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.

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

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

Brilliantly Written Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Format

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thematic Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Inescapable Canadianness of ‘Anne With An E’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting ‘Animorphs’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of ‘Nancy Drew’

The Nancy Drew franchise has lasted decades. There have been countless books in a variety of different series, including a spinoff series about her as a kid. There’s been movies and video games and a TV show. Nancy is an icon, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss why that is.

I know a lot of girls who had a Nancy Drew phase. I didn’t exactly have that, because I kind of skipped over the children’s book section. I read a lot as a kid. I’ve always been a fast reader, and when I was younger, I had a lot more time to do it. I recall being given a boxed set of the books – I think 1 through 55, or something like that – and I blew through them in a week or two. I’d maybe read another on occasion, but for the most part, my “phase” lasted all of about two weeks. I never had a period of time where that was all I was obsessed with. That’s not the kind of book Nancy Drew is. The series doesn’t lend itself to an obsession. Maybe in the, rush to get every book you can get sense, but not in the need to gush with someone about them way. They don’t have interesting and well developed characters. They don’t have deeply emotional scenes. They aren’t where you go if you’re looking for well crafted prose. They’re formulaic. They’re essentially airport novels for kids.

People love series – you don’t have to think about what to read next, you just go down the list. Nancy Drew is one of those long runners people read to take up time, not necessarily because they’re good – even though it does have many devoted readers. But they stuck with me all the same, and that’s because of Nancy and what she represents.

The series resonated and appealed to girls since its conception because it was aspirational. Nancy was eighteen and never had to answer to anybody. She was a female character getting to have adventures with the romantic aspect of it barely even an afterthought. Ned – and the random other guys from when Ned wasn’t around – was her sidekick. Nancy casually dated throughout the series and that was never portrayed as something she shouldn’t do. She and Ned went out a lot, but there wasn’t any kind of commitment. The books were all about her and what she wanted to do.

She always seemed much older when I was reading the books. How could she not? Nancy at eighteen had fewer responsibilities and more freedom than I do now. She was out of school. She was independent, with a level of independence and autonomy kids dream adulthood will bring. Maybe it didn’t make much sense. She was a high school graduate and an amateur detective that never went to college or got a job or even got paid for the cases she solved. We never saw her learning a lot of the skills she had, but she always conveniently could solve every problem. She never cooked or cleaned or paid bills. Her housekeeper did the first two and her father the third. She seemed to just live off her father’s money.

When you read a Nancy Drew book, what you see is what you get. No matter how many times you read it, you won’t find new layers. They’re tailored for children and in a way that means you won’t get much – if anything – new out of it as an adult. Nancy Drew is a character that people grow up past. That’s not necessarily bad – the books have a specific purpose and they fill a specific niche – it just is. She’s a static character. The Nancy in the last book of the original run is the exact same as that in the first. That’s why people always outgrow her. But despite that, you’re not going to find many women out there that say, “oh, Nancy Drew is stupid and childish, kids should be reading better books” the same way people do about a lot of kids’ books. That’s because Nancy isn’t a character so much as she is a cultural icon.

She was a smart, tough woman that rescued herself, and maybe the versions of the books updated in the 50s or 60s washed some of that out and rendered her a more sweet, polite, milquetoast sort of person, they couldn’t erase it completely, because the very premise of the series is a competent woman that can solve crimes better than all the police detectives around. She has a place in history. Generations of girls have read about her and been inspired by her. She’s probably not a character that got many people into reading in the first place. She certainly wasn’t that for me. But at the time of her creation, she was revolutionary. She’s no longer unique, which is great. Modern children’s fiction has a lot more capable and independent female protagonists, many of whom are better written than Nancy ever was. But Nancy was a crucial step in the development of strong female characters in popular fiction, and one of the reasons we can now so easily criticize the idea of a Strong Female CharacterTM by pointing out that being able to do stuff isn’t the same as being a good character – partially because of Nancy, we now have an abundance of capable women, and now the goal is to make them more interesting. She’s not as necessary as she once was, but forgetting her would be like forgetting Anne Shirley, Jo March, or Hester Prynne.

There’s a lot of discussion to be had about the original versions vs the updated, the first run vs the later books and series, like how the original versions of the books were filled with unfortunate stereotypes about people of colour, and the updated versions “fixed” that by just removing all PoC completely, or the previously mentioned shift into sweeter, more accommodating, and less independent territory,  or how Bess and George are usually just portrayed as complete stereotypes rather than characters in their own right. None of that changes the fact that Nancy still matters. Maybe her books aren’t what we want now, and she isn’t the heroine that interests us, but for a long time, she was what we needed.

My 10 Favourite ‘Animorphs’ Books

Between the 54 main storyline books, 4 chronicles, 4 Megamorphs, and the two stupid “choose your own adventure” books where I think just about every choice ended up in you dying, Animorphs had a lot of books. Everyone that has ever spoken to me for more than five minutes probably knows that I love the seriesI often pick one up for a reread because they’re so short you can get through one in like twenty minutes and they make me feel a lot of things in a short amount of time. Picking favourites is all but impossible because there are so many awesome things about nearly all of them. So I made this list by thinking of which ones come to mind when I’m trying to describe why I love the series.

10.  The Reaction (12)

The book that spawned the “Cassie loves hard rock” meme. Also, my personal favourite of the stupid plot books. What’s not to love about a morphing allergy and uncontrollable morphing triggered by Rachel’s anger issues while they try to prevent some teen actor with, as Tobias put it, “Yasmine Bleeth power” from being infested?

This is by far the lightest book on this list and one of the lightest in the whole series. It’s just funny with very few heavy or serious moments, and it always makes me laugh, just because of how rare books like that are in this series. Friendship, hijinks, Xena jokes, Rachel starting to turn into a bear and passing it off as new boots, Rachel turning into an elephant and falling through her house, Marco as a llama, Cassie attacking a crocodile while in squirrel morph, Cassie morphing Rachel, and talk show hosts freaking out.

Note: Cassie being a bad liar that can’t think of anything to say is usually played for laughs, but here, when the word Andalite was barked at her to see if she’d react, she just agreed that “and a light” would be helpful and  kept walking. She claimed she had a hard time controlling Rachel’s morph and that Rachel’s brain kept trying to make her do dumb things, but maybe Rachel’s instincts also helped her lie better?

This book was a zany adventure that’s far closer to the usual use of the Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World trope than the rest of the series. While nearly every book has lighthearted, funny moments, entire plots that are light don’t happen often, making this one hugely refreshing and a nice reprieve from all the darkness.

9. The Pretender (23)

Toby’s intro! Well, not really. That wouldn’t make sense. Her real intro was at the end of Hork-Bajir Chronicles, but seeing as between that book and this one she wasn’t so much as mentioned once, this was where we got to see her as a character for the first time. That automatically gives this book bonus points, because Toby Hamee is freaking awesome. Even more bonus points because it’s a Tobias book, and he has fewer from his perspective than most of the others.

The story goes between trying to rescue a Hork-Bajir child that wandered off, a supposed long lost cousin of Tobias, and his upcoming birthday on which he’ll be read a letter from his father. All the while, Tobias is dealing with the fact that being a hawk is tough. It’s quite an eventful book for him. He uses the fact that he’s forgotten how to emote as a superpower while sitting in a room with someone he knows is Visser Three in morph and learns that Elfangor was his father, and that’s after a whole book of him having a really bad three days.

Lots of action, angst, good fight scenes, and Hork-Bajir. Basically, classic Animorphs.

8. Visser

This wasn’t labelled as one of the Chronicles, even though it essentially was one of them, and I can see why – while the rest of the Chronicles told stories about the past, about how the universe reached the place it was when book 1 (The Invasion) began, this one is told in the present and through flashbacks.

This book provided a lot of insight into the Yeerk Empire and its internal politics. Very cool. It was primarily about Edriss, her past, and her present chess game with Esplin, and all that was great, but what I was struck by more than anything was how badass Marco’s  mom is. Eva was fascinating in this book, because this basically the first time we got to see her.  Not her as filtered through the perception of her son’s memories from when he was eleven. Not her as a helpless little host that needs to be saved. Her as a woman with her own mind and thoughts, her as a smart, competent, experienced individual, her as the other side of the same coin as Edriss. And she’s awesome. 

In an earlier book, we see Chapman, who’s also spent years as a Controller. But where Chapman didn’t resist for his daughter’s sake, stopped paying attention to what was happening to the point where he had forgotten how to control his body when he had his head back, Eva kept fighting. She didn’t need time to figure out how to use her mouth and limbs again, she had control of her body again and immediately started thinking about what she had to do, what the smart thing to do was. This woman sacrificed everything – body and mind and freedom – for the sake of the planet, because she knew her freedom would come at a cost. Eva is the hero of another story.

7. The Attack (26)

Awwww, Jake defeated the Howlers with the power of love. But more than that – he looked at two nigh omnipotent beings and made them blink. You know how the whole series is about child soldiers? This book was about child soldiers coming to face with other child soldiers and deciding that they cannot kill children that don’t comprehend that the killing isn’t a game.

We see Erek again, which is nice. There’s a lot of questioning what it means to be an android that’s barred from violence and the true limitations of that. It’s not the focus – the Chee are minor characters – but it is there. Foreshadowing for later? Probably not intentionally, but interesting all the same. The characters meet the Iskoort, two species – the Isk and the Yoort – in a symbiotic relationship where neither can exist without the other, showing what the Yeerks could be at some point. It never came up again, but still, cool.

It’s a good character piece. Plotwise, it’s not really relevant, seeing as it’s pretty much a one off that doesn’t get referenced at all later, but it’s excellently written, delves into the  same kind of ethical dilemmas and such that Animorphs at its best always does, and has some great moments between the characters.

6. The Solution (22)

Also could be called: Nothing Brings A Team Together Like Plotting The Destruction Of The New Member.

The best written Rachel book, by far. Lots of heavy stuff, but they also ran into a drunk, pantsless G8 leader who I think saluted them while grinning wildly? (There was a recent debate on Tumblr over whether that was supposed to be Boris Yeltsin or Vladmir Putin. Help us out, KAA). Back on topic!

Animorphs is, for the most part, highly episodic. There’s an ongoing story, and everyone has a pretty consistent character arc throughout the series, but most of the books are written in a way that you could pick one up, starting in the middle of the series, and be pretty okay. Those loosely connected books are good. Some of them, put into context, though? Where specific plot points from one come up later, or the ones that carry out a tightly woven mini-arc, like the David Trilogy? Those are almost always great.

What’s interesting about this book is that it showed the team aspects of the Animorphs better than anything else. It’s not just Rachel getting a moment where she stands alone. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is the darkest book – how do you decide on that in a series that’s this dark overall? For heaven’s sake, the first one opened with an alien being eaten alive and a bunch of children crying as they listened to his screams – but I’d argue that it’s their darkest hour as a team, the first book where they’re really pushed to their limits together.

This book is messed up. If book 6 was the first time they’d ever come up with a plan, executed it, and wound up winning with no element of luck involved, just them and their skill, this is the dark side of that book. They come up with a plan. They execute it successfully. But it shows off the scary sides of all the Animorphs. Cassie’s sense of empathy and ability to manipulate people. Jake’s ability to make the hard choices. And above all, Rachel’s growing violence and ability to complete the plans others formulate.

Book 6 was hardly light and breezy. Jake spent the entire book trapped inside his own head. Cassie came up with the idea that they needed to send Ax to impersonate him for his parents. They dragged a sentient creature into the woods and starved him to death. But he was enslaving Jake at the time, we could see that he was indubitably a bad guy, and this was long before they met Aftran and started to see the Yeerks as people, so it felt justified. David is not a sympathetic character. He completely disregards Cassie and Tobias. But he’s still just a kid the same age as the protagonists that didn’t ask for any of this to happen.

Cassie’s potential to be the most dangerous Animorph was clearly illustrated through the fact that it was her plan to trap David as a rat. She wrote the script, anticipated every one of David’s moves, and successfully trapped him, because she didn’t want to kill him. Damn. Just three books before this, we saw the positive side of Cassie’s empathy – she convinced Aftran that enslaving Karen so she herself could be free was wrong. Here? She used that empathy to figure out every move David would make and how to beat him – trapping him as a rat and leaving him alone on an uninhabited island.

Jake’s major strength is his ability to adapt. And yes, that as at least partially innate, but it was honed by experience and, I’d argue, perfected here. David strengthened him and made him capable of the kind of things he does later in the series. In the book immediately preceding this one, Jake outright admits that David is an unknown. He spends the book trying to figure out what makes him tick, whereas he knows the others so well he doesn’t even need to think. He can make those decisions on how to use them, on what they’ll probably do, on autopilot. But David? Jake didn’t know how to handle him, handle people that are only nominally on his side that he neither likes nor trusts, or even people that he wasn’t sure would listen to him. The events of this book made him capable of dealing with Mean Rachel and Nice Rachel in 32, the Andalites in 38, the Auxiliary Animorphs in 50. The way he used Rachel in this book is why he was later capable of manipulating Tobias into volunteering to be captured and tortured in 33, why he could figure out every move Tom’s Yeerk would make in 53 and 54.

Of course, this was Rachel’s book, not theirs, and it showed off so much of how she’d changed throughout the series. Unlike many, though, I don’t think it’s how she stood watch for the necessary two hours that did that. Sure, maybe it’s not something Cassie would have been able to do, but it’s not that Rachel wanted to do it. She had a choice between that and killing him. And Ax was right there with her, even more emotionally detached from it than her. It’s how in the rest of the book, she veered into straight up sadistic, threatening David’s family while holding a fork to his ear, wanting to cause him pain, becoming just about the only fourteen (probably, somewhere around that age) year old girl capable of making a plastic utensil terrifying. She’s the one Jake wants by his side at a fight, that he automatically calls for without having to think. Everything with David made it dawn on her that her bloodthirstiness was actually scary.

(I love this book so much that I rambled on about it forever and had to cut out half of the points I made.)

5. The Sickness (29)

Cassie does awesome on her own, and this was a clear demonstration of why. This book follows 19, another amazing Cassie book, by bringing back Aftran. In this one, she morphs a Yeerk, visits the Yeerk Pool by herself, rescues Aftran, and gets home in time to figure out how to perform brain surgery on Ax, her other alien friend, in her barn with nothing but a hole saw and scalpel. Relatively low angst, lots of funny scenes, some cute ones, but mainly just Cassie, doing her thing and being awesome while her team is all down with the flu.

Cassie Middle-Name-Unknown, a high school student brave enough to go down to rescue a friend from a place that gives her nightmares and cut open another friend’s head, but not enough to not need her best friend/boyfriend’s cousin to tell him he’s taking her to a dance. I love her. Come on, Cassie. He literally stopped the Howlers by giving them the memory of kissing you three books ago. Pull yourself together.

4. The Departure (19)

This book celebrated hope. It celebrated optimism. There was some clumsy writing, what with the random bear and leopard serving as plot devices to herd the characters where Applegate wanted them and Cassie behaving uncharacteristically stupidly in a way that I’d need another post to analyze, but I love it anyway. There are a lot of books, shows, and movies that glorify the cynical characters or the “badass” ones that do the ruthless, necessary thing or stuff like that, but that’s not what Cassie is about, and it’s certainly not what this book is about.

This is about choices and sacrifice, about standing up against evil being hard, about not standing up being morally reprehensible. It’s about how not everyone in the empire the protagonists fight against is evil. It’s about trust. It’s about how it’s unfair that the Yeerks were born slugs, without sight or hearing, unable to see how beautiful the world is, but how it’s not right for them to enslave others to have it. It’s about peace. Not between all humans and all Yeerks and all Andalites, but between Cassie and Aftran. One human and one Yeerk.

Cassie’s morals are impossible to separate from her as a character. She jealously, maybe even selfishly, guarded her own soul and her principles, because she couldn’t live with not being able to look herself in the mirror, and that’s why she survived. She was determined to stay who she was. She fought to hold onto her sense of right and wrong, which was why she could move on with her life after. This book was beautifully written, with amazingly poignant quotes, and an amazing way of forcing the reader to empathize.

3. The Beginning (54)

Controversial opinion? Maybe. But I love this book. Sure, maybe it wasn’t what most people wanted. But it was what I needed. It wasn’t a happy ending. It wasn’t all miserable, either. It was bittersweet and dedicated to the aftermath, to hammering in the point that the lead characters had become child soldiers that sacrificed their souls for humanity, because there’s no such thing as a glorious war or a just war, but there may be a such thing as a necessary one.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a children’s book that demonstrates the effects of war as well as this one. Jake had absolutely no idea what to do with his life for most of it. He spent a year clinically depressed and not talking to a therapist or any of his friends. He barely left his house except to sometimes visit Rachel’s grave, and he didn’t even talk to her. After that, when he started making an attempt to move on, it was by floating through life until someone gave him another mission. Marco got the fame and fortune he’d craved, but it was hollow and as good as he was at pretending otherwise, he was bored out of his mind and jumped at the chance to go into space and rescue Ax. Tobias became a recluse. Ax mostly just…found other stuff to fight so he could avoid trying to get on with his life. Cassie alone managed to move on.

There really aren’t many books out there were a significant chunk of is it about the war crimes trial a year after the end of the war, during which the defence attempts to discredit the lead character by accusing him of being a war criminal himself, so when you read one, it sticks with you. Animorphs, everybody. For kids!

2. Hork-Bajir Chronicles

Animorphs is in general a story about war and imperialism, and this book showed that off like whoa. There was a cast of great characters:

  • Alloran, my trashbag fave! He’s pretty much my favourite character outside the mains, partially due to him being a pretty terrible person.
  •  Seerow, the closest thing that this series has to an unambiguous good guy! Except no, not really, because his was a very Woodrow Wilson style of idealism and liberalism – that is to say, hugely racist. Wilson believed in self determination as it extends to white people. Seerow believed in the intelligence of the Yeerks, that they deserved to see the stars, but not in that of the Hork-Bajir. Aldrea told him how Dak was brilliant and had rapidly learned just about everything she had to teach. He flat out didn’t believe her,  because how could that possibly be?
  • Aldrea, who was all for getting the Hork-Bajir to fight the Yeerks and trying to manipulate Dak even as she started to like him, then noped the hell out of there as soon as she found out about the biological warfare stuff.
  •  Dak Hamee, who mastered the art of calling out Andalites way before Jake, smart and kind and forced to fight.
  • Esplin from before he infested Alloran and was still a cunning villain because of not growing kind of crazy from the power. Man, they really shouldn’t have promoted him, he was really good at his old job.

Plots are all well and good, but they’re nothing without solid characters to drive it, and these? Amazing.

1. The Answer (53)

You can argue that the entire series culminated in this book. If 54 was about the aftermath, this was the book where all the pieces that have been building since the beginning came together for the sake of this one thing.

It’s a complex plan filled with various forces, some of which are teeth gritting their way through their alliance. The Animorphs are only reluctantly working with Tom, and that falls apart almost immediately. They used the Auxiliary Animorphs and the military as a distraction. The Hork-Bajir and Taxxons were holding position down to the last person. Jake had to threaten to kill Chapman in order to force Erek to help. Esplin doesn’t surrender until the next book. Tom and Rachel aren’t dead yet. But the war was effectively won here.

There are a lot of fans that see Jake as a boring everyman. I’m pretty sure Marco is the most common favourite character, and something I used to see quite often (but not so much anymore) is people saying he’d be a better leader. I disagree for a lot of reasons, and it would take a whole post of its own to explain why, but this book was the best example of Jake at his most brilliant and most terrifying.

Jake was as a ruthless as a character can get, because now they’re in all out war and for the first time, he actually saw a way to win, one that involved a whole lot of sacrifice. He was emotionally distant for most of this book. Very early on, he says that he’s had to give up soul searching because there’s no time left for that, and he does. He has a brief moment of feeling amazing at the prospect of victory when Arbron says they want to help, but aside from that, this book is a sombre one about him using his people as chess pieces. He’s detached, numb, and only focused on the goal until near the end, when it seems to register just what he’s doing.

Ordering Rachel to go after Tom made sense. He was stopping Tom’s nameless Yeerk from getting away and enslaving some other species – and how crazy is it that this guy, this villain we loathe so much, at times even more than Esplin, never got a name? Through the whole series we call him Tom, and while at times I found that frustrating, it serves a very important purpose that pays off here. Jake doesn’t know the Yeerk’s name. He can’t separate the Yeerk from his brother. It’s not just the Yeerk that dies. It’s Tom himself. It’s the conclusion to the series long Cain and Abel theme, and the reason that even now, in 2018, thinking about Jake Berenson still makes me want to cry.


The plot of the series is not complex. But the depth of the characters and the way in which the books deconstruct so many tropes is outstanding.

‘Arc Of A Scythe’: An Interesting Addition To The Speculative Fiction Genre

Dystopian fiction is generally taken as a deconstruction of the idea of a utopia, where the society is flawed on a fundamental level. Scythe takes a different approach and portrays the consequences of a genuine utopia – the world is at peace, humanity has conquered death, everyone is free to pursue whatever they choose to pursue. It’s not a dystopia, because from a perspective, it actually is pretty idyllic.

Because there’s no longer a natural lifespan for humans, someone has to keep the population under control to avoid overcrowding the planet. That someone is the Scythedom, an order of people known as scythes whose job is to kill people to prolong the existence of humanity. The book follows Rowan and Citra, who are chosen to be apprentices of Scythe Faraday, despite the fact neither of them really wants the job. Their exposure to the inner workings of the scythedom leads them to understand the darker side of their world.

The Thunderhead, a benevolent AI that runs the world, takes care of every citizen’s needs, resulting in people losing the drive to improve and doing things to try to stave off boredom than out of interest. Horrifyingly, this extends to the scythes: “gleaning”, as they call it, is supposed to be an honour and responsibility, a serious and important task handled with compassion, but younger generations of scythes start enjoying the power stemming from their position and seeing themselves as gods, killing huge numbers of people for the fun of it.

Pros

  • Interesting world building that avoids many of the most common tropes in the genre.
  • Engaging characters with clear motivations and different personalities.
  • Solid and entertaining plot.
  • Avoids sequelitis – Thunderhead manages to improve upon most of the flaws of the first book.

Cons

  • Rowan and Citra are both reasonably compelling characters, but they didn’t get much development until the sequel, world building taking precedence. Their romance was one of the weakest parts of the story. It felt unnecessary and a bit out of place, but fortunately, it was a minor enough aspect of the book that it didn’t detract too much from the rest.
  • The timeline didn’t seem to make much sense, especially in regards to Scythe Curie’s past – a shame, considering I found her to be the most interesting character.
  • Predictable plot twists.

Scythe is a refreshing take on a genre that’s been increasingly characterized as books that are all rehashes of the same thing – the YA speculative fiction genre. YA fiction includes a lot of great books, but it’s such a broad category that it also has a lot that’s not as well thought out or written. This could well just be my perception, but it seems that publishers think that YA readers are less inclined to be choosy about what they read than adult fiction readers and will instead be okay reading countless variations of the same book, published in rapid succession. That’s  not to say adult fiction doesn’t have trends – clearly it does. But for whatever reason – because a YA book can often go in and out of fashion faster than an adult one, maybe? – they’re much less obvious than in adult fiction. In Scythe, Neal Shusterman does a great job on trying new things instead of just relying on the expected archetypes for YA speculative fiction. Because of that alone, I’d recommend giving it a try. Everything else is just a bonus.

It’s not exactly what I would call great, but Scythe was good, entertaining read. Its sequel, Thunderhead, is even better, with more moral ambiguity and character development. Give them a read and see what you think!