Thomas Rockwell’s beloved novella How to Eat Fried Worms is a cheerfully disgusting tale of boyhood bravado and rivalry among friends that winds up going too far.
The new film version, by writer-director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters), transmogrifies this minor classic into an unpleasant endurance test about coping with bullying by humiliating and degrading yourself before the bullies can do it for you. It comes complete with a trite, tacked-on message of solidarity that’s about as realistic as Gummi Worms.
The film marks a new low for once-promising Walden Media, which still professes to be education-oriented and once espoused a commitment to faithful adaptations of quality children’s literature. Its last film, Hoot, was a poor adaptation of a flawed novel by Carl Hiaasen. Now it has made its first bad film out of a good book.
The book, as picturesque an evocation of 1950s rural American boyhood as one would expect from the son of Norman Rockwell, begins with a silly debate that turns into a $50 bet between big-talking Billy and argumentative Alan. Can Billy, who boasts that he wouldn’t cower from a few bites of anything, eat 15 worms in 15 days?
It’s a fair wager between equal parties. Both sides agree to a set of rules. Alan and his friend Joe can supply the worms, but Billy and Tom get to prepare them any way they want — boiled, stewed, fried, fricasseed — and Billy can eat them with as much ketchup, mustard or whatever as he wants.
The story is on the light side, and needed to be fleshed out to make a feature film. Yet Dolman’s version, which relocates the story to contemporary suburbia, jettisons nearly everything about the book except for a few character names and the gross-out subject matter.
In place of the original story are bits and pieces borrowed from other sources, notably previous Walden releases. Like Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie and especially Hoot, Fried Worms casts its protagonist as the new kid in an unfamiliar social context, unsure of the code and worried about fitting in. The resemblance to Hoot is especially strong, with the same new-school woes and trouble with bullies.
A contemporary family film can’t be just about boys, so Fried Worms throws in an intimidating tomboy, borrowed from Hoot, whom the boys regard as a freak of nature. Other cadged elements include a reclusive old lady rumored to be a witch (Because of Winn-Dixie) and a character named Twitch lifted straight out of Holes, still Walden’s best film.
In the film version, the topic of eating worms is first raised by a sick prank that Joe (Adam Hicks), here a rotten bully, plays on Billy (Luke Benward), here the new boy. (Alan, the main antagonist in the book, is nowhere to be found.) After enduring a humiliating first morning in school, Billy opens his Thermos in the cafeteria only to find it filled with dozens of night crawlers.
In an inspired moment of bravado, Billy turns the tables on Joe, but his triumph is short-lived as Joe and his gang hound him after school. “Worm boy, worm boy, worm boy,” they screech until, in desperation, Billy resorts to the role of the kid too weird to be belittled, proclaiming his fondness for baked, boiled and fried worms. “The greasier, the slimier, the better!” he shouts defiantly. “I could eat 10 worms!”
And then comes the bet. Billy has to eat 10 worms in one Saturday. At stake is not $50, which I guess lacked the high repulsiveness quotient Dolman wanted, but the ritual degradation of coming to school with worms in one’s pants.
Of course Joe has all the power to dictate terms. His gang gets to provide the worms and his gang gets to prepare them. If worms alone aren’t doing the trick, they’ll add generous dollops of hot sauce — and deny Billy water. If Billy still isn’t nauseous enough to vomit, thus forfeiting the bet, they’ll spin him on a playground merry-go-round before forcing the next worm on him.
And Billy endures it all, grimly chewing his way through worm after worm — proving, I guess, that he can take it as well as they can dish it out. Didn’t anyone involved in making the film stop and say, “Wait a minute — this isn’t overcoming bullying, this is bullying”?
Urging Billy to stay the course and “beat” Joe, one of Billy’s few allies pleads, “This is our one chance not to be losers.” So if a bully tells you to eat worms and you do it, that makes you a winner?
I know, I know. Joe will have to come to school with worms in his pants if Billy wins. But in the first place, what possible basis for trusting Joe does Billy have? They aren’t friends and Joe hasn’t exactly been a model of fairness so far. In the second place, which is more degrading, wearing worms in your pants or eating them? Even after decades of inflation, the $50 still makes a better incentive.
There is one moment when the film seems briefly aware that Billy’s willingness to go along with the bet is misguided. When Billy tries to explain to sympathetic Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) why he couldn’t back down, she seems unconvinced. Later, though, the film blows this as Erika confirms Billy’s mission to finish eating the worms, telling him that no one has ever “stood up” to Joe this way before. Oh. Is that what Billy is doing?
The movie has no idea what to do with Erika, for the excellent reason that she has nothing to do with the story. Billy and Joe can’t even understand how Erika, a girl, could know what’s going on. “You’re a girl; you don’t know about the bet,” she is repeatedly told, as if in this universe girls speak a language other than English.
The rest of the film’s logic is equally phony and cliché-ridden. Bullies surround themselves with intimidated hangers-on but, given the chance, they’ll abandon him one by one and side with the bully’s underdog whipping-boy du jour. Bullies bully because someone else — perhaps an older brother, if not a father — has bullied them. Just show them a little kindness and they’ll come around right away. Enemies will spontaneously band together to defend the most hated among them against a threat greater than any of them, and a vicious teenage delinquent will allow himself to be faced down by a handful of united fifth graders.
The film’s inversion of self-humiliation as triumph reaches its climax in the final scene, as previously violent enemies celebrate their mutual good will by jointly embracing a self-imposed penalty as a badge of honor. As they dance out of the school, liberated by their indifference to public opinion, the whole school cheers in celebration. It’s one of most aggressively phony happy endings of any family film in recent memory.
Content advisory: Much gastronomic grossness; verbal bullying and harassment; minor rude humor; some profanity.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.