Film Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Sorry, boys and girls--Jeff Kinney's witty children's book has become a thoroughly generic kiddie flick.

In the early eighties, British author Sue Townsend penned a pair of epistolary novels that purported to be lifted from the pages of a "secret diary" by Adrian Mole, a dorky teenager struggling with familiar adolescent problems: bickering parents, brutish school bullies and, of course, raging hormones. Aside from being laugh-out loud hilarious, these books continue to strike a chord with readers—particularly those like myself who were around Adrian's age when we discovered them—because Townsend perfectly captures the irrational mind of a 13¾ year old caught up in life's growing pains. (Townsend continues to chronicle the exploits of a now-grown Adrian, but these later books are less insightful, and far less funny, than Mole's early diaries.)

While Townsend's work isn't cited as a specific influence for Jeff Kinney's hugely popular book Diary of a Wimpy Kid, it's hard not to see at least a glimmer of a connection between his hero, put-upon middle-schooler Greg Heffley, and Adrian Mole. Mocked up to resemble a kid's personal journal, complete with hand-written lettering on lined paper and pencil doodles, Diary recounts Greg's travails as the middle child in a boisterous suburban clan that includes his distracted but well-meaning parents, a sadistic older brother who’s into heavy metal, and a wide-eyed toddler who receives all of Mom and Dad's attention. At school, meanwhile, Greg longs to run with the in crowd, but more often finds himself stuck with the nerd herd, a group that includes the desperately uncool Rowley and world-class geek Fregley. None of this material is groundbreaking, but Kinney's witty writing and amusing illustrations make Diary a charming read.

Too bad that charm turns out to be just one of the many things missing from the film version. Gracelessly brought to life by director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) and a quartet of screenwriters, the big-screen Diary takes Kinney's well-realized characters and transforms them into boring stick figures. Interestingly, the role that suffers the most in translation is the movie's ostensible hero. In the novel, Greg is someone who is best described as a flawed protagonist; he makes mistakes and bruises peoples' feelings, but he's not a malicious kid, just one who tends to leap before he looks in his (over)eagerness for recognition. Onscreen, he's a total prick (to use a pejorative several grade levels above middle school).

To be clear, this isn't the fault of the young actor (Zachary Gordon) cast in the part; Gordon possesses an amiable enough screen presence. Rather, the blame rests with the script, which boils down Kinney's book to a series of episodic incidents that showcase Greg's worst personality traits. For example, he causes an accident that results in Rowley breaking his hand, then resents his friend when the injury unexpectedly makes him popular. Other scenes depict Greg belittling Rowley's favorite bike (one that bears the name of a teenybopper pop star) and allowing his supposed pal to take the fall for his own mistake.

Most of these events are taken directly from the novel which, like the movie, chronicles Greg's tumultuous first year in middle school, but there they are buffered by passages that allow us to see him in a different, more relatable light. The filmmakers have chosen to define the character almost solely by his desire to be one of the cool kids, which renders him a largely one-note and unsympathetic leading man.

At least the film Greg has a personality; all of the other characters are ciphers distinguishable only by their physical characteristics: Rowley (Robert Capron) is fat, Fregley (Grayson Russell) has braces and wears glasses, and Mom and Dad (Rachel Harris and Steve Zahn, doing yeomen’s work) are...well, Mom and Dad. (Their voices could have been dubbed with the famous "wah wah wah" sound from the Charlie Brown cartoons.)

Worst of all, the good-natured humor of Kinney's book is gone, replaced by the usual kid-movie hijinks, which requires at least one scene to revolve around someone's bodily fluids ending up somewhere they're not supposed to be. Clearly, the filmmakers believe this is the kind of stuff children want to see, but laughs seemed few and far among young viewers at the screening I attended. This may sound revolutionary, but kids are often smarter than we think—at least smart enough to recognize when something they enjoyed on the page has been dumbed-down for the big screen.