It’s all because of my “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!” That’s the refrain, a sort of running family joke, of Stanley Yelnats IV, the central character in the newly released Disney film Holes, based on Louis Sachar’s immensely popular children’s book. Unlike the first two Harry Potter films, Holes makes a smooth transition from the printed page to the big screen. Holes is a gem of a film, with a wonderful script, a terrific cast, and something to say in a subtle way about chance, destiny, reversals of fortune, friendship, and hope.
The story begins with a pair of shoes falling out of the sky and hitting an unsuspecting young boy, Stanley Yelnats IV, on the head. Stanley picks them up and heads home, but he is soon arrested for stealing the shoes donated by a famous athlete to be auctioned for charity. “All my life,” Stanley laments, “I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Misfortune runs in Stanley’s family, dating back, according to legend, to the curse a gypsy woman put on the first Stanley Yelnats (a name popular in his family because of its palindromic quality).
Stanley is quickly convicted and offered the option of jail or time at Camp Greenlake, an unusual Texas reform school, where kids have nicknames such as Squid, Armpit, Zigzag, X-Ray, and Zero. Once a wide body of water, Greenlake is now a Texas desert, having suffered a drought that began, coincidentally — or maybe not — just about the time townsfolk executed a young black man for kissing the town’s white female school teacher, who in despair and vengeance then became the notorious criminal, “Kissing Kate” Barlow.
“You take a bad boy and make him dig holes in the hot sun all day long and you get a good boy.” This is the philosophy of the supervisor at Camp Greenlake, Mr. Sir (played by Jon Voight, in a marvelous performance). The triumvirate in charge of the camp — Mr. Sir, Dr. Pendansky, and the warden (Sigourney Weaver) — constitutes a hierarchy of retribution, with the lowest among them, Mr. Sir, taking out his frustrations on the kids. But the warden has more than character education in mind with all this digging. She’s searching for some sort of treasure and, as we slowly learn, her quest has something to do with the legend of the accursed Yelnats family. In the course of the film, myth becomes history, and history in turn becomes reality.
At the camp, Stanley manages slowly to win the respect of his peers and befriends a black inmate, nicknamed Zero for his seeming lack of intelligence. But Zero has simply never had the chance to learn, even to read. When Stanley teaches him to read, Zero’s intelligence begins to manifest itself, as does his will to survive. The friendship affords Stanley an opportunity to reverse the curse visited on his family.
Given the expectations of Hollywood films, Holes was something of a risk. It’s a strange cross between a kids’ version of Cool Hand Luke and To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it contains sporadic doses of action and a number of very funny scenes, it has little in the way of special effects. Like the book, the movie allows time for the characters and the story to develop. The film seamlessly interweaves its two stories, ancient and contemporary, both of which center on the now-barren lake. The pacing is just right, and the sense of discovery, as viewers join Stanley in piecing together a series of clues, is quite satisfying.
Every PG film in recent memory has billed itself as a film for the entire family, equally attractive to adults and youngsters. At a length of two hours and with some scenes likely to confuse or frighten very young children, Holes is not quite for the entire family. But it comes closer than most. And it’s such a captivating tale that it may well send young viewers back to the book on which it is based.
— Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor and chair and professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld. Hibbs was recently named dean of the Baylor University’s new Honors College, effective this summer.