‘Animorphs’ and the Difficulties of Adaptations

Several weeks ago now, Michael Grant, the co-author of Animorphs, Tweeted something intriguing. At that point, I did not have the time to talk about it, and it soon became overshadowed by lots of other stuff, but now we have actual news to talk about!

Grant’s initial Tweet indicated that progress is being made towards an Animorphs movie. As of several days ago now, we have actual confirmation that one is in the works. I am somewhat skeptical.

As everyone that knows me knows, Animorphs is kind of my favourite thing ever. So I would love nothing more than for there to finally be an adaptation. But rumours of an Animorphs movie are not new. At all. This has been rumoured for years. and nothing has ever come of it. Even though this is much more substantial and promising than all the other rumours – Grant and Applegate have acknowledged it, the producers have made a statement – I’ve been burned before. As you probably all know from my other posts, I’m a DC fan. As a DC fan, I can’t help but remember the Cyborg, Nightwing, and Batgirl movies that we were told were in the works. I can’t help but remember the Flash movie that went through multiple directors, scripts, and release dates, but is still nowhere in sight. So I’m going to be unconvinced until we have actual evidence of a script/casting/filming. However, as skeptical as I am that this movie will come to fruition, I’m also way less cynical about the quality than pretty much everyone I’ve seen talking about this.

I saw one person argue something along the lines of, “did you learn nothing from the TV show and the botched Artemis Fowl movie”, and I think that’s a ridiculous stance to have. That’s the question you ask once they’ve actually done something. They have not. So to ask it now is basically making the argument that the problem with the TV show and the Artemis Fowl movie was that they made an adaptation, not how they made it. That is not true. The problem with Artemis Fowl being turned into a movie wasn’t that it was done. The problem with AniTV wasn’t that it was made. The problem is that these things were done without respect for what the stories they’re purportedly based on are about.

When I was younger, I absolutely loved Artemis Fowl. Because of that, I am absolutely certain a movie based on it could have been both excellent and accurate. The problem wasn’t the source material being too hard to adapt. They didn’t have a shortage of money – the budget was over a hundred million dollars! The problem was a complete lack of regard for what they were adapting. Creative changes are one thing. A movie where if you change the names, no one would have any idea what it was is another. Artemis Fowl is a story about a twelve year old villain protagonist doing bad things, making friends, and begrudgingly becoming a better person. Artemis Fowl the movie…well. I normally try to hold off on judgement until I watch something. But having seen the trailer, summaries, and reactions from people whose judgement I trust? It was none of those things the books were. That was entirely unnecessary. The people behind the Animorphs movie will very easily be able to get around this simply by caring about the content of the story.

The problem with the TV show is trickier because it was bad writing hindered further by just how many constraints they had that they didn’t know how to get around. Some of those constraints are inherent to the work, which I’ll get back to, but the bad writing absolutely is not, and nor are other constraints, like the shoestring budget. When making the show, they had one Hork-Bajir costume, had to replay the same stock footage of animals over and over again, and as I understand it couldn’t even afford to have all the cast in the same episode. Of course it wasn’t going to look great! There are ways to get around that, even if this movie has the same nonexistent budget. Definitely if there’s better writing involved.

Now. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Animorphs is an incredibly difficult work to adapt. But that’s not because of the budget or visual effects or any such thing, but because the only reason it can be the story it is is because it was a long running series of children’s books. The length of the series helped convey the passage of time that’s essential to the narrative. That they were children’s books made this violent story about war accessible to children in a way that a show that faithfully adapted all those elements would not be, and enabled the story to be focused on children, as the themes demanded. Ethical dilemmas and the horrors of war were the cornerstones of the series. Converting that to a visual medium is no easy task. Anyone making an Animorphs adaptation must face a choice – tone down the graphic violence and themes to present a somewhat sanitized story, stripped of its horror elements, that’s far less bluntly about war and ethics…or present what’s in the text and in doing so, create an adaptation that’s inaccessible to the target audience. Either option is pretty bad, and not just because doing the first would miss the point, and doing the second is unfair. They’re bad options because they wouldn’t work to get more people to watch it.

If you make a lighter, softer Animorphs story, that’s basically the TV show. And it would not work for anyone. Animorphs is very funny, but it works because the humour and horror/tragedy are allowed to breathe on their own, rather than constantly breaking the tension of serious moments with dumb jokes, and changing that would mean losing what makes the story unique. Existing fans would hate it. Adults wouldn’t be into it because when you lose the heavy thematic stuff, you have a show about kids for kids when adults prefer material about adults. Even kids probably wouldn’t be into it because it’s based on a series that really isn’t that culturally relevant and most kids in the target demographic today probably haven’t read it. When I was reading them, well after all the books had been released, they were ubiquitous in classrooms and libraries, but they were never in complete sets, it was hard to track them all down, and I never knew anyone else that read them. Now? I taught chess classes for a bit in March in a second grade classroom, and I never saw any Animorphs on their bookshelves. Makes me very skeptical that kids are still reading them. Therefore, in order to get kids interested, I’m thinking they’d need to do much more than lean on the “kids turning into animals” angle. That clearly wasn’t even working when I was younger, judging by how I never knew anyone else that read them. So no nostalgia factor, no slam dunk in terms of the hook, meaning the people behind it will have to make sure it’s actually a good and unique story. Lighter and softer is not that.

Similarly, if they were to decide, hey, kids these days don’t read these and so we need to target adults other than the nostalgic ones, let’s do that by making this a hard R horror, it wouldn’t actually work. To explain why, let me use the example of the Animorphology podcast that, despite my general disdain for podcasts, have been listening to since they first started. The host that did not read the books as a child talks quite frequently about how she wishes the adults in the story had a bigger role. When answering a listener question about how the series would be different if targeted at adults, she started talking about how the characters would be older and there’d be more romance and sex, before realizing that the question had been if the series were targeted at adults, not about adults. Then she made the case that it wouldn’t have been written for adults, because adults don’t often want to read books about children. So doing the typical gritty reboot – aging up characters until they’re high school or college age, adding gratuitous sex and cursing, leaning into the violence and gore would probably not appeal to adults, who can look it up and see that it’s based on a series of children’s books. An that’s on top of how it would lock out the audience that it’s meant for.

But none of this means it can’t be done, because fortunately, it’s not a binary choice. It’s a scale. There are ways around what makes it difficult. The movie can be scary and dark without making it rated R. Lean into the psychological horror of it – scary without gore, or at least, less gore. Show the aftermath of the violence, rather than Cassie ripping out someone’s throat with her teeth. It can very much be done. It will be enormously difficult. But it is possible. It just needs some creativity.

Another argument I’ve seen is that it has to be animated to work, and while that seems a more fair argument to me, I also don’t think that would solve any of the core issues of making an Animorphs movie/show. I don’t know enough about the industry to say this with any degree of certainty, but an animated adaptation seems likely to be just as expensive and even more time consuming than a live action one. It could theoretically look better than a live action one, but that’s certainly not a fact. There would be studio interference and pressure to tone it down there as well – probably even more so, because animation is so often targeted towards young children. Most importantly, animation would get caught up in what I argued earlier is the core dilemma of an Animorphs adaptation: faithfulness to the theme. So how exactly would animation be a better way to handle it?

Animation can be good. It can be beautiful. It can be powerful. But by necessity, it absolutely brings in a distance. By its very nature, it would be a somewhat sanitized version of the story, because an animated person losing a hand – the Animorphs cut off a lot of hands – is much less gruesome than a non-animated person. I’m sure an animated Animorphs adaptation would be good. But I’m not at all convinced it would be better than live action. In fact, I think my main reservation to a live action movie is…a movie, animated or otherwise, is not the best format for Animorphs. That is, for the core series.

As I’ve been saying for years now, I think the best possible way to handle this would be to make The Hork Bajir Chronicles and The Andalite Chronicles a two part movie series, and follow up with a TV show with the series if the movies are successful. Those two novels are the most self contained stories within the series, while also leading into each other and the main series. Given that it’s the main series that’s going to be adapted – judging by what the article breaking the news said about how the producers are excited to be bringing the Animorphs (as characters, not a series) alive for a new generation – there are just a few pitfalls they have to avoid, because as I’m saying, this is going to be hard for them.

  1. Aging up the characters for the sake of appealing to an older audience/avoiding having to make a story about child soldiers
  2. Toning down the dark themes
  3. Cramming too much into a single movie

If they do any of these things, they’ve already lost. There are other areas that probably aren’t automatic losses, but are dangerous enough to best be avoided, too – for example, updating the story from the nineties to present day is unlikely to make it more relatable or appealing and very likely to introduce many, many problems that would turn the story into a complete idiot plot where it’s entirely luck that keeps the good guys alive. And these are just the things the powers that be can control – they also have to find good child actors.

The Animorphs fandom is a little strange sometimes. We love these books, but we also often come across as embarrassed by them. We leap to talk about how the writing is simplistic or poorly paced or any number of such criticisms just to make it clear to whoever we’re talking to that we know they’re children’s books. And they are. But that in no way means that they’re bad. I don’t think the writing is all that simplistic, either. These are amazing books that we love for a reason, that are amazing even with so many things working against it – they came out at a pace of a book a month as a means to sell merchandise to children. They’re the epitome of trashy sci-fi, and they’re glorious. So while the movie might be terrible…here’s to holding out hope that it follows in the books’ footsteps and is awesome, instead.

‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, ‘Game of Thrones’, and Arianne Martell: How Arianne’s Absence Explains Why The Story Needs Her

Now. I showed up to the whole A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones thing about ten years late. That may make me unqualified to talk much about it. But earlier this year, I read all the books and watched all eight seasons in the span of, like, three weeks, which has the benefit of leaving everything very clear in my mind. So I really want to talk a bit about how huge of an impact Arianne has, even though she didn’t show up until the fourth book.

From what I understand, there was a huge outcry over Arianne’s absence from the show. As there should have been – she’s fantastic. And the irony in excluding not only the character whose greatest fear was that her father intended to disinherit her in favour of her brother but said brother as well, only to make the sibling that has the greatest place in the narrative the youngest one, whose only contribution in the books that have been released so far has been to play board games with his fiancée and cry one time…well, it’s painful. But excluding her had ripple effects throughout the entire plot, even well after the show wrapped up their version of the Dornish storyline.

The problem with excluding her goes beyond just Arianne, of course – equal primogeniture isn’t just a world building detail included for the sake of the plot, it’s the beating heart of the Dornish narrative, just as much as Arianne herself is. The House Martell of the days in which the main story takes place was cofounded by a woman, with her name passed down to her descendents. It was a woman that ruled Dorne when they resisted Aegon’s Conquest. It was a woman who arranged her daughter’s marriage to the future King of the Seven Kingdoms. From the cofounder of House Nymeros Martell all the way down to Arianne, nearly all of the most important, in a historical sense, members of this family – and nation state –  are women. Game of Thrones completely disregarded all of that.

The show did more than just remove Arianne. It entirely gutted Dornish culture by changing references to Oberyn, Doran, and Elia’s mother – the ruling princess of Dorne in her own right – to being about their father. It made Doran’s heir a son, rather than a daughter. In the final season, they had the new ruler of Dorne be some random man. There was no reason to do any of those things – hell, there was less than no reason. Because the women in the Dornish story matter. The Unnamed Princess of Dorne is important. As a political player she was enormously effective! Tywin Lannister’s victories were a result of brutality – the Reynes and Tarbecks, Elia and her children. The Princess of Dorne’s were a result of politics, not war crimes. All of this is a major part of the political state of Westeros at the start of the series.

So why does this matter and how is it relevant to Arianne and the rest of the story? It matters because of what the story is missing without her: without Arianne, the story doesn’t have a woman that is her father’s heir at the same time as she lives in a sexist world. It doesn’t have someone who has a functional relationship with a parent, not because that parent did everything perfectly, but because they both worked to fix it and start being honest each other. It just doesn’t have the adult woman that’s an unambiguously good person taking on a leadership role.

The age changes and casting of older actors obfuscate the issue. But in the books, there are clear distinctions between the adults and the children. Sure, there’s some gradation – the few years between Margaery and Sansa matter, Brienne isn’t a child anymore but she’s still young, and so on – but you can easily categorize the characters into child and adult. And after Catelyn’s death, the two main adult women in the story are Arianne and Cersei (I know Asha probably counts, given that she’s had more chapters than Arianne, whom I’m counting, but still, she bores the hell out of me, so I’m ignoring her for now). What makes that powerful is that they are absolutely two sides of the same coin. Arianne is a better foil for Cersei than any other character could ever be.

Neither of them are fighters in the physical sense. They both crave their father’s approval. They were both extremely close to their fathers as children, only to grow away from them as they grew up. They’re both ambitious and intelligent. But while Cersei wants Tywin’s approval for the sake of Casterly Rock and her inheritance as his eldest chlid, Arianne wants Dorne largely because it’s representative of Doran’s love. Tywin had a “secret smile” for Cersei when she was a child, and Doran has one for Arianne when she’s an adult. Cersei never repaired her relationship with Tywin, while Arianne did with Doran. Hell, even their respective relationship with two of Cersei’s children demonstrates their differences – Tommen is afraid of Cersei, but Myrcella adores Arianne. These are characters whose stories parallel each other with the arguably primary difference being…Arianne doesn’t alienate everyone around her by being a dick.

The show doesn’t have that character that can balance Cersei. Not after Catelyn’s death. And because of that, there’s no one to drive home the idea that as understandable as Cersei’s misanthropy is from  a woman in a patriarchal society, it’s not excusable. Arianne is in a similar position, but manages to still care about other people. She demonstrates better than any other character that none of Cersei’s character traits are inherently wrong. She also uses sex to manipulate, but with much better goals and not without getting emotionally invested in return. She has just as much ambition and determination to prove herself, but she believes firmly that there are lines that she should not cross – she wants to be a good ruler, not just a ruler. Cersei claims, both to other people and to herself, that it’s about self defence and defence of her children. That’s not entirely a lie. But it’s also demonstrably not the entire truth because of how she refuses to actually return to the Westerlands and do her job as the Lady of Casterly Rock, how she flat out refuses to let Tommen learn the things he needs to learn, how her love for Joffrey came at the expense of her other children in very real ways.

The problem with society’s treatment of women, as the show presents it, is that they don’t have the right to rule. It doesn’t actually show that, though, because even though we don’t see any of the female heads of houses, by season eight, no one actually raises any objections to women as heads of houses. But through erasing Arianne and Dornish equal primogeniture, they erased both the complexity and the precedent for accepting women leaders, which results in that casual acceptance of Sansa, Yara, and the like not actually making much sense. Either there were cultural obstacles that needed to be overcome or there weren’t. But the writers tried to have it both ways, which was incoherent.

The thing is…no one actually cares if women rule as regents. Not really. Whether it be Lysa in charge of the Vale after her husband’s death or how Ned intended for Catelyn to govern at Winterfell in his stead while he was off in King’s Landing until Robb was older, it’s not an unusual position for women to be in. Women do have some degree of political power here. The real issue isn’t that they have no rights. It’s a two fold problem – first of all, it’s about how men are prioritized in terms of inheritance. And secondly, it’s about how the control that women have is usually fragile and unsustainable.

Ned left Cat in charge. But when war broke out, Robb was the one that took command. When Robb drafted his will, he pushed Sansa down in the line of succession in favour of Jon, who had specifically taken an oath not to inherit anything. Even though Cersei is queen regent, Jaime has the power to dispace her and send her back to Casterly Rock, pretty much because he’s a man. And that doesn’t even get into how she became the Lady of Casterly Rock by default – Tywin was dead, Tyrion was on the run after killing him, Jaime was in the Kingsguard. Arianne calls attention to that women’s fragile and unsustanaible power by having her story start off as explicitly about it.

Arianne is in the best possible position for a woman anywhere in Westeros. She’s Dornish and an eldest daughter, meaning she can inherit; she’s the daughter of the ruling prince of Dorne; and she’s beloved by her people. She stands to become one of the most powerful people on the continent. But she’s still a woman in Westeros, and since she’s not stupid and can see how other women are being treated in the world…she is rightfully scared of being cast aside for Quentyn! Getting Dorne isn’t just about a castle and power for her, it’s about safety. Women do not have a lot of options in Westeros. Arianne losing her inheritance means she loses her power. It means she could be pushed into an unwanted marriage. She could end up like Lysa, married to an old man, or Cersei, to an abusive one, and she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The character whose story is closest to Arianne’s is Sam, what with his father passing over him in favour of his younger brother. And because he’s male, there are clear differences. Sam could go to the Night’s Watch. If he really wanted to, he could have fled and gone anywhere else, while remaining reasonably safe by virtue of being a man. Arianne could…what, join the Faith? Her options are a lot more limited.

Arianne being Dornish puts her in a better position than anyone else. With just about everywhere else, even if a woman is her father’s heir, she only rules in her own name if she’s not married. Otherwise, her husband is in control of her lands. That was the reason Robb passed over Sansa in the line of succession, after all – he didn’t want Tyrion to get Winterfell. The fact that Arianne is Dornish means that that doesn’t hold true for her. Her inheritance is hers. So long as she actually gets it. If she doesn’t, she’s just as trapped as any other woman. As I said before, Dorne represents to Arianne her father’s love. That’s true, and it’s the forefront thought in her mind. But there are practical reasons for that fear as well.

Arianne very much does have the skillset required to govern. She dismisses her purview as “feasts and frolics”, and longs to be responsible for taxes, hearing out petitioners, but her perception of that is largely a confirmation bias. The letter Doran wrote – which he almost certainly never sent, but that’s a different story – made her view everything as evidence that her father didn’t love her and wanted to circumvent her to make Quentyn heir. But organizing feasts and coordinating visitors is no small task. It requires a lot of work and planning, as well as knowledge of all the guests. It’s not a bad use of Arianne’s strengths, but she can’t see that because she’s too worried that it means she’s being cast aside.

She’s not one of one to think too highly of herself and her abilities. If anything, Arianne has a tendency to downplay her own skills. She doesn’t seem to realize how valuable her ability to convince is. Myrcella will do pretty much anything she asks. She got Cedra on her side while literally imprisoned in a tower using nothing but words. She managed to calm down an angry Obara that had just stormed out of a feast. These aren’t small feats, they’re big – the second didn’t pan out for her, but the first and last? Those are what salvaged Doran’s plan and stopped him from crashing and burning. From the moment he told her the truth, Arianne and Doran became a team. And unlike Robb with Catelyn or Tywin with Cersei,  Doran knows damn well how to use his daughter’s strengths.

She’s patient, she’s loving, she is remarkably talented at convincing people to follow her. She is capable of more than she realizes, and she demonstrates better than any other character the power of women and the skills a good leader has. It’s not Dany. It’s not Sansa. It’s not Cersei. It’s Arianne with the collection of traits, learned and innate both, that would make her an amazing ruler. She has the experience with organization, what with her work in event planning. She’s spectacular at making friends and is beloved by the Dornish. She understands people and knows how they think. She’s patient enough to wait for more information before acting. She knows intuitively when she should make decisions and when she should defer to people with greater expertise in the subject area. Erasing her, and the competence of her Sand Snake cousins, is harmful.

Not only does Arianne herself provide the example of a woman ruling in her own right, her entire story revolves around women in power. She wants to lay the groundwork for people accepting a woman on the Iron Throne by championing Myrcella’s claim. Tyene gave her the idea for that in the first place. Her cousin Nymeria is going to represent Dornish interests in King’s Landing by claiming their council seat. And to top it all off, Arianne will represent Dorne by going to parlay with Aegon herself. The show cut all of that. And what does that do? Well…it brushes aside the hows of the matter, ignoring all the ways in which characters would have to fight and plan to get what they need and want. It’s like what they did with Sansa and the Vale. In the show, she didn’t make friends or anything, the only reason she could get their army to ride to her defence was that Littlefinger was obsessed with her! It’s a cop out written by people that value military power more than diplomacy.

Women in power is an actual theme in the story, not just something tangential. But the show doesn’t explore that in any depth. It cut out mostly everything about Maege Mormont, including her elder daughters. It ignored the fact that Brienne is her father’s only heir and the implications of that in terms of marriage. It disregarded how Jaime and Kevan both planned to set Cersei aside and had every reason to believe it was possible because they were men. All these are different facets of the same issue of the role of women in politics that’s anchored by Arianne, whose story is specifically and explicitly about institutional sexism. And it leaves all these moments that the Game of Thrones writers seemed to want to mean something feeling very hollow.

Brienne as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard was supposed to be a triumphant moment. Most of the criticism I’ve seen towards it has been about how it would have been more satisfying for her to be on Sansa’s Queensguard, but I think that also misses the point – either way, she’s committed to a life as a glorified bodyguard rather than taking on her own leadership role. There’s no character growth there. Sure, she was knighted and had her value acknowledged, but she’s still pledging her life for other people’s as from the moment we met her. She never had to face the same kind of challenges she did in the books, so she ended the story with the same beliefs as she started it with.

For Benioff and Weiss, no one mattered except the lead characters, and that leaves a much flatter story – the Dornish characters’ actual goals don’t matter, just how they can be vilified or turned into Dany’s sidekicks. Brienne’s conflicted feelings on what she wants out of life and longing for love don’t matter, she’s just there to support the Starks, even though the only Stark with whom she had more than a one sided relationship where she contributed for nothing in return was Catelyn. She had no relationship at all with Bran. Her relationship with Sansa was basically just one between an employer and an employee. So after Catelyn, the show’s dynamic between a sworn shield and the person they swore to protect became just…servitude. Nothing complicated or two sided. Which is again, something Arianne could contribute to expressing beautifully, because of how much more nuanced her relationship is with her sworn shield.

Daemon loves her. He’s sworn to protect her. But he also has his own shit going on, his own sense of right and wrong, and he is not a blind sidekick. His life is about more than just slavish devotion and pining. He’s allowed to have wants and needs of his own, which show Brienne is really never afforded. And he challenges Arianne, tells her things she doesn’t want to think about, has close relationships with her cousins – it’s not quite that their relationship is one of equals, because that’s overly simplistic, but they’re on the same level. She trusts him. She neither wants nor expects a voiceless protector, she wants an advisor, and that’s what he is.

So why is Arianne’s relationship with Daemon important to lending insight to Brienne’s position, you ask? Why not just actually express some more complexity in Brienne’s arc without it? Well…because she shares similariites with them both while also being in a very different position than either of them. Let’s start with Daemon. Daemon was very close to Oberyn, and is still close to Oberyn’s daughters. House Martell is extremely important to him, even outside of his relationship with Arianne. And he’s a bastard born to a father with trueborn children. So him swearing his sword to his princess…well, it makes a lot of sense for a man who has clearly been shown to make his own decisions. It’s an extremely respected vocation for someone that won’t inherit; it means that he has the ear of the most powerful people in his homeland; and it lets him be close to the woman he loves. Brienne, though, she’s her father’s heir. She has her own responsibilities that she will, at some point, have to return to. She swore herself to Renly, she swore herself to Catelyn, she’s practically killing herself trying to fulfil her oaths, and sooner or later, she’ll need to question whether she’s like Daemon or not. Whether being a bodyguard is really what she wants out of life. And if she decides no, the contrast between her and Daemon can make it clear just why that decision makes sense. Which in turn allows for contrasting her with another female heir – Arianne.

If Brienne’s story is in equal parts about womanhood and knighthood, Cersei’s story is about power and motherhood, Sansa and Arya’s stories are about growing up…Arianne’s is about family and choice. And those are themes that are present to a greater or lesser degree everywhere else in the story. And by ignoring how central Arianne is to those themes, we have many of the same events, but no themetic coherence linking them all together in a way that makes sense.

The scene where Cersei argues with Tywin about remarrying is in the show, and that version is phenomenal. I would never deny that. Lena Heady killed it. But it fell so flat compared to the books because of the lack of context – how Tywin considered marrying Cersei to a Greyjoy and shipping her off to the Iron Islands. How Brienne’s third betrothal was to a man thrice her age who told her outright he intended to beat her. How Lysa underwent a forced abortion and was married off to an old man. How one of the things Arianne takes as evidence of her father’s lack of love for her is the insulting suitors she’s offered – old men without teeth – and the way Doran actively refused offers from younger men. Arianne’s story is extremely explicit about all of this and why it matters! In the eyes of teenage Arianne, not only does Doran not want her to succeed him, he doesn’t want her to marry anyone powerful or important – refused to let her meet Edmure Tully and Willas Tyrell – or even that loves her – refused Daemon Sand her hand. She becomes the connective tissue between all these women facing marriages they don’t want. It’s not just cruel women or ugly women or weird women; it’s not just a consequence of a time of war. It’s misogyny, plain and simple.

An argument that I remember seeing for years before I started reading the books or watching the show was about who has it “worse”, feminine women or masculine women, especially through the lens of Sansa and Arya. And that’s just so reductive. It’s the gross argument that there’s a way for women to win, that misogyny only applies to some women, that others have it easier. That’s not true at all! And it relies on viewing “masculine” and “feminine” as two diametrically opposed things. In this case, I think the obvious non-Arianne example is, again, Brienne.

The show erased a lot about Brienne’s character, and the most important part, I think, is just how much of her story involves love and romance. Her loyalty is incredibly easy to win, to the point where all it takes is the slightest kindness. When it comes to what we know of her past, it’s pretty much all to do with romance – her failed betrothals, how she’d been in love with Renly from pretty much the moment they met, the people in Renly’s camp that courted her for a bet. We don’t know when she first picked up a sword or why. We barely know anything about the kind of man her father was other than what we can infer. But we know about her romantic history, because it’s that important. Even into the present, we see her relationship with a man that wants to marry her for her island and the way Jaime takes over from Renly in her thoughts, we see how her initial swearing herself to Renly had more to do with being in love with him than it did anything else. It’s not possible to remove the romantic element from her story. Her story is every bit as much about womanhood as it is knighthood. Arianne is the other side of that, just as she is the other side of Cersei. Where Brienne’s story revolves around romantic love, Arianne’s is about familial. Yes, she has love interests that matter to her, but they’re not nearly as important as Doran, Quentyn, the Sand Snakes, and that makes her just as important as Brienne in terms of preventing the story from splitting the women into “masculine” and “feminine” categories.

She’s the beautiful woman that wears silk and jewels that’s also very much a believer in dressing practically for whatever the task at hand is, wearing a veil to keep the sand out of her eyes and mouth. She’s not a fighter, but she knows the desert as well as Darkstar, keeps the knife gifted to her by her cousin in her boot, and is a skilled enough horsewoman to be able to vault onto her horse when she’s exhausted after a long day of hard riding. She’s the femme fatale that’s in complete control of that as a role she plays. She’s actively involved in wartime negotiations in a way that no woman has been since Catelyn. She’s both the former teen rebel and the dutiful daughter, loved by bastards and nobles alike. She’s vividly real, and she makes the story so much better through her presence.

In the released books, Arianne has two chapters from her point of view. That’s nothing! That’s fewer than Quentyn! I was talking to a friend pretty soon after I finished reading the books, and our conversation went to House Martell and the different roles the members of the family play in the overall story. It had been several years since she had last read them, and she was shocked to realize that Quentyn had more chapters from his perspective than Arianne. Arianne’s impact is so much that she feels so much bigger than she is. She’s so human that it’s hard to look away.

She’s logical and dutiful, but she often thinks with her heart instead of her head. She’s smart, but still has a lot to learn in terms of carrying out plans in a non-controlled environment. That combination of innate intelligence, knowledge, and experience makes her perspective completely unique in the story. No one, not one person, can fill that void, no matter how many similarities to her they have.

Take Cersei. Cersei isn’t stupid! She’s not. But she is kind of inept. She doesn’t pursue knowledge. She doesn’t try to learn more. She makes dumb decision after dumb decision because she acts without thinking; she doesn’t actually learn when they blow up in her face; and she doesn’t at all understand why, beyond run of the mill misogyny and her conviction that she’s smarter than everyone, people would prefer to have Tywin or Jaime in charge. That’s very different from how Arianne watches and waits and gathers information for as long as she possibly can before she does anything, how she’s politically savvy enough to understand why Lord Yronwood would prefer Quentyn as Prince of Dorne to her and wrap that into her understanding of the situation. Yes, Arianne reached the wrong conclusion. But it was a very understandable conclusion to draw from the information that she had. And because Arianne is the type of person taht’s actually capable of learning from her mistakes, experience is helping her make better decisions and better conclusions. She and Cersei are both smart, ambitious women with issues with their fathers, but Cersei could never make her redundant. That same thing holds true for every other character.

People are always talking about how smart Tyrion is, right? But the issue there is…he thinks he’s smarter than he is. He is incapable of keeping his mouth shut when it would be the smart choice. He has to have people know how smart he is. Arianne’s intelligence doesn’t stem from a classroom. It comes from observing and experiencing, erring and fixing it. What she does is provide insight on just about every other female character in the story. She adds depth to the narrative and fills in the gaps so that the themes are fully articulated, rather than just disconnected pieces of a motif. She’s who many of the younger women could one day grow up to be. She has Sansa’s femininity and compassion, demonstrating what an adult Sansa could be like. She has Arya’s frustrations with a father that doesn’t give her the same freedoms she knows other people have. She has Cersei’s ambition, but more kindness.

The show felt hollow at many points for many, many reasons. One of those reasons was the lack of Arianne Martell. She unapologetically takes up space. She doesn’t ever try to shift blame onto other people. She’s harder on herself than anyone else could ever be. And she forces everyone else to face the fact that she matters, that people from other houses and other parts of the continent are important. It’s not just the Starks, Targaryens, and Lannisters that are important; it’s not just characters that have been around since the first book. The themes that are supposedly expressed fall flat without her.

My Frustrations With A Lot Of Speculative Fiction

So, I finally gave in and read A Song of Ice and Fire. This has been a long time pending. I remember I was introduced to the books at a Christmas party in 2011. I…didn’t actually finish them then. But I have now! And I really enjoyed them! I have some issues, but on the whole, they were very enjoyable. Enough to get me to watch and finish the show. Unfortunately, that kind of made me aware of some other issues that I have, both with the books and the show. They’re issues of personal taste, not anything objective, but when I think about them, they’re the same reason so much stuff lately has been hard for me to get through, why that genre that I once loved and still do enjoy isn’t satisfying me anymore the way it once did: the trend towards huge, expansive universes rather than completing actual stories is too much for me.

I like tightly plotted works. I like focus, I like conservation of detail. I like to follow the trail of cause and effect. When it comes to most genres, people would agree with me – excess detail in thrillers or crime novels is unappealing because it slows down the pace. Excess detail and tangents in romances would often be deemed pointless purple prose. But when it comes to fantasy? It’s almost the opposite. Fantasy novels are expected to be sprawling, on an epic scale, with details about every character we ever meet or every place the characters ever go. Like so much else to do with modern fantasy, this began with Tolkien. And my only reaction is…why? Of all the possible ways to be inspired by Tolkien’s work, why did this one have to stick around so much?

I like world building as much as the next person. But a story is more than that. Quite frankly, I think in most cases, it’s overrated. It takes away from characterization and plot development. And while both things can and should exist together and enhance each other, my experience has been that few writers balance it well, instead focusing on the world building to the detriment of everything else. That’s true when it comes to fantasy, that’s true when it comes to “hard” science fiction. Writers are so busy showing off how great their imagination is, they just info dump stuff that isn’t relevant to anything at us just to do it. They never use one word when they could use ten and when they think of a phrasing they like, they use it over and over again. It’s getting really tiresome.

One of my main takeaways from A Song of Ice and Fire was that George R. R. Martin needs a better editor. At least someone to remove some evidence of his creepy fucking fetishes that have no reason to be in the story, but preferably someone with the firmness to insist he pare down and stop going on tangents about the food at a feast or the colours and sigils of some minor house we’re never going to see again. Hell, maybe that would help me decide if I actually like his writing or not. Because as much as I enjoy the story, I’m a lot more conflicted about the writing. It alternates between some utter nonsense that seems to confuse verbosity with eloquence, embarrassingly bad sex scenes, and genuinely wonderful pieces like Arya’s delightfully simple and gorgeous reminiscing about how Needle is all she has left of her home and family. For all that it claims to be a political drama in a fantasy setting that explores how war is hell and power corrupts and all that happens is misery for the commoners that don’t care who sits on the throne, that’s diminished by the fact it’s still almost exclusively told through the eyes of the aristocracy. It tells us a lot more than it shows, and it tells a painful amount.

Take the so-called Broken Man Speech. Out of context, it’s fine. It’s good. But put it back in context and it’s like…we don’t ever really see those broken men. Not like the speech describes. We see traumatized people that start to do worse and worse things to survive, but we don’t see the effects of plain old war on regular old people in any way that really matters to me. Think about the commoners we meet. They’re rarely actually portrayed in a positive light, as the victims that they are, and when they are, it’s still through the lens of the nobility. Like…during the riots at King’s Landing. The focus isn’t on the misery of the people starving when the powerful play their games and use innocents, it’s about how their suffering turns them into savages that rape and abuse women tangentially related to the people responsible. Are there antiwar themes in the story? Of course there are. Are there criticisms of the monarchic systems? Sure. Is it ultimately a story about the human relationship with power and its corruptive influence? I think it is. But when it comes to specifically the idea of the impact all these things on the people on the outside of the power struggle, it doesn’t explore them in any real depth. While I’d be willing to accept that that’s not the story this is, the Broken Man speech indicates that that’s what it’s intended to be, and if that’s the case…I really would appreciate getting more attention on it, rather than the same amount that gets devoted to countless things that don’t actually matter. Concise is a good thing. Conservation of detail exists for a reason. Either explore something or don’t. But don’t just talk about everything for the sake of it.

I’ll admit it – I don’t care about the historical members of each house that are only tangentially related to what is going on in the here and now of the story. I don’t care about however many hundreds of thousands of words that he’s dedicated to the history of the Targaryens that aren’t relevant to the story. It’s great that he has so many ideas about his universe. But what does any of that matter if that’s all so big a distraction, he can’t focus on the central story? I’m in favour of writers writing what they want in their own universe. But I also shouldn’t be expected to care about it. Tolkien spent his whole life revising The Silmarillion. But he did finish the key story that was Lord of the Rings.

Martin defies every rule of conservation of detail ever, and honestly…breaking rules is overrated. Holes is one of the greatest novels ever written. I mean that most sincerely. It’s the closest thing to a perfect book that I’ve ever read. And that’s partially because it follows the rules in a way that children’s fiction tends to do better than adult. It’s not about the what, it’s the how. I wish more people took cues from it when it comes to developing plots. It’s less than fifty thousand words long and it uses every single one of those words to full effect. Three interwoven storylines. Beautiful characterization. Criticism of the American justice system. An explanation of the history of Camp Green Lake and how everyone got to the points they did. There is a reason that it’s taught in schools. It goes on exactly as long as it should and not a minute longer. It’s laser focused. It’s elegantly simple. On a technical level, it’s brilliant, and I wish fantasy writers – and people writing for an “adult” audience – took the same approach.

This focus on the details often seems to me to be another way in which writers try to convey maturity in their works. Sex, profanity, violence, and painstaking detail. I get where that idea comes from…but I don’t think it’s very accurate. First of all, there’s no actual reason why there needs to be such a distinction between what is made for children and what is for adults. Many of the best pieces of fiction can be enjoyed by both. The best children’s books are written in blood, after all. Some works, by nature, are best appreciated by people in a given age group. But artificial ways of intentionally catering to one demographic over another…it seems silly to me. I think what’s needed in adult fiction is the mostly same as what’s needed in children’s literature. That includes focus when focus is needed and exploring the impact of darker subject matter, rather than just including it for its own sake.

On a tangentially related note, I am not even remotely interested in constructed languages. That they exist in so many fantasy – and science fiction, I suppose – works is another clear indication of Tolkien’s inescapable influence on the genre, but seriously? All these other writers are not Tolkien. And I don’t mean that in terms of a quality judgement, I mean it in terms of the fact that Tolkien was a linguist. He wasn’t composing these languages to flesh out the world. In many ways, the languages were the world. They mattered. That’s not the case with most other works, because Tolkien, Arrival, others like them – those are exceptions. I watched Game of Thrones and some of the time, I wanted to scream! It took every bit of willpower I had to not just fast forward through the scenes of Daenerys shouting made up words for entire scenes. There are situations in which having the rudiments of a conlang are useful. A few words, grammar rules, and so on. But entire languages gets annoying. It’s detail at the expense of the broader story. It’s the same reason that I don’t enjoy a lot of hard sci fi.

I have a STEM background and I am fascinated by scientific developments. But when it comes to stories, I mostly prefer softer sci fi, because in most cases, I don’t care about the details of how these things work. Especially because science and technology march on. Ten years from now, a meticulously researched piece may turn out to be completely obsolete. Hard sci fi, all the details about how this fictional thing could work, are usually the purview of people that want to demonstrate how smart they are or how much research they’ve done, not tell a story. For me, the best science fiction has to be the kind that uses enough detail that we can accept it’s based on science, rather than a space fantasy – not that there’s anything wrong with space fantasy at all, it’s just not really science fiction in my eyes – but not so much that that becomes the story if it’s not a driving part of the plot. It’s why I liked things like The Martian, with its clear focused man vs. nature conflict, but have a harder time with some other pieces: the focus on the technicalities gets to be too much for me.

I love fantasy. I love science fiction. And I love expansive universes that feel like real, lived in places. But sometimes, I just we could have more stories that end. Plot, characters, voice, tone, themes…those are what interest me most of all about stories. I’d rather have more focus on them to give me a story that gets to a point than one that drags on forever in the name of worldbuilding.

Confessions of a Recovering “Book Person”: The Culture Of Prioritizing Books Over Stories Sucks

Do you remember that time a bunch of white girls on Twitter reacted to Marie Kondo’s gentle suggestion that people only keep books around that mean something to them with an absurdly over the top kind of performative outrage? Yeah. That to me is an extension of the same kind of books-for-aesthetic, turning-one’s-nose-down-at-e-books, stupid-phrases-on-mugs-and-bags-about-books-and-tea nonsense that makes me frustrated about how so many readers don’t seem to actually care about the stories in books as they do the books themselves. It’s a weird snobbery that doesn’t actually make sense.

I have always loved reading. I used to go to the library as often as possible, get large stacks of books, blow through all of them within the next day to a week. And I’d read everything. I didn’t have a preferred genre. I’d read everything from Stephen King to Gordon Korman to Shakespeare, Nancy Drew to Of Mice And Men to Harry PotterBut there was a period – late elementary school through to high school, if I could guess – where I’d shifted away from reading whatever, so long as I enjoyed it, to reading for the sake of impressing others.

When I was in elementary school, I was known for reading. It’s what I did. I always had a book on hand, I read ahead in every book we were assigned for class, I participated in discussions, I always had a book of my own on hand. So I became known as one of the “smart” people. Which is fine. But at some point, I had started internalizing the idea that that was what made me smart or unique. That I was a reader had become a cornerstone of my identity. That, I think we can all agree, was really, really stupid. And it started to manifest in other dumb ways – like the recognizable characteristics of white girl book culture. Whenever I had to annotate something for class, I used sticky notes rather than writing in the book itself (this one I probably would have always done). I pearl-clutched at the thought of ever cutting up a book to use it for an art project or using e-books because it’s not the same! I’d always preferred books to television, and I started to think that demonstrated intellectual superiority. It became a point of pride that any of the classics we had to read were things I’d already read. All these things combined to make reading a lot less enjoyable for me. It was only once I started to push back against them that I started to actually love reading instead of doing it out of habit again.

A friend of mine got me a copy of Good Omens several years ago. But there was something about that edition and the size of the pages that meant I could not get through it. I tried. I’d been told it was great by lots of people, and even if I hadn’t been, it’s a little quirk of mine that if someone buys me a book, I have to read it. But I had to restart more times than I can remember because I just couldn’t process it. It wasn’t until I set aside the hard copy and tried the e-book that I could actually finish and enjoy it. This is reflective of a broader pattern in how I’ve begun to interact with books.

When I was younger, I could read anything quickly and process it immediately. I was one of those people who, when a popular theory or idea was floating around about a series, could say, no, that can’t be because of this thing that was mentioned in passing in book 2 after reading a series once. I’d remember every plot point and character name for years after the fact. One hundred percent not the case anymore. Now I often get halfway through a book – not even a long one – and have to stop myself and think, wait a minute…who is Alice again and how is she related to the main character Bob? For whatever reason, that’s less frequently the case when it comes to e-books. So lately, I’ve been reading a lot more ebooks and a lot fewer hard copies. It does nothing to promote reading to behave as if what matters is the physical book. If I still bought into that, then I’d be reading a lot less than I do, not more.

Books – as in the physical paper and ink – are not sacred objects. They’re not magic. They’re just a container for a story. Are those wonderful? Sure. I do enjoy holding a physical book and the feeling of turning the pages. But books are meant to be read, not sit on shelves to impress people – even when that person is yourself. They’re not a symbol of intellectualism and having more of them lying around doesn’t make you more of a reader than someone else. What matters is the stories inside these objects and that they’re consumed, and e-books help that. Removing books from your shelf that you are never going to actually read or reread to make room for books you will help that.

The idea that the physical books are someone special extends to the holier-than-thou disapproving of people using books for art and the suggestion that doing so is destroying it. But this isn’t the Cultural Revolution or Fahrenheit 451. It’s not censorship. These aren’t books being rendered unreadable so that no one can read them. These books aren’t being destroyed. These are mass produced and widely available. Someone using their copy for something else does nothing to make that book less available for someone else. And sometimes a physical book has to be destroyed! If books don’t sell, they get recycled, and then new books can be made from their remains! Would you rather deforestation progress even faster for the sake of never destroying a book? Five hundred years ago, if a book was destroyed, the world was deprived of that knowledge. That is not even remotely the case anymore. A book being discarded or repurposed into an art project does not mean you’ll never be able to read it. So maybe some people should mind their own business instead of fixating on what other people do. This obsessive attitude about what other people do with stacks of paper, ink, and glue does not make you more of a reader or book lover than anyone else, because books are meant to be enjoyed, not sit on shelves to impress people and/or gather dust.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate books as a physical object. Even aside from novels, I have a possibly embarrassing number comics around, including some repeats with different covers. Sometimes it’s because I love the art and want a hard copy of it. Other times, it’s because I absolutely love the specific story.  And it took me a long time to get to a state where I was okay giving away my copy of a “classic” book I didn’t like without feeling guilty about it. So I’m certainly not one to judge people for keeping books around. I get it. But I think it’s important to self reflect on why you’re doing it. If you don’t enjoy a book or you never finished…doesn’t it show more respect for that book and its contents to pass it onto someone that might actually enjoy it?

I think it’s tied to the obsession over ~classic literature or the meaningless category that is literary fiction. In a lot of cases, it’s not actually about the book itself but the idea of it. While many of these books are very good and have had a lasting influence on their genres, there are a number of others that are heavy handed, sexist, racist, no longer relevant to today’s society, just plain boring, or all of the above at once. There are books published far more recently that are just as well crafted and thematically meaningful, if not more so,  while also being more engaging and interesting that are dismissed for their genre or the fact that they were written in the twenty first century. That’s silly. Books should be enjoyable. There are books today that have just as much value as books from two hundred years ago. There are books with less. There are a lot of books out there, written over the centuries in countless languages, and each one deserves the same chance as others do to be read and loved. By extension, that means that each book can be hated and discarded. It’s a book and an individual’s feelings towards it. People have different feelings about different books. That’s perfectly fine. Stories are subjective, and there is no right answer about what is good and what is bad.

Books are great. And stories are wonderful things, whether that story be in a book or an e-book or a movie. I just really, really wish the focus was more often on the actual story, rather than the form in which it’s consumed or the object containing it. Books aren’t a sign of how smart we are, so maybe we could just enjoy them instead of dictating how others do or preaching the virtues of something to someone that hated it? Pretty please?

The Troubles Of Format: Why The Conventions Of Children’s Literature Worked Against ‘Animorphs’

Animorphs was ever present when I was growing up. They were there in every classroom. Every library, both school and public. They weren’t even out of print yet, because I distinctly remember buying book 4 at Chaptersaside. This is pretty standard for children’s books. I mean, it’s the same thing as Goosebumps or Magic School Bus or Nancy Drew or any number of other series. Despite that, finding copies was really hard. Libraries always had several of them, sure, but never the ones you were looking for. They had, like, books 5, 11, 16, 29, 34, and 41, with none of the others – and no, that’s not me picking random numbers. Those are the Animorphs books I remember being the most in circulation. I don’t think I ever saw a library without 5, but finding 53? Forget it!

Normally, that’s okay. With a lot of children’s books, it really doesn’t matter in what order you read them. Take Nancy Drew. It had no long run plot arcs whatsoever. Each book is self contained. All you need to know is that Nancy is an amateur detective, her friends are Bess and George, and she goes around solving crimes. Those facts are reiterated in every book, and even if they weren’t, it’d be obvious, so there’s absolutely no reason why you’d have to start at the first book and work your way through. I never read  Goosebumps, but the impression I got was that it’s similar. Animorphs, though? That’s unique.

Animorphs is usually episodic. Sure. And pretty much every book gives a recap of the premise and makes sure you know who all the characters are, so most of them will make sense if you read them out of order. But there’s also very much a running plot – or maybe plot isn’t the right idea so much as theme. Throughout the entire series, the focus is on how the Animorphs are dealing with the Yeerks. And there is a lot of character development there. It’s so subtle that you might not even realize it at first – but then, you’ll read a situation that mirrors one from twenty books earlier, and the characters will react in such a different way, that you’ll think, holy shit. You do not get the full force of that if you read them out of order.

Sure, it’ll probably make sense if you don’t. But if you don’t, you’ll miss a lot. If you’re reading the series out of order, you miss the development of these kids from wide eyed idealists being like, “oh, we can hold them off until the Andalites get here!” to hardened veterans that know in their bones “if the Andalites come, it won’t be to help us”. You miss Rachel going from a thirteen year old that gets a thrill out of gymnastics to a genuinely terrifying adrenaline junkie that gets off on violence. You miss Jake going from the thoroughly average kid that ends up in charge pretty much because he’s the one that everyone knows and likes to the teenage military commander of the entire planet that sends other kids to die without blinking. Unfortunately…the format of the series made it almost impossible for members of the target audience to get a hold of them all.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a believer that the structure of the series was hugely beneficial when it comes to telling the story. Applegate’s major strength is how she can pack in the full gamut of human emotion in just over a hundred pages, and the length of the series helped contribute to the impression of a long time passing, as well as helped the slow character development. Fewer, longer books just wouldn’t have had the same effect. However. This was terrible for the reader. Finding the books was hard! I know of at least two people that never read them all, not because they weren’t interested, but because they couldn’t find them, and didn’t know what they’d read and what they hadn’t. Today, you can get them all as ebooks. If there are kids reading them today, they can find them without too much hassle…but the Barnes and Noble website lists each book as four dollars. There are 62 books. That comes out to a lot of money!

It’s an awesome series. I love it with all my heart, as can be evidenced by all my posts tagged Animorphs. I will never not beg people to read them. But wow, was the format a pain for readers.

Aside: I think my memory of the timeline is a bit skewed, because I always say I’ve been a fan since I was eight, but I don’t think the books were still in print at that point, and I feel like I was younger when I bought that book. Maybe eight was when I finally read all of them. Never mind.

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.

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.