-s-easy-to-dig-Holes-Fugitive-director-2654284.php>.
  • Scott, A. O. “Holes (2003) Film Review; Not Just for Children, a Suspenseful Allegory of Greed, Fate, and Racism.” New York Times. New York Times, 18 Apr. 2003. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B0CEFD7163AF93BA25757C0A9659C8B63>.

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