'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' could augur a post-Harry Potter boom
The surprise success of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" at the box office this weekend -- it earned nearly $22 million, beating out the blazing originality of "The Bounty Hunter" and "Repo Men" -- shows much about the state of contemporary box office (and not just that a well-made movie can actually come out this time of year).
For one thing, it demonstrates that audiences may finally be getting tired of Jennifer Aniston (we've heard that before, so fingers crossed). For another, it shows that a well-known title or brand -- the movie is based on Jeff Kinney's wildly bestselling children's graphic-novel series -- is these days increasingly likely to trump a well-known actor, as several pundits have noted.
But maybe most strikingly, it proves that books aimed at pre-adolescents can be turned into successful movies.
We've heard that one before too. Observers have spent the better part of this past decade of "Harry Potter" touting a post-Potter boom at the movies. But children's books -- especially those aimed at the pre-teen set -- generally haven't caught on at the multiplex. "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," based on the literary mega-phenomenon, flopped. "The Golden Compass" helped sink New Line as a studio. And just last month, "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," based on Rick Riordan's bestselling fantasy series, generated more rain than thunder (though it fared far better overseas).
With "Diary" (and, in a somewhat different sense, with "Alice in Wonderland"), there are signs that the post-Potter boom is finally here. "Diary" producers pulled off a well-regarded pre-teen film despite a smaller budget than many of their more action-oriented counterparts. And they did so by showcasing a central character who's roughly the same age as much of the film's target audience. (The conventional wisdom among producers of youth-skewing movies is that most kids in elementary school and junior high want to see older characters, a la "Twilight" and "Pirates of the Caribbean").
In the coming months, studios will try to continue the momentum. This week, "How to Train Your Dragon," which began life as the first book in a series from British author Cressida Cowell, is poised for a strong showing.
And later this year, several others will take their shot -- "Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang," the second movie from the (also British) "Nurse Matilda" series, comes out this summer. Also this summer, Fox will release "Beezus and Ramona," based on Beverly Cleary's popular series about a level-headed girl and her pesky sister. "Legends of the Guardians," derived from the kidddie lit sensation "Guardians of Ga'Hoole," hits in September. (Per Wikipedia: "This series follows the adventures of Soren, a young Barn Owl. After Kludd pushes him out of his nest, a St. Aggie's patrol snatches him and takes him to the St. Aegolius' Academy for Orphaned Owls. When Soren realises they are evil, he befriends an Elf Owl named Gylfie and together, they manage to escape." It's Harry Potter with owls!)
Down the road, more filmmakers -- even auteurs -- await, as no less a director than Martin Scorsese is taking on "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," Brian Selznick's whimsical story of an early 20th century filmmaker.
There's something wholesome, almost quaint, about children's books now getting all this movie attention (Cleary began writing her books in the 1950s -- she's not exactly J.K. Rowling), especially as books written for adults figure less into Hollywood's plans.
But with seemingly every toy and board game out there now mined for its movie potential, there's also something refreshing about seeing Hollywood look to literary material for a big hit -- until the next one flops, anyway.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Rob McEwan / 20th Century Fox
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