LOS ANGELES — Compared with the traditional protagonists of summer movies, Greg Heffley really doesn’t measure up.
He’s a skinny little thing, is no pillar of rectitude and doesn’t have much in the way of friends. But to countless young boys, Greg feels like a real superhero, even as he’s becoming better behaved on screen than he is in print.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” the third entry in what has been a small but modestly successful series, opened Friday.
Adapted from Jeff Kinney’s wildly popular illustrated books, the films chronicle the everyday struggles of middle-school student Greg. An admitted underachiever — he’d rather play video games than pretty much anything else — Greg is frequently in trouble with his parents and classmates yet rarely takes much blame.
The books and the movies alike throw more than a few scraps toward parents; there’s an ongoing joke, for instance, about the lameness of a “Family Circus” knockoff comic that only people of a certain age would get.
While the PG-rated, live-action films make a number of narrative leaps from Kinney’s six novels, they retain the author’s celebration of Greg’s defiant if not occasionally unruly deeds. Like a modern-day Dennis the Menace, he’s no paragon of preadolescence, but his borderline behavior is usually harmless and frequently relatable.
To pay off a debt in the book “Dog Days,” for example, Greg considers stealing money from his younger brother’s savings or skimming the church collection plate. “All I could think was how I needed that money a lot more than whoever it was going to,” Greg writes in his illustrated diary entry.
He spends time at the beach with his on-again, off-again friend Rowley not because Greg likes his company, but because he will be able to go on a theme-park ride called the Cranium Shaker.
“I think he’s the rebel in all of us,” said Elizabeth Gabler, whose Fox 2000 made all three “Wimpy Kid” movies with producer Nina Jacobson. “But at the same time he’s endearing. He’s a little bit like Charlie Brown: He’s a victim of stronger people around him, like Lucy pulling out the football from underneath him.”
In adapting the books for the screen, the filmmakers have sanded down some of Greg’s rougher edges, in part because what he says or does to the two-dimensional stick figures around him in a book plays more harshly when he’s doing those things to a living, breathing person on screen. “There are things you can get away with on the printed page that are funny that you can’t get away with on screen,” Kinney said.
“In a movie, you have to see growth, because the audience expects it,” Kinney said. “They are looking for an emotionally satisfying conclusion, and my books are nihilistic in that way. I’m not looking for an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I’m looking to get a joke on every page.”