Adapting ‘Animorphs’

As anyone that has ever read anything I’ve written knows…I love Animorphs. And as anyone that knows anything about the Animorphs fandom knows, mocking the TV series is a time honoured tradition. That being said, the fandom is often discussing how great it would be to get a reboot, and there’s long been a debate as to the best way of adapting the series.

There are frequent claims that it should involve aging up the characters a few years. There are practical reasons for that – the entire series revolved around these six kids, and it’s a  safer bet that you’ll get a good performance out of slightly older actors. And “gritty reboots” are all but inevitable. But Animorphs would lose so much of what makes it awesome if there were changes made to appeal to adults. Aging the characters, adding sex or excessive cursing – all that would take away from the fact that this is a story about child soldiers. At the same time, if there was a completely faithful live action adaptation – for the sake of this thought experiment, let’s make it a movie – it would have to be rated R. Loss of limbs is just par for the course. The very first book essentially opens with involuntary cannibalism – an alien is eaten alive by his enslaved former mentor while five children hear him scream. At one point, a different alien is cut in two and, driven by uncontrollable hunger, one half starts to consume the other. There’s a reason fans frequently laugh about how weird it was that this series was approved for children.

And it is supposed to be for kids. Not just for kids, certainly, but what would it mean to take a series about kids and written for kids and fill it with so much blood and gore that, even if it’s accurate to the books, would stop the people in the demographic it’s for from getting to see it? Stories for adults are great. Movies that you probably shouldn’t take kids to are excellent. But even though the majority of today’s Animorphs fans are adults, it’s not fair to make an adaptation of it an adult one that kids can’t go to, because kids really deserve a chance to discover this world. Kids deserve great stories with nuanced and interesting characters, moral questions, action, and humour just as much as adults do. And nothing directed at children – hell, and few things directed at adults – combines all those things as well as Animorphs.

Even aside from the content, there’s a lot of disagreement as to what the best way to format an adaption would be. Some people want a series of movies, others say that that won’t capture the sense of a lot of time passing the same way the books did and want a show, yet others want it to be a cartoon (Applegate herself has said that when the original show was being made, she and Michael Grant, her husband and coauthor, had wanted it animated). Personally, I’m conflicted. I’m doubtful that a cartoon could properly capture the feel of the series, but I suspect that would be the only way to actually adapt it, because anything live action would be extremely expensive and likely inaccessible to the target audience of the books because of the sheer amount of violence. Both a live action TV series and live action films have similar positives and negatives.

While there are certainly filler books that, even if they do have interesting character moments or add something of value, aren’t strictly necessary, I’d argue that the majority of them contribute to elevating the work as a whole, especially as they help give the impression of a series that’s taking place over a long time and in which we don’t see everything that the characters do. In that regard, a TV show would be a great format. However, I suspect that if there was a reboot of the show, there would likely be a lot of filler in an attempt to drag out the story for more seasons. The interpersonal drama would shift from being about different philosophies as to how they should fight a war to more trite relationship drama and petty jealousies, things that really weren’t in the books at all.

On the other end of the  spectrum, a single movie wouldn’t do the series justice, because of just how much there is. I’ve said before that I’d love for a movie to be directed by Zack Snyder, largely because I’d love for him to direct anything and I think that, while the main series is more suited for an episodic series, the Chronicles would need movies to do them justice, and I also think Guillermo del Toro would be a perfect fit for the type of work Animorphs is. But would be extremely expensive to do right, and a faithful adaptation would be extremely difficult.

None of this even gets into the fact that all the books are told in first person, with a lot of the appeal being the characters’ internal narration – something that doesn’t translate very well from text. Of course, all of this is entirely hypothetical, seeing as there’s been no indication of any Animorphs adaptation plans. But I kind of really want to see one done justice, because it would be hard to overstate how crucial Animorphs was to me. They set the bar for character development. They’re the reason my reaction to so many characters arcs is, “this is good, but it’s no Jake from Animorphs”. Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan won a Newbery Medal. It’s getting an animated movie with an a majorly all-star cast. That’s all well and good, but I will always maintain that her best work was Animorphs. I need that adaptation, good or bad, if only because it will inevitably result in more people being introduced to the books.

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