The Case Full of Holes

November is national novel writing month! You might be wondering, what does this have to do with a movie/TV podcast? Well, plenty, actually! Whether it be Jurassic Park or The Princess Bride, some of our favorite films were adapted from novels. So, we’re marking this occasion by bringing you three episodes all about books and the movies that followed. This week, we’re taking a look at a childhood favorite. 

In 1997, young adult fiction author Louis Sachar began writing his most ambitious book yet. He had covered stories about children in school and home, but this time, he decided to focus on a location he hadn’t explored: what about kids in prison? For 18 months he sat at his computer, mapping out the history of a place called Camp Green Lake, and building the story of a boy whose last name is his first name, backward. 

Holes is possibly Louis Sachar’s best-known book. It won the Newbery Award in 1999, cementing its place in children’s literature alongside the likes of The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia. Five years later, the story got the full Hollywood treatment, with a feature film starring Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver, and Shia LaBeouf.

So Cassettes, hop on the bus with us to Camp Green Lake, and we’ll DIG into the history of Holes (2003). 


  • When Louis Sachar set out to write Holes, he focused on the location of the story first. The author had moved to Texas a few years before, and he wanted to tell a story inspired by the heat he experienced in his new home.
  • He didn’t set out to write a story with any particular moral or lesson, he just wanted to write something thought-provoking and entertaining. This method seemed to work because the book was a favorite among kids everywhere. In our school, it was one of the only required reading books that most children genuinely enjoyed. 
    • The story does touch on themes like friendship, racism, destiny, and hope. But, another lesson is that stories change over time, and perspective is everything. The story is written on a foundation of misunderstandings. Stanley believes the outlaw Kate Barlow to be a ruthless thief when that’s not the whole story. Similarly, Stanley is wrongly accused of stealing, which starts the whole story. 
  • While he was creating the story, Sachar decided not to interrupt his train of thought to come up with a last name for the main character. So, he just spelled the character’s first name backward and left it at that. As the story process continued, there became plot points surrounding the name, and so it stayed that way. 
  • Like we said before, the book was ambitious and challenging. So, he started every day by typing the word, “try” before writing anything else. It took him a year and a half to get it done, relying on the help of his young daughter to let him know when the story didn’t make any sense. 
  • Holes was published in 1998, and quickly became part of the reading curriculum at many schools. Not long after, it got the attention of producer Teresa Tucker-Davies who shared it with director Andrew Davis.
  • Davis wanted to adapt the book into a live-action film, and he contacted Sachar about the idea. Sachar was hesitant, but Davis assured him that he would be included in the process.  
  • With some collaborative help from Davis, Sachar took over a year to complete the screenplay, keeping the story as true to the book as possible with some important practical changes. 
  • The film was green-lit by Disney, and filming began in the summer of 2002, only four years after the book was originally published. 


  • Stanley Yelnats has never had the best luck, thanks to his no-good, dirty-rotten, pig-stealing, great-great-grandfather. This becomes especially apparent when Stanley is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of expensive sneakers. Just like that, a judge sentences Stanley to Camp Green Lake, a reformatory program for teenagers. Run by a mysterious warden and an aggressive counselor known only as Mr. Sir, this camp’s program consists of mainly one activity: digging holes. After spending a few weeks in the blistering heat, Stanley discovers that there’s a deeper purpose to the digging, and it’s not “to build character.” 


  • Just like the book, the film establishes the location early on, with the characters coming in later. The first shot of Holes shows us Camp Green Lake, a barren waterbed with thousands of holes. Four hundred and fifty of those holes were physically dug, with 9500 added in post. The shot was filmed using a helicopter.
    • For months, the cast and crew braved the heat and intense weather conditions in a California desert. Every young actor had to go through something called, “desert boot camp,” led by the stunt director, Alex Daniels. 
    • Tents with water misters helped keep everyone on set cool in the 90+ degree heat. 
  • Shooting occurred in three principal locations that were all very close to each other in distance. The Camp Green Lake set was located on the Disney ranch. The Mess Hall and Office for the camp counselors was actually a re-purposed set from an Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence comedy called Life made just a few years earlier. 
    • For lighting purposes and because it was true to the book, the characters all live in tents. There was a big debate during production, but tents made it easier to set up lighting situations. 
  • Louis Sachar’s script relies heavily on jumping through time. The first sequences of the movie are even flashbacks, as the audience becomes acquainted with the main character, Stanley. Sachar and director Andrew Davis wanted the jump in the timeline to happen early on, so the audience could get acclimated with how the story would be told. Even before the movie introduces the plotlines from Camp Green Lake’s past, Stanley sees the ghosts of its history on his way into camp. 
    • Sachar had to make several changes to the story while adapting it to the screen. For example, he added the character of Stanley’s grandfather, who first mentions a so-called family curse. The actor that played him was Andrew Davis’ father! Another big change (that many book fans might notice) is Stanley’s size. In the book Holes, Stanley is overweight, and he loses weight throughout the course of the story. This plot didn’t make it to the film adaptation because it would have been too physically grueling to ask a child to lose weight while filming. Also, this would have meant that the film would have to be shot in continuity, which is famously inconvenient. 
    • As the film lays out Stanley’s origin and introduces us to his family, it shows the audience scenes from the Yelnats home. Set designers were only given the direction that there would be “piles of shoes,” as Stanley’s father is an inventor trying to find a cure for stinky feet. The designers went completely over the top, building rigs and fake machines that showed all of Mr. Yelnats’ failed attempts.
  • When it came time to cast the kids for the movie, Andrew Davis asked producer Teresa Tucker Davies for someone that was a “young Tom Hanks” to play the lead. When Davies suggested actor Shia LeBeouf for the part, she said she had found him a “cross between Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman” instead. 
    • At this point, LeBeouf was starring as Louis Stevens on the Disney sitcom Even Stevens. However, he had never had a starring role in a film, and the character Stanley was a far cry from the zany, trouble-making Louis. 
    • The rest of the kids were hand-picked for their roles to make sure they fit the characters perfectly.
      • The actors embodied their parts so well, they were allowed to ad-lib lines. 
  • Casting directors Cathy Sandrich Gelford and Amanda Mackey put together a fairly well-known group of stars for the adult roles.  
    • Since he was still a young teenager, Shia LeBeouf was a little star-struck by Jon Voight, who played the tyrannical Mr. Sir. For each day of shooting, make-up artists spent an hour transforming Voight into the character, complete with a beer belly. Mr. Sir constantly chews sunflower seeds, a detail that Louis Sachar picked up from a friend that had recently quit smoking. 
      • Voight came up with the idea that his character is paranoid of being arrested, which prompted Sachar to add a backstory to his character that involved the warden and Dr. Pendanski. 
    • Holes plays with the concepts of first impressions and misunderstandings. Right after Stanley arrives at Camp Green Lake, he’s shocked to find that there is no lake. The surprises don’t end there, as Stanley immediately assumes that Mr. Sir is the warden. 
    • Dr. Pendanski is the second official that Stanley encounters at the camp, a faux doctor that refuses to acknowledge the kids by their chosen nicknames. Pendenski was played by Tim Blake Nelson, a versatile actor and director. On the audio commentary, director Andrew Davis referred to him as a man that “does it all.” 
      • Pendanski has several scenes with the kids, which set up his toxic behavior toward Zero specifically. 
  • Holes breaks up the monotony of Stanley digging a hole for several hours by cutting together flashbacks. Director of Photography Steven St. John was responsible for stitching the different time periods together with seamless transitions. 
    • As Stanley sticks his shovel into the dirt, we see his great-great-grandfather shoveling animal droppings. It’s during this flashback that we meet Madame Zeroni, played by the legendary singer and actress Eartha Kitt. 
      • During filming, Eartha Kitt was 75 at the time and would tell stories about the golden age of Hollywood and James Dean. Only a few years earlier she starred as Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove. In the 90s, she appeared in Earnest Scared Stupid. But one of her most iconic roles was Catwoman in the 1960’s Batman. 
    • When Sigourney Weaver’s daughter read Holes, she told her mom that she should play the warden. Andrew Davis wanted to build up to her entrance in the film, so they purposely held off showing her face. In fact, they never refer to the warden as female until Weaver appears on-screen. 
      • Andrew Davis said that she understood the role perfectly. 
    • When Stanley first arrives at Camp Green Lake, he sees the ghost of a man with his donkey. The incident does not come up again, and the audience doesn’t learn about the character until Pendanski tells Stanley about the history of the lake and the fact that the warden’s grandfather owned the town. 
      • The character is Sam, played by Dulé Hill. At the time of filming, Hill still had a recurring role on the hit TV series West Wing but was fairly unknown to children’s audiences. Dule Hill wanted to understand everything he possibly could about his character, and he developed a detailed backstory that didn’t make it into the film. 
      • In Hill’s first scene, Louis Sachar plays a cameo as a man that buys a cure for his balding head. 
    • During Sam’s first scene, the audience sees Kate Barlow for the second time. Barlow was played by Patricia Arquette, an Oscar-winning actress that has starred in multiple TV shows. 
    • Arquette first appears in Holes as “Kissin’ Kate Barlow,” a notorious outlaw. As the film progresses, we see a love story unfold between her and Sam that ultimately comes to a violent end. 
      • Throughout their story, Dulé Hill’s Sam begins fixing up Kate’s schoolhouse and often utters the words, “I can fix that.” In one of the most touching scenes in the film, he finds Kate crying alone in the schoolhouse. The plan was for Arquette to say a line about a broken heart, and Sam would tell her he could fix it before kissing her. However, Arquette opted out of saying anything, making the scene far more powerful. 
      • Sam gets executed by the townsfolk after he’s seen kissing Katherine in the church, prompting her to become Kissin’ Kate Barlow. When the film shows a montage of Barlow robbing and killing, filmmakers edited in footage from old westerns. 
      • Earlier on in the movie, there’s a flashback of Stanley’s grandfather telling him about his ancestor that was robbed by Kate Barlow. They talk about the mystery of Kate not killing Stanley’s ancestor, but if you look closely, Kate only kills people that were connected to Sam’s murder. 
      • Eventually, Kate dies after finding Sam’s overturned boat in the dried-up lake bed. Production designer Maher Ahmed actually created three versions of the boat to use in the film. The first was Sam’s version, the second was the boat where Kate dies, and the third is the boat that Zero and Stanley find. 
  • One of the biggest elements of the story is the Yellow-spotted lizard. These reptiles are deadly and will kill you with one bite. Sachar invented the animal for the story, so production had to find ways to bring them to life. 
    • So, the production brought in 14 Australian Bearded Dragons and hand-painted them with 11 yellow spots each. Animal trainer Larry Madrid taught four of the dragons to play principal parts. CGI versions of the reptiles also appeared in the film, like when Stanley is almost attacked by one. Jon Voight had a lot of fun shooting the scenes with the lizards, as he was the one that got to fire at them. 
  • Visual Effects artists used CGI for establishing shots, like the one of Green Lake during the time of Kate Barlow. Artists did a lot of research to find a lake that would match the dried-up lake bed. They used Lake Casitas in California. 
  • Stunts
    • The biggest stunt that was needed for the movie was when Stanley drives the water truck into a hole while trying to escape and find Zero. They shot the stunt from several different angles.
      • The lead-up to this crash is Stanley joyriding in the truck. Since the team was filming on private land they could make sure it was safe for Shia to actually drive. 
      • When we see Mr. Sir hanging from the door of the truck trying to stop Stanley, Jon Voight is actually on a platform alongside the car. When the character falls into a hole it is a double. 
    • In the scenes where Stanley and Hector are climbing the mountain, it is actually mostly Shia and Khleo! There were only a couple of times when it was stunt doubles because it was too dangerous. 
      • There was a scene where Stanley is having trouble getting up the mountain and Zero uses the shovel to help pull him up. Shia had to be cabled and although it looks like it was 300 ft, it was only about 30 ft up. 
  • After Stanley and Zero escape Camp Green Lake, we start to see how the land is still marked by its past. They walk past a skull which is meant to be the skull of Mary-Lou, Sam’s donkey. This shows the audience Stanley’s story is physically connected to what happened in the past, not only through the story of his ancestor but with the story of Katherine and Sam. 
  • Near the end of the film, Stanley and Zero return to Camp Green Lake to dig up Kate Barlow’s treasure, something that the warden has been searching for her entire life. Louis Sachar felt like denying the warden the treasure was punishment enough for her behavior, but director Andrew Davis disagreed. Davis had worked on several law enforcement shows, and he felt like Mr. Sir, Pendanski, and The Warden deserved to be arrested for the misery they inflicted on the kids at the camp. The scene where the trio gets arrested feels especially triumphant because it begins to rain. Production brought in giant rain machines, which the kids loved because it was often 100 degrees in the desert. 
    • In the book, Sachar never explicitly says that the curse has been lifted, but it’s very apparent in the film. There’s even a voiceover tying up the loose ends of the story, which was recorded after the entire film was shot.  


  • Music supervisor Karyn Rachtman helped find and negotiate a lot of the music for the film. The soundtrack is filled with many great songs.
  • Andrew Davis discovered singer Teresa James performing on Ventura Boulevard one night. When they needed a country cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” they asked her to do it. 
    • Teresa James’ version appears in the movie after Stanley finds Kate Barlow’s lipstick tube, and the kids begin digging together. 
  • Joel McNeely did the score for the film. He’s scored a lot of Disney projects, including many of the straight-to-video sequels of the 2000s. 
  • The most memorable part of the Holes soundtrack was the song, “Dig It.” Performed by the cast of young actors. The song appears in the first scene of the film and during the credits. The artist for the song is officially credited as the “D-tent Boys,” and was written by the cast members during their downtime on set. 


  • As we mentioned before, this was Shia Labeouf’s first starring role in a feature film. In the credits, it even bills him with: “Introducing Shia LeBeouf.”  
  • Khleo Thomas played Hector Zeroni (or Zero), reportedly beating out well-known child actors like Taj Mowry. The two boys had great chemistry together. Since Holes, Thomas has had parts in TV shows like Shameless and Parenthood and will appear in the upcoming film Scrap. 
  • Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver, Eartha Kitt, Patricia Arquette, Henry Winkler, Dule Hill, and Tim Blake Nelson.
  • The others that played the young boys in D-tent were Max Kasch (Zigzag), Byron Cotton(Armpit), Miguel Castro (Magnet), Noah Poletiek (Twitch), Jake M. Smith (Squid), and Brendan Jefferson (X-Ray).


  • The stunt coordinator Alex Daniels got to be the one to arrest Jon Voight’s character in the movie.
  • The “Sploosh” that Hector finds under Mary Lou was actually made of Molasses and applesauce. The “dirt” on the jar was crushed up graham crackers.
  • The onion bulbs that Stanley and Hector eat on the top of the mountain are actually apples wrapped in rice paper. The rice paper had been dyed purple with beet juice and real onion tops were attached to the make-shift onion bulb.


  • Holes was released in April of 2003 and became an instant classic. School kids all over America watched the film in English class. Worldwide, the movie grossed over 70 million dollars with an original budget of 20 million. 
  • The film won three awards, including the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award for Best Family Film. 

By the mid-2000s, it would be hard to find a middle-school kid that hadn’t seen Holes. It was a movie that defined a generation, one that now parents show their kids and say, “I loved this when I was your age.” The film perfectly expresses themes of friendship and learning from the past. At every turn, Holes reminds the audience that nothing and no one is ever quite as it seems, holding onto the spirit of the original book. 

Holes is the kind of book that gets kids excited about reading, and in turn, the film is just as inspirational. It’s a film that entertains the entire family and holds the all-important lesson to never judge a BOOK by its cover. 

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