*** (A must-see)

Directed by Andrew Davis

Written by Louis Sachar

With Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson, Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Dule Hill, Henry Winkler, and Eartha Kitt.

No one will be happier than I will to see the Harry Potter craze blow over. I find it a bit creepy to ride the train into the Loop at 8:30 in the morning and see people in power suits reading stories written for 11-year-olds. What kind of corporate hellholes do these people work in that they have to anesthetize themselves with children’s literature to get through the day? Do they lock themselves into bathroom stalls to bottle-feed during coffee breaks? And when they stay late at the office, working themselves into a glassy-eyed stupor, are their school-age children clustered around the TV at home watching Seven?

I asked my sister, who has a graduate degree in children’s literature, what she made of the current trend of kid lit being consumed by adults, and the best explanation she could offer was “the erosion of childhood as a protected sphere in our culture, kids no longer allowed to be kids, adults no longer willing to be adults,” blah de blah.

Of course the boundary between children’s and adult literature has always been permeable. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written as an adventure tale for boys. And at the same time that my junior high teachers were herding the class through Jack London novels (written for adults but later downgraded to kid stuff), my friends and I were digging into Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger. In the 60s and 70s the burgeoning “young adult” genre brought us boundary-blurring fiction like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, and Judy Blume’s Forever, which dealt frankly with sex, crime, substance abuse, and other popular teenage activities.

Louis Sachar’s Holes, which won a 1998 National Book Award and the 1999 Newbery Medal, is the kind of playground word-of-mouth hit that sends adults scurrying into the children’s section at Borders. Read magazine recently ranked it the hottest kids’ book, hotter even than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When I looked for it at the Chicago Public Library, nearly every one of 182 copies citywide had been checked out. Sachar, a 48-year-old attorney in Austin, Texas, has published 19 children’s books, including the durable Marvin Redpost series, but none of them has caught on like Holes, which is now a Disney feature too.

For a kids’ tale, it has a surprisingly sophisticated narrative structure, with three interwoven story lines that unfold over the course of more than a century. One of these involves an interracial romance that ends in a lynching, but the darkest of the three subplots–the one that attracts kids like sugar draws flies–is set at Camp Green Lake, a boot camp in sun-baked west Texas where juvenile inmates are marched out daily onto a dry lake bed and each forced to dig a hole five feet square and five feet deep. The desert terrain there is thick with scorpions, rattlesnakes, and awful yellow-spotted lizards whose bite brings slow, agonizing, certain death. Into this hellish environment comes Stanley Yelnats, a poor boy wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of sneakers. “We’ve got the only water for a hundred miles,” the cold-hearted gang boss Mr. Sir announces to Stanley and the other newcomers. “You want to run away? You’ll be buzzard food in three days.”

For a Disney movie, Holes is mercifully low in saccharine. Camp Green Lake isn’t exactly the Audy Home–there’s no profanity or drug use, and no one’s pinned down and sodomized in the shower–but both the agony of hard labor and the loneliness of incarceration are oppressively real, and Stanley’s fellow inmates are verbally cruel and physically aggressive, any trace of compassion broiled away by the relentless sun. The administrators are worse: in addition to the ill-tempered Mr. Sir (a scene-stealing Jon Voight), there’s the hypocritical counselor Dr. Pedanski (Tim Blake Nelson), who spikes his pious self-help rhetoric with vicious put-downs, and the steely warden, a tall, freckled redhead who paints her nails with rattlesnake venom to make her slap especially painful (who else but Sigourney Weaver?).

Because tone is such a crucial component of the best children’s literature, plenty of good stories get butchered in the course of being made into movies–Disney’s tacky cartoon adaptations of A.A. Milne’s droll Winnie-the-Pooh tales are a case in point. The translation can go wrong even when the author writes the screenplay: Roald Dahl, an experienced screenwriter, adapted his classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory himself, but the dismal Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory didn’t capture the book’s dark, loopy humor and grotesque characters.

Louis Sachar was not an experienced screenwriter, but director Andrew Davis insisted that no one but Sachar could write the script for Holes. The film’s fidelity to the plot and tone of the book is a credit to them both. The three administrators, for example, are played neither for laughs nor for gothic chills; just like in the book, they’re genuine–if seriously warped–people. The inmates, played by a cast of excellent young actors, ring similarly true. Shia LaBeouf as Stanley and Khleo Thomas as his street-smart pal Zero are particularly good–they endow the boot-camp story with all the gravity of Cool Hand Luke.

And like a lot of great children’s stories, Holes evokes a world in which kids have their own language and moral code that protects them from the lies and compromises of the adult world. That’s a salutary vision for children of any age, and if I start seeing people reading Louis Sachar novels on my morning commute, it won’t bother me a bit.