Moving Pictures May 2010

Revenge of the Wimps

Holden Caulfield lives on as Greg Heffley, narrator of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the anti–Harry Potter.

Director Thor Freudenthal’s live-action adaptation captures some of this—caterwauls of laughter on the school steps as Greg’s mother yodels “Have a great day, sweetie pie!”—but not all of it. Filled out into three dimensions, Kinney’s characters lose their spinal droop, their pipe-cleaner arms and legs and distended, frisbee-shaped upper lips, and the comic register shifts, away from the literary experience and toward the cozy precincts of The Wonder Years or A Christmas Story. Which is a shame, because the film misses the vanguard element in Kinney’s writing: beyond Catcher in the Rye, we can locate Greg Heffley on a continuum of non-adult first-person narrators that includes Oskar Schell, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Christopher John Francis Boone, from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; and Roger Painter, from John Darnielle’s novella, Master of Reality. The acuity of children, their direct-hit insight, is not easy to catch, but Kinney does it:

Dad marched me up to my room and shut the door behind him, and then he said—[cut to cartoon of a frazzled-looking Mr. H, his frazzledness denoted by some drifting spots above his head and a comma-shaped eye-bag under one eye, saying (in a speech bubble that is dripping like a melted snowball, denoting froideur) “Let’s you and me have a talk, FRIEND.”] Whenever Dad says “friend” that way, you know you’re in trouble. The first time Dad ever said “friend” like that to me, I didn’t get that he was being sarcastic. So I kind of let my guard down.

Crazy grown-ups! “I asked [Mom] if she was in love with Ron,” recounts 9-year-old Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “She said ‘Ron is a great person,’ which was an answer to a question I didn’t ask.” Perhaps the closest the movies have come in recent years to one of these strange literary man-children is Max Fischer, schoolboy hero of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, squaring up to life with bulbous effrontery and a British Invasion sound track.

And what becomes of them all? Holden Caulfield, as we know, ends up in the bughouse, the booby hatch, the wacky shack, done in by universal phoniness and the sad sordor of Experience. Roger Painter narrates most of Master of Reality, his raging paean to Ozzy Osbourne, from behind the locked doors of an institution called Santa Fe Springs Psychiatric. Like Greg’s, his journal is commenced under duress:


I cannot in good conscience recommend the film Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, but should the child in your life succeed in making you watch it, look out for the following: first, Pierce Brosnan as the front end of a centaur, wearing a leather jerkin and progressing across the screen with mincing, equine steps, and second, the supernatural resolution of teenage pain. Twitching with ADHD, flogged by dyslexia, young Percy is a tangle of misfit symptoms—“Oh, I am going crazy!” he mutters after his first assault by a winged beast—until it is revealed that he is in fact a demigod: an estranged son of Poseidon, a boy whose ADHD is simply misdiagnosed divine sprezzatura, and whose dyslexia reveals that he has a brain “hardwired for ancient Greek.” Even Percy’s vilely perspiring stepfather is part of the plan: “His pungent odor masked the smell of your blood!”

No such luck for the wimpy kids. No one leans down from Olympus, or from Hogwarts, to gather them into the realm of the epic. No supervillains fly at them. They’re stuck here—middlingly, muddlingly—with the everyday meanies, and with the hacks and prestidigitators of the grown-up world. Little Greg Heffley has resilience, and a sense of humor, and he has the loyal Rowley. He even survives the Cheese Touch. But still one worries. Adolescence, be merciful to him. Life, leave him not too long in that lonely bathroom, his thin limbs bound in toilet paper. The wimpy shall inherit the Earth—of course they shall—but in the meantime ...

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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