Incredible news: K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series is getting another chance at page-to-screen adaptation. Worrisome caveat: It won’t be a television series, but a movie instead. This may seem like a baffling choice of medium, as the source material is very much set up to be a TV series: fifty-plus books, a few special-edition adventures, and a handful of prequels all released monthly from 1996-2001 spanned five years both in book time and in readers’ lives. Then again, the first try at a TV series fell flat, and there’s clearly a reason why Scholastic and Picturestart decided on a standalone rather than serialized narrative.
It also makes for a challenging thought experiment: How do you condense six Animorphs, a handful of big bads, 60 adventures, and a dozen different arcs into a singular war narrative? What do you have to lose, and where do you find opportunities to tell new stories? How do you keep the spirit of the original so that it’s not just Animorphs in name alone?
Like the Animorphs, you start by being open to change.
How Do You Turn a Serialized Story Into a Movie?
In many ways the 60 Animorphs books, with their monthly releases, resembled a war narrative, with dispatches from the frontlines and occasional special ops missions—showing that this was a marathon, not a sprint, and that it couldn’t be neatly summed up in one massive tome. The series grew and changed with its readership through a formative half-decade, wrapping up shortly before the Iraq War began.
I truly don’t see how Animorphs could be a single film, so I’m holding out hope that the studio will strike something of a compromise by going for a trilogy. That would more easily allow for time jumps, for the actors to age between installments, for a triptych narrative that can depict a war that drags on with seemingly no end (at least until the final film). Regardless of whether it’s one movie or three, the screenwriter(s) will have to make some tough decisions regarding plot, as the book series spun out at least a half-dozen different threads…
Which Plotline(s) Do You Choose?
The first twenty or so books mostly focused on the Animorphs’ ongoing resistance to the Yeerk invasion, keeping Earth from getting completely taken over but failing to entirely eradicate the threat, so that (Visser Three aside) they were still fighting a largely invisible enemy two years in. Then Applegate began expanding the bounds of where the war took the Animorphs, with jaunts to other planets care of the Ellimist and/or Crayak: omnipotent beings locked in their own game on the galactic scale. With these two moving the Animorphs and their various enemies as chess pieces—or simply showing the humans that the board existed at all—suddenly the Yeerk-infested Earth became one of many battlegrounds. Add in some time travel to the past or to alternate universes, and the Animorphs saw again and again how their fight was just one of several potential outcomes.
Back on their Earth, in their time, were also a number of surprising clashes with the Yeerks themselves. Cassie in particular found herself interacting with a Controller whose Yeerk wanted something more than their parasitic existence; she wanted independence, but not at the expense of another life. The Yeerk independence movement is one of the series’ most compelling, with individuals proving that their race is not one monolithic evil, yet any potential solution cannot be anything but morally gray.
And David! Who can forget the “sixth” Animorph, who proves, more than the worst of the Yeerks, how power corrupts. I’d argue that the ways in which the Animorphs grapple with this teammate-turned-enemy is probably the plotline that most haunts readers, twenty-plus years later.
And I haven’t even gotten into what happens once the Andalites happen to check in on this planet where Prince Elfangor crashed! Though it happened late into the series, Elfangor’s backstory plays directly into what happens when this highly intelligent, highly militaristic species decides to take over the war that it decides the rebel Animorphs weren’t doing a good enough job handling.
There’s simply too much plot for one movie or three. Instead, it’s a question of…
Which Theme(s) Do You Choose?
Though I’m usually a stickler for adapting the plotlines that were already carefully developed in the source material, this is the rare case where I see the appeal of starting from an entirely new foundation and building upon that. (Except maybe keep the Yeerk independence? Or David! At least one of these.) What the series is really about, beyond any specific memory we readers could draw up, is (a) the horror and power of transformation, and (b) the trauma of war.
The body horror element of the morphs, from the crunching of bones and squishing of organs to the loss of autonomy, make clear the price that these kids pay for their powers. Those memories don’t go away once they’re safely back in their familiar human bodies; they carry those other selves within them, slowly changing them from within. The same goes for their five years warring with the Yeerks, when they must become child soldiers and morally ambiguous diplomats and generals who order enemies and loved ones to their deaths. They may look the same, but they are not the same people who touched that morphing cube five years prior.
As Applegate herself said in the open letter she wrote to fans after wrapping up the series, “I’ve spent 60 books telling a strange, fanciful war story, sometimes very seriously, sometimes more tongue-in-cheek. I’ve written a lot of action and a lot of humor and a lot of sheer nonsense. But I have also, again and again, challenged readers to think about what they were reading. To think about the right and wrong, not just the who-beat-who.” That’s what any Animorphs movie must embody.
How Do You Keep It From Getting Too Cheesy?
Bless the Nickelodeon TV adaptation—some of it written by Scythe author Neal Shusterman!—which tried so hard to match the appeal of the books. What ultimately did it in, unfortunately, was how earnestly it mimicked elements of the series, some of which just didn’t translate well to television for the time: the awkward CGI, the overdramatic voiceovers, the limited production values.
The thing is, you need that cheesiness, that cartoonish packaging of a truly disturbing war story. But the TV series, probably beholden to network standards, eased back on the darkest aspects of the book series while playing up the overdramatic paranoia of its protagonists. It was a kids’ show that was unable to engage with the trauma explored in its source material, so it never got past the cheesiness. Though I will always give it props for these opening credits, which are laughable now but at the time felt like the perfect mix of earnest and grave and inspiring.
I don’t think the movie(s) will have this issue. While it likely will be a dark PG-13 rather than a hard-R, there’s still a lot of leeway for depicting the horrors of war that make the Animorphs grow up before they’re ready.
How Do You Handle the Morphing?
CGI is undoubtedly better than it was in 1999, yet it will still be expensive to animate those morphing sequences and corral all the necessary animals—or go the Dolittle or Call of the Wild route with its deeply uncanny hybrids. And when you’re looking at two to six hours, tops, we don’t need to waste too much of it seeing the world through an animal’s eyes. Much of the morphing is a means to an end, its purpose to allow the Animorphs to either infiltrate the Yeerk pool or ambush other missions. The most effective morphing stories in the series were those in which these humans almost gave themselves over to various primal instincts, from an ant’s loss of self within the hive mind to the bloodthirsty drive of a dinosaur to Tobias’ permanent existence as a hawk. Those would be the morphs to focus on, and would be less about showing the animal itself than in depicting the mind struggling to retain control within.
Speaking of dinosaurs…
Are They Still Gonna Time Travel?
My money’s on no, unfortunately. Much as I adored the Megamorphs adventures that occurred every ten books or so, they were clearly side-quests, standalone stories that rarely actually impacted the series plot. Which is not to say that significant events didn’t happen in them—Jake dying while chasing a rogue Visser through American history, or the Animorphs landing in an alternate present in which Jake is a neo-Nazi, Cassie is a radical slave-owner, and Rachel has been sent away to a “reeducation” camp… yeesh, Megamorphs #3: Elfangor’s Secret was bleak. However, no matter what radical swings these stories took, they always closed their own loop and returned the Animorphs to the status quo before their next battle against the Yeerks.
With all this in mind…
How Could Animorphs Actually Work as a Movie?
If it’s going to be one movie, then the filmmakers should draw inspiration from famous war epics: their unflinching depictions, their framing devices, their iconic visuals. If people talk about the Animorphs movie having a sequence as gruesome as Saving Private Ryan or as disturbing as Apocalypse Now, then the adaptation will have committed to its source material’s themes. Or they could go for something highly stylized, drawing inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s one week/one day/one hour structure of Dunkirk to depict episodes of war within one narrative.
But if it will be a trilogy, then Animorphs’ best role model would be the Hunger Games franchise. Not that it would have dystopian trappings, of course, but draw surreal contrasts between the placid obliviousness of humanity being overtaken by Yeerks, and the hyper-paranoia of the Animorphs as they navigate a world in which they cannot trust the adults who already didn’t understand them. Focus on one perspective or spread it across six, but commit to the out-of-body experience, then layer PTSD on top of it. Chart a transformation narrative a là the shifting mockingjay symbols and give each Animorph their own morphing arc, as they cycle through different animal bodies to find their favorite morphs. Don’t shy away from the brutal casualties, whether it’s silver parachutes carrying bombs to children or the genocide of an entire alien species.
More than anything, an Animorphs movie would ironically have to remain open-ended. The entire point of Applegate’s series was showing how wars rarely end neatly, or at all; Jake and the rest of the Animorphs transition from one war into another. Katniss watches President Coin smoothly supplant President Snow and continue the vicious cycle of the Games, until the Mockingjay draws her last arrow. If we’re not going to get five seasons, then we can’t watch the story wrap up in two to six hours, either.
Period Piece or Contemporary?
This is honestly the question that I can’t stop pondering because both arguments seem equally valid: Do you adapt Animorphs within the late ’90s context in which it was written and takes place, or do you update it to be about today’s teenagers?
Despite what I said above about potentially starting from a blank slate, my knee-jerk reaction is still to set it in the ’90s. The books so perfectly slotted into that decade, in which tweens like myself were just starting to discover the unprecedented access of the Internet and its potential for crafting whatever version of yourself you wanted to be and putting it out into the universe. (With the flipside that you never knew who you were talking to on the other end, just like Controllers.) Yet there was no social media to cement a lot of those toxic behaviors and unrealistic expectations of our peers; it was more about connection than competition. Plus, there’s the eternal argument that if you set Animorphs in an era where the kids can use Signal to send encrypted messages about their Yeerk missions or call Ubers to meet up at the Yeerk pool rather than have to sneak around under their potentially-Controller-parents’ noses, then the alien threat somehow seems less insurmountable. Stranger Things has already proven the appeal of reliving a particular era of adolescence, and Captain Marvel set the standard for fight sequences set to an amazing ’90s soundtrack.
Counterpoint: Today’s teens are fucking badasses. They’re activists who rally via social media, shaped by fears of a planet dying before they do not to mention surviving school shootings. They have a healthy disdain for boomers and millennials, seemingly realizing that they cannot rely on the prior generations to fix their future. Sounds a lot like the Animorphs, even if they were born twenty-odd years later. What’s more, setting Animorphs in the present day would compel the filmmakers to better reflect this generation’s diversity of experience: more characters of color, at least one queer character, and perhaps even a nonbinary or trans Animorph.
It comes down to determining who is the ideal audience. A ’90s-era Animorphs would tickle us millennial readers but might alienate (heh) younger viewers who don’t see their experience reflected back. Updating it for the 2010s or 2020s would draw in a wider group, since millennials already got the books but Generation Z could get something that speaks directly to them.
What other questions have I not considered? Let’s get plotting in the comments!