Told with a riotous blend of text and detailed diagrams and illustrations, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid examines the terrifying transition from the safety of primary school into the terrifying world of hormones, pecking orders and class schedules that is high school.
Greg Heffley, owner and supposed composer of said diary (or journal, as he prefers it to be called), may be officially a high school kid, but he’s trailing behind the rest of the crowd in so many ways. With his voice nowhere near breaking, his growth spurt the stuff of dreams, and a best friend who’s appallingly uncool, Greg knows that the next year is just as tough as his punk rocker brother says it will be.
And oh, how it is. Greg’s life is full of those mundane but all-important things that characterise those early teen years, and his journal is a detailed account of events involving rotten cheese, dodgy Hallowe’en costumes, broken bones and plenty of hygiene (or lack thereof)-related stuff. There’s no real overarching plot: essentially it’s an episodic account of amusing anecdotes all relating to navigating the waters of tweendom. And with the fun line drawings and simple prose, it’s a wonderful mix of the absurd and the familiar.
Part of the book’s charm lies in the fact that it’s written so bluntly and with an utter lack of reflection: Greg’s concerns mostly relate to himself, and he rarely takes any time to think about the effect that his actions have on others. The cheery naivete of his account and the matter-of-fact drawings and descriptions are superbly innocent and utterly engaging, and even though Greg is merrily bulldozing through life, wreaking havoc wherever he goes, he’s largely a likeable dork.
In contrast, the film version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid lacks this innocence, and though it’s a fun and friendly enough film, it doesn’t have the cheery, light-hearted nature of the novel. The Greg of the film is hyper-aware of his actions and their consequences, so rather than the light-hearted mischief of the book, his on-screen antics instead seem to have a mean and self-serving edge. As such, he’s a far less likeable character, and one feels much more aligned with his bumbling friend Rowley than with Greg himself.
The film’s plot is also far more structured than the book’s, and although many of the zany situations found in the book are also in the film–indeed, much of the dialogue is verbatim–they’re tied into this narrative structure, which involves Greg attempting to climb to the top of the school social ladder. Although this element is present in the book, it’s only a very minor one, and while forefronting it in the film makes for a neater plot structure, it also markedly changes Greg’s character. And where in the book the final scene is fairly understated, in the film it’s about as saccharine as can be.
The actors, of course, affect the overall tone of the film, and the nuance added by Greg’s actor (Zachary Gordon) adds a sense of sophistication that feels at odds with the general silliness of things and which provides the sort of too-mature reflective voiceover often found in TV family sitcoms. Gordon’s performance feels more appropriate to an older teen, and it almost feels as though this film would work better if shifted up a few years to target teens rather than the tween set. As it is, it’s caught in a weird limbo between a daytime Disney flick and a coming-of-age teen comedy.
The book comes out well ahead in this instance, although it’s interesting to see how two very different works can be created using an almost identical script. And who can resist Kinny’s line drawings?
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