Romantic Subplots, Love Triangles, And The Strange Need to Vilify the Hypotenuse

The other day I was thinking about love triangles and the different ways in which they’re resolved: death sometimes, friendship rarely, and one of the vertices being portrayed as a villain often. I don’t like love triangles, or any kind of polygon, primarily because of this. So often, they involve pitting characters – especially women – against each other when a much better story would involve them being friends. When I started writing about that, I realized that I had much more to say than I thought I did, so this will be the first of three posts about the resolution of love triangles. This one will focus on the vilification of a character in said triangle.

Oddly enough, one of the best examples of this is a series that I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I’ve read – the Vampire Academy books. They’re not my type of book at all. But a friend of mine got me to read them several years ago when the last book had just been released – I was about twelve, I think – and I’ve never gotten over the poor treatment of Tasha Ozera.

Tasha started off as arguably the best character in the series. She was my favourite by far. She appealed to me in large part because I have very little patience for romantic drama. I’m twenty, and perhaps my teenage experience wasn’t quite standard – I went to a small magnet high school that took kids from around the county, there wasn’t really all that much drama, and we were all pretty supportive of each other – but  it always seemed to me like most of these high school novels that are supposed to appeal to teenage girls are written by people that don’t remember what high school was like at all. Tasha? Up until the end, she was tangential to the romantic drama, not an active part of it.

While everyone else was obsessing over their love life, or being really creepy about a girl in high school, she was being politically active. She was smart. She was proactive. She was out to protect children that her own people wanted to shove onto the battlefield and use as human shields. She wasn’t distracted by how much she loved someone else, or how she was fighting with her best friend, or by anything. She was on top of political developments, and was focused on accomplishing what she had to.

Even years before the events of the series, Tasha – young Tasha, barely out of school, without any training or help – fought off both her brother and sister in law to protect her nephew. And she did. She was outnumbered and scared and facing people much, much stronger than her, people that she loved and was not prepared to fight, but she still managed to hold them off, even after one of them ripped out half her face. That’s just badass. Her story was tragic, and in just about any other genre, she’d be the mentor, if not the hero herself.

Meade expected the audience to believe that this woman – the woman that’s always supported Rose; always been kind and compassionate, even as she was cunning and politically aware; always fought for what’s right, that taught her nephew how to use his magic to fight back instead of expecting other people to protect him; always been brave, smart, and strong – would frame someone else for murder for no other reason than jealousy over some guy.

She was the first character to ever bring up how the Moroi weren’t contributing and were instead just relying on the dhampirs, who didn’t even have voting rights, to keep them safe. She and Christian were the first characters to use their magic offensively. Tasha taught Christian, which resulted in Christian lighting a Strigoi on fire, not only saving Rose, but becoming the only Moroi to kill a Strigoi within the series.

Tasha stood by her convictions. She wasn’t ever speaking theoretically, or because she was looking to score points somewhere – what points could she possibly score from alienating the people with power to support the marginalized? She sincerely believed their society needed change, that they had to fight for equality. She and her family were already ostracized, but she loved Dimitri enough that she was ready for even more societal scorn from having dhampir children. But she was turned into the villain because she was a competing love interest.

The killing the queen part of it? I took absolutely no issue with that, because that was a logical extension of the character’s actions. It made sense. That alone would have been a fantastic direction to take the character – how far would this smart, goal oriented woman go to achieve what she felt she needed to? But framing the protagonist because of…what, jealousy? And not any legitimate reason for wanting her out of the way? That took a good character – one that, had she gotten a little more development, could have even been excellent – and turned her from the only mature adult around to just another petulant child that the author wanted to “get out of the way”.

Several of the most interesting points in the series never got a real resolution – the way the dhampirs never got to make their own choices, the way they were ostracized for not going into a life of personal protection of the rich, the deep classism of the society, the political system. Rose and Dimitri ended up together, the lead characters were alive in the end, but the status quo that the books began with didn’t change. I guess maybe that’s the point of a teen romance, but all the same, it never felt like anything was accomplished. A lot was made of Lissa being a revolutionary, ultra liberal leader, but what did she do to support dhampirs and their right to have their own lives? The primary thing she did was not change the age requirement. For me, it came across as incredibly shallow – like today’s white liberals, focused on putting out fires as they arise and celebrating minor achievements instead of working for real, meaningful, lasting change. The real revolutionary was vilified. The one pushing for real reforms was depicted as just a scorned lover. Perhaps it would have been a totally different story if it focused a little less on romantic drama and a little more on individual characters and the politics of it all, and I know that I can’t judge a work based on what it’s not, but I think what it was could have been much better.

On TV Tropes, this method of resolving love triangles fits into the category of Derailing Love Interests. This category is broader than making one of the characters into a villain – it extends to giving said character any kind of random character flaws to divert sympathy away from them and justify them not becoming the final love interest. It’s lazy. It’s one thing to turn a character into an antagonist. It’s one thing to have development and consistent characterization that explains just why they shouldn’t end up in a relationship with character X. It’s even okay to say, “hey, maybe they would work, but not here”. It’s another to decide that the supposed obstacle needs to get out of the way.

The way I see it, if you need to completely change a character’s characterization to completely resolve a romantic relationship, it’s not a well written relationship. Either that, or you’re not confident in your writing to believe that you’ve crafted a good enough romance to be compelling even with other love interests. Romantic drama can exist without love triangles, and can certainly be resolved without the derailment of another character. If a love triangle has to exist for whatever reason, though…I’d hate it much less if a writer managed it without any character derailment.

Part Two
Part Three

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Philosophy, War, and Challenging Conventions: Why Zack Snyder Should Direct an ‘Animorphs’ Movie

From Dawn of the Dead to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder has demonstrated his skill with both stunning visuals and deeply heartfelt moments. Animorphs beautifully blends action and emotion, as I discussed in this post. A movie adaptation wouldn’t necessarily be a great idea. A lot happens over a period of several years, and nearly all of the books contribute something valuable and meaningful. Even most of the fillers were good character pieces. It would be easy to lose some of that impact by trying to condense the story into one movie. In that regard, another attempt at a TV series would probably be a better adaptation. It would allow for more accuracy, as well as a less rushed seeming story. However, if the series were ever adapted into a movie, who better to take on the challenge than Zack Snyder?

Visual Storytelling

A major part of what makes Animorphs special is the characters and their internal turmoil. Each book is written in first person, and some of the most poignant quotes aren’t dialogue but part of their internal commentary. It’s something that would be really hard to bring across in an adaptation without excessive voiceovers, which is where Snyder would be perfect. He’s a very visual storyteller. His scripts don’t have any wasted words. He doesn’t tell, he shows. He’d be able to bring across all the emotion in those scenes without overusing voiceovers.

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Clark saying goodbye to Lois in ‘Batman v Superman’. [Credit: Warner Bros].
Snyder is the king of a distinctive visual style and subverting common tropes. We know for certain that Snyder’s not afraid of so-called silly topics. He’s made his career on geeky interests and comic book movies, after all. He makes bold choices and tries new things instead of constantly playing it safe. He uses his awesome visual sense and artistic eye to create beautiful, epic, memorable scenes in movies based on comic books. I’d love to see him take on the action sequences in Animorphs. They’re all fast paced, bloody, and almost ridiculously violent. They’re horrifyingly graphic, and Snyder is bold enough to commit to that.

Apart from his visual skills, Snyder specializes in philosophy. I still think Batman v Superman is his best work yet because of that. Animorphs is a masterpiece that beautifully questions right vs wrong and never flinches from discussing the realities of war. Snyder often works with religious philosophy, which isn’t the main thematic element in Animorphs, but the issues stemming from the morality of war would be something a little different that he could pull off beautifully. He conveys complicated issues clearly without oversimplifying them. He has mastered the art of making people take things seriously. A huge part of what makes his work special to me is that he clearly enjoys what he does and has fun working in the superhero genre without making fun of that genre. Adapting Animorphs would be a challenge he’s perfect for.

Most of all, though? Snyder’s strength is embracing all of those issues in the big blockbuster type movies that earn lots of money, in a way that a lot of people just don’t see. That’s exactly what Animorphs was. Everyone has at least heard of them. With the perception of them today, both among fans and people that haven’t read them, it’s easy to forget that they were hugely popular in their heyday. They were one of the best selling children’s series ever.

Prominence of Female Characters

Every movie Snyder has made has featured complex, awesome women that are completely different from each other. And his idea of a strong female character isn’t just one that punches people. No, his idea of a strong female character is a smart, brilliant journalist that isn’t a fighter, but is brave enough to stand between her injured boyfriend and the raging vigilante holding a spear that’s trying to kill him and is so important that Superman considers her his world, and the Flash travels back in time to tell Batman that she’s the key. Is a senator that’s not going to bow down to special interests just because she has somewhat similar reservations. Is a victim that fights back when against impossible odds and rendered almost powerless. They certainly can get into physical fights, but that’s far from all they are.

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Babydoll in ‘Sucker Punch’. [Credit: Warner Bros].
Animorphs has fantastic female characters, and I’d love to see Snyder’s take on them. From Rachel, the smart, talented, beautiful golden girl who got thrown into a war and learned she liked it to Cassie, the perceptive, kind, manipulative killer that hated all the violence but was nonetheless more dangerous than Rachel the Blood Knight to Eva, the mother that calmly walked right back into slavery because it was either that or risk open war that would kill billions of people when her slaver was no longer in power, the female characters were just as fully realized as the male.

Deconstruction of Conventions

Animorphs embraces a lot of dark topics. It’s a complete deconstruction of everything you’d expect from a kids’ series about aliens and saving the world. It’s also hysterically funny – made doubly so by how ridiculously nineties it is – with an underlying theme of hope. One book featured the lead characters staging an incompetent rescue of an android from a mall using a Bill Clinton mask, a misspelled sandwich board sign, a lava lamp, and Tommy Hilfiger underwear. One of the books was an extended reference to Yeats’s The Second Coming. The entire series is very reminiscent of Kafka. The last book was dedicated to the aftermath of a three year war and the ways in which the characters recovered – and didn’t – from the trauma of being child soldiers. It refuses to ever be pigeonholed as just one thing. It’s a science fiction war story about slavery and morality that’s told as the story of a bunch of idiot kids trying to save the world.

Snyder is fantastic at deconstructing tropes. Batman v Superman is a political drama on top of an action movie with superheroes. He has directed all sorts of cool, kind of trippy takes on classic genres. I wrote about how Batman v Superman and Man of Steel deconstructed the superhero genre here, and I think the ways in which it does are similar to the ways in which Animorphs deconstructs the sci-fi adventure genre. If Animorphs were better known, I’m sure a lot of people would decry it as “grim-dark”, like they did with BvS. It’s not. It’s grounded. It’s not dark for the sake of being dark, it’s dark because it’s a war story. And Snyder could do it justice better than anyone else.

Implementation

Animorphs shouldn’t be compressed into just one movie. It would need a series to do it justice. If I had to choose just one book for Snyder to adapt, though, I’d have to go with a combination of The Andalite Chronicles and The Hork-Bajir Chronicles, two of the prequels to the main series.  I’d have to sacrifice his take on the main protagonists of the series, but the Chronicles are some of my very favourite books in the series, and it would suit his directing very well.

These two books are set on multiple different planets, which would make full use of his skill with world building. They have a wide range of characters from different backgrounds – the idealistic scientist whose greatest wish was for the sentient species of the universe to explore the stars together; the person who had never known war or violence but found himself forced in the position of leading an army to defend his people’s freedom; the jaded, cynical warrior that had lost friends and becoming willing to do whatever it took to win.

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Krypton, depicted in ‘Man of Steel’. [Credit: Warner Bros].
Ethical issues galore, the difficulty of doing the right thing, complicated and well developed character dynamics – these two books capture a lot of the essence of what Animorphs is while being more self contained than any part of the main series.

Animorphs the book series was geared towards children, just like the TV show. But if a movie were to be made, and made accurately, it couldn’t be. I love the books, but even so, they probably traumatized me for life. There’s a scene in one of them where one of the characters loses an arm, then uses said arm as a club. The first book opens with an alien being eaten alive. Those are things you can apparently get away with in books. Not so in film. So even if Snyder – or any director that would commit to an accurate adaptation – were interested, it seems highly unlikely that any studio would go for an R-rated adaptation of a children’s series.

If more people gave Animorphs a chance, they’d love it. These books are dark. They never, ever shy away from discussing trauma. They’re so clearly an anti-war message that deals with slavery and the ethics of combat and intergalactic politics. But they’re also hilariousEven today, years after I read them for the first time, when I reread them, I still laugh, because the teammate is a slacker who mainly paid attention to girls and sports while in class and loves cinnamon buns and soap operas and caused a scene in a movie theatre because he’d never eaten chocolate before. A Snyder adaptation of it would open a lot of people’s eyes to how fantastic a series it is.

Zack Snyder is a perfect fit for an Animorphs movie because of his grasp on how to present philosophical ideas, his distinctive style, and his treatment of women. This movie will probably never happen, but if it did, it would have the potential to be one of the best science-fiction adaptations ever made.