Stanley Yelnats IV is a good-hearted teenager born to a luckless family who have been cursed for hundreds of years. The luckiest of the Yelnats ancestors, Stanley Yelnats I, lost his fortune when outlaw Kate Barlow steals his chest. The Yelnats blame their ancestor, Elya Yelnats, from Latvia, who was cursed after breaking a promise to Madame Zeroni to carry her up a mountain to a fortifying river in exchange for marrying Myra Menke.
One day, Stanley is arrested and tried for falsely stealing a pair of sneakers that Clyde "Sweetfeet" Livingston (Rick Fox), a famous baseball player, had donated to charity. Stanley decides to attend Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention camp, instead of being incarcerated for his crime. He arrives to find that the "camp" is a dried-up lake run by Warden Walker, her assistant Mr. Sir and camp counselor Dr. Pendanski. Each day, the detainees must dig a five-foot round hole in the desert to "build character", despite the danger of the sun, rattlesnakes, and yellow-spotted lizards, which can kill with a single bite. The inmates are told that if they find anything interesting, they may earn a day off. The inmates are known by their nicknames, and include Zero (who refuses to speak to anyone, but likes to dig holes), Armpit (for his stink), Zigzag (for walking back and forth), Squid (for his squinty eyes), X-Ray (for his large glasses as well as it being his name, Rex, in pig Latin), and Magnet (being able to shoplift just about anything). Stanley is slowly accepted into the group, especially after allowing X-Ray to take credit for his discovery of a gold tube with the initials "KB", and is given the name of "Caveman" after finding a fossil. He soon creates a friendship with Zero, (later revealed to be Hector Zeroni) while teaching him to read.
One day Stanley sees Magnet steal Mr. Sir's sunflower seeds, and after Mr. Sir comes back Stanley takes blame for stealing it. Mr. Sir takes Stanley to the Warden, who makes nail polish from rattlesnake venom, and she hits Mr. Sir after he says Stanley is probably covering for Magnet, injuring him. In revenge and humiliation, Mr. Sir denies Stanley any water.
In a parallel flashback story, the history of Camp Green Lake is revealed. The town was once a thriving lake town with plenty of water and life. Kate Barlow, a local school teacher, is accosted by rich landowner, Trout Walker, who proposes to her, but she rejects him. Kate is in love with the local onion seller Sam (Dulé Hill), an African American, who helps repair her schoolhouse in exchange for Kate's renowned spiced peaches. When Sam kisses Kate, the townspeople burn the school. Sam attempts to escape on his boat, the 'Mary Lou', but Trout kills Sam. In retaliation, Kate kills the local sheriff (Eric Pierpoint) and leaves a lipstick mark on his face, thereby beginning her career as an outlaw named "Kissin' Kate" who infamously kisses the men she kills.
After Dr. Pendanski insults Hector, he retaliates by hitting him with his shovel and runs away. After some deliberation, Stanley sets out to help him and finds him taking shelter under the remains of Sam's boat, the 'Mary Lou'. Zero, now stranded in the desert, offers him some "sploosh", old cans of Kate Barlow's spiced peaches which had been left on the boat. The sploosh helped Hector survive (even though it made him sick), and out of desperation Stanley heads over to a mountain, called "God's Thumb", remembering that Stanley Yelnats I had survived many days in the dryness by seeking refuge on the mountain. Meanwhile, Walker decides to presume Hector dead by deleting his files. Stanley carries Hector up the mountain where they find an apparently wild field of onions and a source of water, helping them regain strength for several days. Unknowingly, Stanley breaks the family curse because Hector happens to be a descendant of Madame Zeroni. When he carries Hector to the top of the mountain, sings to him, and lets him drink from the stream that runs uphill, he fulfills the promise made by Elya centuries earlier.
Moments later, after Hector has woken up, he reveals he is the reason Stanley was sent to Camp Green Lake. He reveals that since he is homeless, he had been at the homeless shelter where many things, including Sweetfeet's shoes, had been donated. Because he did not know the shoes were famous, he took the shoes and walked off with them. He then heard sirens coming; thinking they were after him, he took off the shoes and tossed them over the bridge, thus leading to the incident which got Stanley sent to Camp Green Lake, as the shoes had fallen on Stanley's head, which was the beginning of the movie, and the would-be theft was just to lure Stanley to the camp, so he and Zero could meet.
Stanley thinks it is destiny that they met. It is also revealed that Madame Zeroni's blood runs in Zero's veins, the fortuneteller is behind the curse of Stanley's family, Camp Green Lake isn't a correctional facility, but a treasure burial for which Kate Barlow is responsible, Walker, Mr. Sir and Pendanski aren't councilors, but treasure hunters who would soon discover Yelnats property, and all that talk of building character is a lie, as the three have tricked the boys into helping them find the long sought-after treasure ahead, and the whole system is corrupt. All in all, the three never told the boys about the loot or the curse, because if the boys had known the truth to begin with, they never would've helped the three.
Then a flashback comes to the screen: Kate Barlow, now older, is found in the middle of the now dried-up lake by one of her former students along with Trout Walker (whom the student has married). They order Kate to hand over the treasure, but she tells them that they "can dig for a hundred years, and will never find it." Kate dies of a yellow-spotted lizard bite.
Stanley's father, meanwhile, finally finds the solution to an odor-eliminating mixture that he has been trying all his life to create - the addition of peaches and onions. Stanley and Zero decide to go back to Camp Green Lake to investigate the hole in which Stanley had found the tube of lipstick, feeling lucky all of a sudden. They dig deeper into the hole and uncover a chest. Walker, Mr. Sir, and Pendanski discover them and attempt to take the chest away from Stanley and Zero until they notice that yellow-spotted lizards have climbed onto the boys. When the group is discovered the next morning by the Attorney General and Stanley's lawyer, Walker attempts to explain that the chest was hers, at which point Stanley jumps out of the hole to confront her with Hector behind him. (They are still alive due to the fact that yellow-spotted lizards are averse to the onions they had been eating.) Hector reveals that "Stanley Yelnats" is written on the front of the chest. The lawyer finds out that there is no file of Hector and Mr. Sir's possession of a gun. Mr. Sir (revealed to be a paroled criminal named Marion Sevillo), Walker, and Dr. Pendanski (revealed to be no doctor at all) are arrested. As Stanley leaves, the rain falls on Camp Green Lake. The Yelnats family claim rightful ownership of the chest and the contents inside - banknotes, money, and other items, all of whose value has increased over time. Stanley decides that half the money should go to Hector. Later, Stanley's family gains this grandfather's riches from both the contents of the chest and his father's new odor-eliminating invention, Sploosh, and they help Hector find his mother by hiring private detectives. Camp Green Lake has been converted into a girl scout camp as well. An advertisement of Sploosh by Clyde closes the film.
- Sigourney Weaver as Louise Walker
- Jon Voight as Mr. Sir/Marion Sevillo
- Patricia Arquette as Katherine Barlow
- Tim Blake Nelson as Dr. "Mom" Pendanski
- Dulé Hill as Sam the Onion Man
- Shia LaBeouf as Stanley "Caveman" Yelnats IV
- Henry Winkler as Stanley Yelnats III
- Nathan Davis as Stanley Yelnats II
- Siobhan Fallon Hogan as Tiffany Yelnats
- Allan Kolman as Stanley Yelnats I
- Damien Luvara as Elya Yelnats
- Rick Fox as Clyde "Sweet Feet" Livingston
- Nicole Pulliam as Mrs. Livingston
- Michael Cavanaugh as Judge Austin Gorg
- Scott Plank as Trout Walker
- Roma Maffia as Atty. Carla Morengo
- Sanya Mateyas as Myra Menke
- Ravil Isyanov as Morris Menke
- Ken Davitian as Igor Barkov
- Eartha Kitt as Madame Zeroni
- Shirley Butler as Mrs. Zeroni
- Khleo Thomas as Hector "Zero" Zeroni
- Max Kasch as Ricky "Zigzag"
- Brenden Jefferson as Rex "X-Ray"
- Byron Cotton as Theodore "Armpit"
- Jake M. Smith as Alan "Squid"
- Miguel Castro as José "Magnet"
- Noah Poletiek as Brian "Twitch"
- Zane Holtz as Lewis "Barf Bag"
- Louis Sachar as Mr. Collingwood
- Frank Welker (uncredited) as the Lizards
Differences from the Book
Overall the film is extremely faithful to the novel. However there are a number of differences. It should be noted that Louis Sachar, who wrote the novel, also wrote the screenplay.
- In the book Stanley is overweight, but he is average weight in the film. However, a woman who worked on the movie explained in a special feature that this was because his weight would have to change constantly since the shooting schedule was all over the place.
- In the book, Squid asks Stanley to phone his mother and tell her, that he is sorry. In the movie Armpit asks this.
- In the film, Katherine watches Sam being shot from the side of the lake, while in the book she is actually in the boat with him.
- In the book, Sam and Kate kiss in the rain outside the school and are spotted by Hattie Parker as she leaves a store. In the film, they are spotted kissing in the school house by Trout as he rides by the window on his horse.
- In the book, Kate Barlow does not commit suicide, as she does in the movie, picking up the lizard to bite her. In the book, it comes up and bites her.
- Trout gives Kate 10 seconds to tell him where the treasure is. In the film, he only gives her 5.
- In the book, Zigzag accidentally hits Stanley in the back of the head with a shovel. In a deleted scene, Squid does this.
- In the book, Armpit is poked by the Warden with her pitchfork for going to the bathroom too much and gets into trouble. In a deleted scene, it is Magnet who is poked.
- In the book, Elya Yelnats is friends with Madame Zeroni and spends time with her listening to her stories and sharing his thoughts. In the film, Elya is presented as seeking out "a fortune teller" to help him win over Myra Menke's heart, though they are shown as friendly.
- Pendanski is called Mr. Pendanski in the book, and in the movie he is called Dr. Pendanski. It is later revealed that he is not a doctor at all.
- In the film, when the attorneys arrive, they find out Mr. Sir is actually a paroled criminal named Marion Sevillo. He apparently committed a crime in El Paso and his possession of a gun is violating his parole.
- The film more dramatically depicts the huge hole, showing a network of tunnels. The book simply says that three holes came together until it was one.
- Mrs. Morgeno's car in the book is a BMW, but in the film, it is a Jaguar.
- In the book, after digging his first hole, Stanley is found by Mr. Pendanski, while in the film, he is found by Mr. Sir, who shoots a yellow-spotted lizard.
- The yellow-spotted lizards in the film are reddish in color (they were portrayed by bearded dragons, except when they were shot running on their hind legs, when they were CG) while in the book, the lizards are green-yellow with minuscule yellow spots.
- In the book, when Stanley was carrying Zero, he slips and falls in the mud and then soon found out that there was water. In the film, Stanley notices that there are bugs around right away and finds out that there is water, without him falling down.
- Stanley's grandfather is never mentioned, but in the film he lives with Yelnats.
- After Zero smacks Mr. Pendanski with the shovel, Mr. Pendanski is described as having his eyes swollen almost completely shut which wasn't shown in the film. In the film, he is knocked unconscious.
- The party at the end is only for Stanley and Zero's family, Ms. Morengo and Clyde Livingston and his wife. The movie also includes all of the boys from Tent D.
- In the movie Stanley and Zero become neighbors and the Warden, Mr. Sir, and Pendanski are arrested which does not happen in the book.
- In the book, when Mr. Sir has his face scratched by the Warden, the left side of his face has three wounds, and is swollen to half the size of a cantaloupe. In the movie, there are two wounds and not as much swelling, and he was scratched on the right side of his face instead of the left.
- In the book, X-Ray and Squid were the first two boys Stanley met at Camp Green Lake. In the movie, it is X-Ray, Squid, and Armpit.
- In the book, Trout Walker's real name is Charles, and he got the name Trout because his feet smelled like fish. In the movie, the source of his nickname is never mentioned, nor is his real name.
- In the book, Elya Yelnats is 15 years old when he falls in love with Myra Menke and is cursed. In the movie, he appears to be in his late-20s or early-30s.
- In the book, Stanley sees God's Thumb one day while he is digging, and the mountain lights up with lightning. He is not sure if he has seen it, but confirms that it is there when he sets out to find Zero. In the movie, he spots the mountain after he finds Zero.
- In the book, Igor Barkov is 57 years old. In the movie, his age is never told.
- In the book, Myra's father's first name is never told, but in the movie, his first name is Morris.
- In the movie, Armpit pretends to find a TV knob, so he can get the day off, and loses a week of shower privileges. In the book, this does not happen.
- In the book, Zigzag claims that it is his birthday the day that Zero runs away from Camp Green Lake. In the movie, he does not claim that it is his birthday.
- In the book, X-Ray shows envy of Stanley and Zero's release. In the movie, he does not show envy and says goodbye to Stanley and tells to "be careful out there in the real world" and that they'll miss him.
The orignal draft of the film was written by Richard Kelly, known for such films as Donnie Darko.
Kelly's script diverged greatly from the story in the book. Among other changes, he made Stanley blond and blue-eyed, older, and named Kramer instead of Yelnats. The Kelly script was set in the future, in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where the outside world was presumably not much better than Camp Green Lake. Instead of having been wrongly convicted of stealing sneakers, Stanley had been sent to the camp because he euthanazed his radiation-sick little sister. The entire Kissin' Kate subplot was cut, and instead the inmates were digging to find a cache of weapons for the (now-male) warden and the military.
This script was rejected for being too dark for a family film, and the script that Andrew Davis eventually shot was written by the book's author, Louis Sachar.