You are to dig one hole each day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Each hole must be five feet deep, and five feet across in every direction. Your shovel is your measuring stick.
If you’re not smiling knowingly at the previous paragraph, well, you don’t know ”Holes.” And if you don’t know ”Holes,” you should be smiling. Sheepishly, because you are oblivious to a property that’s almost as hot as ”Potter.” Published in 1998, Louis Sachar’s ”Holes” nabbed both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for kid lit. ”’Holes’ was a phenomenon from the get-go,” says Beverly Horowitz, VP and publisher of Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group. ”It had that rare quality that made it seem as if it were a classic as soon as it was published.” A classic that kids (and not a few adults) actually like: Last week, ”Holes” was entrenched at No. 11 on the USA Today best-seller list, topping even John Grisham’s ”The King of Torts.” With 2.7 million copies in print, this five-year-old kids’ novel is outselling most new fiction.
It’s that cultish following that hooked Walden Media. In 2001, Walden, created by educator Micheal Flaherty and former Dimension Films head Cary Granat, had just received hefty backing from billionaire Philip Anschutz. What to do with the booty? They canvassed teachers and students across the country about books they’d most like to see as movies. ”Without question, ‘Holes’ was off the charts,” says Flaherty. ”It was always the No. 1 request, right up there with ‘Harry Potter.”’ (Flaherty knows from cherished kids’ books: Walden, which has a two-year distribution deal with Disney, also won the rights to ”Around the World in Eighty Days” and C.S. Lewis’ ”The Chronicles of Narnia.”)
For those who have yet to dig in, may we take this moment to fill in some ”Holes”? Stanley Yelnats, a pudgy palindromic outcast middle schooler, is sent to a work camp for juvenile offenders after being falsely accused of filching sneakers. There, while dodging deadly yellow-spotted lizards, he and his fellow troubled Texans are forced to dig a hole each day. Ostensibly, this will build character. In reality, something fishy’s going on. Hint: It involves the flashback stories featuring everything from an Old West teacher who falls in love with a black man to Stanley’s no-good, pig-stealing great-great-grandfather.
Sachar, a Berkeley grad whose move to steamy Austin inspired the hellish ”Holes” locale, wasn’t so sure his 17th kids’ book (and first runaway hit) should go Hollywood. Not until director Andrew Davis showed up with a resume that included ”Under Siege” and ”The Fugitive.” ”He’s done a lot of action films and I liked that,” the author says. ”I was glad there was someone who’d keep it tough as well as gentle.” Tone deftness was assured when Davis talked Sachar, now 49, into writing the screenplay. ”I wanted his involvement,” Davis says. ”I wanted him to like the movie.” Fans who show up for the April 18 opening will see a fairly faithful adaptation. The most controversial change: Stanley is no longer chubby, as the favorite actor turned out to be downright skinny — Shia LaBeouf, star of the Disney Channel’s ”Even Stevens.” ”I’d [been] pushing for a big kid,” Sachar says. ”But Shia still conveys the sense of vulnerability, but with a spark.” LaBeouf (who with his film inmates endured a two-week ”boot camp” to prep for the California desert shoot) really dug Stanley. ”He goes from not being able to help himself to being able to help everybody around him,” says the 16-year-old.
Jon Voight signed on as the honky-tonk camp guard; Sigourney Weaver, as the warped, flame-haired warden who’s a tad obsessed with what’s under her soil. “It was one of the first books my daughter read that she really fell in love with — I remember she described the warden to me and said, ‘Mommy, you should play this part,'” Weaver says. “I don’t know why she thought that. Maybe because my hair is a little reddish. Maybe because I’m a beast.”
Sachar remained on set the entire 10-week shoot, even taking on a cameo as an Old Westerner. “Louis being on the set continuously [was] very special,” Voight says. “There’s a childlike quality to him, a very deep sweetness…. He’s like a little treasure. You want to protect him.” And his reputation. In addition to getting the Department of Education’s approval of a scene where Stanley teaches his friend Zero to read, Disney and Walden supplied hundreds of teachers and librarians with snappy classroom guides full of Holes-related exercises like “Leapin’ Lizards and Other Facts About Reptiles and Amphibians.” They have also screened Holes for more than 15,000 teachers — and received sunny report cards. “That [Sachar] was on set every day was important to teachers,” Flaherty says, “because the book is a little lower than angels for them, it’s so sacred.”
Kids are equally zealous. Take Maureen Dillon’s fifth graders at Carrie E. Tompkins Elementary School in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. They’ve submitted a proposal to see the movie as a field trip. (Last fall, they unearthed their own 5-by-5 holes outside their teacher’s window.) Says Dillon of the school-sanctioned screening: “They think they’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Seems Holes is hollowed ground.