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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.