WARNING: This piece contains spoilers regarding the 1990s Animorphs book series.
The mid to late 1990s was a unique period in children’s book publishing. At the time, the king sitting upon the throne was arguably R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series–a horror/comedy anthology series that continues to spawn movies, reboots, and television series over thirty years after its inception. In the late 90s, the first two Harry Potter books made a splash in the Young Adult genre and changed the world forever. But there is another, often-forgotten, series that debuted in 1996 that also deserves another shot at live-action success. Enter Animorphs.
If you were a kid in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you knew Animorphs. Even if you didn’t read the books—penned by Katherine Applegate, her husband Michael Grant (known jointly as K.A. Applegate), and a succession of ghostwriters—you were familiar with the monthly series’ iconic covers. They featured comical and grotesque images of teenagers morphing into various animals in front of different sky-based backgrounds. In recent years, the covers have become internet memes, but most people don’t realize that the stories between its covers are downright nightmarish.
Animorphs in a Nutshell
In Animorphs book #1, The Invasion, five ordinary teenagers (Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, and Marco) are hanging out at the mall. They’re not really a friend group–rather a cluster of people who vaguely know each other. Jake and Marco are best friends, Jake is cousins with Rachel, Cassie and Jake are kinda-sorta a thing, Rachel and Cassie are BFFs, and Tobias is a bully magnet. They leave the mall together and cut through an abandoned construction site on the way home. And that’s when their lives change forever.
Before his murder at the hands of the series’ central villain, Visser Three, Prince Elfangor offers the kids a weapon to fight the Yeerks. The weapon, a bit of Andalite technology, gives the teens the power to morph into any animal they touch.
Across 54 monthly titles and roughly 15 special editions, the kids use their abilities to push back against the Yeerks. It all sounds quite light-hearted, but the series is actually much darker than most might assume.
The Darkness of Animorphs
At its core, Animorphs is a tragic war story. However, it comes wrapped in the guise of a cute children’s tale about kids who can turn into animals. It’s violent, visceral, and terrifying; it touches on themes and ideas previously unheard of in Young Adult fiction.
The Yeerks enslave their hosts utterly and completely, leaving them imprisoned inside their own minds. Enslaving them to the point where the host can’t talk or focus their eyes. The host can't even breathe on their own, because the Yeerk controls everything they do.
The horrors of slavery, discussions about free will, and debates over whether horrible and violent acts are justified against a horrible and violent enemy are commonplace within the series. Arguments involving morality erupt among the group in most of the books. Calls to make the moral choice usually come from Cassie and Tobias, and are shot down by Rachel and Marco. Elfangor’s younger brother, Ax (a later addition to the group), often sides with Rachel and Marco, but chooses to do whatever his “prince” (Jake) decides is best.
The Evolution of the Characters
The books do a fantastic job of showing the readers who these characters are at the beginning, and depicting how they all unravel in various ways as the series progresses. Cassie is the group’s pacifist, who learns to become a killer for survival. Marco, the jokester with a painful childhood, quickly stops caring whether a war tactic is right or wrong, and starts caring more about whether it will be effective.
Jake goes from being a quintessential “it” kid to a weary, battle-hardened leader. Tobias, an orphan and loner, finds himself trapped in his hawk morph and begins to lose bits of his humanity. And then there’s Rachel. Beautiful, blonde, willowy Rachel has arguably the most startling and horrifying transformation throughout the series.
She starts off quaint enough, as a mall crawler and amateur gymnast who takes no mess from anyone. By the series’ end, she becomes a ruthless, reckless killing machine who gets off on violence and inflicting pain.
Animorphs’ Bold Storytelling
Applegate’s commentary on war, torture, slavery, child soldiers, and the idea that there are no real heroes in war, are apparent throughout the series. Her writing for Tobias—a character who always felt uncomfortable in his own skin and later found a form of happiness by identifying as both human and hawk—is a brilliant allegory that struck a chord with LGBTQ+ readers.
There is nuance, and loads of it, in Animorphs. Each main character is shown to have both light and darkness inside them. We love them, but we also hate many of the things they have to do. The Andalites, thought of early on as the saviors of the galaxy, are eventually shown to be less-than-praiseworthy. Even the Yeerks are never depicted as 100% evil. The parasitic slugs spend their lives blind and relatively senseless. They need hosts to enjoy basic senses like sight, taste, and hearing. The later addition of a peace movement within the Yeerk army lets young readers know that you can never paint every member of a group with broad strokes.
Its series finale was a bleak, harrowing, and depressing story. It opened with a pair of heartbreaking deaths and ended with a cliffhanger so shocking, it’s still a major topic of discussion among fans two decades later.
Blood and Gore
Animorphs pulls no punches with its violence and gory nature. Applegate puts excruciating detail in her battle scenes, and regularly injured her young characters in graphic and lethal ways. Of course, the physical wounds would repair themselves during the morphing process. It was Applegate and Grant’s subtle way of showing that, when the characters returned to human form, the physical injuries would heal, but the psychological trauma of the event would remain.
Whether it’s Marco (in gorilla morph) having his stomach sliced open and his innards spilling out, Rachel using her own amputated grizzly bear claw as a bludgeon, or Cassie ripping out the throat of an enemy while in wolf morph, the violence in Animorphs isn’t gratuitous. It’s purposeful—it’s meant to be stomach-churning, because the violence of war is stomach-churning.
Animorphs: The 90s TV Show
As one might expect, a book series with Animorphs’ popularity deserved its own television show. The publishers, Scholastic, and children’s programming network Nickelodeon agreed, and an Animorphs television series debuted in 1998.
The show starred Shawn Ashmore as Jake in a pre-X-Men role. Rounding out the main cast were Boris Cabrera, Nadia Nascimento, Brooke Nevin, Christopher Ralph, and Paulo Costanzo. Of course, the show hoped to replicate the success of the books.
Unfortunately, despite its young and talented cast, the series had a miniscule budget. It was far too small to bring such a fantastical story to life. Many of the episodes were mere shadows of their book counterparts. New, underwhelming stories were introduced to replace ones that just couldn’t be adapted to TV.
Entire alien species from the books were scrapped, inventive locations were changed to more budget-friendly ones, and even the morphing effects were dodgy at best. Also, the less we say about the puppets used to depict the Andalites, the better.
The kid-friendly show removed the books' horrific violence and most of the complex themes. To many fans chagrin, most of the characters main morphs (Jake’s Siberian tiger, Rachel’s elephant and grizzly bear, Marco’s gorilla, and Cassie’s wolf) were all changed in the show. The show also gave a Rachel-centric story to Cassie in one of its more baffling moves.
The show did well enough to last for two seasons on Nickelodeon from 1998 to 2000. However, most fans agree that the series deserves a faithful adaptation, unencumbered by budgets and a need to be kid-friendly.
Is An Animorphs Movie on the Horizon?
In June 2020, Animorphs fans got the gift they had waited two decades for: an Animorphs film adaptation by Picturestart and Scholastic Entertainment was in the works. Better still, series authors Applegate and Grant were involved in its production. At the time, Scholastic Entertainment President and Chief Strategy Officer Iole Lucchese said,
“We want to be true to K.A. Applegate's vision and include many of the elements that helped make the books so popular. There is a wealth to draw upon and we're excited about bringing the high-stakes adventure and compelling and relatable characters, along with a lot of humor, to contemporary audiences in the upcoming movie.”
Picturestart founder Erik Feig, who worked on La La Land and The Hunger Games films, said in a statement, “We couldn't be more excited to work with Scholastic to adapt Animorphs, an iconic book series with a wildly unique combination of exciting, witty, outlandish, and grounded elements that feel all too relevant for our times.”
He continued, “We know these books have a deservedly deep bench of passionate fans—ourselves included—and we hope to make Katherine Applegate and her co-author, Michael Grant, proud as we bring Jake, Marco, Cassie, Rachel, and Tobias to life for a new generation.”
A Parting of the Ways
Just three months after the announcement came the news that Applegate and Grant had exited the adaptation due to “creative differences.” In his announcement, Grant, known for his outspoken presence on Twitter, not-so-cryptically tweeted a link to a blog post written by Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan. In the post, Riordan lambastes the early 2010s film adaptations of his own series. Riordan famously criticized their lack of faithfulness to his work and how the filmmakers often disregarded his input and ideas.
Grant later added that Picturestart was “not up to anything nefarious,” but also revealed that major decisions had been made without his or Applegate’s approval. His tweets paint a picture that he and his wife weren’t as involved as they wanted to be.
While little news regarding the planned adaptation has surfaced since the announcement, fans have speculated that the books’ dark tone and violence were likely the main source of disagreements between Applegate/Grant and the filmmakers and team at Scholastic.
What an Animorphs Adaptation Should Be
Realistically, a faithful television or film adaptation of Animorphs has always been unlikely. We’re talking about a Young Adult book series that depicts war and violence in a way children’s books almost never do. It tackles the themes of war with little sugar-coating. The books could hide behind their meme-worthy covers, but a live-action adaptation would have no such ability.
That said, Animorphs deserves the same treatment other popular series have gotten. The Harry Potter films, while certainly not 1:1 rehashings of the books, are surprisingly faithful to the source material. The 90s Goosebumps series accurately portray the kid-horror and campiness of R.L. Stine’s books, and Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is finally getting a faithful adaptation on Disney+.
Fans deserve to see the insanity of the Animorphs books on their TV screens. I’m more partial to a TV series than a film, personally, as there are 70+ Animorphs stories to adapt. A film would likely try to combine the events of multiple books into one story, which would leave out much of the nuance and moments that fans love:
Rachel’s horrifying descent into rage-filled madness.
The time the Animorphs unknowingly added a sociopath to their team.
The gut-wrenching torture Tobias underwent in one of the series’ darkest entries.
The time Cassie gave up the team’s only advantage to protect someone she loved.
These are just some moments a kid-friendly Animorphs series would likely cut. And they’re exactly the moments that make Animorphs, well, Animorphs. It should be violent, visceral, and hard to watch. It should make viewers think and spark debates. Because it’s about war and the horrible things soldiers must do. And there is nothing easy about war.
That’s the whole point K.A. Applegate was trying to make in the first place.