The Wimpy Kid does Hollywood

Md. native says film based on his cartoon stories adds heart to middle-school tales

March 21, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Jeff Kinney, author of that best-selling "novel in cartoons," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," is the rare writer and cartoonist who considers the movie version of his book superior to the source, at least in one crucial way: "What I'm happy about it is the emotional content, which I think is absent from my book," he says. "This movie has got a lot of heart."

Disarming is the word for Kinney, 39, who was born and bred in Maryland. "I'm good to go, as long as you don't mind the sound of me noshing on a Klondike bar," he starts off a phone interview, fresh from a screening for family and friends in Ashburn, Va. And disarming is the word for Kinney's work, too. His "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" became a publishing phenomenon and a continuing series because of its direct access to the middle-school mind. Kinney and 20th Century Fox are hoping to replicate that success on screen.

Kinney's Greg Heffley is a squiggle, mentally and physically. He finds being true to himself a challenge. He cares about his roly-poly best friend Rowley, a good-natured naif. But he feels disproportionately embarrassed when Rowley wears a Halloween costume that his safety-minded mother has festooned with reflectors. Greg is a budding comic-strip artist. Too bad his comic art gets confused with a quest for middle-school fame.

With humor and without apology, Kinney presents Greg as a welter of youthful contradictions. The author's grasp of a boy's partly formed heart and brain has won fans spanning several age groups. Sixth- and seventh-graders read Greg's journals as a reality check. Grade-schoolers take them as an early-warning handbook. Parents read them for nostalgia sans tears. Kinney feels confident that adult as well as youthful fans will enjoy the movie and embrace its newfound qualities of feeling.

The author has put his understanding of filmmaking into "The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary: How Greg Heffley Went Hollywood" (Amulet, $14.95). It's a "making-of" book done in Wimpy Kid style. The paper is ruled like a composition tablet. The text is printed like a sample page in a penmanship class. And Kinney drops illustrations into the text like formalized doodles. The movie diary, though, also contains behind-the-scene photos and close-ups of material like the "Westmore Warbler," the film's school newspaper. Kinney spells out all the intricacies of production in a manner even his youngest fans can understand.

But Kinney also learned about cinematic narrative. "I really grew to appreciate the difference between book storytelling and movie storytelling," he says. Greg's ambition to be popular became the script's organizing principle. "Nina Jacobson, who was one of the producers, would always say that any main character in a movie needs an 'I want song.' The audience should know right away what he or she wants. ... In my book it's a little bit nebulous, although, for Greg, popularity has always been an important motivating factor." What drove the script forward "was the friendship between Greg and Rowley." Kinney tears up every time he sees the end of the movie, "and more so with each viewing. I just think childhood friendships are really powerful things, and that's where I think the movie delivers, on their friendship."

The Wimpy Kid books follow the Larry David precept, "No hugging, no learning." In the course of the movie, though, Greg evolves from "a likable jerk" into someone a bit less jerky. "We preserved the character, kept his integrity, but also let him grow in a way that is pleasing to an audience," says Kinney. He concedes that introducing a girl reporter named Angie was part of an attempt "to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. But we really tried to make this character fit organically into this universe." Angie puts Greg down "whenever he gets a little full of himself. She serves as the voice of the audience and a counterpoint to Greg."

Most important to Kinney, the film, like the book, is about "seeing childhood not through adult eyes but through a kid's eyes. The best compliment I could ever get as a writer is when a critic says he can't sense the adult behind the character. That's what I strive for."

He started the Wimpy Kid series back in 1998. (The first book came out in 2007.) He felt as if he were giving voice to a silent minority. "When I was in junior high, I remember feeling that they just tucked us away, they were just trying to hide us from society as we made that transition between childhood and teenagerhood - or is it teendom? It felt so strange to me that there were six or seven years of elementary school and two years of junior high, then four years of college. It just felt like something was up."

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