Hollywood has had success turning popular comics into hit movies, but those works are usually based on muscular superheroes. Little Greg Heffley, the middle-school star of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," is no Superman. But he's a popular enough wimp to be a fixture on The New York Times best-seller list, and now he's ready for his close-up.
Turning a stick-figure character into a flesh-and-blood movie role was a new experience for “Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney, who documents the experience in another book, “The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary,” which hit the shelves March 16.
“I think the casting in the movie is terrific,” Kinney said. “Whenever you move from cartoon drawings to real people, everyone's going to have a different idea of how the actors should look. But for this movie, I feel like the people cast really captured the spirit of the characters in the book, and that's what mattered the most. I like that Zach Gordon and Robert Capron weren't well known. I think that makes them more believable as Greg and Rowley.”
Kinney created Heffley and his world in a sketchbook in 1998, while working his day job at the Family Education Network, which creates Web sites for children. After years of drawing, cutting, pasting, scanning and uploading, the project became a massive 1,300-page online epic. When a publisher took a liking to it, it morphed into a traditional book and sold enough to soar to the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list.
And Hollywood eventually called. Kinney fielded a number of proposals with different visions as to the form the finished product would take, including one that suggested making the main characters into puppets.
“Some (ideas were) more serious than others,” Kinney said. “I wasn't burning to make a movie unless it was going to be made right, so I was patient and waited until I found someone who wanted to work with me and not just acquire the rights to the property. Twentieth Century Fox and Nina Jacobson, an independent producer, made just such an offer.”
The ultimate decision was to use mostly live actors, with some animated scenes that depict Greg’s journal drawings coming to life. After hiring director Thor Freudenthal, the next step required both a script and actors.
The CGI cheese stands alone
Despite the fact that he created the characters and wrote the book that the movie is based on, Kinney did not write the screenplay. However, he remained involved in the process.
Fans of the book will notice some differences in the film. Some characters (notably the main character’s pals, Fregley and Chirag) have expanded roles. The girls, who all look the same in Greg’s journal, are more fleshed out on screen. And a piece of moldy cheese that plays an infamous role in the book is computer generated.
Once the filming started, Kinney spent plenty of time in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the production was taking place. The author served as an executive producer on the film.
“Executive producer can mean lots of different things, but in my case, it meant that I was always there to give feedback on the script and casting,” he said. “I was a part of the team from the early stages, including hiring screenwriters, to the end stages, when I worked with the animators and provided keyframes for the animated sequences.”
When the filming was taking place, however, his task was mainly to simply observe.
“I recently read a quote by (‘Shutter Island’ author) Dennis Lehane where he said that a novelist on a movie set is about as useful as a giraffe, and that’s true,” Kinney said. “Most of the time when I was on the set, I sat around and watched the professionals do their job. Most of my contributions happened before and after the movie was actually filmed.”
Now, the only remaining tasks are publicity related. Kinney, Gordon and Capron have been on tour, promoting both the movie and the “Movie Diary” — and hoping that the kids currently going through the hell that is middle school identify with a “Wimpy Kid” writ large.
“I’m very proud of the finished product, and I think it’s a great translation of the book and my characters,” Kinney said. “What the movie adds is an emotional component that’s not really there in my books. You come to really care about the relationship between Greg and Rowley. I’ve seen it five times now, and I’m always moved at the end,” he said.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.