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How to Eat Fried Worms Review

By Shawn McKenzie 08/31/2006

The Synopsis:

Eleven-year-old Billy Forrester (Luke Benward) is the “new kid” in his new school…and this is something that terrifies him.  He has recently moved with his annoyingly cute five-year-old brother Woody (Ty Panitz) and his parents Mitch (Tom Cavanaugh) and Helen (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) for Mitch’s new job.  Billy unfortunately has a weak stomach (Woody doesn’t help things by eating a disgusting bean burrito on the way to their new home), so he hopes that he won’t throw up on his first day of school.  He meets his fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Bommley (Andrea Martin), and his principal, Mr. Burdock (James Rebhorn), who the kids call “Boiler Head,” since the man is bald.  Almost immediately though, Billy is the target of bullies.  The lead bully, Joe Guire (Adam Hicks), conspires with his cronies to play a prank on Billy.  Bradley (Philip Bolden), who wears three watches; Plug (Blake Garrett), who is a untidy blonde kid; Donny Pickett (Alexander Agate), the brainy kid; Benjy (Ryan Malgarini), Joe’s right-hand man; Twitch (Alexander Gould), a spiky-haired freaky kid; and Techno Mouth (Andrew Gillingham), a kid who wears braces…help Joe fill Billy’s Thermos with worms.  Out of retaliation, Billy throws one of the worms in Joe’s face, making the bully shriek (what a wuss!)  Billy lies and says that he eats worms all the time.  Joe challenges him by betting him that he can’t eat 10 worms in one day without throwing up.  Billy takes the bet, since it seems like it’s the only way he can fit in.  Woody was able to assimilate with his kindergarten classmates, because he was the hit of their class play as a sea turtle.  Joe’s meanness comes from a relative above though; his older brother Nigel (Nick Krause) picks on Joe in the same way that he picks on Billy.  Joe sets the date for Saturday, and the cutoff time is 7 PM.  The punishment for failing to eat 10 worms without throwing up is that he has to come in Monday with his pants full of worms.  This is perfect timing for Billy, since his parents will be out all day.  Mitch is trying to fit in himself at his new job, so he has agreed to play tennis with Helen against his new boss, Rob Simon (David Bewley), and Rob’s wife (Karen Wacker.)  Billy won’t be alone though, because he has a very small group of allies behind him.  Adam Simms (Austin Rogers), a nervous kid who is afraid of Joe (and especially Joe’s “Death Ring”…a ring that supposedly injects a poison in you when you are hit with it, causing you to die by the eighth grade); and Erika Tanzy (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), a tall girl that the boys call “Irk,” have Billy’s back.  Billy does impose on Erika to baby-sit Woody so that he can do the bet, which she agrees to, even though she thinks that all boys are weird for wanting to do gross things like eating worms.  Bradley acts as the Official Timekeeper, Benjy is the Worm Cook, and Donny observes Billy’s progress.  As they zip through town, they have to find new and creative places to gather and cook the worms, such as Uncle Ed’s (Clint Howard) Brown Toad Restaurant, where they fry the worms in lard; or a creepy bait shop lady’s (Jo Ann Farabee) establishment, where they gather up some very disgusting worms.  If he can make it through that Saturday and win the bet, he might finally win the respect of his peers (and possibly avoid a pant-load of worms.)

The Review:

Even though I have a Books section on my site, I will have to admit…I haven’t read a book in whole in years.  That wasn’t always the case though.  When I was a kid, I used to get myself wrapped up in books that I could identify with…contemporary tales of kids who had semi-realistic problems.  My favorites were Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary (for most of their catalogues), and single author tales, like the 1973 gross-out classic…Thomas Rockwell’s How to Eat Fried Worms.

This isn’t the only book written by Rockwell…but it might as well be.  He is the son of beloved American painter Norman Rockwell, and he was the recipient of the Mark Twain Award, the California Young Reader Medal, and the Sequoyah Award for Worms.  He wrote several other young adult books (most of them seemed to start with How to…i.e. Fight a Girl, Get Fabulously Rich, etc.), but Worms is the only one that most people remember.  When I went to the screening, most of the people my age (keep in mind that I’m 31) had read the book themselves when they were kids, and some of their children had read it as well.  Since most of us had fond memories of the book, we were probably hoping to see a faithful adaptation.

For those of you expecting that, you will be disappointed.  For one thing, the book’s bet took place over 15 days instead of over a single day.  The bet in the book was a financial decision and not an attempt to show up a bully.  In the book, Billy bet the other kids (I won’t even attempt to explain why they felt like changing names and adding characters in the movie) that he could eat one worm a day for 15 consecutive days.  If he won the bet, then his rivals would pay him $50 (for which he would use to buy a bike that he wants.)  He was allowed to prepare the worms in any way he wanted (in fact, his mom helped him cook the worms for him at one point), and not the weird chase story in the movie of having the bullies prepare them in the most disgusting ways possible all over town.

Even if you hadn’t read the book, it might still be a little disappointing for adults.  There is nothing in the movie that would appeal to anyone other than preteen boys.  The hippest thing that they did was having Cavanaugh play Billy’s dad, but even his small subplot with his boss wasn’t that interesting.  I really want to see him break out in movies, because I loved his appearances in NBC’s “Scrubs” and the WB’s “Jack & Bobby,” and of course, his starring roles in NBC’s “Ed” and the short CBS show “Love Monkey.”

I understand why director Bob Dolman decided to make the action occur over a single day, and why he had the boys participating in the grossest worm preparations possible, but I think that those factors led to losing the charm of the book.  In the age of NBC’s “Fear Factor,” our ability to be grossed out has lightened, so they had to up the ante.  If you have a weak stomach (like the stomach of Billy in the movie), then you shouldn’t check out How to Eat Fried Worms.  In reality though, I think that the movie will make parents sick much more than kids.  When I was a kid in the ‘80s, I grew up watching Nickelodeon in its heyday of being obsessed with slime, barfing, and burping.  While the network has softened on those things lately in the last 15 years, kids haven’t.  Think about it…aren’t most preteen boys interested in those things before they start liking girls?  If you check it out with your kids, I don’t think that you will be offended (there is no bad language or real violence…except maybe to the worms.)  I will admit that I admired its message of standing up to bullies, but I still like the book’s story better.  I think that, as an adult, I guess I have to leave nostalgia in the past and accept that this version of the tale is only meant to be viewed by kids.


Get the soundtrack featuring a score by ex-Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, and songs by Matthew Sweet, Kool & the Gang, Young MC, and more:

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