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Even in an age of “new media” – where a viral clip of a home video shot 15 years ago can turn a slightly off-looking person in the background into a celebrity – Jeffrey Patrick “Jeff” Kinney has taken a singularly offbeat road to stardom: Cartoonist turned professional web-game designer turned bestselling children’s book author.

While working with the educational website FunBrain.com, Kinney (a cartoonist in his college days) debuted an ongoing webcomic called Diary of A Wimpy Kid. Structured in the form of journal entries from an awkward sixth grader named Greg Heffley – complete with sketchy drawings and self-inflating “unreliable narration” – and loosely inspired by Kinney’s own childhood, it was a big hit. Big enough, in fact, to make the jump to print media as a bestselling book series that’s been on the NY Times bestseller list for 41 weeks (as of November 2009.)

In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why the series is so popular: A good-natured but unflinching look at the day-to-day existence of not-terribly-athletic boys on the cusp of teenhood in the pubescent combat zone of Middle School (“normal kids like me alongside the gorillas who already have to SHAVE!” as Greg puts it), it plays out like a variation on Mean Girls for 11-year-old boys.

The series has now had its first book made into a movie, opening wide in the U.S. today (Friday, March 19th). The film pares down the first book’s sprawling, episodic narrative into a main story tracking the changes that entering Middle School brings to Greg’s relationship with his best friend (aka sometime punching-bag and unwitting wing-man) Rowley Jefferson.

Shocked at his prior coolness level no longer counting in the Big Pond, Greg decides that it must be Rowley – a chubby, good-natured late bloomer who has trouble grasping (among other things) that guys their age are supposed to say “hang out” instead of “come over and play” – who’s holding him back. His attempts to reform his buddy, however, only serve to turn Greg into more and more of a social pariah, while inadvertently elevating Rowley’s unselfconscious goofiness into the school’s new definition of cool.

In one well-observed detail, Greg watches, aghast, as a cast on Rowley’s broken arm courtesy one of their believably-dopey games of rough-housing becomes a babe magnet. Why do the girls want to help feed him, Greg wonders, since Rowley’s eating hand is perfectly fine? (Heh!) When Greg finally crosses the line of buddy betrayal, the two essentially break up – and Rowley proves much more capable of making new friends than Greg does. Will Greg realize that perhaps he’s the one with some growing up to do in time to salvage a friendship he’s always taken for granted?

So it’s an Apatow-esque bromance, save that it features actual children as opposed to developmentally-arrested adult men. Interestingly, according to Kinney, he never intended to write the book for children the same age as his protagonists. As he tells it, when pitching the series as an ironic “look back at growing pains” satire for adults, a publisher offered a then-shocking bit of advice: Drop the irony, and instead of a niche spoof of kid’s stories you’ve got a hit actual kid’s story.

This was one of the many revelations when I – along with several other journalists – sat down for a roundtable interview with Kinney following a screening of the film a few weeks ago. In person, Kinney – who’s also the brains behind the popular online game PopTropica, is a quintessential regular guy, exuding the same kind of offbeat Middle-American sense of insight-disguised-as-silliness humor one associates with Weird Al Yankovich, Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson or Mystery Science Theater‘s Joel Hodgson.

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MovieBob: What strikes me as unusual about the books and now the movie is that, usually, when you have a series about young boys it’s always on the lines of “boy becomes a man.” There’s this tradition where if you’re not running off to the woods, the Hardy Boys, whatever, but Greg is decidedly NOT “that guy.” So how much of this, if any, is a reaction to that sort of material?

Jeff Kinney: I’d say it’s a strong reaction. I remember being a third or fourth grader, being out on the soccer field and being more or less a cone for the other kids to dribble around. Our purpose was to make the other kids – the kids who were already stars – look good. I kind of carried that awareness with me through childhood and, y’know, not every kid is a hero or always acts perfectly; and in literature there are plenty of protagonists who don’t act like kids, who act like miniature adults. Just from the title alone, I was trying to create a kid who was imperfect – you might be better than him. So yes, it was a reaction to that kind of over-masculinized style of writing.

MB: Even when you have books about kids who aren’t athletes, the background to that is “okay, but in compensation for that he’s smart or a paragon of virtue.” But here, maybe moreso in the movie than in the book because it doesn’t have as much inner-monologue, [Greg] has that kind of glorious self-centeredness of a 10 or 11 year-old boy where, yeah, he’s the main character, but he can be kind of a jerk.

JK: Yeah. Not to try and put myself in this category, but if you take a character like Holden Caulfield or Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, those are really flawed characters who probably stirred up stuff in their day about not being a role model. And if my characters were role models nobody would be reading my book. Kids get enough of that kind of pap and I wanted to make sure [Greg] was relatable and felt like a real kid.

(At this point, the broader interview turned to the subject of Kinney’s real childhood, it’s influence on the books, and PopTropica – Kinney’s mega-popular kid’s web gaming venture that he describes as a mix of King’s Quest and Carl Barks’ legendary Disney/Duck comics of the 40s. )

MB: So would you say you were more Greg or more Rowley?

JK: I was definitely Greg.

MB: Videogames actually feature very prominently in the books, and one of my first reactions reading them was “that’s awesome!” Because, usually, whenever videogames turn up in kid’s literature it’s an evil thing. It’s keeping them from the outdoors, it’s turning them violent, if you’re looking for the bad guy in a kid’s book it’s the guy who plays too many videogames, who all “wired” and corrupted by technology, etc. Was it intentional, at all, to have it in there and make it not a positive or negative just something they do?

JK: Yeah. It was more sort of realistic. I think kids just like to play videogames, if they had their druthers they’d play videogames all day long. That’s how I was as a kid, that’s how I see a lot of kids are now, so I figured that was the average case.

MB: I have a feeling a lot of parents out there aren’t thrilled with you for showing them that game-case trick. [In the book, Greg shows Rowley how to sneak “violent” games past his protective parents by keeping (presumably) M-rated games inside E-rated cases.)

JK: [laughs] Wow, I’d forgotten about that actually. That would be a good trick, wouldn’t it?

MB: What do you think of [actor] Steve Zahn, who plays Greg’s father? Because he seems – at first – like unconventional casting to be playing a suburban dad.

JK: He really surprised me. He’s probably the character who looks the least like the character from the book, but I felt like he could take almost any line even if it was very dry and make it interesting and funny. I met him on the set, spent a few hours with him, and I have to say he’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. Hands down. How he acts in the movie is how he acts in real life. I would kill to have a friend like him.

I think that – in the book – Greg’s father is always on him about being a wimpy kid and, once you put that on the screen, it’s not gonna work. You’re just gonna think “this guy is a jerk.” So you need to soften it up, or give a different take to make it work.

MB: He almost seems like he’s a little too young, like, you look at him and then you look at how old Rodrick [Greg’s teenaged older brother] is in the movie it kind of clicks: “Oh, okay. This is a guy who had kids waaaay earlier than he was ready to.” And he’s just figuring it out as he goes.

JK: Right. I hope audiences find that that works, because if there’s a sequel, he has a big part to play and I’m excited for that.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

Question of the Day, March 19, 2010

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