Bestselling author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Jeff Kinney likes to think of childhood as a big universe. Ahead of the release of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, that debuted on Disney+ Hotstar on December 2, the author spoke to Hindustan Times about the humbling journey from writing a book in a small town that has the ability to reach so far across the world, how he views the adaptations as compared to the books, and what we can we expect next for the Wimpy Kid books. (Also read: Mickey 17 teaser: Robert Pattinson’s first look in Bong Joon Ho film is out and it’s chilling. Watch)
I wanted to start by asking you from an interview where you said whenever you start writing a book you always start with a joke. That you make sure to hold on to a collection of jokes and from there on you start to accumulate them and make your way through them. So how do you begin when you are working on an adaptation?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. (smiles) Yeah, when I write my books I always start with the jokes and these days I write about 750 jokes per book and then I trim it down to a few 100 and 50 which is what I use for the final product. The movies are really different because movies follow a very specific structure. So really you are not starting with the jokes for a film, for a screenplay. You are starting with a structure. I need to know what’s the theme, what’s going to happen when, what’s going to happen at each minute mark…and then I sort of back fill it with the jokes. It is a really different process for writing a film than writing a book.
I know that your journey was not very smooth, because you wanted to become a newspaper cartoonist first and then you made your own way and now you are one of the most successful authors in the world. How has this journey been for you, this creative process?
Well, there is a movie that came out a few years ago called The Truman Show. It is about an ordinary guy who is really being filmed, like it is a prank on him…that’s how I feel all the time! (laughs) I feel like one day the veil is going to be lifted on me…you know I draw stick figures and write jokes for a living and I can’t believe that there is such an appetite for it…and I feel really humbled by that. I actually have been to India, I can’t wait to come back… I think I am coming back next year. Yeah, for me writing these books in a little town called Plainville, Massachusetts which is where I am now and for my ideas to reach your part of the world…and other parts of the world I haven’t been to before, is really humbling…it seems really crazy.
Gregg Heffley is a character who is really at the cusp of being a teenager. One of the things that I really liked about the adaptation is how the character is never left to a corner to think that he is not wise enough to see through things. He takes his time. This also forms one of the core messages of the film and I wanted to know the process that made you want to make this message visible in the film.
Yes, what’s really interesting about the cartoon character is that they can’t change too much. They are sort of like those sitcom characters where there might be growth within that episode but then you have to reset to zero because you want the cartoon characters to stay reliable. In the books there is no learning or growth at all. But the movies have to be really different because you are telling a story of transformation. A film…that’s what it is all about, where did the character start and where did the character finish. But even so, even when Greg makes giant leaps in each one of these films…he still doesn’t grow that much. So when we start the next film, Greg can still make mistakes. I like to make these films as coming-of-age movies, all within a certain category. So the first one is about coming-of-age within a friendship, the second one is about a sibling relationship. Of course childhood is a big universe so we can go on and on with the way Greg needs to learn and grow.
Having seen the film, I can say how much I adored the essence of the family that has been brought out. How family as a unit brings us all together. What do you hope audience takes back from this?
Well something that is really cool about working with Disney is that Disney is out to make family films and I really like that challenge to write a story where everyone in the story is served. Where everyone in the audience can see themselves on screen. So that’s really been a nice by-product of working with Disney. I think that that’s really cool.
I am curious to know whether you had this thought to add something that you wanted in the book but couldn’t. Were there some thoughts like these?
Well it’s really funny because in he books there are all these small moments that are funny that I would love to put into the films, but sometimes they don’t fit the theme really well, and what’s interesting about the film is you are trying to….put everything in the film that should serve the theme. A stray joke here and there doesn’t really fit the theme really well. I have to exclude it, so I think my answer is yes I would love to put everything but I do understand that the medium is different so I can’t really do that.
Okay, so I have to ask what’s next for the Wimpy Kid. You had said earlier that there would be a series of 20 books for the Wimpy Kid, and considering that we have come quite close to that number how do you envision the next couple of books to be?
Yeah, I am doing a lot of thinking about what the next book could be right now. It is not an easy question to answer because my themes have been really big in the last books…sports and music, those have been the big categories. I think I need to make it smaller. I need to make the stories smaller again, make it about Greg and Rowley’s friendship again. As far as the movies go, we are going to be making these until somebody tells us to stop. So I hope to knock down a lot of the books in the series and adapt them for film. I would love to be doing these until I am an old man (smiles).