Diary of a Wimpy Kid: From Online Cartoon to Motion Picture

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"Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is the feature film adaptation of Jeff Kinney's novel of the same name. The film, directed by Thor Freudenthal and starring Zachary Gordon, is being released on March 19th by 20th Century Fox.

A Novel in Cartoons

From its origins as a series of online cartoons, Diary of a Wimpy Kid exploded onto the pop culture scene when Jeff Kinney's first "novel in cartoons" was published in 2007. Diary of a Wimpy Kid spent almost three years on The New York Times' children's best-seller list, and was translated into 33 languages. The book captured the imaginations of an army of formerly "reluctant readers," and launched countless video reviews, social networking fan groups, and parties celebrating the release of each new Wimpy Kid book.  

While Kinney had originally targeted adults through the book's nostalgic look at middle school life as told through a narrator with Walter Mitty-esque fantasies of greatness, kids immediately connected to his blending of the subversive and edgy, with fun and wholesomeness. Most of all, they responded to the titular hero's unique voice, summed up by his signature line, "I'm stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons," accompanied by Kinney's drawing of Greg sitting between two classmates.  

Given such pronouncements, it's no surprise that Greg Heffley is far from a traditional role model. He's judgmental, selfish and lazy, but nevertheless always likable. "I wanted to create a character that was realistic," Kinney explains. "Many times in children's literature, the protagonist is really just a miniature adult. I wanted to come up with a kid who was relatable and far from perfect. I worked hard to avoid dumbing down the books, talking down to kids, and wanted to make sure the stories avoided lots of lessons learned."  

The "Real" Middle School

Kinney's many representations of the absurdity of middle school life delighted readers. A particular favorite was the "cheese touch," which has become the stuff of middle school legend, myth, horror, disgust and gossip. At Greg's school, a moldy piece of cheese has mysteriously appeared on the blacktop, growing more foul and powerful by the day. If there's a single thing these middle schoolers dread, it's accidentally brushing against the decrepit slice and thus being branded with the cheese touch's nuclear cooties. The only way to get rid of the cheese touch is by touching some other unfortunate classmate; it's like a game of tag, only grosser.  

"No one looks back at their middle school years wishing to relive them," says Kinney, who is an executive producer on the film. "You see a lot of movies about elementary school kids, high school students and college students, but very few set in middle school because those years are universally kind of ugly." 

It's a world where social stratification rules the day. "In middle school, everyone is getting divided – kids are becoming either athletes or preppies or cool kids or nerds" — says producer Brad Simpson. "It's a kid's first real taste of adulthood." (The school's hierarchal landmines are in full force in the cafeteria, a hotbed of cliques where the prize is, literally, a seat at the table…or any table.)  

Adds producer Nina Jacobson, a former executive at The Walt Disney Motion Picture Group: "[In middle school], you are beyond the cuteness and carefree quality of childhood, but years away from being able to drive. You're neither cute nor cool; you're just stuck in the middle."  

Hollywood calls

As young readers made the books a phenomenon, Hollywood came calling, eager to turn Greg Heffley's world, friends and family into a major motion picture. Kinney's work generated a true fervor and excitement among the team of filmmakers that came together to bring his vision to the screen. Says Nina Jacobson: "Jeff created something genuinely original that didn't feel like anything I'd seen before and didn't look or feel like any book I'd read before. It wasn't the kind of book that my kids found hysterical, but I could barely tolerate. We all laughed.  

"It's written in a smart, sophisticated way that made me think of it as a kind of 'Larry David in high school," Jacobson continues, referring to the beleaguered anti-hero of the series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "Greg is blissfully unaware of what a jerk he can be, and kids find that refreshing and entertaining." 

"Reading the book was like looking at a scrapbook of your own adolescent bravado and stupidity," adds co-screenwriter Jeff Judah whose writing partner Gabe Sachs echoes: "I think that writing for the screen version of Greg Heffley felt very natural because in middle school I would often do what I thought was cool, only to quickly discover that it was anything but cool." And director Thor Freudenthal says, "There's a blatant honesty and humor to the way Jeff Kinney describes how kids feel and act. Greg is a combination of every youngster's worst instincts and decisions." 

While the word "wimpy" appears in the books' and film's titles, one could assert that "middle" is equally important to Greg Heffley. He's stuck in every kid's nightmare – middle school – and is the middle child caught between insolent older brother Rodrick and three-year-old, potty-training-challenged sibling Manny. But this first tale of Wimpy-ness is centered around Greg's attempts to rise above the endless humiliations of grades 6-8: middle school.  

In adapting Kinney's book for the screen, the filmmakers were intent on being true to his characters and particularly to Greg's flawed nature. Throughout the process, Kinney provided essential insights. "Jeff was an invaluable asset in the writing of this film," says co-screenwriter Jeff Filgo. "He was always available for the inevitable question, like 'Would Greg do this?' 'Would Rowley [Greg's best friend] do that?' But he also read every outline and draft, and gave priceless feedback." Adds Jeff's writing partner and wife, Jackie Filgo: "Greg is by turns insecure, aggressive, shy, funny, cruel, and kind; anyone who is around kids knows that they can be all of those things at different times, and every now and then all of them at once. It was our challenge to make sure Greg and his friends made the transition from book to screen with all their features and flaws intact."