If you’re currently above the age of 28 or below the age of 22, the word “Animorphs” may mean nothing to you. If, however, you were in middle school in the mid- to late ’90s, chances are that you’ve read at least one book in the Animorphs series – a bestselling saga, published from 1996 to 2001, about five normal kids who fight body-snatching aliens by turning into animals.
I know, I know – that premise has “cheese potential” written all over it. Indeed, when Nickelodeon got its slimy hands on Animorphs in 1998, the resulting series was so crazy godawful that it introduced a generation of pint-sized Ani-obsessives to the concept of fan rage. (Yes, I was 10 years old in 1998; why do you ask?)
Like, just look at this, you guys. The effects and dialogue make Once Upon a Time in Wonderland look like Life of Pi.
Because of that abomination, Animorphs does not technically meet the strict “Adapt This” criteria I established in this feature’s very first entry. And yet. And yet. I cannot live in a world where every quasi-popular YA franchise gets rewarded with a big-budget, heavily promoted film adaptation (complete with paycheck-collecting prestige actors), but Animorphs’ only onscreen legacy is this 26-episode train wreck.
Because here’s what the uninitiated don’t know about Animorphs: The books are good. Really good.
Series creator Katherine Applegate isn’t a Carolyn Keene-style pseudonym; she’s a living, breathing, truly talented writer who won a Newbery Medal for her children’s novel The One and Only Ivan earlier this year. Under the stewardship of Applegate – and her husband Michael Grant, the series’ uncredited co-author – Animorphs spun a derivative concept into something uniquely funny, imaginative, and poignant. (About half of the series’ 54 regular books were ghostwritten, but the first 24 were so great that I won’t hold it against her.)
Even though Applegate’s characters all had highly developed senses of humor, the series was also surprisingly dark – at least for the pre-Hunger Games era. Back then, most mass-market middle-grade tales didn’t bother exploring the shades of gray that lie between the poles of good and evil. But as the Animorphs books progressed, the Animorphs themselves grew increasingly jaded and shell-shocked. They did terrible things in the name of their worthy cause, then struggled to live with their decisions; they grew increasingly alienated from their families and non-Animorph friends, who couldn’t possibly understand the harsh realities of war. The book’s battles were reasonably graphic, but not in a way that glorified violence. Even morphing scenes, in which the kids transformed into tigers or dolphins or houseflies, emphasized how grotesque and disturbing it was for the characters to watch each other suddenly sprout claws or tails or a proboscis. (Also, the books taught kids cool words like “proboscis.”)
Animorphs’ moral universe was also a lot more sophisticated than non-readers might expect. Book 1 introduced both the wicked Yeerks (a.k.a. body-snatching slugs) and the noble Andalites (a race of centaur-esque aliens who led the fight against the Yeerks throughout the rest of the galaxy). Later books, though, proved that all Yeerks weren’t exactly villains, and all Andalites weren’t exactly heroes.
Sure, Yeerks tended to be bloodthirsty and tyrannical – but some were sympathetic and pacifistic. And though all were parasites, they didn’t invade the brains of other species out of malice; it was simply what they had evolved to do. (“How many pigs and cows and chickens and sheep do you kill each year to survive?” a Yeerk tells Animorph Cassie in book 19. “You think being a predator is morally superior to being a parasite? At least the host bodies we take remain alive. We don’t kill them, cut them into pieces, and grill them over a charcoal fire in our backyards.”) The Andalites, meanwhile, revealed themselves to be a cold, arrogant race of warriors who had no qualms about waging total war – and wiping out innocents for the sake of the greater good.
All that, and I haven’t even mentioned Rachel – the Animorph who gradually transformed from a carefree, popular gymnast to a cruel, adrenaline-addicted, largely remorseless killing machine. It’s mind-boggling that these books were meant for kids reading at a fifth-grade level.
Obviously, there’s a ton of material here for a YA film series – or, better yet, a mid-budget TV show – that gives the material the weight it deserves, doesn’t shy away from its grimmer aspects, and isn’t hampered by the limitations that came along with the original books’ intended audience. The time is definitely right; after all, dark and gritty is in right now. Simply aging up the characters might solve a lot of potential issues: They’re 13 when the books begin, but changing them into Katniss-esque 16-year-olds wouldn’t negatively alter the storyline. Even better, the books’ dialogue is so well-written that large swaths of it could be imported wholesale into a script, as long as its admittedly dated references are swapped out. (Sorry, Marco’s Baywatch habit.)
So please, someone more powerful than I am: Give Animorphs another chance. If the right tone is struck and the effects are reasonably competent, an adaptation could be the next big YA franchise… or, at the very least, a quirky, culty TV series designed for budding teenage nerds. Wait, strike that first idea – the second actually sounds much more promising.
P.S. In a perfect world, the Animorphs TV show would air back-to-back with another show based on Applegate’s underrated Everworld series, which was doing the whole mythology mashup thing way before it was cool. But that’s a topic for another column.