I Take Back What I Said Before: ‘Animorphs’ Without Author Involvement

So back in June, I wrote this post about the announced Animorphs movie. I was filled with cautious optimism and made the case that yes, it is in fact possible to make this movie good. Unfortunately…a couple days ago, Michael Grant Tweeted again. This time, it was a Tweet indicating that he and Katherine Applegate have decided to no longer participate in the adaptation process due to creative differences. He did not give details, but he linked to a post Rick Riordan made a few years ago explaining his involvement with the production of The Lightning Thief movie, citing it as “the general idea” behind why he and Applegate did not want further involvement. To that, the only thing I can think is yikes. This is not going to be good.

I’ve discussed the possibility of an Animorphs adaptation time and time again. As anyone that’s read my blog before knows, I would love to see a good adaptation, and while I have a lot of thoughts on what specifically I’d like to see – movie versions of the Chronicles, a multiseason TV series for the main series, a few minor plot changes to improve the flow – I’m open to seeing pretty much anything because Animorphs is awesome. But Grant and Applegate stepping back is alarming.

The issue is not really the author’s involvement or lack thereof. A movie does not need to have the author involved to be good. The Lord of the Rings movies, several movies based on Jane Austen books, and many more are evidence of that. In some cases, I don’t doubt that author involvement in a medium they’re not familiar with might even make things worse – for example, if someone is so protective over their work they push back against every change, even if it would make things better. Catherine Hardwicke discussed her experience making Twilight a couple years ago, and she brought up that Stephanie Meyer resisted her push to make the movies more diverse. That’s a clear example of a change that is harmless at worse and very beneficial at best, and it’s pretty clear that in that regard, Meyer’s involvement was not constructive. But there’s something that seems very different about authors initially being involved, indicating excitement, and then not just leaving, but citing creative differences on par with The Lightning Thief movie.

I first picked up a Percy Jackson and the Olympians book a long time before the movie was announced. I don’t remember when exactly, but since I borrowed the first two from my sister, and later bought the others when they came out, I assume this was around 2006. So when I saw the movie…I can’t say I was a fan! Not because they’d made changes – though I’ll admit that bothered me some at the time – but because none of the changes made any sense. They damaged character arcs and caused completely avoidable plot holes. I’m not a big stickler when it comes to plot holes – I generally think that a) half the “plot holes” people complain about aren’t really plot holes and b) that often times, it doesn’t really matter all that much. But it is frustrating when they’re a result of one thing being changed without other changes being made to make the first change logical. Which is my real issue with changes in adaptations – changes can and should be made to adapt a work to best in a new medium. But some changes are not only unnecessary, but actively harmful to the story.

Grant’s comparison of his and Applegate’s experience with Riordan’s could be nothing major. Maybe just a disagreement with the script, or over which parts of it should be adapted. But I can’t help but think of – and worry about – some of the very deep problems with The Lightning Thief movie. One such problem is the aging up of characters in a transparent attempt at appealing to a broader audience. There are, of course, reasons to age up characters in an adaptation – child labour laws, avoiding working with an inexperienced actor, an event in the text that is plot-essential would be problematic to film with someone young, etc. But The Lightning Thief was a very clear children’s book. There was no reason the characters had to be aged up. This was one of the issues that Riordan took issue with. And I worry a great deal that this is what the producers are trying to do with Animorphs.

I don’t actually think aging up the PJO characters was that big a deal – it wasn’t ideal because we’re talking about a story about children for children, and the series-wide story was, in part, a coming of age story, but it wouldn’t have been a dealbreaker for me. With Animorphs, though, the character ages are absolutely essential. It’s a war story. The kids are child soldiers. It’s not about heroism, it’s about trauma. The fact that the story centres around a handful of young teenagers that are in no way prepared for the task they’ve been given and shows years of them being beaten down by fighting this war is important. We live in a time of so-called “gritty reboots” in which characters are aged up and random purportedly mature storylines are tossed in for the sake of a weak attempt at appealing to older audiences. This is true in everything from Riverdale to whatever Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is. Are these changes necessary? Do they really make the story more mature? I’d say no. At the same time, they’re not actually harmful to the story. But you can’t get Animorphs darker by aging up the characters. You can’t get a more mature story by focusing more on romance and throwing in sex and curse words. All that that would do is weaken the very strong themes that exist in the series.

There is a difference between an adult story and a mature story. Whether a story is adult is about content, while whether a story is mature is much more about the themes and the ways in which the content is displayed. A children’s story can be mature. An adult story can be immature. And so many of these reboots come across as trying to seem mature, but not actually being mature – it’s adult stuff happening for the sake of it, without any attention to the consequences. This is the same reason that most of the post-Hunger Games flood of dystopian YA fiction just didn’t work as well. Many of those were just shallow imitations attempting to replicate the success in a paint-by-numbers style with the setting as a backdrop, rather than a crucial element of the story. So the follow-the-leader stories felt much less mature than The Hunger Games, while containing probably the same amount of adult content. While I could spend a whole post talking about The Hunger Games series and the strengths, shortcomings, and thematic ideas, the real point is that it’s not the age of the characters, level of explicitness, or language that makes something mature. It’s consequences and respect for themes. So aging up the Animorphs, to add sex or even to make the sheer number of violent injuries they sustain less uncomfortable? It wouldn’t serve any purpose but making a mature children’s story feel like an immature teen story.

All this about age and maturity is the most obvious way in which an Animorphs adaptation could go wrong. It’s a big sticking point, and so I can easily imagine that as one of the “creative differences” that led to Applegate and Grant parting ways with the project. Unfortunately, there was a lot of other stuff wrong with The Lightning Thief movie, and while one particular one of those issues is less likely to happen in an Animorphs movie than the aging up part, it would be much worse. And that’s the fact that The Lightning Thief movie was really racist.

There are many issues with the books themselves – the way the premise hinges on the superiority of Western civilization; the few characters of colour, most of whom are sidelined and the majority of whom die. When reconsidering the books, I find myself thinking a lot about this idea. Some of these issues were improved in the sequel series. Unfortunately, they weren’t at all in the film, in which Grover was less a character than a series of racist stereotypes. I shudder to think of something like that happening to Animorphs.

As much as I love the series, I have to acknowledge that race was often not handled well, as was the case in the PJO books. In some cases, it was the nineties tokenistic approach to diversity. In others, it was an uncomfortable treatment of indigenous characters. However, there are other ways in which the characters of colour were handled that subverted tiresome tropes we see again and again – such as how black girl Cassie is portrayed as the heart of the team whose idealism is worth fighting for and preserving. Other people have to sacrifice for her. At the end of the series, she is the designated survivor that has more to live for than any of her teammates – too much to risk death on a potential suicide mission. An Animorphs movie is an opportunity to improve upon the failings of the original series as it pertains to race. But the comparison to PJO makes me suspect that it will not do that at all. Now I’m going to worry that they will make Cassie a less idealistic, moral, non-violent character for the sake of softening pretty, white blonde Rachel’s violent tendencies.

I was cautiously optimistic when this movie was announced. But now I’m just wary. A profound disinterest in actually adapting the character arcs and themes inherent to a work will almost always lead to a product that is not only a bad adaptation, but a bad story in its own right. We saw it with The Lightning Thief and Artemis Fowl. We saw it with any number of other works. We’ll undoubtedly see it many times again. But if it’s the case with Animorphs…I’m out. I can’t watch this.

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