Earning Your Ending: Following Through On Story Themes And The Frustration Of Stories That Don’t

One of the things I admire most about Animorphs has always been the ending. It wasn’t a downer, exactly – the world was saved, after all, and if the cost is the souls of six children…well, many would call it a small price to pay. It was tragedy in the truest sense. The good guys weren’t rewarded with happily ever after. Not because they didn’t deserve a happy ending, not because it’s just, but because it’s war. And like in any real war, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it just was. There is no such thing as a glorious war. Necessary, perhaps, like the one around which Animorphs revolves. But even a necessary war will result in a lot of dead and injured and grieving.

Everything about the ending of the series felt earned. Like this was where it was always headed. It wasn’t a triumphant victory where cutting off the head of the snake or capturing a MacGuffin resulted in the good guys winning. No, it was years of them chipping away at an unstable empire, poking at different places and seeing what worked until it eventually collapsed. And there’s something about the narration…It’s childish. It’s simplistic. It’s so, so real. Because it’s not just a question of them being books for kids, it’s about how they’re written about kids. They’re children’s books from the perspective of a child. There are bits of gorgeous prose interspersed between scenes of horrifying violence and hilarious ones of aliens discovering chocolate. There are references to poems like The Second Coming and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as well as works like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It was children’s literature pointing out the best and worst of humanity, how we don’t have the best track record of tolerating differences, how we kill each other for praying differently to the same god.

A happy ending would have felt dishonest. And the sheer boldness of book 54 still takes me aback. This was a children’s book. Not a young adult one, an unashamed children’s book. A children’s book with no happy ending. That was the gutsiest writing choices I’ve ever seen. That book is probably why I am – or used to be, at least – a bit more susceptible to writer fake outs than most people. Because where most people see a major character death or what looks like an upcoming tragic ending and think, like you would really do it, I remember Animorphs, which did do it. For that reason, book 54 is pretty much my favourite book in the series and one of my favourite books altogether. I am fully in support of happy endings. But there’s a reason it’s the bittersweet ones that stick with me.

Something I’ve found is that epilogues that skip a significant amount of time into the future are dangerous. They run the risk of being contrived happy endings, where we’re told something is happy, but they don’t really feel happy, partially because we don’t see how the characters get to that point. There are two obvious examples of this – the first is the most famous example of young adult dystopian fiction. The second is the children’s series that completely changed the course of children’s publishing.

The Hunger Games was about children being forced to fight each other to the death for entertainment and a rebellion against an oppressive government. At best, I expected it to end bittersweetly. After all, we’re talking about one of the closest equivalents there is to Animorphs. Targeted at a young audience, a huge amount of graphic violence, heavily anti-war themes, a lot of the books dedicated to the characters’ trauma…when Mockingjay came out, I thought I knew, generally, where it was going to go. I even continued thinking that through maybe half the book. It seemed poised to deliver a sad ending. Maybe not quite a tragedy, but certainly not a happy one. And at first it did. But then came the epilogue.

The last chapter of Mockingjay was much more satisfying to me than the epilogue. I didn’t love the book overall – I thought it was by far the weakest of the trilogy. But the last chapter didn’t feel like a cop out. It hinted at future happiness without being too overt and saccharine. District Twelve was in ruins and pretty much everyone decided to leave and never come back. The people that stayed were the ones that thought everywhere else was worse, that had lost everything, that were so traumatized by everything that had happened, the only thing they could think to do was go home. But despite that, Peeta, Katniss, and Haymitch were all alive and together and recovering. They found things to focus on. They lived with the only people around that understood what they’d gone through. Katniss and Peeta rediscovered their love for each other. It felt right. But instead of just leaving it at that, there was that epilogue that skipped years into the future to have Katniss watching her children play in a meadow. Maybe it’s just me, but that felt disingenuous. It felt like running away from the earned ending.

On a similar note is Harry Potter. At the time The Deathly Hallows came out, I’d spent my entire life with these characters – the first book was published the same year I was born. I started reading them when I was like four. I wanted a happy ending. I still think the epilogue was a pretty good kind of cheesy, but it was jarring when you compare it to just a few pages before.

I’m not one of those people that hates the Harry Potter epilogue or what Harry named his kids. But skipping ahead nineteen years, skipping the recovery period…it felt kind of cheap. It felt far less fitting than the last chapter. The last chapter wasn’t a downer. It was bittersweet, and much more sweet than bitter – lots of people were dead, but Voldemort was one of them. The war was over. There were still things to do and loose ends to tie up, but it was clearly pointing in a hopeful direction. It wasn’t The Hunger Games, which practically gave me whiplash with the contrast between the epilogue and the rest of the book. It was closer to a logical extension. But it still didn’t feel right.

On the other end of the scale is stories that, instead of forcing a happy ending instead of the earned sad one, are stories that pull a downer out of nowhere, out of the misguided belief that True Art Is Angsty. Like, I recently read My Sister’s Keeper. To me, that came across as such a huge Shoot The Shaggy Dog story, I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a contrived happy ending, it was a contrived and manipulative sad one. Instead of genuinely exploring the characters’ emotions, Jodi Picoult opted for melodrama and cheap twists. I find endings like that just as – if not more – annoying than those that pull a happy one from thin air. Because when it comes to me and endings I find satisfying, it’s more than about earning a happy ending. It’s about following through to the ending you’ve earned, the one that makes sense for the story. That’s not to say a brutal, devastating story can’t have a positive ending, or a mostly positive, hopeful story can’t have a dark one, but if handled poorly, it feels like a cop out. That’s precisely why so few things have ever lived up in my eyes to the Animorphs ending.

The format of Animorphs was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it resulted in books of wildly varying quality being pushed out at a breakneck pace. It meant the series was never going to be taken seriously by a wider audience. It meant that it would never work as a movie adaptation. But I have to love it, because if we had fewer, longer books, or if they were published at a different time or for a different audience, we never would have gotten something like the final book.

That entire book is dedicated to the “what happens now”. And that makes you expect that it’s going to turn around, that it won’t be bleak, that the book will be about them them moving on and getting better. And it does…at the same time as it doesn’t. It has everything every book in the series does – it makes you feel every emotion possible in less than two hundred pages. Even more impressively, it does that without a real driving plot.

Book 54 is more focused on character development than it is with having its own individual plot. It’s about wrapping up the character arcs and plot threads from the preceding books. It’s slow. Or maybe that’s not quite it – slow is close, but the wrong word for the feel of the book. Maybe measured? Introspective? It’s calm. Compared to the frenzied pace of pretty much all the other instalments, it’s downright placid. It gives readers time for it all to sink in. It takes all the brutality of the series and brings it to its natural conclusion, because as it made clear from the beginning, there are no happy endings in war. It’s honest about it – there are no right answers. There are no glorious wars. Some people will be able to move on, even thrive. Others won’t. Because even the most necessary of necessary wars with clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong, will end with death, grief, and horror. That’s why I always find myself coming back to Animorphs. It’s one of the greatest endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s just too bad it kind of ruined me for books that don’t follow through on what they’ve earned.

Do you have any books with endings that completely satisfied you? Let me know! I’m always looking for new things to read.

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The Strange Sense Of Elitism In Film Criticism

There was a debate all over my Twitter timeline a while ago about something Ethan Hawke said about how superhero movies get overpraised and that Logan is a fine superhero movie, but not a great movie. And regardless of my feelings towards Logan  specifically, I think this betrays the typical genre elitism that does more harm than good by preventing excellent works from being recognized as excellent and thus keeping standards from getting higher.

There are countless counterexamples to Hawke’s point. So instead of listing all of them, let’s focus on three main points: the literary merit of commercial entertainment, the dismissal of the superhero genre, and the pretentiousness behind the idea that literary fiction is its own category.

Meaningful Stories In Popular Media

If you pick out any member of the Animorphs fandom and ask them about the series, I doubt you’d find a single one that would argue that it isn’t kind of trashy sci fi aimed at children. Because it is. They were cheap paperbacks pushed out at a breakneck pace to sell toys to kids with a lot of lighthearted, funny scenes largely centred around fish-out-of-water comedy. No one will deny that. But that absolutely does not preclude them from having literary merit.

It’s a story about child soldiers and trauma and galaxy wide imperialism. Sure, there are moments where the lead characters argue over Teletubbies and an alien eats chocolate off the floor, but that doesn’t negate the themes of genocide, slavery, and depression. They coexist. They work together to build multifaceted characters. Anyone is free to not like it, or think it’s not well written, but if your argument for why it doesn’t have merit or why those themes aren’t meaningful is it’s about kids turning into animals, you’re not making a good case.

“It’s written in a simplistic style targeted at children and lacks the sophistication necessary to appeal to me” is a fair enough statement. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a novel – sure, I like things that sound good, pieces of literature that can flow over me where how it makes me feel is somewhat more important than what specifically is happening, but I’ve always felt that that is best suited for poetry and short stories than for a full length novel – but I can understand why someone would feel that way. I don’t agree, but it’s an infinitely better case than “it’s not a great book, it’s a fine adventure story, it’s still about kids turning into animals”.

I don’t have much use for media that doesn’t tell me a compelling story. Characters, plot, themes, and style all work together to create a story. No amount of interesting style or themes or both of them put together is enough to make up for boring characters or a nonexistent plot. Animorphs? It does a great job handling all of them together. The books take themselves just seriously enough. They’re a perfect example of how meaningful and pretentiousness don’t have to go hand in hand, how there doesn’t have to be a trade off between developed characters and a developed plot, how themes in children’s literature can be handled more subtly than by dropping an anvil over the reader’s head, how a blunt style isn’t inherently worse than anything else. Most of all, they demonstrate how it doesn’t even matter what the plot is – any plot can be the plot of a meaningful story.

Dismissal of Superheroes

I genuinely don’t understand this need to be all it’s not a superhero story, it’s a whatever story with superheroes! “Superhero” isn’t a genre, it’s an archetype. A wide range of stories can fall into the superhero category. It comes across as people trying to separate something they enjoy from other things with similar elements, not for the sake of describing what it is, but for the sake of making it sound more “high brow”. This extends far beyond superhero stories. Like, what does the phrase “genre fiction” even mean? Nothing. It means nothing.

It becomes a vicious cycle. People expect superhero movies to be straightforward, so people go watch them when they want some shallow entertainment. That results in those that try something new not doing as well, which in turn results in less creative movies, which solidifies people’s belief that superhero movies should be straightforward entertainment. Then you have Batman v Superman, which is a whole different thing altogether.

Never once does it shy away from being a superhero story, because there’s no denying that’s what it is. It’s based on a comic book. It’s about the most iconic superheroes of all time. But that doesn’t preclude it from being a layered story, filled with allusions and themes. It’s the most high budget arthouse movie ever made. All the political themes are interwoven into the story. It’s more than just pseudo-deep quotes, all the themes are rooted throughout the movie. That the characters are public figures and heroes mattersIt’s thoughtful and unique. But critics expected they didn’t have to pay much attention because it’s a superhero movie and didn’t get nearly as much out of it as people thought about what they were watching.

If our expectations for superhero movies included that they must mean something, and critics actually thought critically, the reaction to Batman v Superman would have been hugely different. If you took the same movie and didn’t tell them it was directed by Zack Snyder – because critics clearly have something against him – it would have just as much action and bombast, but critics would be more receptive to the themes and quiet drama of the whole movie. They’d call it – rightfully – a work of art and a political statement. They might even go so far as to make the mistake in saying it’s not a superhero movie, it’s a drama about our relationship with power. It is that. But it matters that it’s told using superheroes. Pretty much the only reason that critics didn’t analyze it through that lens is because it’s a superhero movie. This goes back to the “superhero movie” as compared to “movie with superheroes” issue. If you extend that further, you get the frequent argument that something is not part of a given genre, it just has elements of that genre. That takes us to the “literary fiction” debate.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

Perhaps the reason a certain demographic claims “genre fiction” is a lesser art form than so-called “literary fiction” is that they’re constantly redefining the best works in any genre as something other than what it is – especially in retrospect. Consider – The Book Thief has beautiful characterization and striking prose. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, and it’s widely considered to be an excellent book. It’s also narrated by Death – that makes it a fantasy. But I’ve seen multiple critics ignore that fantasy aspect and focus solely on the historical setting. Similarly, I saw an article once about literary fiction that claimed All the Pretty Horses is not a Western and 1984 is not sci fi. I think most of us can agree those claims are absurd. Style doesn’t change the genre. Being well written or memorable or having literary merit for whatever reason doesn’t stop something from fitting the conventions of a given genre.

It especially irks me when it comes to the topic of science fiction, because some of the core tenants of sci fi have always been questioning the world and society. It’s a weird kind of self-importance to suggest that only literary fiction addresses those themes, and even weirder to pitch your work as literature, as if that’s something you or critics get to decide and not time. There are lots of movies and novels that have literary merit. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong to different genres. It reminds me a bit of the way some Game of Thrones fans try to talk about how much it transcends a genreThere’s a line about it in Parks and Recreation that’s something along the lines of “they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world”. Is there something about fantasy which means fantasy writers don’t tell human stories? No, because that’s stupid. Everyone tells human stories. Saying that it’s not a fantasy story, it’s something else in a fantasy setting doesn’t actually mean anything.


Hawke had a very valid point in that when it comes to superhero movies, most aren’t very good, and they’re praised for being mindless entertainment. But the reason for that has nothing to do with what they are. It has nothing to do with “people wearing tights” or “having metal coming out of their hands”. I’ve been vocal about my issues with Logan as a movie, but something I will never say is that one of the problems with it is the fact it involves people with metal claws. You can make anything sound silly if you talk about it like that – Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man who gets put on display in an alien zoo.

With live action superhero movies, we’re talking about a fairly small sample size. Sure, that’s expanded a huge amount in the past fifteen years, but we’re not talking about anything so broad as “fantasy” or “science fiction”. So we can say things like most superhero movies are lazy without generalizing, because a lot of people have seen a significant percentage of the movies that fall into that category. If that’s what Hawke meant, that’s what he should have said. But what he did say was dismissive of entire genre based on what the genre is, rather than what it’s produced. We have to judge people’s statements for what they are, not bend over backwards trying to find a way to justify them as correct because we agree with something kind of relevant to what they’re talking about.

Logan isn’t a great movie and most superhero movies are overpraised and carefully calculated to sell rather than actually make a point. Yeah. True. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction and fantasy elements of those stories.

Has Any Writer Of Young Adult Fiction Ever Gone To High School?

Years ago, I read a book called Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie. It was okay. Maybe a little on the side of trying too hard at being clever and a bit gimmicky, but it was a pretty entertaining read. I recently – this morning – discovered there was a sequel (Sophomores and Other Oxymorons). Me being me, I had to read it (after rereading the first book as a refresher, of course). My only thought upon finishing was, huh. And now that I think about it, there are a whole lot of other YA books that evoke a similar reaction in me. The way I see it, there are two options here: 1) The authors of YA fiction and I had vastly different high school experiences, or 2) The authors of YA fiction are very much misremembering what high school is like.

Okay, so fine. I went to a small magnet high school that wasn’t particularly cliquey. It was instead filled with pretty smart, motivated kids that were all largely supportive of each other and made a lot of IB jokes. No sports teams. So maybe my experience wasn’t quite standard. But seriously? Are these real problems that any high schooler faces? For me, high school was a time when I dedicated an absurd amount of time to robotics, learned to play the bassoon, and stressed out a lot over everything under the sun. But my worries were more along the lines of I’m socially awkward help me and oh my god I have a lot of work and if I can’t do this and get good grades I’ll flunk out and have to live in a cardboard box. Seniors taking my lunch money was not one of my concerns at all.

Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is more in line with what I understand to be the high school experience than its predecessor. It’s less reliant on clichés like “jocks vs nerds” and a main character with a crush on someone he idealizes while knowing nothing about. But it’s also oddly heavy handed. It’s Scott learning a bunch of random lessons rather than things that actually fit together thematically. It felt like more a series of ideas piled together than a story. It covers practically everything from “piracy is bad” to “creationism should not be taught in classrooms” to “people that think they know everything after learning a little bit are annoying”. Things I agree with? Sure. But not much of an actual plot. It was cluttered and felt like it had way too much going on. Maybe it was somewhat intentional – after all, there was a line near the end about every event not being a thread in the plot of a novel. But seeing as it is a novel, I don’t think it really worked.

This book reminded me of why I’m really not into romantic subplots. Full on romantic novels may not be my thing, but at least there, the romance serves the story rather than potentially muddling it. Interestingly enough, that distinction between a romantic subplot and a romantic novel can be seen when comparing Sophomores and Other Oxymorons to its predecessor.

In Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, the romantic element serves as a plot trigger. Scott wanted to get closer to Julia, so he joined the newspaper, stage crew, student council. It was because of this that he learned he liked to write, that he made friends with Wesley. Everything in the book felt related. By contrast, Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is a much messier and clumsier read. Scott’s character development from the first book means he doesn’t do as many stupid things in pursuit of Lee as he did with Julia, which is good follow through, but it also means that his spending a year trying to figure out how to ask her out was just another thing thrown into an overstuffed book. Again, probably intentional. But intentional or not, it didn’t really work for me.

I enjoyed Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie when I first read it. I thought it was a funny, entertaining read. Upon rereading it and reading the sequel, I still think it’s a decent enough story, despite its ridiculously dramatic interpretation of going to school. However, it’s also possible I only think that because it looks good in comparison to the sequel. Neither book is terrible. It’s an okay way to kill time. But if there’s another option…I’d recommend picking that one up instead.

The Impact of Adaptations on Perception of Characters

Adaptations are a funny thing. When it comes to superhero movies or TV shows, it’s almost inevitable that someone out there will absolutely hate it.

It’s easy to mock the “not muh Superman!” people that complain about a different interpretation of the character that holds true to the source material. But some of the time, I do understand where they’re coming from. Sure, with a lot of characters, one bad adaptation isn’t the end of the world, but adaptations have a major role on how people perceive comics and comic book characters. Especially live-action adaptations and first adaptations. Especially when the adaptation is of a character non-comics fans don’t know much about.

One of the reasons I’m so anxious about Titans is because as much as I adore Dick Grayson, as much as I know he’s popular among comic fans, I also am painfully aware of the fact that despite his longevity as a character, he’s simply not taken very seriously by the general audience. He’s not Batman, Superman, Spider-Man. All of those characters have gotten multiple adaptations within my lifespan, but Dick? While we’re supposedly getting a Nightwing movie, that’s like the Flash, Cyborg, and Batman ones – stuck in development hell to the point where I doubt it’s ever coming. If he doesn’t stand out as awesome in Titans, he’s not gonna get another chance to do so for a long time.

It’s a similar issue to bad interpretations in a long running series or a shared universe that includes a lot of characters and movies, rather than just a standalone solo movie, or even a trilogy. I mean, consider Harry Potter. In the movies, Hermione took on basically all Ron’s skills and personality. Despite the massive popularity of the series, I highly doubt there’ll be a reboot any time soon, so the only visual adaptation we’re going to have for a long time will be one that stripped one of the most important characters in the series of what made him interesting and managed to make a lot of people – an astounding number, really, considering that Harry Potter was the series that got pretty much the entire world to line up at midnight for a book release and learn about the book version of the characters’ real traits – forget just how important and skilled Ron was.

Take the X-Men movies. Those did a similar thing. Yes, they’ve had both highs and lows that I’ve commented on repeatedly. But what’s more important than deciding how good they are is they’ve had a huge impact on perception of the X-Men. The X-Men were introduced in 1963. The first movie came out in 2000. That means this interpretation of the characters has been around for more than 30% of the characters’ entire lifespan – at least. The characters introduced in 1963 were the original X-Men, from the days before Claremont, the days before characters like Storm, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Emma Frost. Saying that the X-Men movies ruined a character, while still dramatic, is much more understandable than saying the same of a character like Superman or Batman. I have to suppress a laugh at people saying Zack Snyder ruined Superman because that just sounds ridiculous, but complaining about the movie interpretation of the X-Men? That I completely get.

Superman and Batman have had multiple different interpretations in my lifespan, in the forms of both TV series and movies, both live action and animated. The X-Men? Not really. When it comes to live-action, it’s just been the one set of related movies where no one that wasn’t Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto, or Mystique got any real attention and we had to sit through Xavier giving Magneto the same “there’s still good in you” speech like six times. And since there’s never been a real reboot, none of the characters got to be rewritten in a more interesting or more comics accurate way. I try not to say things like X movie ruined Y character, because oftentimes, that’s not fair. There are a lot of unseen people that work hard in the industry on every movie and we should at least try to find something to appreciate before we start complaining about what we didn’t like. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand bitterness towards the X-Men movies for how they treated most of the characters. Scott Summers is my favourite Marvel character, and I had to watch first the original trilogy strip away his background, personality, leadership skills, tactical instincts, and fighting ability, then the alternate timeline make him a totally different person. Believe me. I get it.

Adaptations have a huge impact on perception of characters and stories. Whether it’s how the Richard Donner Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve were so influential that people start talking about that as the source material rather than the comics, or how a first adaptation of a character can make or break their possibilities for a future adaptation, adaptations of superhero comics are arguably even more important than the comics themselves when it comes to keeping those characters alive in public memory. It’s disappointing. Comics are a wonderful medium with amazing stories and brilliant characters that should be acknowledged as such. And superheroes are a major part of cultural knowledge. But when it comes to the general audience, most of that knowledge comes from adaptations, or in a diluted fashion through cultural osmosis.

It’s neither good nor bad that the general audience doesn’t read comics and gets their knowledge of the characters from adaptations. Disappointing, sure, but not intrinsically bad. What is disappointing though is the lack of respect for comics in the writers and directors of a lot of these adaptations. I want the characters I love to get the best possible chance at making it into the public consciousness in an accurate sense. That won’t happen unless adaptations respect them and give nuanced takes. We’ll all still have different perspectives on whether or not those takes are good ones…but we’ll have to respect that there was thought and care put into them. In the long run, that’s what’s good for characters.

Children’s Fiction And Why Two Of The Best Works Of The Past Two Decades Were Made With Kids In Mind

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most universally beloved shows I can think of. Prince Zuko is the go to example for countless people when asked asked about a good redemption arc. Likewise, Animorphs has a fiercely dedicated fanbase and fans – more than just me, I mean – who are quick to explain why each of the leads is so multidimensional. So why is that? What is so special about these children’s works that they attract so much dedication amongst people far older than the target audience? Well…it’s a lot of things.

Brilliantly Written Characters

Hey, guess what – well written characters aren’t exclusive to adult fiction! Oftentimes, I actually prefer those in children’s fiction. I think it can partially be attributed to how when a work is targeted at children, authors feel less of a need for a complex plot. That gives the characters more of a chance to shine. Both ATLA and Animorphs stand as excellent examples of this.

Zuko from ATLA and Jake from Animorphs had two of the absolute best written character arcs of all time. Which is funny, seeing as they probably couldn’t be any more different. Zuko’s character arc is essentially Jake’s inverted, because ATLA is more idealistic than Animorphs ever was. But despite their differences, they’re both pillars of their respective works – Jake is the leader of the Animorpsh, and Zuko is arguably more of an emotional anchor in ATLA than even Aang.

Zuko’s story was a beautiful story of redemption, about struggling and becoming a better person that can help lead the world into a better tomorrow. He was a not so good guy when we first met him that, over the course of three seasons, grew up and proved to his former adversaries that they could trust him, which is essentially the opposite of Jake, who began with ideals. Jake started off believing in concepts like honour in war. He believed in leaving no man behind. There was a reason people trusted him to lead, and that was that he was a good guy. Yes, it was partially because he was the link in the chain, the one person every character had a preexisting relationship with before the construction site. But it was more that their preexisting relationship with him made them all aware that he was a good guy whose decisions they could believe in. Jake’s arc was one of someone with too much responsibility placed on his shoulders who started to make tougher and tougher decisions and whose team became more and more aware of how much he was faking it.

I read a post on Tumblr a while back, from a person that always has intelligent things to say about Animorphs, and it included something that really stuck with me – Jake is a good kid and brilliantly written character, but he’s not an easy person to love. I think the same applies to Zuko (from the point when we first meet him, not the flashbacks to before he was banished). They don’t have the same flaws. They’re very different people. But as much as the audience can love and appreciate both of them, they’re not easy for the people around them to deal with.

Take Mai. Mai loves Zuko, enough to stand up to Azula so he could get out of there. And he loves her back. He misses her when he leaves. He wants her to be happy. He’s delighted to see her again at the end of the finale. But he also has anger issues galore that results in him lashing out at her. He’s socially awkward and terrible at expressing affection. During the episode when they were on Ember Island, he yelled at her for exchanging like six words with some random guy. He also gets so caught up in his problems that he doesn’t spend much time considering her feelings. It’s not his fault that he has other stuff to prioritize. But it does mean that he’s not great at the whole relationship thing. Similarly, there’s Zuko’s relationship with Iroh. Iroh loves him, spent a lot of the series trying to tell him what he was doing was neither morally right nor healthy, but Zuko didn’t listen. Zuko’s arc is, in part, about overcoming these issues.

When it comes to Jake, while his friends love him and are loyal to him, they’re also deeply aware of his flaws and the way that, in order to win the war, he has to be willing to manipulate and use them. That coupled with how his method of dealing with emotion is to repress the hell out of it (in himself) or send Cassie to deal with it (in someone else) means that by the end of the series, Cassie, who spent the entire series loving him, knows she has to walk away. She has to move on, because staying with him would be self destructive. It would have probably killed any chance of them ever coming back together, whether as friends or as a romantic couple. Again, we’re talking about a similar principle as with Zuko, but inverted.

Zuko and Jake are both amazingly written characters with wonderfully complex relationships with other characters, and I think they very much benefit from the target audience of the works to which they belong. Both ATLA and Animorphs have simplistic plots. Neither character was ever involved in much romantic drama. The characters themselves were the focus, and they shone.

Format

The first Animorphs book came out in 1996, the year before a certain boy wizard took over the world and revolutionized children’s literature. I imagine if it were coming out today, instead, there would be a lot fewer books that would probably be longer, each book being closer to one of the Chronicles or Megamorph books, rather than the main series. In a way, I think it’s pretty lucky that it came out when it did, because the format works.

Sure, Animorphs is trashy sci fi for kids that was used as a tool to sell a lot of merchandise to children. Sure, the book a month for years schedule was a way of pushing out a lot of content, regardless of quality. Sure, that’s not normally conducive to a particularly thought provoking franchise, or anything with literary merit. But fortunately, in this one circumstance, it all came together to work in the books’ favour. The brilliance of Animorphs is that the large number of instalments show off how the characters develop, how they perceive themselves, and how their friends see them over the entire length of the series. Most books in the series do the remarkable job of making the reader feel the full gamut of human emotion in about a hundred pages. Even the worst written Animorphs book, the most nonsensical or pointless one – it still has something about it that I’d consider worth reading. I think the same thing can be said about ATLA: most episodes make full use of its twenty minutes in a many other shows – of all lengths and genres – don’t, and even the weakest have value.

Adult – and young adult – fiction wanders. It’s usually longer, giving more time for asides. That’s not the case with most children’s work, especially pre-Harry Potter. There has to be a focus. They have to be tightly plotted in order to be appealing. Each twenty minute ATLA episode, each, say, 120 page Animorphs book did an excellent job of doing that. Both ATLA and Animorphs had breather “episodes” that give the audience time to recover and not descend into Darkness Induced Audience Apathy. Humour and seriousness coexist without intruding on each other. It might occasionally verge onto heavy handed, but both works generally handle it well.

When a work is targeted at an older audience, oftentimes, subtlety will fly out the window. It’s funny – subtlety isn’t really a word I’d think at first to apply to either ATLA or Animorphs. What I’ve always said about the narration of the latter is that it’s simplistic, childish, kind of repetitive, with occasional moments of utter brilliance. It doesn’t get bogged down in the same kind of flowery language present in a lot of books, nor is it the barebones, beige prose style of a lot of adult fiction. It’s just simple and blunt. Despite that, we see nuances that go well beyond what I’ve seen in many works targeted at adults. ATLA might not be quite at that level of carefully illustrated development, but it gives it a fair shot.

When I talk about a lack of subtlety in adult works, it’s not at all a question of violence. I can handle that. You’d be surprised at how horrifyingly violent Animorphs got. But other books, shows, movies, whatnot, they get needlessly graphic with their violence, to the point where it’s gratuitous rather than serving a purpose. Instead of being “gritty” through exploring people and issues, they bring in things like rape or incest or illustrating abuse in painful detail.

In ATLA, we’re explicitly told every realization Zuko has. We see him confront Ozai and call him out for being a terrible parent, we hear him talk through his issues with Azula. Even though his coming to those realizations is more subtle and far from immediate, the culmination of it is very direct. But what we don’t see is every example of Ozai’s abusiveness throughout Zuko’s childhood. Showing us that would be unnecessary, and might even distract from the point. We don’t need to see the abuse itself to see its effect.

It’s kind of similar to the episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Graysons die. We see the shadow, we see the frayed ropes, and we see Bruce’s face, but we don’t see the corpses. From what I understand, that wasn’t the original plan, but censors insisted the scene be changed to make it less graphic. And while I’m usually disappointed when creators have to change things to get past the censors, I think that when it comes to  Robin’s Reckoning, it was for the best. I think it made the scene a lot more powerful.

When it comes to adult fiction, Westworld strikes me as an example of a show that does it right – at least some of the time. It’s filled with violence and abuse, but it’s not fetishized. Gruesome, horrifying things are portrayed as gruesome and horrifying. In the pilot, Dolores’s rape is off screen. It’s not the Game of Thrones style violence against women for shock value and prolonged scenes of graphic abuse. Do I think all of the violence it does have is necessary? No. But I much prefer it to the style of gratuitous sexualized abuse in other works.

Thematic Ideas

Animorphs is a brutal deconstruction of countless tropes. And part of what makes it compelling is that there is very, very rarely an easy out.

Jake is the closest thing to the central main character. The first book was his. He led the team. He was essentially every other main character’s most important relationship. So you’d think he’d be the counterpart to Aang. But no, he’s Zuko’s, because as much as I do like Aang, as much as I’d defend his stance that he couldn’t kill Ozai, that was the easy way out in terms of now he ultimately had something else he could do. Zuko didn’t get the same kind of easy answers Aang did. Aang faced a lot of difficulties, but he never had to make the choice to kill Ozai. Zuko, on the other hand, was ready for that to happen. He was prepared for his father’s death, his sister’s. Was it easier for him than for Jake, because Jake’s childhood was so much happier? No doubt. Which is why the different outcomes in their respective stories worked so well.

Zuko and Jake have different relationships with their siblings. They’re both the less talented sibling at something that’s important to them, but their place in the birth order informs how that affects them. Zuko is older, with a baby sister that surpasses him. So he’s jealous about it. He’s bitter and envious and spends years trying to prove himself. Jake, on the other hand, starts off idolizing Tom, the big brother he wants to be just like. It makes so much sense, from this perspective, that by the end, Zuko has let go of his anger and is in a place where it’s possible to repair his relationship with his sister, while Jake’s family has completely fallen apart.

ATLA is a story about hope, peace, redemption, friendship. Through Zuko, we see someone misguided and confused finding his way. He stands up for himself to his father. He decides that he doesn’t like the path he’s on and changes direction. He learns to appreciate and understand Iroh’s love for him. He chooses his family. Even though doing so means he has to go against everything he’s ever known, he does it, choosing to fight with Aang against his own family. And at the end, even after that, there’s recognition of the fact that Azula may not be nice, she may not have learned the same lessons Zuko did, but she still grew up in the same abusive environment he did and deserves a chance to redeem herself. She didn’t, in the show, but she also didn’t die. Azula didn’t die. And where there’s life, there’s hope.

Animorphs is a story about the horrors of war. It’s about how utterly unfair it is – there isn’t any vengeance. Not really. The story ended with Rachel dead and Tom dead and everyone traumatized. Visser Three lived. Most of the Yeerks that enslaved innocent people weren’t punished. The people that were hurt throughout the series were largely the innocents. By the time he joined the Gaang, Zuko was prepared for the deaths of his brother and sister. He’d come to believe it was necessary because they were hurting people. That wasn’t what Jake  had to face at all – he had to send his cousin to kill his brother, even though it wasn’t his brother hurting people. Tom was an innocent that Jake had spent years refusing to give up on. The story didn’t have a happy ending – it wasn’t all tragedy, but it was still a whole lot of pain.

I used to consider the ending in ATLA to be a little bit of a cop out, what with the energy bending solution coming out of nowhere, seemingly just so Aang could get out of killing Ozai without future consequences. And I still kind of do, primarily because of how influential Animorphs was to how I interpret fiction. But I also think it fits with the rest of the story.

I’m a big believer in earned endings, happy or otherwise. I would have liked more setup to the “take away his bending” outcome than we got, but I’m not actually mad about how ATLA ended. If anything, giving it the tragic ending Animorphs got would be a departure from the positive themes the show was rooted in.


ATLA and Animorphs are completely different stories. They pretty much only have two things in common: they were targeted at children, and they are fantastic. Children’s fiction often gets dismissed because of the target audience. But when handled with care by people who respect children and their intelligence, it can be excellent. Any good children’s work matures as it progresses, matures as the characters and audience alike develop, allowing people of different ages and experiences to get something different out of it. ATLA and Animorphs do just that. As such, everyone – of all ages – should watch ATLA and read Animorphs. Regardless of what specifically you get out of it, they’re both worth the time.

The Inescapable Canadianness of ‘Anne With An E’

Confession: I don’t particularly like Anne of Green Gables. When I was younger, I mostly found her kind of irritating.

And that’s still kind of true, what with the Netflix show and all. Anne With An E (or just Anne, in Canada) is something I can’t really define as good or bad – it’s like that’s almost an irrelevant question to what the show is. From the absolutely stunning visuals to the Anne’s obnoxious tendency to refer to things as “tragical” or “fantastical” rather than doing what any human would do and calling them tragic or fantastic to the subdue way in which it takes every possible opportunity for added melodrama to the wonderful soundtrack, it’s just A LotTM. But as a Canadian, I recognize that Anne of Green Gables is iconically Canadian. And I think the show is even more so. Because while it is ridiculously over the top, it’s also clearly screams Canada in a way that few things ever do.

There are a lot of things that get filmed in Toronto and Vancouver. And even when they’re Canadian productions, they usually shy away from being Canadian. And honestly, that’s not hard. Take something like Orphan Black. It’s one of my favourite shows, and I think that’s partially because it didn’t avoid being Canadian. You could see Canadian money and Canadian driver’s licenses. The skyline shots were very clearly of Toronto. There were frequent references to Alison living in Scarborough, which Felix refers to as “Scarberia”. So all Ontarians knew where it was set. But even so, I saw a lot of Americans thinking it was supposed to be American. I guess they’re just so used to Toronto doubling for New York, it was weird to just see it as a fictionalized version of itself. And when that happens to something that’s very clearly and explicitly set in Canada, it’s easy for shows that avoid associations with Canada to make viewers forget where they were made.

Unlike Orphan Black, Anne With An E is never subtle about where it’s from. It tells you directly. In an early episode, Gilbert came back to Avonlea talking about how he’d seen Western Canada. When Anne was avoiding going to school, she said that they were going to be learning about the district of Saskatchewan. There’s even a song dedicated to how fantastic Prince Edward Island is.

The added drama in the show does a lot of things, and one of those things is romanticizing Canada. While people do do that in reality, it’s never about how beautiful it is. American liberals look upon it as some magical place free of problems to which they can threaten to move in the event of a politician they don’t like being elected. And Canadians like to smugly say, “we’re much better than the US!” Neither of those things are true. What is is how stunning parts of the country are and how much they deserve to be remembered when we talk about gorgeous places to visit.

In the show, the death of Gilbert’s father compelled Gilbert to leave home and find work. During the first half of the second season, he was away and longing for home. And when he got back, he was genuinely delighted to be there. Sure, he didn’t want to be a farmer, but he still wanted to be back in Avonlea. That is almost absurdly relatable to me. In all the years I lived in Canada, when my family and I travelled, we’d usually fly out of Detroit. And when we got back, the sense of relief upon being home didn’t hit me upon landing or getting off the plane. No, the sense of relief came once we crossed back over the border into Canada. I’m sure everyone feels like when they come home, regardless of where their home is, but as a Canadian, even one from somewhere much less gorgeous than Prince Edward Island? I one hundred percent understand where Gilbert was coming from. It might not be for everyone, but Canada is an excellent place to grow up.

The Tragically Hip’s Ahead By A Century plays over the opening credits. There’s nothing a bout that song that’s exclusive to Canada, but the Hip is pretty much the most Canadian band out there, and the song was very much written with Canada in mind. That alone would be evidence of how utterly Canadian the show is, but it goes deeper than that. Upon Gord Downie’s death last year, this article, largely about the aforementioned song, was published in The Conversation. It explains the Canadian context of the Hip’s music and their vision of the country, and I think the explanation makes it clear how the song relates to the show.

Their vision of Canada is beset by tragedy and injustice, but also lifted by beauty, humour, and courage. Most of all, at their finest, they urge us to rethink the present, and to imagine a more generous and accepting future that should not be ahead of us by a century.

Anne With An E is a more cynical take on the traditional Anne of Green Gables than we usually see – or rather, a more honest one (yes, even with the show’s propensity for melodrama). It may romanticize the world, but it also doesn’t shy away from the idea that growing up with a series of guardians that didn’t care about her and neglected her would have left Anne with some traumas that can’t just be glossed over or fixed with a positive enough attitude. It adds LGBT characters, because while no one in the books was such, LGBT people did exist at the time, and while it recognizes that nineteenth century Canada wasn’t a good place to be gay, it also recognizes that that isn’t something that needs to be portrayed accurately. It portrays certain aspects of the past as closer to how it should have been than how it is, because that’s what we need, and in doing so, points out some of the areas in which we still have a ways to go.

These are universal themes, not exclusive to Canada. But all of it put together – the Canadian book that is the source material, the themes of home in a country where more than a fifth of the population is foreign born, the Canadian music, the Canadian showrunner – it combines to create a show that’s absolutely, inescapably Canadian. Many of the actors may not be, and the show may certainly have an appeal to people outside of Canada, but at its core, Anne With An E is a story that is, in large part, about Canada.

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.